Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart and coming at you today with no video, just audio as I’ll explain in a moment. Joining me straight from India is Purna–Purna, how do you pronounce your last name?
Andrew: Duggirala. I’ve got it here phonetically spelled and I still wanted to make sure to get it right. I don’t think I was going to. So, I asked you. Duggirala–do I have that right?
Purna: Yeah. It’s a hard one.
Andrew: But you go by Chandoo and you are the founder of Chandoo.org, a site that offers Excel training, consulting and development.
This interview is sponsored by Bench Accounting. If you don’t know how much revenue you generated last month, last quarter, last year, you’re really having a hard time organizing your finances–your business’ finances, I should say–use Bench. They have a team of bookkeepers and software to help keep your books in order. I’ll tell you more about them, but if you want a sneak peak, go to Bench.co/Mixergy.
My second sponsor is Toptal. When you’re ready to move up from those cheap and undependable freelance sites and really get an insanely smart developer to work part-time, full-time, whatever, with your company, go to Toptal.com/Mixergy.
Sachit: Wait, wait, wait. I’m Sachit, guy who sells ads for Mixergy. Andrew should have said that if you want him to personally introduce you to Toptal, contact him at Andrew@Mixergy.com. Okay. Back to the interview.
Andrew: So, Chandoo, we are talking by phone instead of by video, Skype. Why?
Purna: It’s an interesting question. It’s a little bit different [inaudible 00:01:50], but the main reason is I operate this company from a small town in India. We don’t have very good reliable bandwidth to use the high speed routs. In fact, we are moving to a new house. I [inaudible 00:02:08] that we had this media call.
So, yesterday I had a new internet connection installed there. They assured me that it’s going to support video calls. So, I got that [inaudible 00:02:19] and I just came here. The house isn’t ready yet, but the connection is there. So, I came here. Unfortunately, it wasn’t up anymore.
Andrew: With all this bandwidth issue–in fact, you’re a long-time Mixergy fan who had to stop listening because of bandwidth issues. It was just too tough to download it. You were still able to build a phenomenal company that generated in 2014 how revenue?
Purna: About $1 million.
Andrew: $1 million, a little bit more than $1 million, right?
Purna: Uh-huh. That’s it.
Andrew: This whole thing started because you were finishing your MBA and you were blogging at the time, right?
Purna: That’s right.
Andrew: What was the website that you were blogging on?
Purna: It’s Chandoo.com. I bought this domain for purely personal blogging in 2004, the end of 2004. I was probably enrolling in an MBA program at that time. It’s a two-year program. Throughout 2004, 2005 and the middle of 2006, I was talking about my MBA life and what happens in college, what kind of new friends I’m making and all the parties I’m attending, all the new things I’m learning about various aspects in management. I used to be quite interested in marketing and a little bit of finance and those ideas. So, I would write about what kind of projects as part of my coursework and where I’m traveling, all sorts of stuff.
But once you finish your MBA, I started my work. There is very little to talk about. In college, there is a lot of freedom and there is a lot of variety in the things you do, but once you start the job, it kind of falls into a routine. So, the blog became more silent. I couldn’t write in the blog that, “I went to the office today and came back.” There is not much to say in that story.
So, I thought maybe I should pick up some new topics to write about. Initially I thought I would write about advertising because I was fascinated by the advertising world, various things happening. I think around that time, a lot of online campaigns were catching up and viral campaigns and those kinds of things.
So, I wanted to share some of my observations and insights from that side of the world. But I was working in an IT company. So, I just had an interest of advertising. So, I would talk about that. But it’s not something where I could deeply comment.
Andrew: Yeah. I see you were really just trying to figure out what you were going to talk about. I see you talking about not getting enough sleep as a student. I see you with a photo on a motorcycle and some blog posts where you’re just talking about what you did for fun. You’re talking about writing a media plan for chili-tasted lipstick. And then I do so your blog just went silent for a period there. I think you went for a stretch of months without putting anything up, which is unusual for you. You would even write how tired you were. And then it seems like somewhere–
Purna: So, I think this is also life is catching up with me. In college, I have this free time and no responsibilities. I could spend time on blog or I could do whatever I want. But once you start a job, I got married around six months after college in a job. So, I’m excited about the new life and my life partner and all the things happening there. The blog would take a backseat. Once I settled down in my job, I kept thinking maybe I have these things that I’m doing at work, especially about process of data analysis or creating charts or presentations.
Andrew: Was a large part of your work life revolving around Excel spreadsheets?
Purna: Yeah, you could say that. I was working as a business analyst. My job has two components. One is spend half the time in front the computer, primarily in Excel and PowerPoint. The other half of the time just talk to customers and share these observations with them so they could make better decisions. So, the entire job is pretty much analyze data, share the insights and make better decisions.
Andrew: I see.
Purna: So, I thought, “Maybe I should talk about this. It’s happening every day and I’m learning new things about this. Why don’t write about this on the blog?”
Andrew: I see your look changes a little bit as you continue. There’s one period there you were in a nice suit and white shirt and a tie and nice haircut and then at some point, you decided to show like the pointy haired boss, pointy-headed boss that is now part of your logo, which is your photo with wild, outrageous hair.
So, you’re starting to really just do it because it’s interesting, but it’s not really leading to anything. And then you hit on Excel and training, Excel training and Excel templates and everything related to Excel is what got you to where you are today, a guy with a $1 million business and horrible, horrible internet.
Purna: Yeah. Hopefully it gets better, the internet connection thing.
Andrew: Where’d the name Chandoo come from?
Purna: So, my actual name is Purna Chandra Rao Duggirala. That’s a quite long name. So, I obviously I couldn’t get PurnaChandraRaoDuggirala.com. That’s not going to work. So, when I was trying to buy the domain, I was trying to look for something short but still related to me because it was my website at that time.
So, I went by my nickname. Because my name is long, most of my friends would call me by a part of my name. Some people would call me Purna. Some people would call me Chandra, Chandoo. So, I thought I’d go with Chandoo.org because it’s a short kind of name and I couldn’t buy Chandoo.com. So, I went with Chandoo.org.
Andrew: So, how did you get into Excel? I guess you were saying that you were using Excel a lot during the day, but how did you know that you should be blogging about Excel?
Purna: So, what I did is I think once I started by job, I realized quickly that in order to be successful as an analyst, I need to know a lot more about Excel than the basic stuff like entering data and summing a bunch of number. That much I knew from my MBA class. But I realized that I had to know it in a much more deep level, not only just how to use it, but also how to make it so that people can understand what’s presented on the screen and use it for making better decisions.
So, I started frantically learning about it, buying books and reading online, sitting with colleagues who are better at Excel and watching them do stuff so I could repeat it. In my free-time, I’d just play with Excel just so I could figure out something new or interesting about it and write it down in my notebook so that I would find it.
At one point, I thought I stumbled onto something interesting when it comes to working with charts. I thought, “It’s been a while since I wrote on the blog,” so, I wrote about that and a very interesting thing happened. Up until that time, any comments or any visitors I got are mostly from my friends, people who I know personally or people I know through professional contacts or networks or things like that.
But when I wrote about Excel, I got visitors who are not related to me in any way. In other words, people are finding about this information through searching and they would [inaudible 00:10:32] my site.
The other strange thing happened is I got some comments from people all the way across in other parts of the world. They started telling me other better ways of doing things with Excel, especially with that topic. I thought maybe when I was writing about this, I could also learn about this because through he comments, I could learn some new techniques or concepts about Excel. So, I thought once in a while I’d write about Excel a little bit so I could learn more about it and I could memorize these things better.
So, I continued doing this a bit off and on for about six months. And around this time, I traveled to the US for a work assignment. So, I moved from India to the US and suddenly you are in a place where there is a bit more free time because in India, I used to travel a couple of hours every day to get to work and come back, whereas in the US, it’s very, very easy and I would have a lot of free-time in the evening. So, I used that time to write more content.
I think in 2008, one of the articles I wrote was picked up by Lifehacker, a very, very popular technology blog. They featured that article. Suddenly I started getting lots of visitors. The site crashed and I was kind of caught off guard. I realized probably there are more people who would use Excel and are struggling with it. So, I thought I should talk more about it. So, that’s how I kind of plunged into that direction.
Andrew: Let me show the audience some of the audience some of the posts that you wrote back when you were just figuring out Excel as a topic for you to write about. Really, writing about Excel is what led you to create products where you teach Excel and what led you to build this business. So, I want to see the earlier ones.
Here’s one from June 30th, I think, 2008, “Skip Weekends While Auto-Filling Dates in Excel.” What you were showing was it’s easy to auto-fill cells with dates, like Monday, the 30th, Tuesday, the 1st, Wednesday, the 2nd, Thursday the 3rd of July, etc. What if you want to skip the weekends? All you have to do apparently is right-click on that little right corner and select the, “Fill weekdays only,” radio box. And it’s that little image that you posted with a description of how to do it that got you–well, it’s one of those posts that got you your start in Excel.
Here’s another one, “Copy like a Cat, Paste like a Pro: 17 Excel Pasting Tricks You Must Know.” I see. Cute headline. I didn’t know these. So, that’s what you were doing to get started, but you also weren’t fully there. I can see a couple of days after that pasting roundup, you did a post called “Photographic Fridays” where you posted a photo of a daisy.
Purna: Yes, that’s right. So, I was in between things at that time. I was still not sure if Excel was a topic for the blog because it has been a personal blog all along. I’m still discovering what I’m doing with my life and where my passions are. So, I took up photography as a hobby and I went to the US. Naturally I was sharing some of the pictures I took.
But in that span of six to twelve months, I also realized that it is important to cultivate an audience and help them [inaudible 00:14:13] because I couldn’t find people who are interested in Excel, photography and advertising and all the things that I’m interested.
Andrew: Right. You need to find one.
Purna: If I could narrow that to one area, then I’m sure I could find enough people who’d be willing to be part of that kind of a community so that I can–I’m not even sure at that point that this would turn into a business or not. It was more of a passion for me. I thought that to connect that back I would have to narrow it down to one area other than the wider, different set of interests.
Andrew: All right. Now you’re starting to find your topic. It’s Excel. You’re starting to find your traffic. Lifehacker is sending you traffic. Google is sending you traffic. People who are coming for this are really getting into it to the point where they’re asking questions in the comments. They’re talking to you in the comments. They’re teaching you there. So, you can see this is a topic that’s exciting them. It’s time to start bringing in some revenue. What’s the first thing that you did to bring in revenue.
Purna: So, naturally I did what any blogger would do at this stage. I applied for a Google AdSense account and I thought I’d put some ads so that I could monetize this. I don’t have to think a lot about this whole problem. So, I applied for an AdSense account. I was getting some payment. It’s not really much. I think it was about $100 per month around that time. So, it’s not really anything more than some pocket money and maybe enough to pay for the service.
So, I think I was also reading a lot of blogs, especially watching videos on channels like Mixergy and reading blogs. I used to read blogs of ProBlogger, Copyblogger and I used to read Escape from Cubicle Nation from Pamela Slim, so, a lot of these websites where similar topics are being discussed on a regular basis.
One of these things that people are saying is expect to build an audience who are also willing to spend some money with you and get something of value from you in return. In other words, your entries need to say that instead of offering free stuff all the time, make sure you’re having an audience who are also interested to buy stuff from you.
So, I through in 2009, I think around February, I thought, “I need to test this, whether people will buy stuff from me or not.” So, I created a small PDF with about 50 pages to teach various Excel formulas. I said, “Hey, here’s an Excel PDF. It is $5. This is my first product. Would you buy it?”
So, I think that’s the first big change in the blog in terms of introducing a new product. I didn’t know anything about launching a product. So, I figured out how to use [inaudible 00:17:31], how to use PayPal, how to setup all the interconnection and everything. People bought it, not a lot of them. It didn’t replace my salary. But I did get a few customers. I also learned a lot of valuable lessons in that process.
One of the is up until that point, people are processing Chandoo.org as a very, very high-value resource, a lot of valuable content and high quality stuff. So, I naturally knew that a lot of people would buy this book. But not a lot of people bought it. I think about 50 or maybe less than 50 people bought it in the first month. So, that’s $250, less than [inaudible 00:18:15]. I thought, “Why is this? Why is this a disconnect between the perception and reality of not many people buying it?”
It turns out the reason was people thought because it’s a $5 it’s too cheap and probably not worth it. So, I did a little bit of changes in the problem. I added a few more pages and I doubled the price in June that year. I may be wrong with the timeline maybe one or two months here.
Andrew: Wait, what happened? I get that, by the way. A $5 does feel cheap. It seems counterintuitive. But you’re saying you sold fewer when you were selling it for $5 than when you were selling it for $10.
Purna: Yeah. That’s right. So, at the $10 price point, the sales went up quite a bit overnight. So, I started getting more sales. I would say more than double. And then suddenly I was seeing this stream of income that was significant.
The other aspect you need to keep in mind is even though I was traveling to US or other countries just for work reasons, I still predominately based in India and $10 is quite a bit of money. For example, $10 would pay for a [inaudible 00:19:36] for my family at that time. So, I also have this picture in my mind that, “How could I charge $40 or $50 for something when it’s so much money?”
Andrew: How do you go even more, you’re saying?
Purna: It’s a little bit of mindset problem. Maybe I could see myself spend $10 on a meal when I go into US and walk into a restaurant. But I couldn’t really imagine such a thing back in Chennai in those days. When I would just freely spend 500 rupees which is equal to $10, it was only for special occasions. It’s a bit of that mindset that kind of kept me from charging higher fees at that point. But I also quickly understood that price pays an important role in setting the perception about product.
Andrew: How did you know what to put into your book?
Purna: It was more of a gamble because what I did is I thought maybe I would just talk about formulas and instead of writing a book explaining the whole thing, I create a index card, like I don’t know–in college, when you’re preparing for an exam on a difficult subject, people prepare index cards with the stuff written on them, like a summary version of the concept and on the backs, there is a question and on the other side there is an answer. You use the index cards to learn these things better.
So, I did similar things for Excel formulas. So, 70 pages–each page talks about one formula and everything is in plain English, in simple words, no technical jargon so that people could learn these things quickly.
Andrew: All right. So, the book got you far, but it still wasn’t the big thing. In a moment, we’ll talk about what you sold next. But first, I’ve got to give a thanks to my sponsor, Toptal.
Why would you use Toptal when you go place an ad to hire a developer or if you need a smaller project, you can go to any number of freelance sites? Well, my guess is you probably have done one or the other of those two.
If you’re out there and you’re hiring developers, you might have placed some help wanted ads and screened a ton of people and maybe you found the right person, probably not and maybe you were just having to settle or maybe you went to one of the freelance sites and said, “I’ll go cheap.” And you discovered the person you work with–we’ve got a little bit of an echo. Is that someone whistling, by the way, Chandoo?
Purna: No. It’s morning time, so the birds are–
Andrew: Oh, those are actual birds?
Andrew: All right. Actually, let me ask you, Chandoo, have you ever hired someone off of freelance websites?
Purna: Yes, I have. I hired my first employee through freelance. I used oDesk at that time. So, after launching the online courses, the fulfillment process for that is not automated. We have to actually enroll the customer into the course platform and set up their email address and people say, “I forgot my password. Why isn’t this working?” So, I hired somebody to help with these steps. It was through oDesk initially and then I liked that person, so I offered him a full-time role in the company.
Andrew: And did they end up working with you?
Purna: Yes. He still works for me.
Andrew: Oh, get out. All right. Well, go oDesk. But that’s an unusual situation. A lot of times people will hire someone from a freelancing website and they will send out a project and they’ll start getting a lot of activity but then the guy disappears or they get a lot of activity, the guy suddenly sends over something, but it’s not the right thing and then they get a little bit upset because you’re not paying them and of course you’re not going to pay them if they didn’t get the right thing done.
I know I’ve hired people from freelance websites. In small projects, the person is not fully invested. I don’t feel like there’s enough of a commitment and enough of a working relationship the way you ended up with your guy. But I hired someone from Toptal. The person was like a full-time employee. I just needed a small project done with them. The rep over at Toptal introduced me to one person. I said, “That’s not the right fit. We need someone who’s way more advanced.”
They found someone who was super-advanced. Within a few days, the guy got our project done. He was interacting with me, interacting with other people on the team. He got the project done in a way that we totally didn’t expect because he wasn’t just following the rules. He was creative enough and smart enough to say, “Andrew, here’s the way I think you should be developing this and you’re not thinking big enough or clear enough.” He re-architected it with Michael on the team and created it.
We looked at it and we said, “This is so incredibly. Our ugly design is not worthy of what this guy did from Toptal.” So, we hired a design agency to redesign the site. You guys are going to see it soon on Mixergy, actually maybe by the time this interview is up it’s up there. The reason we did it is this guy pushed us to get better than we ever were before. He pushed us to rethink the way that we were presenting search on Mixergy.
Anyway, I’ve gone a little bit long with this because I’ve gotten great results with Toptal. I’m suggesting to you, the person who’s listening to me right now that if you’re looking for a developer who can help you think differently about your business, who can help you develop like a person who’s on the team because that’s really what they are.
Go to Toptal.com/Mixergy. They have a no-risk trial period of up to two weeks. Mixergy listeners, though, if you go to Toptal.com/Mixergy, you will get 80 free Toptal developer hours when you pay for 80. So, you get two weeks trial period then an extra free 80 Toptal developer hours. And if you want an introduction from me to their guy over there at Toptal, just email me, Andrew@Toptal.com and I’ll introduce you directly to Scott Ritter. Toptal, I’m grateful to them for sponsoring.
Purna: Just for your information, I did have a negative experience as well. I hired another person.
Andrew: You did have a negative experience?
Andrew: What was that? I wish you would have given me that when I did the sponsorship message. What was the negative experience that’s not bad now? Let’s dig at the competition.
Purna: We wanted to build an iPhone app for the site. But it was a massive failure because it has been on my goals for two or three years. One day I thought I couldn’t do this myself, but I wanted to learn the technology because I am techie by nature and I wanted to learn how to do iPhone programming as well.
But I never got enough time to do it, so I hired somebody to build us an app. It was a massive disaster. We spent about $1,000. We got something, but it’s not a very high-quality one. We couldn’t really use it. The App Store won’t adopt what we send. While all this is going on, the iPhone policy changed. They kept coming up with a newer version of iPhone, different UI layouts and all that. I through, “This is probably not worth it.” And I gave up quickly.
Andrew: At least you were only out $1,000. I don’t want to put down those freelancing sites. Obviously people have had good results from them. I’ve used them and their fine. There’s a time when a business wants to go to the next level and really hire someone who is like–actually, I’ll just finish the statement and then I think I should get out of this sponsorship message and get back to the interview.
But there’s a time when you want to upgrade and go to a top person who’s like a full member of the team, someone who you would want to hire and work with you at your office, but maybe they’re working part-time, maybe they’re working outside of the office, actually definitely outside of the office. Go to Toptal.com/Mixergy.
All right. Back to the interview–you are going from ads, which aren’t doing well, to selling the eBook, which does okay, to doubling the price of the eBook, which does even better, but then you come up at the end of 2009 with templates. What’s a template?
Purna: Right. So, around this time, I was also working as a project lead/project manager in my work. I realized that most people working in similar positions are not using the professional project management solution but they’re just using Excel to do this stuff. So, I wrote a series of articles on Chandoo.org explaining how you could do common project management activities using Excel, like building a plan or building a tracker or making certain project management charts or creating a project status dashboard, etc.
Around then, I finished those articles, I thought, “Why don’t I package all of these files and add something more valuable on top of it and offer it as a ready-to-use solution?” I also knew that if you are working as a project manager, you don’t really have much time on your hands to learn Excel and then use it. You’re always just running and chasing people. So, I thought if this has to appeal to a project manager, it has to be like a ready-to-use stuff. Take the files. Put in your data and the whole thing will be ready so you can take it to the presentation immediately.
So, that’s what I do. I packaged a set of files, called the project management templates. I priced them at $30. I figured any decent manager would get paid at least $30. So, if I’m selling them one hour of rate and these templates are obviously meant to save them so many more hours than that, it would be like a no-brainer. Any manager would by them.
That was the right thinking. Immediately after launching that, I see a huge spike in sales. I thought this is probably because of the initial enthusiasm in the product. That wasn’t the case. The sales kept coming up like that all the way through the end of the year. The next year started and the sales were like that.
I realized, “Okay, this is really the right kind of solution,” because it solves a problem. People can use it immediately without having to learn all the technical aspects of Excel. So, that’s how I kind of entered into a situation where I’m able to make enough money from the website like my salary. So, I’m now having two salaries.
Andrew: Chandoo, am I taking the right thing away from that? It seems like the difference between the book and the templates is that the book teaches other people who to do it and the templates do it for them. The more you give people solutions that do the work for them, the happier they are, the more willing they are to buy.
Purna: You could say that. Probably once we finished this, we then go to what happens next, we might be able to change our mind. What I found, even I think at a later data, I read a book where–it is, I think “$100 Startup” by Chris. In that, he mentioned that there is a classic saying that if you give a man a fish, you feed a man for a day, whereas if you teach him fishing, it will feed him for life. He said something more, like if you sell fish in a restaurant, it is even better because they don’t have to learn about fishing and they can still eat.
It’s something similar. People are looking for ready-to-use solutions. It gives them something even more valuable, which is time. We’re all short on time. People may have enough money or even more, but nobody has more than 24 hours in a day. So, I think time saving is a really important aspect as well.
Andrew: So, what that did happen next that will change my mind about what I just said?
Purna: So, the next product I launched is actually an online Excel class that teaches people how to use it better. So, naturally, [inaudible 00:32:37] instead of offering the ready-to-use solution and giving them the skills necessary so that they can use Excel and do so much more in their work.
The reason why I couldn’t package it as a solution is because Excel is, I’m sure you’ve used it several times in your life, it’s basically like a sandbox. You can do any number of things with it. There is no all-encompassing solution or template that you can come up with. For special scenarios like project management, you can come up with something.
But if you are an analyst, you’re really playing with data and your field is wide open, then how would you know what things are out there in Excel, how do capitalize on them and how to use it better. So, I communicate the process to target those kinds of people, especially analysts and entry-level managers who need to use Excel all day but they haven’t got the skills to use it.
Andrew: And this was a recorded course, video and a screencast?
Purna: That’s right.
Andrew: So, let me ask you something. I help other people become interviewers. One of the big challenges that my audience that’s outside the US has when they want to start doing interviews is their accent. The accent, they say, is a distraction that would keep people from listening to them. You were about to launch a video course with your voice. Did that worry you at all?
Purna: It did worry me a bit. In fact, I thought initially doing transcripts or doing a voiceover by an artist or something like that, but all of those are costly propositions. You spend a lot of money or they will bill you the production time, etc. So, I thought if I am selling only to people who visit Chandoo.org and know my story and connect with me at a deeper level than just a Google search, they wouldn’t be bothered by my accent because they like what I do and they want to learn more from me.
The accent would be a minor issue, just like making friends. If you and I were to meet in a coffee shop and become friends, you wouldn’t be worried at my accent, you would be looking beyond that. So, I wanted to have that kind of customer. I was getting a lot of traffic at that time. I thought if I could just convince a small fraction of them, that’s enough for me to [inaudible 00:35:18] as a person. So, the accent wasn’t really an issue. Even today, it’s not an issue.
Andrew: Yeah. I see. One of your video tutorials–you’ve also uploaded some of them to YouTube–one of them has 177,000 views. Beating 100,000 is not unusual for you. You’ve done it a few times here. Your videos are watched a lot with the accent.
Purna: Yeah. That’s right. I will get some comments about the accent. But I think it’s not something that I can change about myself. I could go for an accent [inaudible 00:35:56] or something. So, in almost all of my videos, I never show my face and I’m just explaining it. So, because it’s done in two ways–I’m talking about it and I’m also showing people how to do it simultaneously.
It’s not that different for people to follow along. They can see what I’m doing on the screen. So, even if something that I say is confusing, they can basically [inaudible 00:36:30] because they see what I’m doing on the screen.
Andrew: How did you know what to put into your course?
Purna: I put into the course whatever I thought it relevant for my job because I’m working as an analyst. If I kind of look at what kind of things I’m doing every day, I put those topics in the course. I also had feedback before launching the course. I asked people, “Would you be interested in such a program? What kind of topics would you like to see?” I got lots of input. I went to them and I tried to come up with a course plan that is reasonable. But I wasn’t sure if people are going to enjoy it.
So, I structured it as a 12-week program and I called the 12th week as open week. So, throughout the program people would submit their questions, and in the 12th week, I’d cover as many of them as possible so that the course is more complex for the audience. Once I did a couple of rounds like that, I then packaged all of that as a program and started offering it.
Andrew: What’s the name of that course?
Purna: It’s called Excel School.
Andrew: I see. It’s still on your site now.
Purna: Yeah, it is. It is our bestselling product.
Andrew: What did you sell it for?
Purna: So, we started selling it for about $97. Today, the basic version still sells for $97, but there is a higher option, Advanced Excel with dashboard importing for $247.
Andrew: Yeah. I see. $97 is online viewing only, $147 online and download and $247 gets online and download and dashboards.
Purna: Yeah, that’s right.
Andrew: How did it do?
Purna: It is a really successful program. I think we’ve had 5,000 people graduate from this course. So, we get quite a few people going through this program every month. It has also aged. I think it launched in early 2010. So, it’s almost five years old. Excel has gone through a couple of new versions. I kept adding new content to them.
Andrew: Microsoft called you to do that?
Andrew: Oh, you’re saying you kept it. I thought you said the people at Excel called you.
Purna: No, no. I meant Excel has had new versions in this five-year period. So, I kept updating the course content so that it stays relevant. I think nowadays, we get between 60 to 100 students every month that go through this program.
Andrew: Wow. Do you have any kind of email sales funnel or anything like that? I know you collect email addresses, but is it an organized process that takes people who hit your YouTube video and then come to your site and give you email.
Purna: Yeah. So, we collect email addresses by offering a small free eBook on Excel. So, most of the people join through that. A lot of people who search an Excel problem, they land on the site. They feel that they have discovered something of value. So, they come back and a couple of times later, they sign up for the newsletter.
In the newsletter sequence, I introduce them to new topics and concepts that might be relevant for their work along with I casually mention this program and encourage them to check out the page and see if this is going to help them. So, that’s the primary way in which we are getting new customers. And once in a while, I would also drop a newsletter that kind of pushes people to say, “This course is available. Spend a minute and read about this and see if this is going to help you.” So, that’s when we get a little boost in sales.
But as I said, this program has been around for some time. In between 2010 and now, I added newer programs to adapt to the technology changes happening in the Excel and data analysis world. In about a month or two I’m planning to close down Excel School and launch the version 2 of it with a newer curriculum so that it appeals to the latest versions of Excel and the changes of what people are doing with Excel nowadays.
Andrew: When you do a new version of Excel, do the older customers pay for it or do they get the newer one?
Purna: It’s quite simple. The way it works is when you join the program, you have access for 12 months. Any kind of reenrollment, people who want to come back, they get a significantly high discount so they can come back and reuse the content. They don’t full fee. In many cases, they pay just $50, six months. They stay as a student and they get all the new material without having to pay for that.
Andrew: So, I’m looking at your LinkedIn profile and it says that when you started all this, you were a business analyst at TATA Consultancy. And then in 2010, that role ends according to LinkedIn. What happened in 2010 that allowed you to leave your job?
Purna: So, in 2009, September, I became a dad. [Inaudible 00:42:21] and I had twins, a boy and a girl. Around that time, I was actually working in Sweden and Denmark on a project for TATA Consultancy. So, I took some leave and I came back to India and I was there when the kids were born. But after a couple of weeks, I had to go back because of the project. It killed me. I was like, “Why do I have to do this? Why do I have to travel back?”
So, I think that situation kind of motivated me to launch the templates and the course so that I could find an alternative source of income so that I don’t have to stay in a job and away from my family due to the nature of my job. So, in 2010, April, I quit my job. I came back to India and started the business. That’s why the role ended and I started a new role as an analyst.
Andrew: How nervous were you when you quit? Were you nervous?
Purna: Yeah. I was nervous, quite a bit in fact. The main reason is because my wife also, she used to work at TATA Consultancy as well. But she took a maternity leave and then she prolonged it for one more year. Basically, we were out there without income. So, from two incomes to suddenly no income.
But the plus side is we have lived a frugal life all through our years and even today. So, we don’t spend a lot of money. So, we had a significant amount of savings at that time. I figured we could survive with that money for a couple of years before I had to go and search for a job and some source of income. I thought I could use this income and survive a couple of months of uncertainty.
But fortunately because the audience had already built on Chandoo.org and I’m selling templates and the course has already launched at that time, it was really no looking back. Initially there were lots of question marks. Once I got the plans, everything was like sport.
Andrew: So, you got the course now. Things are going great. I want to find out what happens next, but first let me do my last sponsorship message. It’s from Bench Accounting.
One of my past interviewees, Patrick McKenzie is a software developer who ran a company. Every year, he likes to show his financials on his website. And he said that collaborating with his virtual assistant on bookkeeping just consumed an excessive amount of money. That’s what he wrote on his blog. So, he finally said, “No more of that. I need a better solution.” So, he went to Bench Accounting.
“They’re basically,” again, I’m reading from his blog–he says, “They’re basically bookkeeping as a service, where an actual, honest to god human bookkeeper manages your books for you using their algorithms as a lever rather than a substitution for their work and expertise,” which means you actually get a real human being. If that human being is sick, there are other people at the company who will be there to back them up. And you have terrific software that makes sure that the human being is working on intelligent stuff, not just the rote things. It’s a perfect marriage.
If you go to Bench.co/Mixergy, they will help you get your books organized and keep them organized for you at a really low price. And if you go to Bench.co/Mixergy–keep that Mixergy at the end–you’ll get 20 percent off the first six months. Check them out.
One of the cool things you’ll notice when you look at their website is they really just pay attention to the details, like they get what Mixergy is about and you can tell just by scrolling right down underneath the video. That level of detail says a lot about a company. I’m grateful to them for sponsoring Mixergy. It’s Bench.co/Mixergy.
Purna, you’re an entrepreneur. I think the first ad, the one that I did for Toptal, I think I sucked. I don’t think I should charge them for it. I like this second ad. How do you feel these two went?
Purna: Yeah. It’s good and it’s really honest. So, I find that best. Even when I’m doing a video, if I stutter or if I make a mistake, I deliberately keep it there because anybody watching it, they will feel like this is actually a human being, not a machine doing stuff. Many times students have told me that because in your videos, you deliberately do some mistakes. It’s not deliberate, but when you’re playing with data, sometimes you want to do this, but the result would be wrong. So, you go and figure out what went wrong and come back with the better results. So, they find that approach really interesting.
So, the same with your ads. We can definitely say [inaudible 00:47:31] or professionally freelancing, etc. But there are all sorts of experiences. For somebody, this will be suitable or for others, that could be suitable.
Andrew: I’ve found that too. I think one of the reasons why NPR does so well in podcasting is the same reason why they don’t do well on radio. On radio, you have to be really arrogant and pretend you know everything and be like some of my heroes in radio like Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh, who I used to listen to as a kid. They would just be so definitive about what they know. Podcasting, that doesn’t work. You need a much more intimate relationship, a much more human relationship, complete with flaws.
So, if you listen to NPR, you’ll see that within each sentence, they’ll hesitate and they’ll stall. I know that doesn’t work for everyone, but just looking at their ratings on the podcast directories, on every one of them, you see that it’s clearly hitting a nerve with people. I agree with you. I think my first interview sucked–excuse me, my first sponsorship ad sucked. I don’t think I should charge them. I do think that human touch makes for a much more real relationship with the audience.
All right. Not to pat myself on the back, but thanks for that analysis. It also helps me understand how you think about your business too, that if you have some kind of goof up or stutter in a video, you’re just going to keep it in and let people see how human you are instead of trying to polish it to the point of a robotic, mechanical perfection.
So, you’re doing all this. But I know that businesses can become really hectic. So, you read the book by one of my repeat interviewees, Tim Ferriss, “The 4-Hour Work Week.” You said that forced you to think about business in a new way. By 2012, you already had systems in place. We’ll talk about how you tested them. What are some of these systems that allowed you to run your business with sanity and not go nuts?
Purna: So, in the initial days once I quit my job, I was still doing the job. Instead of working for TATA, now I’m working for Chandoo.org. I’m doing all the things. I’m running around. I’m getting up at 4:00 a.m. doing some video recordings before the kids are up and spend time with kids.
When I got to bed, I would work. It was kind of a very stressful initial few months. Then I realized this is no way to run a business. One of the good things when you’re working for yourself is you get lots of freedom to do whatever you want. Now I find myself that I am trying to do this ownership and there is really no freedom at all.
So, that’s when I started reading more about–I was actually skeptical to read “4-Hour Work Week.” The name sounded–I don’t want to be offensive. Now I really appreciate the book. But back then, the book is on the shelf and everybody is talking about it. I thought the name sounded like a bit of scam. How could anybody work for four hours? So, this is the mindset that I was in at that time.
After a couple of months of dealing with it, I finally ordered the book. It came and I read the first two chapters and immediately realized that there is a better way to do the things I’m doing. So, I sat down and I wrote all the things I’m doing. I tried to identify areas where we could pay the bill, automate the process or completely renew those things.
So, the first step I did is I sat and I wrote down a bunch of values for me as a business. That will help me make decisions faster. Every time if I want to make a decision, if I go by a set of values, I come up with the same kind of decisions in a similar situation. I also consciously said what I want to do with this business. I identified an initial statement, which is make people offer [inaudible 00:51:43].
So, everything I want to do should be in that line. Of course, there are others as well, like give a comfortable life for my family and do a bit of traveling, etc. Those are personal missions. For the profession, this is what I want to do. Everything I do has to make somebody have some sort of connection to that.
And then I hired some help for doing lots of manual things I can’t do, like [inaudible 00:52:14] emails and enrolling customers, login resets and those kinds of things. I hired somebody to manage our servers so that I don’t have to do the technical stuff. Until that time, I used to do all of that. Yeah, essentially I followed that in the book and tried to do as much as possible so that I’d have some free time.
Andrew: So, can you take one of those things that you systemized and talk about how you did it? What’s an easy one for you to systemize?
Purna: So, for example, when customers are buying stuff from us, there are two ways in which they can buy. They can pay via credit card through a payment [inaudible 00:52:59] like PayPal or whatever, the money will go and [inaudible 00:53:02] system that I’m using. And out of that the [inaudible 00:53:08] and send them to the customer.
But we also have a class of customers, especially people India, who would pay us by making a deposit on a bank account. I live in India. The customer also lives in India. So, we are not supposed to transact in any other currency than Indian rupees.
Andrew: You’re not supposed to do what in India?
Purna: So, any business that is operating in India cannot charge in any currency other than rupees for the Indian customers. Does that make sense? You go to a coffee shop in the US, you cannot pay in Mexican currency or Canadian currency. You have to pay in US dollars because that’s your national currency. And I don’t know if I’m explaining this right. So, in India, I can’t use PayPal because PayPal wouldn’t accept rupee as a denomination. They only accept dollars and euros and pounds.
So, for the Indian customers, I didn’t setup a payment at that time. So, people would just transfer money to my bank account and I’d send the files to them by email. This was a lot of manual process, as you can see. People would pay money. I’d have to verify the payment and then collaborate with the customer, get their email address and everything and then send the files to them, make sure that they have downloaded it. It is a lot of stress, not just with files, even when they go to the course enrollment or whatever.
So, this is where I wrote down all the steps and I hired a freelancer. I told them, this is what you have to do. Whenever a new Indian comes to our Gmail account, [inaudible 00:54:53] a payment from a customer has paid that much amount, that email gets automatically forwarded to them through a rule in Gmail.
And then the person would do all the manual steps. I have setup a secure website on the page on my site where they can regenerate the product links that automatically expire every five days. They just grab that link, they as in my partner. He will email that link to the customer so the customer can download the file.
So, essentially there are systems being automatically done in a few seconds. He will do it within five minutes with a bit of automation and manual processes defined clearly. We can cover a lot of delay and customers are happy.
Andrew: I want to ask one other thing. A moment ago or earlier on in the interview I was asking you about whether you would charge people again and you said it’s an annual thing. They just pay and they get a year subscription. I was wondering why you don’t do monthly recurring or any kind of real subscription. Why is that? I know you tried it at one point.
Purna: Yeah. I tried it. In fact, a while back I wanted to create a product called Vitamin Excel. It’s basically–
Andrew: What was it called?
Purna: Vitamin Excel.
Andrew: Vitamin Excel. Okay.
Purna: So, I wanted to create a subscription that looks like this, where people have access to a forum, a lot of videos, a library. Every month some material is added, a bunch of templates. Essentially if you are an analyst or a manager, this is like a resource for you to fall back on. Every product that I try, the first step I would do is [inaudible 00:56:48] on the blog and say that, “This is what I’m thinking. Can you share your enthusiasm for it? Is this something you’d go with or not? How would you feel about it?”
I don’t take all the feedback initially, but I want to make sure this is going to help the people that I’m [inaudible 00:57:08]. So, when I announced it, I got a lot of backlash. Initially, I get some backlash for a new product because many people don’t want to pay. So, when you say, “I want to charge you for this,” there will be some opposition. But I’m not catering to those people, so I usually ignore that kind of feedback unless it is more than 10-15 percent. So, in this case, I got lots of negative feedback. People said, “This is too costly. This is not worth it,” and what not.
Maybe I priced it wrong. But I was trying to substitute the online courses with this membership so that everything is simple for everybody. Then because of that, I figured it’s not worth it. So, I never really went back to thinking about the subscription service as an option. I keep reading about various subscription models and their success stories on blogs and forecasts and books, but maybe I have not tried a successful one yet and I don’t know if I will go back to that. Andrew?
Andrew: There we go. Sorry. I think we just lost the connection for a moment. Well, it looks like you’ve got a model that works. Because of your systems, you’ve got a process that doesn’t give you another job but a business that runs itself. Because of your products, you’ve got a really solid customer base and you just seem to be growing and growing. 2014, you said you did about $1 million. Your goal for 2015 you said publicly was to do multiple things, but one of them was to get to $1.25 million. Are you close to that? Are you on track?
Purna: I think we are on track as well. But also, one of the things that’s happening is there is a bit happening in the sales with the Excel School product. So, it’s something that I’m trying to see why this is happening and come up with a better product offering, etc.
Andrew: What do you mean? What’s going on?
Purna: The Excel School product, which is our bestseller, so far, the sales are slightly going down since the start of this year. The reason why this is probably happening is because the product is a bit old and people are looking for a newer version of Excel. That’s why I said I’m planning to stop the enrollment for that and launch the version 2, probably by September. So, I’m coming out with the newer version. This is the gaps that customers are feeling about this product and work with it.
But yeah, in terms of revenue, we are on target. The things that I’m thinking right now are about the changes in market and how we can help people become awesome and still maintain our sales. Again, the revenue goal is not what I strive for. It’s just there so that I can see how well this business is running. This is really not the measure by which I see what I’m doing.
Andrew: Will you be publishing your results for the year online?
Purna: Yeah. This is something that I’m very passionate about. I wanted to write more about startups and running the business. But the things I’m doing, they take some amount of time. I have kids and they are still six year olds. They require a lot of time. I spend time with them. I work from home, so I help my wife and I like to color, I like to read. Everything takes up time. Talking about entrepreneurship is kind of last on my list of things to do.
Andrew: Right. Well, I get it. I saw a photo on Twitter of you and your kids just as you guys, I think, were heading out to Australia for vacation. I get how you prioritize spending time with them and spending time away from the office and traveling versus teaching startup stuff. So, I’m proud that you spent today teaching it. I’m really grateful to–do you know Ashwin, who introduced us?
Purna: Yeah. I know him. He sent an email to me and said, “Do you know about Andrew? Should I recommend your interview?” “Oh, I know Andrew. I’ve been watching his videos several times when it started.” So, I thank you much for Ashwin’s introduction.
Andrew: Yeah, I’m glad that he introduced us. He’s a Mixergy Premium member, Ashwin Vishwanathan. Thank you so much for making the introduction. If anyone else out there has a suggestion for a guest that we should be interviewing, I’m looking for people who are especially great entrepreneurs. There’s a link on Mixergy.com where you can suggest them.
If you want to check out my sponsors, they are Toptal.com/Mixergy or Bench.co/Mixergy. They both created web pages specifically for the Mixergy audience and I think you should check them out. If you enjoyed this interview and want more, subscribe to the podcast. And Chandoo’s website–I’m going to spell it out for people–it’s Chandoo.org.
We are experimenting, actually, with linking to everything in the show notes. So, if you have a podcast player that was created any time after, I don’t know, 1970, you should be able to scroll up or click on my face or something and see links to the guest’s webpage, to the place where you can leave a comment, to the place where, actually, it links to my sponsors.
All right. That’s something that Michael recently added.
Chandoo, thank you so much for doing this interview.
Purna: Thank you so much, Andrew. It’s my pleasure and honor to be on your interview. I really wish all the best to all the [inaudible 01:03:31]. With your ability, if you think I can help, I’d be glad to chip in.
Andrew: You bet. Thanks for offering. Bye, everyone.