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Many businesses these days function at such break-neck speeds that it can be difficult to wrap your head around how the industry has changed, is changing, or will change. Ideas born over coffee or casual conversation become viable businesses seemingly overnight and, within a few short years, many have been acquired and many IPO. What’s rare these days are brands that have grown over decades and expanded into new markets with steady momentum.

When I started Zoho in 1996 (then known as AdventNet), the journey wasn’t completely clear to me and my cofounders, but our mission was: make work easier for businesses. What started at the dawn of the internet age as a network management company quickly became a full-fledged tech organization that touched every facet of business, from digital marketing, to cloud-based collaboration, video conferencing and beyond. Now, 25 years, 10,000+ employees, and 70+ million users later, our brand continues to change the way the world does business.  

Over the decades, I’ve found myself reflecting on how we got here, what important lessons I know are critical to pass on to the next generation of entrepreneurs and leaders, and what it takes to build a brand that lasts. Here are three of the most valuable lessons I want to share:

The power of flexibility

For a brand to survive and thrive, it has to expect change. Change can come in the form of economic shifts, dramatic transformation of consumer behaviors, disruptive solutions that cause business leaders to re-assess everything, or a pandemic (which no one really ever saw coming). Being a leader that has a mind for change and the passion to evolve based on market indicators is the only type of business that will last. Zoho, for example, had to learn how to respond to market changes, shifting from being a single-product vendor to embracing cloud by developing a full platform; reworking pricing structures because businesses wanted flexibility; shifting in response to things like privacy. Staying focused, yet nimble, is an important factor of success. The global economy is like an earthquake zone;  smart leaders take steps to build a sound building in that zone—one that is not rigid in the face of seismic, frequent movement.

Building a strong team from day one

So many businesses, especially as they go through rapid growth phases, look for bodies to fill seats to do the work, but a brand that lasts needs a strong long-term approach to team-building. As the world grapples with the Great Resignation, business leaders now have to truly understand their workforces, and create and nurture environments where employees are happy and have room for growth.

Highly effective business leaders have known this formula for a long time. When I started Zoho, it was critical to our founders that we build a core team that not only had a lot to bring to the business, but who also expected top-notch treatment in return. My commitment as CEO was to ensure people were happy to work at Zoho, with access to opportunities to learn, collaborate and pursue their interests. Approaching my leadership style this way paved the way for employee longevity, and more importantly, growth. Those that have been with Zoho for many years (25 and counting for some!) stay because they’ve been awarded the opportunity to carve out the role and skill sets they want.

When hiring, don’t just focus on your immediate business needs and finding the people for the “now.” Look for people who want to grow with you and then give them the opportunity to do just that. Treat them well, and open up the lines of communication for team members to share their ambitions freely and support them as they grow. 

Social Good as a foundational pillar

Over the last decade, we’ve seen social responsibility become an important part of an organization’s DNA. Business leaders are realizing they can impact the communities around them, and are generally more vocal about their stances on social and political movements, the environment, and world initiatives. A brand that lasts understands how to leverage their resources and influence for positive change, whether it be about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, creating ways for volunteer work, or supporting outside organizations financially.

At Zoho, one of our core values and company commitments centers on education. So much so that at the start of the pandemic, I told my leadership team I was redirecting some of my energy and leaving our headquarters in Silicon Valley. Ultimately I moved to a village 400 miles outside of Bangalore to focus on my commitment to providing education and opportunity to those in rural India.

[Photo: courtesy of Zoho]

I poured myself into growing Zoho Schools, which is free (in fact, students are provided a monthly stipend to help support their families) and comes with a guaranteed employment opportunity at Zoho upon graduation. The Zoho Schools program has graduated more than 900 students to-date from disadvantaged areas throughout India, and today, Zoho Schools graduates make up more than 10% of Zoho’s total workforce.

We’ve been able to take our passion for social good and create opportunities for people and benefit the business. It has reinforced our approach to recruiting talent, understanding that while talent is universal, opportunity is not. As leaders, we have to take CSR seriously and build that into the framework of our businesses, and not treat it as an afterthought. No matter how big or small your brand, you have a responsibility to do so, too. 

I’m often asked by students how to be successful. How to know whether to run with an idea or to take one off the table. How to lead a team effectively. I come back to these three essential lessons, all of which they can start thinking about as a student: know that life will serve you the unexpected and be willing to find a way to work with those changes; surround yourself with good people that will stick with you; and remember to look for ways to pay it forward. Ultimately, this will fulfill you in ways that you’d never expect, and enable you to look back on your legacy with pride.