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.