Purna Duggirala, or Pointy Haired Dilbert, of Chandoo.Org and StartUpDesi.com joins Excel TV host Rick Grantham and cohost Microsoft Excel MVP Jordan Goldmeier and author and Excel TV Host Oz du Soleil on Excel TV.
Rick: All the way from India, welcome Purna Duggirala AKA Chandoo AKA Pointy Haired Dilbert! Chandoo, welcome to the show. We are glad to have you here. Tell us about yourself.
Chandoo: Thank you, Rick, Oz and Jordan. I’m happy to be on Excel TV. I am so happy to hear about this initiative. When I heard the first episode, I thought I should join this but I know that my cell phone plan really sucks and I knew I would end up a dropped call every two minutes. So I had to not join, but after a few weeks, Jordan asked if I would like to be a guest and he said it is fine and we’ll see how it works. So here we are. I’m glad to share some of my thoughts and ideas with your viewers. Just for a brief introduction, I run a website called Chandoo.org and we try to make people awesome in Excel. Just visit the website to learn a little bit more about us.
Rick: First off, when we finally get a URL and a website the quote will be, ‘Chandoo says, “I was so excited when I heard about Excel TV!” That’s going to be on our movie poster!
Oz: That’s like Samuel L Jackson giving you some credit.
Rick: I’m going to kick it to Oz to start because I know you have a question about the blog and the pointy haired Dilbert.
Oz: I’m glad to meet you and I’ve quoted you on my own blog. You have a lot of good content and it gives me a lot of ideas. I have a couple questions. What is the Dilbert thing? The email has a lot of Dilbert stuff but the website does not.
Chandoo: The story of what happened is funny. When I started the blog and website, I didn’t have any intention to make it about Excel or anything. I did my degree in computer science and then I did my MBA degree. I have engineering and management gripes in me. If you talk about engineering, Dilbert is a famous cartoon that explains the troubles and headaches engineers face when their subjected to management. So now I’m this person who is not only the engineer, but also the manager. I thought it would be fun to call it Pointy Haired Dilbert. I started the website and the email subscription feed. Eventually when it became famous I got an email from Scott Adams that said, “Congratulations on your website reaching new heights, but you’re going to have to quit using the pointy haired Dilbert because it stepping on my trademark.” At first I didn’t recognize the name because nobody expects a famous cartoonist to email you. When I read it I thought someone was asking an excel question. So I called him and told him it was something I never anticipated and that I would get rid of the name as soon as possible. Within a week, I changed it to Chandoo.org because that sounded like the best and most logical name for my website. But I still can’t change the URL. That’s why you still see pointed hair Dilbert in the URL and email. I still want to get rid of it, but if I change it, all my existing subscribers will stop receiving emails and we have more than 50,000 people.
Oz: I’m curious about what the transition was like because I used Batman and Superman in a video. I thought I’m a small guy and no one would bother me but a year later the world is different.
Chandoo: That’s right. I think that more than anything….and we lose Chandoo to his sucky cell phone plan.
Rick: While we wait for Chandoo to return, I have to wonder if he was excited or if it was just kind of a downer when he received the email. Almost the same thing happened to me. I had a sports memorabilia website a few years ago – BooyahVillage.com – and it was all the different sports teams with all the different logos for Major League Baseball and National Football League. At one point, I received a cease-and-desist letter from the National Football League saying we need you to take the logos down because you are infringing on our trademark. In my heart and my core, I was like, “Yeah!” And I said I’m going to frame it! This is awesome. So Chandoo, when you got the email, were you excited that ‘Scott Adams knows who I am?’
Chandoo: Yes. It’s a really good thing because that means I need to take what I am doing a little more seriously. And Scott Adams was one of my heroes when I was doing my MBA. I admired what he’s doing to make us all laugh. So that was a good feeling. And I really wanted to thank him because if that warning didn’t come, I probably wouldn’t be Chandoo.org today.
Oz: Was the transition when you had to dismantle it difficult?
Chandoo: It was quite easy because we didn’t have a big Facebook page. It was simple changing the logos. Most people knew me by Chandoo at that time, so we just had to keep Pointy Haired Dilbert at the header for a while during the transition.
Oz: This question will take us into Excel. One of your favorite blog posts was asking people what freaks them out about Excel. You shared that you don’t know everything about Excel and you get freaked out.
Rick interjects: It’s true!
Oz: Continues. I like that because it showed nobody masters Excel. You do what you do. What freaks me out are those array formulas.
Rick: You freak out, but Jordan says those are great.
Oz: I hear about the power of array formulas, but they’re kind of fiddly when you change them.
Chandoo: I think it’s good to have gaps in your knowledge because that’s what makes us curious. What’s the point of saying I know everything? It’s better to say I want to learn more as that keeps your mind open. And you can always be excited. If you know everything, it is just going to get boring quickly.
Rick: I’m really interested in the growth of your brand and your business. I have been following you on StartUpDesi where you chronicle your business growth. How did you go from starting a WordPress blog to growing a brand to the extent it is? On your podcast, one of the first things you talked about was what podcasts you listen to, which I also listen to now. Most of them were about business and growing a business and having the mindset to grow a brand. So talk about your mindset on how you went about growing this.
Chandoo: I count myself to be extremely lucky because a lot of people have been writing about Excel and blogging about Excel, but other people connected with what I was doing and their support helped me. Otherwise none of this would’ve happened. None of us can control that part. We can talk about Excel and we can write about Excel, but what if nobody notices? I continued doing this even when I felt like it was going nowhere. At first I was just writing about it without expecting anything to develop. It was hard because you’re just writing and posting articles or videos, but sometimes you don’t even get a single comment.
Rick: I feel you on that.
Jordan: I’m still there. I said crickets never hurt anybody.
Chandoo: That’s right. An important aspect of running a business has to be that you should not be afraid to ask for a return for what you’re doing. If you’re writing a blog, for example, many people think that what you’re doing is free. But if you make it clear that I’m doing this for my living and I want you to help support me in this by offering some sort of product, don’t be shy about it. Many people create products or services, but they’re not happy to promote it. Customers are more forgiving than what we think. It is better to say, “I have this product I think you’ll get value from, so go ahead and buy it” up front. You might lose 5% of your readers because they don’t like that commercial approach, but the rest of them will stick with you and support you. I learned that and it took me quite a while to reach that transformation. I was writing about Excel and providing a lot of free content and then when I created my first e-book, I still felt like doing this was diverting from what I was doing. You see from my very first e-book advertisement I said “you don’t even have to buy it.” After a while, I realized that this kind of approach is not going to help me or help my customers. If you put in time and effort, eventually you will be successful if you stick to the basic values that you as a person admire. For example, I like simplicity as a person so I want my website to be clean and simple as possible.
Rick: I did notice after your first e-book – and I can’t remember where I read this maybe it was at StartUpDesi – you mentioned that when your first e-book went out, you had to come back later and change what you wrote and charge more.
Chandoo: Yeah, that’s right. I priced it at five dollars because I thought if I charge more no one would buy it. But later, some people were emailing me saying they were getting a tremendous amount of transformation in their work and they told me they were getting a lot of value from my website. But when they see this five dollar e-book, they felt like it was something very cheap. That is not in line with what I was doing, so I thought why don’t I just double the price and see what happens. Then I priced it at $10 and the sales started jumping up. Not just the amount of money went up.
Rick: Yes, the number of units.
Chandoo: That was an eye-opening moment for me and I said this is better than working for somebody.
Jordan: Talking about whether you should charge for something is big. I have struggled with this because I don’t really have any products but I’ve thought about bringing products. I have questioned if that’s diluting the product or going commercial? Is that an unwise move if my readership would be upset with me? I’m not the only person who’s expressed this. Other bloggers have said this. When you blog, you’re doing it for a community. You wonder where that medium for developing for the community and selling something to support yourself is? I’m not the only one to struggle with it.
Chandoo: That’s right. I read a lot of books and watch a lot of blogs that purely talk about how to run a business online. It is opening up my mind to all these ideas. Some of them are very far stretched from what I do. For example, someone says you should charge people five dollars a month just to access my website and some companies do this, but I find we have to find a balance between providing free content in service and making a living. It’s more like the Pareto Principle, 80% of your money comes from 20% of your customers. We try to provide 10 to 15 articles without asking for anything and then, with an email, we ask subscribers to go to Excel school. So it’s a balance. And people appreciate the service.
Jordan: Considering how much content you have, do you wonder if you’ll run out of ideas to write about?
Chandoo: I used to have that fear, when I started the business and quit my job. Some of my friends said, “How can you make a living on Excel? Excel is just a tool and there’s only so much that you can explore and write about. What would you do when you’re done?” And then I realized it is better not to focus on how to use a particular feature, because there are only 1000 different features that you can explain. We started talking more about how we could use these features in your day-to-day work. This multiplied it. If there are 1000 features and 300 million people using Excel, there’s suddenly a multiplier of how Excel can be used. Today I don’t even feel a particular need. I have deliberately slowed down the amount of articles I’m writing. I used to write five per week. Today, we do 3 to 4 and I invite more guests so we can get different perspectives and ideas. We have a few others who regularly write and we have different mindsets and thinking processes to Excel problems.
Oz: When you think about writing a book or coming up with the product, how do you decide where to plant your flag? There are so many people smarter than me! Like, do I write a dashboard book? But then I think, Jordan’s writing a dashboard book. Where do I fit in this?
Chandoo: It’s important to understand that Jordan is writing a dashboard book and he’s not the first to write one. There’s a lot of material on dashboards on YouTube, private courses, and live classes and a lot of people have done this. I can safely say this has been done to death. But the reason why Jordan is writing and why people continue buying is really simple: they want to hear what Jordan has to say about this. And that’s how I look at it. We don’t have to be exclusive when it comes to knowledge. You can never have enough knowledge. If someone is open-minded and want to learn, they will learn from as many sources as possible. If you see who watches the show and you cross match them with other Excel sites, you will see that they are the same people. Why would you do that? Why do I have to go to seven different sites? Because you always want to learn more. In business, they say there’s always room for one more. At a food court, there are 45 vendors with food? Why not just one? Because I want more.
Rick: That is true. Blog, to the templates, to training – they want to see what your perspective on Excel is. Can you talk about how your business growth went when you started delivering training?
Chandoo: Yes. Excel School is still running strong. I was very skeptical and a lot depended on it because if it became successful, I would quit my job and focus on it full-time. I wasn’t sure how it would fly when I launched it. But it did incredibly well. Eventually, I launched another course called VBA class and I took help from another person who could teach it and I could deliver it on my platform. Then we added a dashboards course to Excel School and we added power query. I partnered with two others who could offer classes on financial modeling and other aspects of Excel. As we added more courses, I realized that people were appreciative of these and it became a natural thing to do. The other thing I realized is that, initially, I was afraid to ask for more money than a max of $97 because I thought why would anyone pay more than $100 when they could go buy Excel for $100? Why would anyone pay more than the software costs to learn it? Then I realized that what we are teaching is not about Excel but how do use it better. Once we went in that direction, it became easier to offer more and offer bundles of courses and potentially charge more and offer them greater value.
Rick: One of the things I heard from Jordan when I interviewed him several months ago was that a lot of bloggers start out start out as bloggers but, due to their success in blogging, move into being an author or consulting. As a result, they don’t have as much time and the blog ends up suffering. You’ve been going strong for quite a bit. What is your secret?
Chandoo: I had the temptation to move into other areas of business like live speaking, consulting, coaching or even book authoring, but one of the reasons why am doing this is because I couldn’t live comfortably and as a free life with my family visiting different countries, watching my kids grow without the stress that comes with all those jobs. I thought it’s better to do something where I can be completely absent and it still works. That is how I ended up making a template or a video course, because these things work without me. Somebody is enrolling in that school and going to the program right now even as were speaking. I don’t have to be there for that person to become awesome and learn. I can join you guys for a call or go sit with my wife or play a game on my computer. It means I can give that energy the blog requires whenever I want. I can continue writing. I consider my blog not as a source of income but as writing. Once people read our blogs and realize we are a source of information that can be trusted, they can go out and buy our course. We are not trying to hide the fact that we are making money. We have products and we advertise them and we encourage people to join. But if they don’t join, that’s fine. I generate what I need for my small family with what I’m doing.
Oz: I’d love to be you since you went to Australia and Chicago! I’ve seen the photos. You get to travel and that is something I would love to do. How did this Australia thing happen and what did you do in Australia?
Chandoo: Travel is something of a personal goal. I have a goal of visiting two new countries every year. We planned Australia and I looked at my contacts and saw Danielle with Plum Solutions (PlumSolutions.com.au) starting a training course. She’s been a friend and supporter so I asked her if I could come to Australia and do a class. We partnered and she took care of all the logistics because she runs classes every two weeks and she knows the set up. And she did the money, taxes and hotel and I just showed up and conducted the classes for a few companies. And in my free time I explored the country. In those six weeks, I traveled the entire length of Australia.
Rick: Thank you for that. You speak about sharing your knowledge, so hopefully as we move onto our new next section talking about the topic of the week, you will feel free to jump in!