Purna Chandra Rao on startups, online ventures, and frugal living


 

Dhanya: Rohan is an ardent fan of Chandoo.org, a blog that feeds its community with excel tips, charting tutorials, visualization ideas, and downloadable excel tutorials. After using it for a while, he got interested in Chandoo (a.k.a Purna Chandra Rao), the curator/founder of this blog. He mentioned about Chandoo’s initiative on a Realleader call and I called ‘dibs’ on interviewing him (much to Rohan’s disappointment!). We reached out and Chandoo graciously agreed to talk to us. He had so many insights on little things that work and I had a great conversation with him. In all, a charming personality. I sure do hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did!

About Chandoo 

Purna Chandra Rao Duggirala is the CEO at Chandoo.org. He completed his MBA from IIM Indore and Computer Science degree from Andhra University. He is passionate about Data Analytics and Visualization and Chandoo.org is his platform for sharing what he learns about Microsoft Excel and new ways of presenting data. He has been awarded MVP status in 2009 by Microsoft (and renewed in 2010, 2011, 2012 & 2013). His MVP profile is here.

He is married to Jo, his college sweetheart. During September 2009, they became parents to 2 beautiful and naughty twins. A boy and girl. He says life has been hectic and incredibly fun ever since. (here is a pic). They are based out of Vishakapatnam, India, but love travelling around the world and meeting new people all the time. As of April 2010,  he quit his day job to become full time entrepreneur. You can read about his journey as a start-up owner at Startup Desi.


Interview transcript

Chandoo: This is an interesting initiative and am glad you are featuring inspiring stories here. People can go on and share what they are doing with the world.

 

(00.20)

Dhanya: That is indeed the motivation. Each one of us has interviews people we want to talk to in areas of our interest and we seem to be able to to cover many interesting stories.

To your story, where did you grow up? And how did Chandoo.org happen? I saw that you have been featured on Chris Guillebeau’s Hundred Dollar Start-up book as well. It would be great to hear the story across all these landmarks.

Chandoo: Firstly, thanks for having me here. And, to tell you in a very brief fashion, I was born in a coastal town called Machilipatnam in India. I grew up like any other middle class child. I completed my studies in a few places. I read a story in ninth class about Bill Gates and I really wanted to learn computers. It was one of those moments in my childhood when I realized that I wanted to be like this guy – to work in technology and computers.

Whenever I had to make a career choice, like choosing a course in undergrad, I always picked computers because that was what I wanted to do. I think that was one of the turning points because that kept me in technology. After my studies, I worked for a year as a programmer. In my heart though, I knew that one day I would like to start my own business. That’s why  I decided to go for an MBA. I thought I could pick up more business skills by learning  marketing, finance, and other things.

After my MBA, there were just too many things going on. You have peer pressure or family members who are looking up to you. Naturally, you have many responsibilities. Unlike in western cultures where you are on your own after graduation, in India, you take care of your family too. I couldn’t really take the leap and start my own venture right after my MBA. It was one of those things I always wanted to do but never had the courage to.

I went on to join one of the largest IT consultation companies in India, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). I worked there for three years and this was when chandoo.org happened. I had started it as a personal website where I shared my personal stories as a student and then about my job, technology, and my observations. None of this was useful to anybody – it was just a personal blog that my friends and family members followed.

In 2009, I was sent on an assignment to the US. That’s when I really started writing about Excel because I was using that and Powerpoint extensively. I decided to share learnings about what I enjoy doing instead of sharing personal stories. That was when people started visiting the site. It was information that was useful for these people and for me as well as an analyst. I continued that throughout 2008, ‘09 and ‘10. I was doing this for majority of my time all through those years. In the meantime, I also got married. In 2010, I thought this was looking very promising and maybe I should quit my job and focus on this. So, I quit my job and moved back to India, and took it up full time.

 

(05.05)

Dhanya: Another big question was about the whole Malcolm Gladwell-popularized theory of 10000 hours that go into anything before you become a specialist in that field. I guess you got your 10000 hours at excel at some point?

Chandoo: It is not like I had all this knowledge when I started working with Excel. When I started working with TCS as an analyst, I was doing a lot model building on excel, communicating with clients, and preparing documents. I had to use these tools and if you want to succeed in your career, you need to have good knowledge of them. When I started learning these things, I realized one of the easiest ways to learn is by teaching others.

And when you share your learnings, if there is a mistake, someone else will correct you. I had very few colleagues back then, so I thought I’d put it up on my blog. Suddenly, I realized how little I know. There were hundreds and thousands of people throughout the world, who were doing similar stuff. Some of these people come back and share comments, saying they’d like to learn more about another feature. This was a useful cycle.

Part of the learning came from seeing what others were doing, learning from them, and then giving it back. I think that’s how the 10000 hours got clocked. Today I firmly believe that I can do it, tell others how to do it, and then learn back.

 

(08.46)

Dhanya: Do you want to scale your venture? What are your plans for Chandoo.org?

Chandoo: I would like to do this as long as it is possible. Even though we aren’t advertising, we can see more and more people tuning into our site. This isn’t something I can control. I am sure our site will multiple in the next four or five years. That would prompt me to do more.

I like travelling and I was in Singapore two years ago. This year, I am planning to go to US. So, I get to meet customers face-to-face, hear from them, and talk about my work. I would like to do this for however long I can.

 

(09.48)

Dhanya: What about the demographics of your users? What sort of users do you have?

Chandoo: The majority of the visitors are 25 to 35 years old. They are from all of the world but most are living in US, UK, India, and Australia. These are people who have just gotten into their careers as analysts or managers. They are in positions in finance or marketing. These are people who are very passionate about learning these tools. They spend their time and money to invest and learn different tools.

 

(10.52)

Dhanya: I saw a lot of marketing oriented posts on your blog. What is your take on marketing and online ventures?

Chandoo: I personally believe that you should run an online business like someone who runs a retail store. As for running a startup, one should always have that businessman hat on and think about how we can get money into this. You are doing this so you can live a good life.

And, as long as you are not running a non-profit, profit should be the first priority. When you are running a business, it is important that you have customers. How do you get customers for a website? And how do you then encourage them to become the part of your website? You need to get them to join newsletters, mailing lists, and such. This way, you can communicate about your products and ideas directly so they can purchase products that interest them.

This also means you aren’t just collecting customers, but also providing then with some value. You may probably get them to pay you a hundred dollars, but they should get three hundred dollars worth of value out of it. Only then would they feel it’s a good deal and talk about your products to their friends. There is nothing wrong in putting profit as first priority. Before I quit my job, I had already begun selling a couple of products so I could test their performance.

 

(13.14)

Dhanya: I saw that majority of your financial model runs on the product that you are selling. Before I looked into it, I thought classes or workshops that you conducted would be a big part of your revenue. But, it seems like a relatively a smaller part as compared to other products. I guess that’s because its more easily available to your users all over the world.

Chandoo: Exactly. They are all delivered online. No matter where they are, they can access them. Even if they don’t understand the product, they can ask questions, and all of this can be done while I am sitting in India. If I settle for client hours instead, it blocks X number of hours of my day and there is travel as well.

 

(14.21)

Dhanya: I saw that you believe and you practice at lot of very simple and frugal living. I really adore that. What is your philosophy on that and how did that side of you get shaped?

Chandoo: I think it’s probably how I was brought up as a kid. My wife had a similar background as well. It was just that both of us had same ideas about running a family. If you brought Rs 100 into the family, then you should not spend all of it. This is how my parents have taught values to me and I think both of us have had hardships in the past. We also know you have to work very hard to get your money. So you shouldn’t splurge it.

There is always the tendency to go spend the money you earn, but thankfully we never do.  Even if we’ve built some wealth over time, we believe in the same idea – you should always spend only a fraction of what make. You should try to put it back so you can give back to society or do something else with it. You shouldn’t worry about money and work for it. It should be the other way round.

 

(16.15)

Dhanya: I understand that startups will mean that you need to put a lot of discipline and have a lot of drive to get this going. You are your own boss and the company is what you make out of it. What sort of productivity hacks do you practice?

Chandoo: I think there are few things that matter. My productivity swings a lot. There are times when I can do a lot without wasting time and some other times when I just waste time. There is really nobody else judging me. It’s just my customers who judge me by seeing if I create quality products. The results of my work today will not be visible to me until may be two or three years when the product really makes a mark. I read many books. I get ideas from books to see how I can manage my business.

I also personally set an agenda that I won’t be working more than three or four hours in a day. This puts a hard barrier on how much I need to fit in and it helps me stay focused. For a person working from 9-6, you can say they are working 9 hours but that does not really happen. They have coffee breaks, lunch breaks, meetings, e-mails, and a lot of other things. They have to do all of this whether or not they are passionate about it. If you look at a typical workday in an office, you probably focus for just three or four hours.

Aside from this, I also try out some ideas. The most recent one is not working at all on Tuesdays. It is my retirement day. I make sure that everything I need to do gets done and there is no pending work. We have about six employees and it helps as they do things that I am not really good at. For example, I don’t know how to maintain our server anymore. I used to do that but it has grown beyond what I knew. I can now focus more on working with excel, and creating videos.

 

(19.19)

Dhanya: Have there been any sort of mentors or people you looked up to? I know you mentioned Bill Gates, who is an ideological Guru. Have there been people who have been helping you along this journey?

Chandoo: Yes, there are lots of people whether or not I’ve known them face-to-face. As I said, I read quite a lot of books. For example, in the last one or two years, I have been following people like Pat Flynn who runs smartpassiveincome.com, Mr. Money Moustache who speaks a lot about frugal and simple living.

You just learn from these examples. They would describe the way they handled something and you can think of how you can implement it as well. Apart from these, there are quite a few people from the excel world that have their own websites. All of these people are my good friends and I e-mail them whenever I need advice. We help each other out. There are lots of books which carry interesting stories and powerful examples that you can grab and implement.

 

(21.04)

Dhanya: What sort of advice would you have for just the people who are starting up, from the learnings that really stood out in the past three years?

Chandoo: The main thing that I would tell anybody who is starting is to please start! If you think that starting is risky then you don’t have the right idea of what risk is. Risk is something that can happen and is not under your control. Even when you have a stable Government job, you can face many troubles. You might get fired or you may not get funding for the next year. There is no safe idea when it comes to career. With a lot of rapid changes happening around the concept of work, there is really no fixed concept. Even if your start up fails, you will end up learning so much more than what you can learn in your day job.

If you do start, please put profit as your first priority. There is really nothing wrong with making money; everybody in the world is doing that. You should stay away from the wrong things and not cheat your customers. There is nothing wrong in saying “I can provide you valuable services and I am going to charge you for it.” What happens with lot of entrepreneurs is that they are hesitant to ask for money. They try to provide a cool service for free. This model may not work out unless you are building something like Facebook or Google.

Think like a real businessman. If you are getting some customers on your website, try to find how you can get more. Otherwise, you are just running a radio station, in which you are talking to somebody else, but you have no idea who that person is. That makes it very hard to reach out them and provide something of value to them.

They should do little simple things that will make a difference and I am sure they will get good success.

 

(24.14)

Dhanya: Do you have an idea that you think will be useful for this community?

Chandoo: I think that what you are doing is really excellent job. As I said earlier, I follow a lot of sites for my inspiration. Having nobody else monitoring me means it’s gets very difficult sometimes, especially when I begin doubting myself.

I think anybody starting out should also have a similar mindset. You are on a path to learning and you should never abandon that. Whether your business succeeds or not, as long as you are learning, you are adding material to that pool. As a person you make yourself valuable that way and that is a great thing to do.


Thank you, Chandoo, for that amazing conversation. We sure learnt that successful people are nice, first!

Real Leaders Team