Chandoo - The Man On Mission To Make You Awesome In Excel
If you use Microsoft Excel, you ought to know Chandoo - a self-made entrepreneur, who started from a small personal blog read only by his friends and went on to build the world's most loved Excel learning community. The man on the mission to make you awesome in Excel - Duggirala Purna Chandra Rao, popularly known as Chandoo, accepted our request to share his interesting and motivational story of quitting his well paying job at TCS and making Chandoo.org a sought after blog for all things Excel from the comfort of his home and earning millions in the process. Today, ‘Chandoo.org’ has become a powerful blog full of Excel tips, charting tutorials, visualization ideas and hundreds of downloadable tutorials. It’s a pleasure to have Chandoo share his journey on CrazyEngineers. Read on!
Duggirala Purna Chandra Rao, Founder - Chandoo.org
CE: Tell us about your growing up years and family background.
Chandoo: I was born in place called Machilipatnam, a coastal city in Andhra Pradesh, near Vijayawada, about 400 kms away from Hyderabad. My childhood has been really fun and it was a very positive experience growing up in my family. Of course, there was a lot of hardship too. The things that really helped me shape up who I am today were the poverty we faced and some of the family situations that forced me to study hard, work really hard and the work ethic that has been a part of my life ever since. Just to give you a very brief idea - I grew up in a joint family and my father passed away when I was six years old. Those were some really hard initial few years for my mom. She'd studied only up to 12th standard. She did not have any job skills. We moved out of our father's house and went to stay with my Mom's mom. It was really hard for them too, because they were also struggling to get by.
The initial few years were really hard for my mom and on us - me and my brother. It is then that I became very passionate about studies, working hard and earning money. Those are the skills that I still hold. Those are really the key factors for what I am and do today. So, I am thankful for all the experiences of my life.
I studied at a place in a residential school, a Govt. School where they offer free education (lodging and boarding) for all the students who are poor and needy. So I was a fortunate to study in a place like it, where I had a lot of friends and really fond memories. After my Class X boards, I went to join Diploma in Computer Technology. I was under the impression that after Diploma I could get a job, because I didn't want to trouble my mom anymore. However, after Diploma I found that this certificate couldn't get me a job.
I took engineering entrance exam and got admission into Andhra University College of Engineering at Visakhapatnam in 1999 in Computer Engineering degree course. The 4 years that I studied in Vizag, Visakhapatnam are really the key part of my engineering life because there I learnt programming and problem solving skills. I also made friends for life.
Most importantly, I met my future wife - Jyotsna whom I married in 2007. She was my classmate in Computer Engineering class.
Learning engineering were the most memorable foundational years of my life. Once you get to know how to program, how to use problem solving skills and how to use concepts from Physics and Maths - those are the concepts you will use throughout your life.
CE: From B.Tech in CSE to becoming the Chief Excel Officer at Chandoo.org; how has the journey been in the hindsight?
Chandoo: Looking back I see all the dots and I can connect them in a straight line that led me to where I am today. Taking inspiration from Steve jobs, who once said in a commencement speech - 'Your life is basically putting a dot on a canvas. If you are trying to draw a picture as you go along, you may not succeed. But once you look back in hindsight you have drawn a beautiful picture.'
After engineering, I joined a startup as a Software Engineer in Visakhapatnam and I worked for them for one year. During engineering, I developed a passion towards management because I wanted to run my own business. I realised that if I wanted to be a businessman or a startup entrepreneur, I had to learn a little bit about Marketing, Operations, Finance, Human Resources and other aspects of a business. Therefore, I wanted to do an MBA program. I had started training for management entrance exams from 3rd year of engineering college. I couldn't succeed in Final Year. So, I took up a job at a startup.
I had 7 am - 6 pm office hours. After getting back home, I would prepare for the CAT entrance exams in evening. That one year of my life was very, very hard, but also the most valuable time span because I learned how to use time management skills, learnt how to structure my skills and also how to balance work and personal time.
Later in 2004, I got admit into IIM Indore PG- Management course. After that I joined TCS as a Business Analyst. During this time, I used Excel quite a bit. This was the time that eventually led me to talk about Excel at Chandoo.org.
I had a passion for writing all this time. In 2003, as soon as I started working as a Software Engineer, I started a blog, because blogs were 'the rage' during those days. Back then, I started it only to share my personal and life experiences.
It was a reasonably unknown blog. Nobody knew it other than the people I knew personally. When I joined my MBA program, I started another blog. This time to talk about 'Life in Business Schools'. Many people were searching for that. People wanted to know about the life in IIMs and other top colleges. My blog talked about my life at IIM Indore and people were following me. Not a lot of them, but probably 10-15 people. It was still good - talking about my life. I realised that this is something interesting. So, In 2004 December I bought a domain Chandoo.org and I moved from blog from a free Blogspot website to Chandoo. I continued through 2004-05-06.
In 2007, when I started working heavily with Excel in TCS, I shifted the focus of blog from life in B-school to life as a Business Analyst who uses Excel. That's what led me to where I am today.
CE: You’ve always wanted to run your own company; and that was one of the reasons you opted for MBA at IIM-Indore. How has the MBA contributed to your success as an entrepreneur?
Chandoo: MBA played a very key role in helping me run my business. There are many aspects of MBA that I can immediately relate to when I am doing my business. For instance, I learned about Finance, Accounting, Marketing and Operations Management in my MBA program. All of those readily tie back to what I do today as a Business Owner. That said, the core part of my Business which is Training and Software Development, is something that I picked up in my Engineering days and I still rely on those ideas.
MBA curriculums focus more on middle management and top management kind of work. So, there is a lot of emphasis on Strategy Building and Human Resource Management. For example, we would have case studies, where essentially I would be advising the CEO of Coca Cola or McDonalds and telling them what to do next. Now this is the kind of work that doesn't happen immediately after you finish your MBA course. It would happen probably 10 to 15 or even 20 years later in life. I completed my MBA in 2006 and this is 2015 and I am still not advising the CEO of Coca Cola. ?
Jokes aside, the MBA programs try to emphasise more on different level - and most of these levels aren't something you work on immediately after graduating. More so, if you start a business. To give you a simple example -
When I started a business, I had no idea about what to do about some of the simplest things like - Should I go and register my business somewhere? What kind of taxes should I be paying? How do I keep my books? - None of those things I knew intuitively.
Some of these concepts were discussed in our courses. But probably, it was a bit too much and there were so many things going on. So, you never really capture 100% of what you learn in the classroom. So in that sense, I think the MBA program has taught me quite a bit, but it also has left some holes for me to fill in, which is a really good thing. Because once I started business, the initial 2-3 years were like rapid-fire learning for me. I'd learn various things - How to prioritise. Should I do this or not, Should I offer Consulting Services or Products? If I am offering products, what kind of pricing should I set them at? One can learn all these things by experimenting and having an intuition about the market. Doing a lot of trial and error.
CE: How did your first US visit in 2007 lead to your love affair with Excel? Do you have any experiences to share from those days?
Chandoo: As a part of my work as the business analyst at TCS, I had to travel a lot to meet the customer at their location and help them solve problems. In 2007, I went to US on deputation and I stayed there for an year. That one year was kind of a transformational year for me on Chandoo.org. In that one year, I moved Chandoo.org from a personal blog to more of a professional Excel blog. This happened mainly because, in U.S. I had better work-life balance. While working in India, we were living in a place in Chennai that is really far off from office. I and Jyotsna, we were both working and we had to pick place that is close to one of our workplaces. Initially, we stayed at a place close to Jyotsna's workplace, so I spent a lot of time in commuting. Even after coming back home, I never really had time to do any other thing. So usually get home, do some cooking eat food and sleep. That's about it.
Once in US, we were living in a place which was pretty close to client's office and we could actually walk there. The work hours were reasonable and we had more free time. So, I used that free time to learn more about Excel and started talking about it via my blog.
I also learned more about practical uses of Excel because I was sitting in a client organisation where there were a lot of things to be done and we were using Excel quite often. I was always stumbling into interesting ways of using Excel. I learn't a lot during this time span.
Chandoo with a class in Malaysia
CE: What is it about Excel that attracted you the most?
Chandoo: The main attraction point for me was its ability to program. I have been a programmer all my life and once I started working as a Business Analyst, I felt a bit of void in my life, because I was not doing any technical stuff. I was more into talking and doing presentations and creating documents etc. I realised that I am missing out on the fun that programmers have - The ability to define a problem and then solve it using computer code. I craved for that component in my life.
I realized that Excel has all these formulae, VBA code, charts etc. that let you do a bit of programming. Tinker with things and get the answer. More importantly, Excel is also a very powerful tool and if you use it right, it can transform your life. I have seen that happen, when I was working in US - most of the times the clients would appreciate me just because of the Excel Workbook that I made. ? Of course, that is a bit of an exaggeration,. Although, Excel has a lot of potential and it has infinite possibilities. So, that's how my love affair with Excel began.
CE: How did Chandoo.org happen?
Chandoo: I registered the domain in December 2004. The evolution of the website happened over several years. Every year, I would ditch the MBA portion of the site and add more meaningful content to it. I was also discovering what I could do with the site.
After 2007, I started getting different audience to my site. Until then, people who visited Chandoo.org were primarily my friends. Now people from Google searches would land on my website. Strangers were reading my content, leaving comments and I was learning more about Excel from their comments. This was something completely new for me. I was like 'Wow, this is something with which I am able to help people who are all the way across the world.' This is where the shift happened for the direction of progress for Chandoo.org. By helping them, I felt more happy.
CE: What were your thoughts when you decided to quit TCS?
Chandoo: The main thing that pushed me to quit TCS was the balance in life. I became a dad in September of 2009. I was at an overseas location for client side deputation. I took a month off to spend time with my wife and I was there when the kids were born. It was really hard when I had to go back to Copenhagen and I felt really bad. I thought, this is not the correct way to live life. I wanted to lead a life where I could spend more time with my family and be there when my kids are growing up. I wanted to do things that I could do from anywhere in the world.
That's when I started thinking about how I could monetize what I had on Chandoo.org. How I could live my own life without having to go and work for somebody else. In April 2010, I quit TCS after 6 months of my kid's birth.
In early 2009, I had introduced a couple of products on Chandoo.org and started making some money from it. It wasn't a lot, but I realised that with the savings that we have accumulated and the monthly income that we were making from Chandoo.org, we could live a simple life in a place like Visakhapatnam. At that point of time, we were living in Chennai. So, we wanted to move to a smaller city so that cost of living would be low and we'd have the support of other family members.
Once I quit TCS, it was a little bit scary and confusing in the first few months, but the worries went away eventually and I became happier with that decision.
CE: Was it hard giving up on monthly paycheque and dive into the world of uncertainties?
Chandoo: Obviously yes. I and my wife were both getting good money. We had a lot of uncertainty in life. It was a bit confusing and a little bit scary when I left TCS. I had a lot of confidence in me and I thought if nothing works I can always go back to a job. I felt confident that I could find some other job as a Business Analyst pretty easily.
CE: Did the fear of failure not cross your mind? How did your family, friends and colleagues react to your decision?
Chandoo: I did not spend too much time thinking about the fear of failure. I was thinking more about how to survive and how to thrive. So failure is not something I dwelled myself into. Instead what I thought is - I wanted to streamline. I figured that we needed about Rs. 18,000 per month to survive and I made sure that we had about 6 months worth of income when I quit. (Actually when I quit TCS, we had about 60 months of income). I had accumulated a sufficient savings pool before I decided to take the plunge. I was more worried about - how this business will grow, and how to stay motivated and passionate about this idea and how would I stay up to date in this technology.
There was a lot of support from friends and family, but we also were careful not telling everyone about it. In the initial 6 months, whenever anybody asked what I was doing, I simply told that they were working from home, so that we could avoid a lot of unnecessary questions and also unnecessary advice from people.
Many times, relatives and friends mean well, but they could be too intrusive. They could say, "Oh you studied for MBA from IIM and you did all this and now what are you doing?" That kind of thing was too annoying for me. So, I avoided telling this to anybody until they were ready and we were also feeling confident about the success of this venture.
CE: What made you think Excel templates and Excel School Program would work?
Chandoo: Well, Excel templates is all purely experimentation. I talked about this template idea on the blog. There were a few people who said that this is something we would love to pay for. So, i launched them and that worked. Likewise, with Excel School Program, I asked through a survey on the blog - Would you be interested in an Excel training program? I got a lot of positive response. So, I launched the first version and iterated. I improved the program through customer feedback. After third version, today it is really in a good shape.
CE: What has been more challenging: creating products and courses or selling them?
Chandoo: I would say, more than the ability to create things, it is the ability to sell them and market them, which is the really difficult part. Purely from my personal experience, because I have been an engineer and programmer all my life, creating things is something that I didn't find a lot of difficulty in. I could conceptualise something, sit down and list its features and create it.
The hardest part is to get 'x' number of people to buy it. If you are creating something and you are spending let's say $1000 to create it, and if only one person buys it and you pricing it at $10 then you are making a $990 loss on it. So we have to figure out how to sell it to at least 100 people to break even. And then at least 1000 people, so that we could make some money and so on and so forth.
I had to learn this by doing a lot of experimentation, having a lot of false starts etc. For example: Early on I had decided that I am not going to do any advertising. So I did not want to buy Ad Inventory through Google Adwords or some other mechanism. I wanted people to visit Chandoo.org, learn what we are doing and then voluntarily purchase from us. So, this means, all the marketing/selling process should happen organically or naturally. That was really hard, but after learning from various resources like CopyBlogger, ProBlogger and SmartPassiveIncome etc, I learnt more about the process of selling and marketing. I watched a lot of online entrepreneurs do this kind of stuff. So, I learnt from their lessons and I used that knowledge to sell these programs and courses to our audience.
We Engineers, by nature, are problem solvers. We derive a lot of pleasure by solving problems. So, when an engineers wants to start a business, sometimes they feel that it is demeaning to solve a problem that is simple. So, we want to solve problems that are grand, that are unique, that are creative. For a business to work and thrive, it does not have to solve a BIG problem. All it has to do is help people.
Essentially, businesses are there to help people. You can take the example of any successful business like McDonalds or Facebook or Google, all they are doing is they are helping people sole a simple yet particular problem. McDonalds helps people by solving their hunger. These problems are really simple and straightforward.
As an engineer, you might feel like this is not a problem worth spending my time on. It's very natural for engineers to feel like this because we want to solve problems that challenge us. But, believe me, the real problem is not in the process of solving a problem, but taking the solution and giving it to millions or billions of people in a simply, intuitive and powerful way. That's where the real challenge is.
CE: How do you manage Chandoo.org? Do you still run your company from your home?
Chandoo: Yes. I still run it from my home. We also have some staff now. We have 5 full time employees and a few part-time employees. So, we have staff who manage our servers, who answer customer queries and technical queries and who take care of our accounting books etc. but it is pretty much a home run business.
I enjoy the freedom that it offers me, because I can wake up and just walk into the other bedroom and start my work, without having to dress up and drive 6 miles to get to my office.
I think, as long as possible, I want to run Chandoo.org as a home run business so that it gives me all the pleasure and advantages that I relish.
CE: How do you go about hiring at Chandoo?
Chandoo: I usually hire freelancers and offer them some small projects. After judging their work, I offer them full contract. So, this is how I have hired at least 3 of our employees. For me the major strategy is to go for websites like oDesk (now: Upwork) or any other freelancing websites and simply offer a small project there. Once I find the work to be satisfactory, I offer them few more projects and at the end of 3rd or 4th project, I offer them - "Would you like to work for me full time?" Full time as in no ON and OFF contract. You put so and so hours every week or every month and we will pay so much money. This is the most comfortable of working for small startups since you don't have the luxury of keeping full time employees from day one -Either because they are costly or because they require an office and other infrastructure.
For technical persons, who need to have extensive Excel knowledge, I usually hire people from Chandoo.org forum. We have an Excel forum where lot of people come and post their questions and lots of people solve them. So, I usually ask the senior members or moderators of the forum if they want to take up a job with us. And if they're interested, I offer that job to them.
CE: What are your key learnings as an entrepreneur from both your successes and failures?
Chandoo: The biggest learning has to be that - You need to move away from selling time, because that is never going to work. For example you are a web developer, who wants to start a web development company. Let's say, you are asking money for building a website or an app. You are essentially selling your time. There is only finite amount for your time.
You have only 24 hours/day and you can't really work 24 hours each day. So, you probably want to work 8 hours/day. Your ability to sell in only 8 hours/day or 40 hours/week. The up side here is that, you can make finite amount of money in this manner. You could increase your hourly rates, but there is only so much you can increase before you start losing clients. So, if you go down that model, in order to make more money you'd have to hire more developers.
Now instead of being a sole developer, you bring another developer and both of you are selling your time. Theoretically, you are not making 2x the money, because the other person has to be paid some salary and may be extra bonus or commission to incentivise them. On top of that, your ability to work 8 hours per day is no longer true, because now you spend at least 30 minutes per day managing the other person. So now both of you are working 7.5 hours a day each and are probably making 1.5x the money.
What happens is - when you bring 3rd or 10th developer, you aren't really multiplying your income, but just building more and more overhead. So, you end up building teams and team managers. Basically a complex network structure which requires more overhead. In my opinion, that's a very, very tough game to win.
Instead if you could build something, where you could make money irrespective of your time, that'd be something! Let's say you create an app and you sell it on App Store. There's no up side to the number of people who download or buy your app. Even if a million people download your app, the amount of work you need to do for these million people to get the app is the same you do for one person to get your app. So you delink your time from your work and you offer products instead of your time as a service. That's a very good position to be in. That is one of the most crucial lessons I've learned as an entrepreneur.
In fact, the advice that I got is like this - "Be the most useless person in your organisation." I am very loosely paraphrasing it here, but what it means is even if you disappear in your organisation, every thing will still work and you still make money. So, you should be the most disposable person in your organisation.
Though since I call my company 'Chandoo.org', if I disappear it won't make sense. But I am glad to note here that most of our products are completely on auto-pilot. And I dont have to be there for the product to sell.
The other lesson that I learned is - If you want to be successful in life and if you want to make a lot of money, you need to help people. So the simple advice is Help Millions to Make Millions. This is a lesson I learned from a book and I personally believe in it.
CE: What are your expectations from Chandoo.org in the next 2 years?
Chandoo: We are seeing a lot of growth and traction. I am very positive and optimistic about our future. Microsoft has been working on Office 2016. So, Excel 2016 is around the corner and I am very excited about talking about the new Excel. There are lot of developments in PowerPI and other technologies.
I am excited about sharing the various powerful ways of working with Excel with millions of people and helping them through Chandoo.org. We are also working on launching a new eBook, revamping some of our templates, launching one more training program in the next 2 years and offering a bit of live training. Moreover, if time permits, I'd also like to write another print book.
CE: Will you teach us your favourite Excel trick that every engineer should know?
Chandoo: I am really tongue tied when you ask me to share just 'one trick' because Excel is so powerful and versatile tool. Any engineer who aspires to run a business should know that they should be familiar with what can be done with Excel. Don't write off excel as something that's simply or too easy. In fact, I thought it was too easy and never opted for any Excel course throughout my MBA program. Don't do that. Be curious and learn what you can do with this powerful technology and see how you can apply it to your day to day life. The tip I want to give is 'Keep Learning' whether it is Excel or any other tool.
CE: Thank you for sparing time to answer our questionnaire. What would be your message to our fellow engineers and entrepreneurs?
Chandoo: It is my pleasure and honour to be featured on CrazyEngineers. My message to fellow engineers and entrepreneurs is - Just keep doing what you are doing. Build a product or a service that helps others. Don't be shy. Don't think that the problem is not big enough or this idea is not a 'light bulb' moment. Take whatever you have and start offering to people.
There are bigger problems once you have the product in your hand, like - How to market it, How to make it reach right people, How to target the audience, How to price it and sell it and how to keep on improving it. Those are all exciting problems to solve. Don't get stuck at that first stage where you are waiting for that beautiful idea. Create a product and start shipping so that you can solve the other problems down the road.