How Zoho became a $1B company without a dime of external investment…

…and kept its soul intact in the process

The traditional startup fever dream goes something like this: You come up with a revolutionary idea for a startup in your dorm room. You quit school and take your idea to Sand Hill Road, where VCs shower you with cash. Your company grows quickly. You eventually get a valuation of over $1 billion and you go public to great fanfare.

That’s the mythology anyway, but what if there were another way? What if you could grow a $1 billion company without the outside investment, the crazy sales and marketing spend, the pressure to grow ever faster?

Zoho, a company that has a broad set of front- and back-end business software, has defied that growth and investment stereotype to great success. Zoho reports that revenue last year exceeded $1 billion — although as a private entity, it didn’t supply an exact number. Yet it has never taken so much as a penny of external investment.

By developing the company on its own terms, Zoho has been able to build a strong internal culture steeped in R&D and product development, growing slowly but steadily without having to deal with any investor interference whatsoever.

Zoho’s product catalog, which exceeds 50 products, covers everything from a traditional office suite to business intelligence, finance, sales and marketing, customer service and too many other software categories to list here. Using a freemium model to drive usage, it competes with giants like Salesforce, Google, Microsoft and Oracle yet has found a way to thrive in spite of such a harsh competitive landscape.

I spoke to founder and CEO Sridhar Vembu, along with some industry experts, to get a better sense of how Zoho has grown on its own terms, and how this “little engine that could” keeps rolling along.