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  • Writer's pictureManish Nepal

SaaS teardown: A detailed comparison guide between HubSpot CRM vs Zoho CRM

I lived in Chennai (Zoho's headquarters) for 8+ years and didn't know about Zoho's existence until a few years after moving to the city.

On the other hand, I was well aware of HubSpot (located thousands of miles away) even when I didn't know what exactly the company did.

That's because Zoho lacks the flashy marketing brouhaha that other software companies often ride on.

HubSpot basks in the glory of its inbound marketing fame.

To be clear, both companies have a lot of things in common between them.

Both are companies that were founded at the turn of the 21st century—much before the software categories like SaaS CRM became a hyper-competitive landscape.

Both Zoho and HubSpot are also market leaders in their own right.

Both of them have flagship products that were born in places outside the Silicon Valley and found their strong footing in the global SaaS stage.

The founders of both companies have immense admiration for the local talent in their respective hometowns.

But the companies also have their stark differences.

HubSpot rose to fame as an inbound marketing leader

Just like how Duracell or WD-40 are household names etched strongly in an average B2C consumer’s mind, HubSpot is a brand that every B2B audience is aware of. Even if you have never used any of HubSpot’s free or paid software, it’s likely that you might have come across one of their blogs that circulate in the online ether.

And there’s a very good reason why HubSpot has gained such huge mindshare among the B2B audience—they pioneered the concept of “inbound marketing” that has forever changed the course of B2B marketing.

Here’s a brief story behind how that transpired.

HubSpot’s two founders—Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah—launched a software tool called “LegalSpot" while they were still in grad school.

After graduation, Brain worked with a venture capital firm (Longworth Ventures) in Boston as an entrepreneur in residence. During the nine months in the job, Brian had the opportunity to help the firm’s portfolio companies grow their business.

As an industry outsider, Brain noticed that all the startups he interacted with were doing the same thing—they were following a cookie-cutter playbook of:

  • hiring inside sales reps

  • buying big lists

  • cold calling

  • hiring PR firms

  • sponsoring trade shows

Basically, these startups were taking an approach that didn’t align perfectly with the way customers in the new digital landscape were buying products.

Brian wanted to challenge the status quo and started wondering if there was a better way for businesses to market themselves and match the way people actually bought software products.

At the same time, Brain and Dharmesh realized that tinkering with LegalSpot wasn’t a profitable venture and they eventually pivoted and launched HubSpot in 2006.

Since they were fresh college grads, they started raising funds for their business idea from the very beginning. They raised about $1 million in angel investing—mostly from their classmates and one of their college professors. Funding has been a powerful growth level for HubSpot since its early days.

There was another interesting observation that lent itself to the co-founders during the initial days of HubSpot. While HubSpot was struggling to get traction online, Brain noticed that Dharmesh’s one-man blog which he had maintained as a hobby since his college days received more traffic than HubSpot’s websites.

They understood that Dharmesh’s blog was offering something of value to people who were looking for interesting ideas online while HubSpot failed to do something similar through its business.

The duo added two and two together and that’s how the idea of outbound versus inbound way of marketing to consumers cropped up. HubSpot embraced inbound marketing as the core of its growth DNA and the idea single-handedly led HubSpot to places that it would have probably never seen.

Today, HubSpot is a Unicorn with over 3K employees worldwide, 70K customers across 100+ countries, and over $20 million in revenue. The company went public on NYSE in 2014 under the ticker symbol “HUBS.”

Since its launch, the company has raised over $100 million in total funding and acquired 13 other companies.

Here’s a look at all the companies that HubSpot has acquired:

  • The Hustle (2021)

  • PieSync (2019)

  • Acenna Data (2019)

  • Motion AI (2017)

  • Evolve App (2017)

  • Kemvi (2017)

  • Rekindle (2015)

  • Rentabilities (2014)

  • PrepWork (2013)

  • Chime (2013)

  • Performable (2009)

  • Oneforty (2009)

  • GroupSharp (2007)

Zoho has a one-of-a-kind operating philosophy

Zoho is the square-peg-in-a-round-hole oddball of the software world. Unlike HubSpot—or the majority of SaaS businesses—Zoho is a late bloomer in the popularity index because it lacks the flashy marketing like HubSpot of other tech companies.

This, despite the fact that Zoho was born way back before the Y2K Scare or the dot-com bubble. Actually, Zoho precedes Salesforce—the biggest player in the CRM space with nearly 20% market share—by exactly three years.

Zoho was founded in 1996 as AdventNet by Sridhar Vembu, his brother Kumar Vembu, and two other co-founders.

The Vembu brothers are sons of a stenographer father and homemaker mother—both of whom never went to school. Their humble background of belonging to the middle-class Tamil family is an important attribution that plays out in the way the company and its founders handle Zoho’s operations and make important business decisions till today.

Sridhar has presided as the company CEO since 2000. Before co-founding the company, Sridhar earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Princeton and worked as an engineer at Qualcomm in 1994. Kumar, who also secured an engineering role at Qualcomm, flew back to India in 1995 driven solely by the idea that India had had a very little footprint in the software industry despite its immense talent potential.

The belief that there’s talent outside of the Valley and that they can bring glory to their place of origin is a philosophy that Brian from HubSpot shares with Sridhar.

The Vembu brothers gathered whatever little savings they had from their stint at Qualcomm and launched AdventNet in Chennai in 1996. Their first product was WebNMS—an IT management platform designed for telecom businesses.

After 26 years since its inception, WebNMS still earns a couple of million dollars of annual revenue for the company and has rebranded as the Internet of Things division of Zoho Corp.

Zoho’s first major product came in the form of ManageEngine—the enterprise IT management software that the company launched in 2002. Since rebranding itself from AdventNet to Zoho in 2009, the company has developed over 44 products including Zoho One—an all-in-one software suite that integrates all kinds of apps designed for sales, marketing, accounting, and team collaboration, all under one roof.

As a tech giant that competes with the likes of Google and Salesforce, Zoho is a bundle of contradictions. Zoho has, for instance, always pushed VC money aside because of its philosophy around building a sustainable business that doesn’t want to crash and burn under the rapid growth mandate of external investors.

Despite the anti-VC approach, Zoho has an annual revenue turnover of $500 million and—according to experts—an approximate market value somewhere between $5–$15 billion.

The company valuation is more of a guesswork because Zoho—a completely bootstrapped and privately held company—has the luxury to keep its valuation figures private from the public.

Zoho grew into a multi-billion-dollar software enterprise because it invested heavily in product R&D (research and development) from its early years and “built instead of bought” other products under its wings. This is in sharp contrast with HubSpot which has leveraged mergers and acquisitions (M&As) as one of the powerful tactics in its growth.

Instead of acquiring other companies, Zoho has actually inspired about 22 SaaS companies in the Indian SaaS ecosystem. In the investor circles, these companies are colloquially known as the Zoho Mafia. Here’s the list of 22 companies that were started by former employees who worked in Zoho at some point in their careers:

  • Smackcoders (2008)

  • Chargebee (2010)

  • Freshworks (2010)

  • Voonik (2013)

  • LogFuze (2013)

  • Hexnode (2013)

  • Tartlabs (2014)

  • Ulektz (2016)

  • Edmingle (2016)

  • Hippo Video (2016)

  • Yaali Bizappln (2016)

  • Facilio (2017)

  • Bevywise (2017)

  • Testsigma (2017)

  • Quartrinch (2017)

  • (2017)

  • Survey Sparrow (2017)

  • Startpix (2018)

  • Docupilot (2018)

  • Securden (2018)

  • Daacoworks (2018)

  • Brandmaxima (2018)

Today, Zoho has over 13 million users across 130K companies around the world.

So what's the difference between the two?

Fast forward to the present day, both Zoho and HubSpot companies compete on one of the fiercest red oceans in SaaS—the CRM. The story gets better as you dive deeper.

As part of Avoma's #SaaSteardown series, I've attempted to make an objective comparison between the two CRMs and the philosophies that drive their growth.

Here's the link to the comparison blog: HubSpot vs Zoho: which SaaS CRM is suitable for your business

I hope you will like reading it as much as I loved writing about it.

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