Arvind Parthiban: A ‘Captain Kirk’ who surrounds himself with ‘Spocks’ CEO Arvind Parthiban talks about life, leadership, and the lonely journey of a founder.

Arvind Parthiban: A ‘Captain Kirk’ who surrounds himself with ‘Spocks’

Tuesday November 07, 2023,

7 min Read

Soon after he sold his first company Zargetto Freshworks in 2017, Arvind Parthiban headed to a tattoo parlour, and got inked with the phrase: Die with memories, not dreams. 

He wanted the words to serve as a constant reminder that his aim in life should be to start up again and not let the comforts of a cushy job distract him from taking the riskier, but more fulfilling, plunge into entrepreneurship.   

And remind him it did. Even when he landed a corner office with a great team at his new company Freshworks. Even when he ran rewarding projects that helped his organisation achieve and surpass targets. And even when he got widespread acclaim for flying a blimp—as a guerilla marketing tactic—over San Francisco during rival Salesforce’s event. 

“It's easy to get comfortable with a stable job and financial security, especially when working with great people,” says Arvind, sitting in his Chennai office where an autographed picture of Tamil superstar Rajinikanth shares space on the wall with Chelsea legend John Terry’s signed jersey and other memorabilia. “However, I never lost sight of my desire to start something new,” he adds, pointing to the tattoo on his arm.

It was this hunger that led Arvind to quit his Freshworks role and set up along with Jayakumar Karumbasalam in 2020. The startup is an AI-based information technology management SaaS platform for managed service providers (MSPs). In simpler terms, it allows third-party IT service providers to use their resources more effectively and efficiently. 

Over the past year, has seen a 300% growth in customers and raised $12.4 million in October as part of its latest round. In total, it has so far raised $29.4 million.

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The growth in customers and the recent fundraise have vindicated Arvind’s decision to chase his dream, but he is aware that his journey as a startup founder has only begun. 

“The journey is lonely,” says Arvind about the challenges of being a founder. Three things have helped him along the way, though. 

One, his passion for fitness, health, and sports. In fact, if not for the setting, and the topics of discussion, it would have been easy to mistake him for a sportsperson. His social media feed is said to be further proof. Those who know him well reveal that it’s filled with posts of him doing difficult yoga poses and other physical endurance feats. Arvind, who gave up sugar some four years ago, truly believes that being fit enables him to become a better leader. 

Arvind Parthiban

Finding inspiration and balance through Kayaking

Even his leadership analogies are mostly sports-based. Here’s one example: “In cricket, you know that Dhoni will step in and finish the match. I want to be that someone where my team can have the same confidence in me—that's what real leadership is all about.”

Two, he surrounds himself with folks who are different from him, presenting a different way of looking at life and leadership. “I tend to lean more toward gut-based decisions. I often describe this approach as being akin to Captain Kirk, as opposed to the logical and analytical Spock (both Star Trek references),” he says.

It’s essential to adopt a CEO's perspective when making decisions, rather than approaching it from an individual lens, he points out. “It's easy to get caught up in your own ideas and think you're always right—you're a human being, and you will be wrong.”

Three, he has a close support group that he leans on when he is in need of clarity or advice. This includes Freshworks Founder and CEO Girish Mathrubootham whom he considers his “best friend”.

“Exceptional founders often have close mentors and friends who provide support during challenging times,” says Arvind, who plays a similar role to other founders when they reach out to him.

A friendship by accident

His friendship with Girish began with a job interview. Girish was working with Zoho (it was called AdventNet then) when Arvind applied for a role there. The two soon began talking about routers and Girish realised that what Arvind lacked in coding skills he more than made up with his knowledge of how technology works. 

The mutual admiration soon blossomed into friendship. Even today, if Arvind has a problem that he needs advice for, Girish is among the first he will call. 

The icing is that he has also managed to convert Girish into a Chelsea fan like him, and there’s a story behind it. In 2008, when Arvind went to London along with Girish and Rajavel Subramanian (now Founder of Facilio), he was keen to watch a Chelsea match. 

Arvind Parthiban

Arvind at the Chelsea Football Club

His two friends accompanied him. “Chelsea outclassed their opponent, securing a 7-0 victory. Girish immediately declared himself a Chelsea fan.”

Arvind himself had become a fan after being trained by a coach from England when growing up in Bengaluru. The British coach was a Chelsea fan and his repeated talks about the club led to Arvind becoming one himself.

An engineer by accident 

Arvind's early years were primarily in Bengaluru. However, due to his father's business, his family moved to Hosur. He pursued Bachelor of Engineering in Computer Science and Engineering at SMEC, Anna University in Chennai.

I became an engineer by accident, as I had the desire to escape to the USA. During the three-month waiting period for my results, I sought a part-time job,” says Arvind.

This took him to Zoho, and Chennai became his home. 

For Arvind, Zoho became his primary source of learning and growth. This made Arvind reconsider his plans to go to the USA. When expressing interest in exploring product marketing, he was given the freedom to switch, allowing him to experiment and learn.

However, at the time, there was a lack of readily available product marketing resources. “I adopted a ‘learn by doing’ approach, where even failure was acceptable because it provided valuable learning experiences. This is essentially how I acquired the knowledge and skills.” 

In 2015, he ventured into building Zarget—a SaaS-based conversion rate optimisation firm that provided solutions for SMBs. But Arvind soon realised the product was disposable software. 

He was left with two choices: pivot and develop a new product or merge with a larger player, where the team could continue building and innovating. “That’s how we got acquired by Freshworks.” 

In hindsight, he believes that this decision to sell in 2017 turned out to be a great move. Arvind led the product marketing at Freshworks and, again, had plenty of opportunities to learn and grow. 

But the tattoo on his arm kept reminding him of his ultimate goal. 

Today, Arvind’s pursuit of entrepreneurship has turned out all right. His advice to other founders is that they need to position their companies right in the current competitive landscape.

“Marketing hasn't been a strong suit for India, so my advice to all the entrepreneurs is that having two engineers decide to start a company is not enough,” he says on the need to bring different talents to the table.

“A founder should have high conviction—but should also have flexible persistence. Imagine you're determined to climb a mountain and your goal is to reach the summit. That’s conviction. However, if you happen to take the wrong path, but you stubbornly persist in that path, mistaking it for conviction, then that becomes a problem.”

One thing is for sure though. Arvind is sure that his second entrepreneurial journey is one for the long run. “My dream is simple: I didn’t want my dream to be just about starting and selling a company within two years,” he says. “I want to build a business that lasts.”

(The article was updated to fix a typo)

Edited by Jarshad NK