Interview of Francis Lobo-the new CEO of United Online

It is my pleasure to interact with smart and Young CEO of United Online, Francis Lobo in person. Our team, Alien Coders interviewed him recently and we are very very thankful to Francis Lobo and David Bigelow to share words with us. Please accept our gratitude from the core of the heart. I am sure his experience and thoughts will surely motivate most of us, specially Indian IT professionals.

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Guy who got into IIT and Google who has no legs

 

Naga Naresh KaruturaNaga Naresh Karutura has just passed out of IIT Madras in Computer Science and has joined Google in Bangalore.  You may ask, what’s so special about this 21-year-old when there are hundreds of students passing from various IITs and joining big companies like Google?

Naresh is special. His parents are illiterate. He has no legs and moves around in his powered wheel chair.

Ever smiling, optimistic and full of spirit; that is Naresh. He says, “God has always been planning things for me. That is why I feel I am lucky.”  Read why Naresh feels he is lucky.

Childhood in a village

I spent the first seven years of my life in Teeparru, a small village in Andhra Pradesh, on the banks of the river Godavari . My father Prasad was a lorry driver and my mother Kumari, a house wife. Though they were illiterate, my parents instilled in me and my elder sister (Sirisha) the importance of studying.

Looking back, one thing that surprises me now is the way my father taught me when I was in the 1st and 2nd standards. My father would ask me questions from the text book, and I would answer them. At that time, I didn’t know he could not read or write but to make me happy, he helped me in my studies!

Another memory that doesn’t go away is the floods in the village and how I was carried on top of a buffalo by my uncle. I also remember plucking fruits from a tree that was full of thorns.

I used to be very naughty, running around and playing all the time with my friends.. I used to get a lot of scolding for disturbing the elders who slept in the afternoon. The moment they started scolding, I would run away to the fields!

I also remember finishing my school work fast in class and sleeping on the teacher’s lap! January 11, 1993, the fateful day

On the January 11, 1993 when we had the sankranti holidays, my mother took my sister and me to a nearby village for a family function. From there we were to go with our grandmother to our native place. But my grandmother did not come there. As there were no buses that day, my mother took a lift in my father’s friend’s lorry. As there were many people in the lorry, he made me sit next to him, close to the door.

It was my fault; I fiddled with the door latch and it opened wide throwing me out. As I fell, my legs got cut by the iron rods protruding from the lorry. Nothing happened to me except scratches on my legs.

The accident had happened just in front of a big private hospital but they refused to treat me saying it was an accident case. Then a police constable who was passing by took us to a government hospital.

First I underwent an operation as my small intestine got twisted. The doctors also bandaged my legs. I was there for a week. When the doctors found that gangrene had developed and it had reached up to my knees, they asked my father to take me to a district hospital. There, the doctors scolded my parents a lot for neglecting the wounds and allowing the gangrene to develop. But what could my ignorant parents do?

In no time, both my legs were amputated up to the hips.

I remember waking up and asking my mother, where are my legs? I also remember that my mother cried when I asked the question. I was in the hospital for three months.

Life without legs

I don’t think my life changed dramatically after I lost both my legs. Because all at home were doting on me, I was enjoying all the attention rather than pitying myself. I was happy that I got a lot of fruits and biscuits.

‘I never wallowed in self-pity’

The day I reached my village, my house was flooded with curious people; all of them wanted to know how a boy without legs looked. But I was not bothered; I was happy to see so many of them coming to see me, especially my friends!

All my friends saw to it that I was part of all the games they played; they carried me everywhere.

God’s hand. I believe in God. I believe in destiny. I feel he plans everything for you. If not for the accident, we would not have moved from the village to Tanuku, a town. There I joined a missionary school, and my father built a house next to the school. Till the tenth standard, I studied in that school.

If I had continued in Teeparu, I may not have studied after the 10th. I may have started working as a farmer or someone like that after my studies. I am sure God had other plans for me.

My sister, my friend

When the school was about to reopen, my parents moved from Teeparu to Tanuku, a town, and admitted both of us in a Missionary school. They decided to put my sister also in the same class though she is two years older. They thought she could take care of me if both of us were in the same class. My sister never complained.

She would be there for everything. Many of my friends used to tell me, you are so lucky to have such a loving sister. There are many who do not care for their siblings.

She carried me in the school for a few years and after a while, my friends took over the task. When I got the tricycle, my sister used to push me around in the school.

My life, I would say, was normal, as everyone treated me like a normal kid. I never wallowed in self-pity. I was a happy boy and competed with others to be on top and the others also looked at me as a competitor.

Inspiration

I was inspired by two people when in school; my Maths teacher Pramod Lal who encouraged me to participate in various local talent tests, and a brilliant boy called Chowdhary, who was my senior.

When I came to know that he had joined Gowtham Junior College to prepare for IIT-JEE, it became my dream too. I was school first in 10th scoring 542/600.

Because I topped in the state exams, Gowtham Junior College waived the fee for me. Pramod Sir’s recommendation also helped. The fee was around Rs 50,000 per year, which my parents could never afford.

Moving to a residential school

Living in a residential school was a big change for me because till then my life centred around home and school and I had my parents and sister to take care of all my needs. It was the first time that I was interacting with society. It took one year for me to adjust to the new life.

There, my inspiration was a boy called K K S Bhaskar who was in the top 10 in IIT-JEE exams. He used to come to our school to encourage us. Though my parents didn’t know anything about Gowtham Junior School or IIT, they always saw to it that I was encouraged in whatever I wanted to do.. If the results were good, they would praise me to the skies and if bad, they would try to see something good in that. They did not want me to feel bad.  They are such wonderful supportive parents.

Life at IIT- Madras

Though my overall rank in the IIT-JEE was not that great (992), I was 4th in the physically handicapped category. So, I joined IIT, Madras to study Computer Science.

Here, my role model was Karthik who was also my senior in school. I looked up to him during my years at IIT- Madras.   He had asked for attached bathrooms for those with special needs before I came here itself. So, when I came here, the room had attached bath. He used to help me and guide me a lot when I was here.

I evolved as a person in these four years, both academically and personally. It has been a great experience studying here. The people I was interacting with were so brilliant that I felt privileged to sit along with them in the class. Just by speaking to my lab mates, I gained a lot..

‘There are more good people in society than bad ones’

July 28, 2008

Words are inadequate to express my gratitude to Prof Pandurangan and all my lab mates; all were simply great. I was sent to Boston along with four others for our internship by Prof Pandurangan. It was a great experience.

Joining Google R&D

I did not want to pursue PhD as I wanted my parents to take rest now.  Morgan Stanley selected me first but I preferred Google because I wanted to work in pure computer science, algorithms and game theory.

I am lucky. Do you know why I say I am lucky?

I get help from total strangers without me asking for it. Once after my second year at IIT, I with some of my friends was travelling in a train for a conference. We met a kind gentleman called Sundar in the train, and he has been taking care of my hostel fees from then on.

I have to mention about Jaipur foot. I had Jaipur foot when I was in 3rd standard. After two years, I stopped using them. As I had almost no stems on my legs, it was very tough to tie them to the body. I found walking with Jaipur foot very, very slow. Sitting also was a problem. I found my tricycle faster because I am one guy who wants to do things faster.

One great thing about the hospital is, they don’t think their role ends by just fixing the Jaipur foot; they arrange for livelihood for all. They asked me what help I needed from them. I told them at that time, if I got into an IIT, I needed financial help from them. So, from the day I joined IIT, Madras , my fees were taken care of by them. So, my education at the IIT was never a burden on my parents and they could take care of my sister’s Nursing studies.

Surprise awaited me at IIT

After my first year, when I went home, two things happened here at the Institute without my knowledge.

I got a letter from my department that they had arranged a lift and ramps at the department for me. It also said that if I came a bit early and checked whether it met with my requirements, it would be good.

Second surprise was, the Dean, Prof Idichandy and the Students General Secretary, Prasad had located a place that sold powered wheel chairs. The cost was Rs 55,000. What they did was, they did not buy the wheel chair; they gave me the money so that the wheel chair belonged to me and not the institute.

My life changed after that. I felt free and independent.  That’s why I say I am lucky. God has planned things for me and takes care of me at every step.

The world is full of good people.

I also feel if you are motivated and show some initiative, people around you will always help you. I also feel there are more good people in society than bad ones. I want all those who read this to feel that if Naresh can achieve something in life, you can too Hope this story inspires & motivates all of us to the core.

 

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The MBA who quit his job to earn $100,000 doing Excel blogging

Purnachandra Rao Duggirala, or the erstwhile 'Mango Mod' Chandoo on PaGaLGuY has several illustrious achievements to his credit. Not only did the simple Vizag boy get into IIM Indore’s class of 2006, he wrote his story in a manner that it gained cult status over time.

Four years after getting a campus placement at TCS, Chandoo quit his job in April 2010 to run a Microsoft Excel-training startup he had built on the side doing what many of us do non-seriously — blogging. Last month, Chandoo’s lean two-memberblog ‘Chandoo.org’ recorded revenues of $100,000, justifying his decision to quit and be completely on his own. In this interview, he speaks about this rather unique manner of earning a living, how he built it and what he plans to do with it in the future.

What have you been upto since you graduated from IIM Indore?

I graduated in 2006 then I joined Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) via a campus offer. Just like any other fresh MBA graduate, I was doing a lot of analysis and research based work in the first few months at TCS. That’s when I ended up using Microsoft Excel a lot. This was my first serious interaction with Excel as such.

I was doing a lot of interesting work that included analysing competitors, etc. It was a lot of theoretical work and nothing more than that. At the same time I was writing a personal blog about what I was doing and what was happening in my life, but nothing special or significant.

Then while in TCS I had the opportunity to travel and work abroad. I moved to USA for a year in 2007 and that’s when I had some good free time. As you know, the work culture in western countries is a bit relaxed, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. It gives you time that you can spend with your hobbies and passions. It’s unlike in India where you have to devote a lot of traveling time before and after work.

So I had a lot of free time and started wondering how I could utilise it better. So I started writing about all that I was learning in office on my blog, and that included a lot of learnings about the advanced featured of Microsoft Excel. In 2008 February, I wrote an article about an Excel trick that was picked up by a lot of popular blogs on the Internet. That became a good traffic source and I started getting a lot of visitors.

It was an exciting time for me and I started thinking what it would be  like if I did something more substantial on the Internet in my free time. I then started writing about Excel more often and also started a couple of other websites with the hope that they could maybe help me make some money and eventually have me live on my own. None of those other websites succeeded but the Excel posts on my blog kept on receiving good response. I had built up a good following of people from across the world and I realised that I had a genuine passion for understanding data, analysing it and presenting it.

The realisation led to a series of good articles which were received well within the community of my blog. Since then, I kept blogging regularly and launched many products related to Excel that people had to pay to buy. The product sales continued to do well in the next two years and the money was good enough for me to consider quitting my job at TCS. I eventually did that in April 2010 and moved to my hometown Vizag with my wife, where we both now run Chandoo.org fulltime.

What sort of products did you launch and how did the money you were earning grow over time?

For the first two years, most of the revenue came through Google Adsense advertisements. When the blog became a bit more popular in 2009, I started recommending third-party affiliate products. These were essentially products such as Microsoft Excel related books or software that its creators wanted to promote to my audience.

I used to test these products myself and if I felt they had genuine value, I advertised them on the blog in return for a generous commission for each sale that originated from Chandoo.org. Since there was no middleman and I was in direct touch with both the customers and the sellers, they shared 30% of the revenue per sale with me. That itself used to be something like USD 200-300 per month, almost as much as I was making through Google Adwords. In 2009, my traffic also went up. I used to have 100,000-150,000 visits every month. That was a good number created due to word-of-mouth, content sharing with other websites, or my article being featured on other blogs. That increased the revenue to USD 400-500 per month.

Then I released my first ebook on Excel priced at USD 5. This was a mistake I made. I call this a mistake because the content I produced was high quality, not just elementary Excel tips. But the perception of my site among people was that of one that produces high quality and high value content. But when I started selling the ebook at as low a price as USD 5, it did not align well with the perception of my site. So in the first month although some people did buy the ebook, the revenues were not a lot. That was February 2009. Then after some thought I increased the price to USD 10, added a few more pages and announced it on my blog.

I thought people would not buy it. But to my surprise the sales increased and I started getting USD 200 per month from the book alone. While this happened, I started getting offers to do consulting work related to Excel. This was in conflict with my day job at TCS so I didn’t accept most requests. But if something very interesting came along, I did it for compensation in kind. It was challenging work, and I was making powerful Excel-based dashboards and reports. Simultaneously, I was learning new things about Excel by doing them and then producing new articles based on those learnings.

During 2009-end I released my first Project Management Template for Excel. It was my first big product. I had gotten a huge response for my articles based on the template and it gave me some confidence that maybe I could sell Excel templates. So I started charging USD 30 for the template I had created. If people wanted the template for both Excel 2003 and 2007, they had to pay USD 45. It did appear costly and I did get emails from my audience complaining that the adprice was too high. But I sold around 50 templates in the first month itself. But then the sales started going down, and I realised that I had to keep reminding my readers of the existence of these templates in my articles continuously.

I started linking the templates in my articles regularly and that brought the template sales back on track — so much so that in September 2010 I sold about 100 templates and made about USD 3,000 from templates alone. But I think the sales will plateau here because there is only so much reach that my blog can have and the Excel template market has a lot of competition worldwide. Apart from that there are newer project management softwares coming up including those that are on the cloud. The interesting thing here is that once people saw value in my templates, they wrote testimonials for me.

Others made variations of my templates and became heroes in front of their bosses and colleagues by using these templates. I was also giving a 10% discount to people who were writing to me specifically asking for one. At the same time as my customer base was growing, I was getting a lot of support requests for my products. I found that the time I was devoting to support was growing. I was planning to upgrade the templates and include some of the new features in Excel 2010.

All this meant that I had to increase the price also include support in the package. I had to make these products be ‘value for money’ rather than speak about them as ‘cheap’ or ‘costly’. By 2010 both affiliate and Google Adsense revenues also went up. But the ‘killer product’ was my training program – Excel School. This is priced at USD 100 and includes 20 hours of Excel training and make people much more productive. This received a response beyond my wildest dreams.

The first batch had 150 students and except for two who dropped out, everybody loved the program. They had glowing reviews throughout the program. In the second batch, I had 200 students and in the third one which I closed in September, I had 350 students. I’m still getting requests to open this batch again. Some corporates included their entire team of 20 people into the program. I gave group discounts to them and to repeat clients. And that’s how in the last 12 months, I crossed USD 100,000 in revenue.

Was it a concern that your making money on the side would conflict with your day job’s policies? What would you advise others who might want to make some this way along with their corporate jobs?

Many companies have a ‘moonlighting clause’ in their employment contracts. I am not sure if my company had one, but the money I was making was too little while I was employed. Also, I knew a handful of people in my company who were also making money online, so I knew this it was not that wrong.

Plus I had let my managers know that I had a website where I wrote and shared my knowledge. My Microsoft ‘Most Valuable Professional’ award status, blogger status and product details were kind of known to key colleagues and bosses through my Linkedin updates. That said, if anyone is starting today, it would be better to check with your HR policies to avoid conflicts. In most cases you can get an exception easily just by talking to the right people.

What made you make the choice of quitting TCS and doing this fulltime?

I used to spend about two hours after work on Chandoo.org and was writing almost regularly. For me it was never really about ‘work versus job’. My job at TCS was pretty exciting all along. I was working and interacting with new people everyday, traveling internationally and was quite satisfied.

The reason why I made a choice was more because of family. I was traveling a lot, living alone in far-off places and missing my family during the job. Of course, I had the confidence that Chandoo.org would make enough for us to live a comfortable life. Since I run the operation from my home in Vizag with just me and my wife working on it, almost all the money less server costs and income tax is mine.

Starting in 2008 when your blog became a serious occupation for you, it has been 3 years. Do you think somebody else can avoid some of your mistakes and reach your revenue stage faster?

My advice to others wishing to do something similar would be that first you should start a blog. Whether or not you make money off it, you will learn how to express yourself to others. Many of us feel that we are great orators or writers and I felt the same when I graduated from MBA. But writing in a convincing language or explaining something in simple language is a tremendously difficult skill to learn.

By having a blog you are reaching out to the world more each day. You may feel vulnerable, but you learn how to communicate better. You should start a blog no matter whether you have plans to make money off it or not. Even though you may want to write for yourself, at some point you should ask yourself this question — now that I have 25-30 people reading the blog, what do they want to read and how can I make my stories important or relevant for them to read? A mistake to avoid is to not write about too many things.

If somebody wants to read general stuff about movies and sports, they will go to Rediff. So focus on one or two ideas that are close to your heart and stick to them. That way you will enjoy writing more and won’t feel burdened to write about everything that comes your way. This was a mistake I did. I started writing about Excel initially but then I started assuming that people will want to learn from me about technology, marketing or business as well. So I wrote about those things even though I was not as good at them, though I was passionate about them.

I didn’t get a lot of following for such articles and I found it hard to produce quality content in those areas. So I decided to stick to Excel. While writing I used to get distracted by wanting to write about latest events. While I was in the US, I started posting Excel data visualizations about the US presidential elections. Although it taught me a lot, it wasn’t of value to my readers. So it would be nice to focus on what you are doing rather than getting diverted by what is going around. Let’s say you are writing about Microsoft Powerpoint. First scan the universe and see who else is writing about this. Of them, you will find that about 10-15 people are writing regularly. One’s initial feeling would be that we should do something different from what they are doing and not encourage them by talking too much about them.

This is our natural business instinct towards competitors. But I do not feel that is the right approach. You should rather think that “these are my competition and they are going to be around with me for the rest of my life or the rest of the life of my startup. So let us embrace them.” I do this every few week by sharing the articles they are writing on my blog via links, or commenting on their blog, or picking up a topic they have posted about and continuing the discussion. This way you develop a collaborative relationship with them. Together you can move along with them and prosper together.

I feel this is a good way to look at competition in what I am doing, rather than thinking that I want to dominate this. I can’t really say if somebody can make enough money from a blog overnight. This is not a movie that you make and it either goes hit or flop. I would just suggest that people start off writing a blog and develop some skills on the way. Maybe some day you will derive some mileage. Once you have a following and you have a product that can make for value to people, don’t shy from charging them for it, thinking that people will stop visiting your site.

What part of your IIM Indore experience has helped you with building up the business?

You do learn a lot of interesting stuff at b-school such as HRM and strategy, marketing, accounting, etc. Accounting did help as I learned how money is accounted and how cash flows work. But what you don’t learn at b-school is what to do at ground level on day 1 or day 0 when you start a business. I am learning these things now. We were taught a course called Business Law at IIM Indore, but either it was not presented properly or I did not get it, but it taught nothing about what procedure to follow on the ground if you wanted to start a business.

We used to write business plans for entrepreneurship competitions, but all of it did not teach me what is the first step I should be doing to start a business. All these things I learned outside. MBA helped me more in terms of communication. You might see a lot of MBAs communicating badly or disguising what they are saying with big jargon words. But MBA taught me how to keep my thoughts simple and clear, a little but of accounting and some marketing concepts. Some b-schools abroad do focus on entrepreneurship, but most don’t. Even I took up the entrepreneurship elective in the second year.

But it was more about venture capital funding and how you can structure a merger and acquisition deal or how you can sell you company to somebody bigger. But those are big things. They will probably happen ten years later for someone like me or in my position and when they do, I will hire somebody else to do it for me. That knowledge might then be helpful at that time.

But the ground level knowledge such as how to start up, how to register a proprietorship, how to prepare a non-disclosure agreement, were not taught. I learned them myself. I’m not saying that the error is on IIM Indore’s part exactly, but the fact is that a lot of things taught to us in business law and entrepreneurship are too big to be of any use to someone who wants to start off something from scratch.

Where do you see your startup going?

I want to do this for the next 3-4 years for sure. I see that there is a lot of scope. I have developed ideas based on customer feedback. At least until 2015 I’ll grow it and make sure it does not shrink. At the same time I will learn a lot of new things such as spreadsheets and visualizations on the cloud, how touchscreens will affect spreadsheets, etc. Obviously, the money is good and I am living in a low cost city where my expenses are minimum.

I and my wife are thinking that at least for 5 years we will make enough money from this and not do a day job. But that may get too boring. Maybe I will take a job to keep me intellectually challenged or maybe I will take up teaching in b-schools or in engineering college. But this space I’m working in, I see constantly new ideas to share and I don’t see the inflow of ideas reducing at least.

Source: http://www.PaGaLGuy.com

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