January 26

Bill Jelen of Mr. Excel

Bill Jelen Microsoft Excel book author and Mr. Excel blog joins Excel TV host Rick Grantham and cohosts Microsoft Excel MVPs Jordan Goldmeier Oz du Soleil on Excel TV.

Rick: Bill Jelen, Mr. Excel, has joined us all the way from Melbourne, Florida. Welcome Bill. Just in case people have been living under a rock, Bill, or for those who are uninformed, would you mind telling everyone about yourself?

Bill: Great to be here. I run a website called Mr. Excel.com I started in 1998. It was originally a moonlighting thing during my day job.  It became my full-time gig in 2000 and I started writing books in 2002. I have 42 books now.  (Queue Mr. Excel theme music)

Rick: For a lot of people watching this, including those of us trying to move into this full-time, how does one become Mr. Excel? I mean I will avoid Kryptonite and I will eat my Wheaties, but short of all that, what was your path like? How did you grow to this juggernaut in 2000?

Bill: You have to be incredibly foolish. You have to live in a really small cave and be cocky. Of the seven people surrounding me at work, I though, I know Excel better than all those people so I’m going to call myself Mr. Excel. I was Mr. Excel at work and somehow the web was early enough that I was able to get that URL. Initially, I asked everyone to send me Excel questions because I’m going to write an Excel book. At that point it was actually a lie. I really I had been working for a company for 10 years and our competitor had just made a hostile takeover bid and they were going to wipe us off the map. I was about to be unemployed so I thought, ‘I have to start this website and if I can get 50 people to send me Excel questions. Then when I get whacked in a couple months, I have 50 places to send my resume to where people are using Excel.’

Crowd laugh.

Bill: Continuing. But then the funniest thing happened, the hostile takeover company was doing their due diligence and they discovered some problems and backed out. So now I have this website and I’m supposed to be answering Excel questions and my job continued for another two years.  Those two years were good because it allowed me to get traffic. When that company did come back and buy us two years later, I was able to just hang a shingle and say I’m going to do VBA consulting and VBA Macros.  And I did that day after day. But then a marketing lady looked at my numbers and said you have all these people coming to your website and very few of them hire you. If you had an intermediate $20 product, you would be amazed at what would happen. So I wrote the first book, Guerilla Data Analysis Using Microsoft Excel 1st Edition in 2002, offered for $20. And she was right.  Within the first 18 months, I was selling more books than consulting. I realized this is not a consulting deal. This is selling books. So what I do is sell Excel books.

Rick: That has been played into Holy Macro! Can you talk about that?

Bill: I hate rejection. I despise rejection. I did not want to go to publishers and didn’t want to hear them say they’re not going take a chance on me. I figured out how to publish the book myself. That is Holy Macro! And again it’s all insecurity. I’m selling this book but I wanted to feel like it was a real book. I wanted to be in the trade book called Publishers Weekly. They review books, but I’m a small guy in Akron, Ohio and I don’t think they’re going to review my book. But you can buy an ad next to the reviews and get a picture of your book there. So you feel like you’re a real publisher. I bought that ad. The guy that sold me the ad said you should talk to a distributor. I did and then I got into Borders and Barnes & Noble. So it started to take off. And then once that book did well, Que Publishing came to me and asked me if I would write for them. So I never got the rejection. I just put the books out there. Kind of backwards, but it worked.

Jordan: So this is the story of rejection and overcoming fears. Excel is so much more.

Oz: It reminds me of Seth Godin’s blog post about musical chairs. When the music stopped, there were not enough chairs. He went and got a chair and brought it back and sat down and everything was good.

Bill: Here’s the numbers. If you walk into Barnes and Noble or Books A Million there are 400 different Excel books today. There are 750 million people using Excel. So even if you get one four hundredth of that market it’s still insane. I want 0.0001 of the people using Excel to buy my books and I’ll never have to work again. It’s such a large pool of people. I always talk about Coke and Pepsi and their market share. I don’t care about 53% vs. 47%. It’s a no-brainer.

Rick: I’m curious about this as well. I hear Bill, no, Mr. Jelen, let me show some respect here, Mr. Excel… is Bill OK?  I hear Bill talk about whenever he decided to do this full-time in 2000 and I’m liking that and seeing where you are at now. Jordan, you’re writing your first book and starting to do consulting, do you have any questions around that?

Jordan: I feel like I ask everyone that. How do you get to the point where you put yourself out there? Amazon reviews can be vicious.

Bill: Here’s the thing about Amazon reviews. Never look at them and then you won’t feel bad. There are people that are going to love your books and people who are going to hate your books. I even beg people not to buy this book on the cover, only one of every 10,000 people will find this book useful.

Jordan: If they bought it it’s on them.

Bill: I guess it is reverse psychology. They want to be the one out of 10,000. That’s the thing about Holy Macro. If you went to a real publisher and said I want to write a book but I’m going to beg people on the back cover not to buy the book, the publisher would never do that. A large publisher spends $56,000 to get a book to market. They’re never going to let you write a book where you plead readers not to buy the book. With Holy Macro, we are small and simple and use moonlighters. We can get a book to market for 1/7 of that.

Jordan: So your next book is going to be called Worst Excel Book Ever Please Don’t Buy It.

Bill: Jordan, I’m writing that down right now.

Rick: Beautiful. Maybe we should be co-authors.

Jordan: Here’s my idea, we do that Lorem Ibsum generator.

Bill: You’re wasting Inc. To fill a book, we need a really good title and a really good cover plus 20 good pages and then just white pages after that. 400 blank pages!

Oz: Notes. Thinking about my recent blog post about stand-up comedy, the instructor says you’re going to bomb. You have to bomb. Just throw yourself out there and have thick skin and whatever reviews come in they come in. So much is personal and subjective. You just got to throw yourself out there.

Bill: Right.

Rick: When you said don’t buy the book it was like Chandoo said he sold his for five dollars but he was telling people not to buy it. And then he said never mind I want to make a few dollars.

Bill: He doubled the price and book sales went up.

Jordan: Looking back at your older books, since you have so many, is there anything in them that you would read now and say that’s not how you should do it?

Bill: Absolutely. It always happens. It gets better as the additions go down from the first second to third etc.. And, Oz, let’s compare notes. You do live seminars in Chicago. When I do a seminar, I don’t charge people for the seminar provided they buy books. All I am trying to do is sell books. I tell them upfront, I guarantee today that someone in this room will see me do something in Excel and say there’s a better way to do it. I don’t want you to be shy. I want you to raise your hand and show me up. This is interactive. So when I do those seminars. I’m guaranteed to get two to three new tips. And sometimes you break the record. Like in Oklahoma City I got eight new tips in one day seminar. This is a racket! They fly me there and then I get free Excel tips! And I can put them in the next book. People discover all kinds of weird stuff. Do you get tips from the audience?

Oz:  I haven’t so far. No one has given me a tip, but they will ask me questions that have me dig into something so I have to find an answer for them, like VLookup using True. A student said why don’t we try it that way with the unsorted column and use True. The answers made no sense.

Bill: I loved your blog post about that.

Oz: So that’s where I wound up learning about binary search versus the linear search. Linear search takes up all your memory. Binary search is quicker. So it has to be sorted properly. That came from student asking me questions. Freelancing has exposed me to new things. The new ways people use Excel gives me new ways of how people use data. Building inventory systems and things I would not have done with my old job scrubbing data. Big beautiful world of Excel. Nobody is taught how to scrub data, but so many people are faced with doing it.

Bill: There was a time where I hung the shingle out offering just to scrub your data.

Rick: Write it down, Oz. Data scrub.

Bill: The problem is they never realize they have to scrub the data so they manually start fixing the data and they waist 42 hours. If they would’ve reached out to Oz or me, we would fix it in a couple hours. Little VBA and tricks.

Oz: Yes. It hurts my heart. Please ask questions. There’s help out there. You don’t need to suffer.

Bill: I think Oz and I need to team up. We’re going to any office building parking lot and get out of the car. We need to be wearing a cape – a superhero cape – and somehow we get through security and just walk up to the second floor and find someone using Excel and sit down and say what are you doing today. And I guarantee we can save them an hour a week or 50 hours a year. And they give us free donuts or cash on the way out.

Oz: Yeah. And will have the joy of having saved someone some time and look good in front of their boss. Yes. Disco diva.

Rick: I picture a Ghostbusters van you guys are jumping out of.

Bill: Ghostbusters, that’s good. Data cleansers.

Oz: I had an online screen sharing tutoring session with someone whose data ran down several thousand rows.  She had manually started fixing it. She got through 300 rows and threw up a signal flag. I showed her how to do it in 10 minutes. She emailed me for two days.

Rick: Made a friend.

Bill: Hilarious. Two days. I think it would’ve asked her to leave me alone after day and a half. So you taught her how to fish instead of giving her a fish.

Jordan: By the way, if you want to buy fish look at me. Excel fish.

Oz: That’s OK too. I’m going to teach some biologist next week how to use Excel but they don’t want to be Excel masters. They just want enough Excel or fish until they can go back and be a biologist. We’re going to have a targeted pull your ass out of the fire session.

Bill: That would be a really funny story if it was about ichthyologists. Just saying.

Rick: Not judging. Just saying. It is not uncommon for us to ask interviewees have you seen Mr. Excel videos or the dueling podcast with Mike Girvin. I also see you on Udemy.com. Can you talk about your transition from writing books to this video thing about Excel?

Bill: Videos are there to sell books. It starts with a picture of the book and it ends with ‘for more tips, go by the book.’ They say half of the things you do to advertise don’t work but you just don’t know which half.

Oz: Did you know the VLookup was so vain it always had to look right?

 

Jordan: Good stuff.

Bill: Did you steal that from Jordan?

Rick: When we have a Twitter account for Excel jokes, that’ll be the first one.

Oz: My stand up class was on one-liners. So I got to get on one liner mode.

Bill: So Jordan, the biggest challenge and my advice to you getting started is you have to convince your neighbors that you’re not unemployed. You say you are “making money giving Excel tips.” They say, “Oh, you’re unemployed.” No, this really is a thing.

Jordan: But I would have to shave. The beard is my power. I couldn’t do Excel things without this beard.

Bill: If you grow enough beard out, you could become an upside down Chandoo.

Jordan: That’s a worthy endeavor. I won’t even do Excel TV anymore. I have bone to pick with you Mr. Excel. The name of my blog is Option Explicit VBA because I love Option Explicit. It is the most important thing you can do in your code. And when I talk to you, you hate on it. Tell the kind audience, and remember it is a family show, why you don’t like Option Explicit.

Bill: The most important thing you can do to your code is not Option Explicit. The most important thing you can do to your code is make code that works and you don’t need Option Explicit to make your code work. We’re not programmers were accountants and Excel users. We flip the VBA just for a horrible data problem to fix. Bob Phillips cornered me and said what about misspelling the variables. OK, if you’re not perfect like me, sure you have to use Option Explicit. That’s the one argument I can see. It’s not that you’re going to save four bytes because you call it an integer and not a variable because we have so much memory. The initial reason for declaring your variables was to save memory and that’s ridiculous now.

Jordan: That’s definitely true. The variable concern is done we have so much memory we don’t have to worry about it. There are some speed improvements. But that said, the spelling thing for me is huge. Because you can add it in if you type in. And move it out to the front.

Bill: No. I’m too obsessive-compulsive to bury my variables down in the code.

Oz: I’m going to jump in here. I did a VBA workshop last week. I warned VBA coders that VBA coding is so personal it’s like a poem because people have so many different ways. Jordan uses named ranges.

Jordan: That’s true, but not using Option Explicit is wrong. Boo yeah. Here is my other reason. I watch people write the code and make on-the-fly variables. Add a T and they want another one, say TT and then ZZ. You all know in the audience you’ve done that. Don’t do that because you say it’s for you and then you leave and some other person who has to work with it doesn’t know what any of it means. Option Explicit and naming your variables makes you think about it.

Rick: I can see Bill shake.

Bill: So you going damn T, TT, ZZ.

Jordan: No you’re not going to have T.

Rick: This is great this is real Excel fighting here. There should be a cage match. Jordan and Bill in a cage.

Jordan: We need to settle this on the spreadsheet; “Spreadsheet off.” I want to keep my concerns on the record.

Bill: 20 lines of code with variables. You already have more code. It’s going to take you longer to type.

Jordan: I’m not thinking completion time. I’m thinking about going back later and knowing what I did.

Bill: It’s not the Option Explicit, it’s the adding comments. Why don’t you name your blog ‘Add Some Comments To Your VBA Code?’

Rick: Dot com!! Go daddy right now.

Group laugh.

Jordan: That’s way too long. I can’t do that. Who wants to go to that blog?

Jordan:  Who wants to go to the option explicit blog? I barely get people interested in Option Explicit.

Bill: It is a terrible name.

Jordan: I thought it was a great one great name. For people starting your own blog, pick a name that people know what it is. Option Explicit: I love it but it’s a terrible name for a blog. Thanks for coming to it.

Pandemonium

Rick: JLook up.com

Jordan: What about Mr. Excel?  Is that taken?

Rick: Bill said when this first started he was working around seven people and he knew Excel better than them. Can you imagine calling yourself Mr. Excel? Did you put that on your name plate outside your cubicle? Mr. Excel.

Bill: No.

Rick: How did that go over at the office?

Bill: That’s a good question.

Oz: This has me thinking if there was an Excel movie who would it be? This guy on a forum said it would be the most boring movie ever, but this feud would be great.

Bill: Dan Aykroyd would play him.

Oz: He looks like Dan Aykroyd it would be a perfect fit.  Lady Gaga would be me.

Bill: It was Samuel L Jackson for a long time.

Rick: No explanation necessary.

Oz: He is so much taller and he’s known for being ornery, but I just think Lady Gaga. Talented, smart, edgy and has the meat suit. I say Lady Gaga. She would have to be a 5’-4” black guy. Just say based on Oz du Soleil.

Rick: Note to self, Oz is 5 foot 4.

Oz: That’s right. A mighty 5 foot four.

Jordan: I think there’s a movie here. Because Bill was talking about overcoming the odds of becoming who he is to become with Mr. Excel blossoming into a full Mr. Excel. This is gold.

Oz: Who would you be you, Jordan?

Jordan: Bruce Willis. No I’m going to change it to Samuel L Jackson.

Oz: How do you get to Samuel L Jackson?

Jordan: He’s open. He got fired for Lady Gaga. Bill, you better keep that go daddy registration.

Bill: We protect that baby. Rick, who would be you?

Rick: Richie Cunningham or that evil Alfred E Newman from the cover of Mad Magazine.

 

About the author 

Lesley Davidson

Multipotentialite: Realtor, engineer and blogger writing about corporate culture focusing on decision making, change management, leadership skills, emotional intelligence, organizational behavior and reducing stress in the human condition at work as well as in your personal life. Find more of Lesley's writing at her blog CorporateCulturology.com.

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