How Did (formerly RFPIO) become Coimbatore’s Biggest SaaS Startup?

How Did (formerly RFPIO) become Coimbatore’s Biggest SaaS Startup?
How Did (formerly RFPIO) become Coimbatore’s Biggest SaaS Startup?

Responsive’s founders Ganesh Shankar (CEO), AJ Sunder (CPO/CIO), and Sankar Lagudu (COO), didn’t embark on their entrepreneurial journey with a specific problem in mind. All three shared a background in technology with a natural inclination towards the B2B software space, and they envisioned building a product that addressed a genuine, widespread need for business leaders. Their ambition wasn’t simply to chase the latest trends.

The spark arrived during a casual meeting. As the conversation veered towards Requests for Proposals (RFPs), a collective sigh of frustration filled the room. Each co-founder recounted countless hours and lost weekends creating repetitive, time-consuming RFP responses for potential clients, even though it wasn’t their primary job. It became clear – this wasn’t just a personal struggle; it was a widespread pain point for leaders in enterprises of all sizes.

AJ Sunder recounts, "We were all wasting so much time on creating RFPs. We were spending our Saturdays answering the same questions that we had already answered in a previous proposal, just because someone said a multi-million dollar deal would be held up if we didn’t complete it. It was blackmail. We knew there had to be a better way.”

Witnessing firsthand the inefficiency of the traditional RFP processes, Sunder and his co-founders identified their mission: to streamline and automate the crucial aspect of B2B response management and to build it better than existing solutions. 

Thus RFPIO (rebranded in 2023 as was born in 2015. Today, Responsive helps proposal teams craft higher-quality compliant RFPs, RFIs, and more in less time with AI.

How Did (formerly RFPIO) become Coimbatore’s Biggest SaaS Startup?

In a market which is estimated to grow to $22.7 billion by 2028, Responsive has nearly 2,000 customers i.e. 20% of the Fortune 100 including notable names like Google Cloud, Adobe, Atlassian, and LinkedIn. Most notably, the company has grown to serve over 300,000 users with its software built entirely out of Coimbatore!

How did they do it? Sunder shares some interesting gyan from Responsive’s journey.

Pick a Real Problem

Sunder believes founders will have a greater degree of success if their business solves problems they have experienced themselves like the ones Responsive’s founders encountered with RFPs.

“It has to be a real problem that comes naturally to you and it should be something that many people need a solution for. You have to be sure that you can solve it better than others. These are the three criteria. The RFP problem connected with us. We knew it was a real problem and we could solve it better. So it checked all the boxes and we never looked back.”

The best problems to solve, he says, are the ones that you don’t have to explain a lot for people to resonate with it.

“I once gave a one-minute pitch to a room full of investors and asked them just one question - how many of you have ever completed RFPs in your life? Three-fourths of the people in the room raised their hands. I told them that I didn’t have to explain the problem to them and they got it. I wrapped up my one-minute pitch in 40 seconds and walked out of the room. We soon received calls from investors interested in the idea because that’s all that it took to explain.”

Sunder surmises that if you have to explain a lot about what you are doing to a room full of smart people, then there is something wrong with your problem.

Do not use your beta customers as guinea pigs

Unlike many startups that have a fail-fast philosophy and prioritize rapid product launches, the Responsive team adopted a more cautious approach. Sunder capitalized on the advantages of not being first in the market to build their product better than competitors from the get-go.

“I don’t subscribe to the Silicon Valley mantra to fail fast. We did not want to use our beta customers as guinea pigs. The first version of our product included all the features we wanted our customers to have,” says Sunder.

Aware that they weren’t pioneers in the RFP response software arena, Sunder also recognized the need for a clear differentiator. Their solution was revolutionary when it launched due to its simplicity: enabling users to upload RFPs in any format.

“In the RFP space, proposal and data usually come as an MS Word or an Excel document. Our competitors at that time were asking users to manually upload proposal data in a standardized template. We never once considered that. We right away said people should be able to bring any document, in any format. That was our differentiator. Even our MVP had that feature.”

Sunder believes that if product leaders are entering a space where somebody is already playing, then it is crucial to understand why someone would choose their product over the others, especially if the product hasn’t been tested yet. For Responsive’s users, the platform could analyze and respond to data in any format which gave it an edge over competitors.

Get your first users to pay

The first milestone in validating your product is getting the first few customers to pay. It is probably the toughest part about starting up. Sundar emphasizes the value of avoiding free product giveaways during the validation stage.

“You must find users you can engage with while you're building the product. You must validate your product with them and bring them along the journey as you're building it. But make them pay for your product. Never offer it for free,” advises Sunder.

When users invest, even a small amount, they’re more likely to provide honest and invaluable feedback, leading to a product that truly resonates with their needs.

“People will not be willing to write a check if they don't see value. If they don’t pay, then you're not validating. In our case, we followed that playbook. As we started to build, we had a handful of paying customers and constantly stayed in touch with them to get feedback. We gave them favorable pricing early on as a beta customer to make them feel good.”

Sunder proudly proclaims that the first customer is still their customer and that’s proof of Responsive’s solution in addressing the evolving needs and pain points of their users.

Get users outside your immediate circle

The second major milestone in product validation is getting external customers once you exhaust the inner circle of your personal and professional contacts and hit a plateau in new customer acquisition.

“The first few customers may have come from your contacts. When you get your first customer unsolicited or maybe from your marketing campaign, you don't know who they are and they don't know who you are. They just happen to find you because your product offers a solution to their problem. Signing these customers is the next major milestone.”

Sundar emphasizes that during the first few years of Responsive more than 90% of their customers came through inbound which showed the product had achieved problem-solution fit. He also cautions that at some point, inbound leads will hit a plateau and product startups must have other avenues and channels to expand and grow.

Get your users to renew their subscriptions

The third major milestone in product validation is product renewal. Getting the first customers may have been through contacts or marketing campaigns, but getting them to renew means that your solution is ready to hit escape velocity.

Sunder says, “Getting them to renew is probably the toughest validation milestone. When your first customers renew the product, it means they were not just doing you a favor by subscribing. It means that your product has reached a certain point where it has a proper fit, is solving a real problem and is solving it well. People talk about escape velocity and I think it comes down to the problem-solution fit.”

Most product companies can figure out if they have a fit for their first customers in six months to one year, depending on the market space, domain, and target audience.

Validation doesn’t stop with user acquisition and retention

Sunder urges product leaders to closely observe how users interact with their products. Continuous validation is necessary to keep your product in tune with evolving user dynamics and needs.

“You can convince someone to try your product. But for them to do it on their own, create a demo project, and then complete it without your guidance shows that there is value in your product. No one's going to spend time going through an RFP application and take hours to complete something if they don’t see value. That’s a major validation for your product.”

This makes it extremely important to build an easy-to-use product with feedback loops built in place to tell you what your users want, where they are getting stuck, and how you could improve your product to make it easier to use.

Establish Feedback loops - Users who complain are users who care

Building an extremely easy-to-use and easy-to-understand application is easier said than done. Especially in the early stages when startups are chasing features, it affects the re-usability of the product over time and Responsive was not immune to its negative effects.

Sunder’s team tackled it by making it easier for users to share feedback and it enabled them to incorporate continuous and quick improvements in the Responsive platform.

“Even our MVP included a way for our users to easily give us feedback. We put a lot of emphasis on it from day one and it became part of our values as well. We want anyone to be able to tell us what they think about our product. Users tell you what you could do better because they want you to do better. And that drives a lot of what Responsive does.”

He advises product leaders not to get disheartened by negative feedback. Users are not going to take the time to tell you what you are doing wrong if they don’t care.

“We cannot get it right every single time. And when you get it wrong, you hope your users care enough to tell you. The worst thing you can have is users who are not willing to talk to you. I will any day take a customer that complains and dislikes my product but talks to me about it, over someone who says, no, don't bother me,” says Sunder.

Collect feedback, but don’t become a feature factory

Despite their success, Sundar readily admits to a few early missteps. The mistakes stem from chasing ‘ghost’ feedback and entertaining feature requests with the enthusiasm of signing up every potential user as a customer.

“In the early days, you have limited resources and your capacity dictates how much you can pursue. In some ways, it forces you to be disciplined. But after the product gets traction, the companies sometimes get into the trap of chasing after every single feature their early customers want,” Sundar explains.

He urges product leaders to avoid this feature factory trap by asking foundational questions to determine whether the feature is needed. If not, it would lead to undervaluing the product and selling it for cheaper than it’s worth.

“Product companies must ask the foundational questions - Does this feature make sense? Should we be investing time in this? Is this going to bring value to the majority of our users? Sometimes, we forget to ask these questions before building a feature in the pursuit of signing an attractive brand as a customer who wants that feature.”

However, Sunder also opines that it might be worth the effort to build a particular feature for a big brand, but product leaders must know when to draw the line.

He says, “Sometimes when you get one of the biggest brands in the world as a customer, it might be worth it to not ask those questions and build the feature for the positive boost it can provide your business. But you have to know when to draw the line.”

He adds that many startups don’t know when to stop. They chase every idea while gathering feedback and pivot so many times that the next thing you know, “they’re just chasing ghost.”

Sundar surmises that the key is to have a balanced approach of listening to customer feedback without losing sight of product vision. Recognizing this balance was the biggest differentiator for Responsive and helped the team stay on track with their product roadmap.

B2B users expect consumer-grade experiences’s success is a result of adapting to the changing landscape of user expectations. Gone are the days of clunky, outdated B2B software. Today’s B2B users expect a consumer-grade application experience.

“Twenty years ago, an average person may have only interacted with software applications while they were at work. Now with our modern smartphones and unlimited access to the internet, we come across dozens of applications every day. The end user expectations have evolved as a result. What people tolerated 10 years ago, they don't tolerate anymore.”

This shift has led to a faster innovation cycle for B2B applications since features, functionalities, and even the interface experience can become outdated much quicker than before.

“Back in those days, an application probably will take 10-15 years before it starts to look dated. Now, it happens in just three to five years. Websites go through this look and feel evolution every three years. You can't wait for 10 years, like you did in the past. So, keeping up with that user expectation is a significant shift you must undertake, even if it's not a need.”

Revisit foundational problems - AI has shortened the R&D cycle

Artificial Intelligence, especially the use cases of Generative Pre-trained Transformer (GPT) and Natural Language Processing (NLP) is a significant driver of Responsive’s innovation today, Sundar believes that the tech has evolved so much that some of the foundational problems that they solved early on have gotten so much easier to solve with advancements in AI.

“Earlier, this kind of tech only existed in experimental libraries that you wouldn't dare put in a production-scale application. However, in the last four years, AI has evolved so fast that you can now go back and tackle problems that you were hesitant to solve in the past due to long-running R&D cycles. With current technical advancements, it has become so much easier now.”

Sunder’s team is looking to harness GPT-based solutions to create a powerful recommendation engine in the Responsive platform. In the past, such engines relied on basic keyword matching. Now, with advanced NLP capabilities, Responsive’s AI engine can be trained to even understand the intent behind the RFP. They can fundamentally change how users respond to RFPs.

“We can even help users make RFP decisions by enabling AI to tackle some fundamental questions - how does it align with your business? Is this something you should pursue? How can you improve your winning chances? Answering these questions takes a level of insight gathering that comes from your historical data. With AI, we can derive smart recommendations for our users on what proposals to pursue and call out risks. These are things that we are starting to solve.”

A word of caution. Don’t chase shiny new tech

Sunder also warns that it’s easy to get sidetracked by every “shiny new tech” that emerges. He acknowledges the challenge of balancing innovation with focus and advises a strategic approach to stay ahead of the technological curve with constant but prudent investment in R&D.

“I don't believe in chasing after what's making the most headlines. Sometimes, product leaders get too enamored with the tech and the solution and where to apply it, instead of looking at the problems. And that's where a lot of mistakes get made.”

Responsive avoids this pitfall by carefully evaluating new technologies before they invest. They balance experimentation with an eye on product vision and the long-term prospects of the technology so that they don’t end up burning money on tech that goes obsolete.

“We take a balanced approach. We were using the early versions of GPT before ChatGPT became a thing. We're not afraid to experiment. We ensure that we're constantly innovating and dedicate enough resources to R&D. At the same time, we are also careful about not chasing it too quickly or too much. If you go too far and commit to a certain tech that could go obsolete in two/three months, then you have a huge investment you have to throw out.”

Sunder believes that the balance between what tech to pursue and how aggressive you must be when you pursue it comes from common sense and instinct, and it’s not a science.

“Sometimes we'll get it right, sometimes we'll get it wrong. One thing we don't do is panic just because the competition did something. We don't have to be first in everything. Don't chase after competition.”

Lessons Learned

Sunder’s story offers valuable insights for entrepreneurs and product leaders.

  • Focus on real problems you understand. Leverage your experience to identify unmet needs and solve them better than others.
  • Build a product with a clear differentiator. Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo and offer a unique solution.
  • Focus on user validation: Get your customers to pay, acquire customers outside your network, and build compelling products that make your users renew their subscriptions.
  • Make it easy for users to provide feedback. Negative feedback is good and it shows users care and want your product to succeed.
  • Don’t become a “feature factory” – Build features that align with your product vision and bring value to the majority of users.
  • Keep up with the faster innovation cycle in B2B software to avoid your product becoming outdated.
  • Leverage AI for faster innovation and solve problems previously considered difficult.
  • Invest strategically in R&D – Stay ahead of the curve but avoid getting distracted by “shiny new tech.”


By following these principles, RFPIO, now, has carved a niche for itself in the B2B software market. Their story is a testament to the power of focusing on customer needs, building a user-centric product, and continuously adapting to market demands.

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