How A 17 Year Old Landed Customers Like Google Without Selling Them

by Tim Jahn on February 8, 2011

Pallav Nadhani is the founder of FusionCharts, which provides graphs and charts for over 17,000 customers including Google, Weather.com, Facebook, and NASA. He started the company when he was 17 and handled every aspect of the business for the first few years.

Pallav told me that nobody on the web knows your small. In this interview, Pallav explains how he created attractive marketing sites, demos, and great support, and automated as much of his multi-million dollar business as possible to attract enterprise clients.

Transcript

Tim Jahn: So you were 17 when you started FusionCharts. Where did the idea come from? A 17 year old, were you kind of obsessed with charting and reporting or was this just an idea that you had in the middle of the night and decided to make it into a business?

Pallav Nadhani: Well not really — well it was actually it was best for pocket money. So there’s a site called ESPtoday.com which used to be very good money when we write innovative articles. And my dad used to have a web design firm so I did some designing and some development for him. And in my school days I used a lot of Microsoft Excel and boy I hated those charts, Microsoft Excel Charts.

You can see all devotion charts. And I thought why not put up, hack up some code back then in the back of Media flash, can I take some business logic and make a charting system. So I made the system with myself, wrote the article for ESPtoday, paid $1,500.00 for that and that’s when I thought, okay, people like this idea and they’ve been asking me to improve it. Why not actually productize it and that’s how this whole concept of FusionChart started.

Tim Jahn: So you had the opportunity to write for this publication and you wrote about your idea for FusionCharts, is that right?

Pallav Nadhani: Right. So it was not called FusionCharts back then, it was like a very basic charting engine which I had hacked up in Flash then I turned it to ESP which is another like silverside technological. So I mean, if I look at those charts, I’d be embarrassed to see what I had made back then. But since it was like very new, people had not anticipated like something of the sort could be done so they were pretty excited and they gave a lot of idea and that’s how this was born.

Tim Jahn: So you’re not a hardcore programmer by nature. You — or are you?

Pallav Nadhani: I am. I mean, if you will. So I’ve been programming for the last 15 years and my dad got me a computer when I was like eight or nine years old. So I started from QW basic, Q basic, and CC++. But in terms of formal education, until two years back I did not have any degree in computer science, just two years back, I went, I mean, I felt like getting a higher education degree so I took a sabbatical for a year, went to UK, did my masters in computer science, even though it was six hours of study and 14, 15 hours of work having my being here. So it’s a mix of both like commerce and technology and business, all of it.

Tim Jahn: Yeah. I mean, when you, so when you first, so you were 17 and this idea kind of you realized people were liking it and you decided to take off with it. You were doing development, you were doing marketing, you were doing sales, you were doing everything.

How did you market the product at first? I mean, you were just a 17, 18, 19 year old with an idea and you’re handing all aspects of this. How do you tell people about it and get someone to actually purchase it?

Pallav Nadhani: See that’s a good part about it. When you’re 17, 18 you do not think twice before doing a stupid thing even if that means posting on a board on a forum because people are not going to like trash you and you’re not, you’d not feel bad about it. What I did was like eight, since I know that art, because I only had some initial fraction of what people needed. Based on that, I modified it, sent to them and they kept on sending me feedback.

And then back when there’s a lot of these directories which used list software companies. They’re also available today, but back then it was like way more popular because Adwords, Adsense was not there, and Adwords were not there. So people went to directories sorting for say charting company. But today they searching Google and they get a lot better results. So that was number one.

Plus I did a lot of free coding for people like if you had a web application and you wanted your reports to look much better. So you typically employ somebody else to put a third party library. I said, “I’ll do it free for you and all you have to do is just use my library.” And I did the free coding, they liked the output, they told other people and this in turn became a viral effect. So that was my initial marketing. I mean, directories, free listings and free coding.

Tim Jahn: The idea of giving someone the free product and kind of saying, “Hey you have this need, I’ll help you out with it” and then hopefully they’ll buy that’s a great idea. How did you find the people though and how did you find the forums to find these people? Were you just kind of searching the internet and started to narrow down which ones were the right ones to talk to or how did you even go about that?

Pallav Nadhani: Okay. So I mean, I will mention like a few of those readers of my article, they either already liked the idea back, this could be used in a different way or a much better way. So those were a few people in the original side. Plus in forums like go by forums, searching what charting graphs, graphing. I mean, I had my list of keywords which I looked for. And when I saw that people were looking for something, I used to answer them in a very unbiased way.

And then also say that, “Hey this is something with I developed and I could use it for you free of cost. What do you think of that?” A lot of people actually responded very positively and then they saw the results, they were like, oh this looks good. The reason why this was because I didn’t know whether the product should be made this way or that way. And I really had to get users input, like real life scenarios, real life usage. And that was the most important feedback in the initial days that I got because it was live on peoples or and users systems.

Tim Jahn: And when you first put your FusionCharts up for sale, the first product, you didn’t have any sales for like a week, right? I can see you’re remembering that –

Pallav Nadhani: Well it was actually ten days or so. Like more than a week, ten days, yeah.

Tim Jahn: Ten days. What went wrong? Why no sales within the first ten days?

Pallav Nadhani: Very hard to answer I mean why no sales because funny thing happened, the day when the first sale started, ever ordinary day I had another sale. And that frequency kept on increasing like then two sales in a day, three sales in a day. But in the initial ten days I think like if I would introspect now, probably it would be fine for people to go ahead, download a product, try it out and then say okay, this is something that works for me.

And during those ten days I also did a lot more marketing like organic marketing like more in forums, write more documentation articles; write more user articles so that people could see how this could be used. Whenever you come up with some new, you actually have to educate people that this is how it’s going help you. So I think those ten days, if they could be formed, helped me form that idea that I should be pushing it further in an organic way.

Tim Jahn: Okay, okay that makes sense. So then once people started trying out the product, liking it, that’s when sales picked up then?

Pallav Nadhani: It did. And the whole idea of like — so let’s put it this way, it’s a new kind of a product and people are used to trying something different. So for them to switch from something else to FusionCharts or to switch out, get out of the comfort zone required a lot of persuasion and that would only happen through organic, like educational materials.

So like this was actually what helped us even from us, from other documentation like from day one, we were very focused on let’s make our documentation the most extensive one so that people feel very comfortable using a new product. And until today we do that. So some of these lessons were learned during those days when we realized place a product in a very different way when existing solutions are there.

I mean, if you look at it, all we’re doing is selling charting. There’s no rocket science involved. It has been done like a conzillion times, you have so many free and open source charting tools, you have in your Excel, you have it in your any other spreadsheet. A lot of web frameworks with paper charting. So what is it that we could offer different and those were some of the initial reasons that we need viewing in those days?

Tim Jahn: And you said on the internet, no one knows you’re small. I read that a few times as you saying that. What do you mean by that in terms of what you’ve done?

Pallav Nadhani: Okay. Okay. So lets it put it this way if people on the other side of the world, if you put it that way knew that the charting company they were about to put in their enterprise system was run by a guy who is 17 years old who had no idea of what business is, would they have bought it? Probably not. But what made the difference is the way we projected out product, a very clean and professional documentation, a very clean website, quick trial download, good product quality.

So all of it looked like it came from a very professional organization, well placed so people could not judge that it’s from a single 17 year old who doesn’t know anything. So that’s what I meant like on the internet, no one knows you’re small. It’s about what you can project and the kind of, the quality of the variables you put there.

Tim Jahn: That’s a great, great piece of advice. You said you put out really high quality marketing copy, really high quality marketing site. I mean everything was made to look professional. How did you know what looked good? How did you know what these people were going to be looking for in terms of design, in terms of copy, like what was going to attract them? How did you know that?

Pallav Nadhani: So part of it came through my own understanding. So I was a developer that my so I didn’t come specifically from the business background. And I didn’t, I didn’t do any like very hardcore technology which was more like charting component for the web. So it was already a very high level. So I knew exactly what those people were looking for, how do they think, what kind of evaluation process they would go through?

Because prior to that for two years I was working in my dad’s web designer development firm. So the process of evaluating a component I could simulate that and I could see, okay, these are the places where people will get stuck and this is where we should have — a simple example. So for example in a decent charting company a lot of people like to get, go into the charting company in 15 minutes of downloading. They do not want to learn everything so how do you enable that?

You give them a lot of ready made examples, ready made demo’s, ready made code. They take that code from documentation all the samples plug it in, change the user name and password, maybe some conflictation and they’re good to go. I give them a lot of templates, ready charts like different variety of charts, different look and feel. So people feel happy about that, they have saved time. Not everybody is as crazy about charting as we are because for them it’s just a small part of their application. For us, it’s our life right now. So small ideas like that have helped in terms of pervasiveness.

Tim Jahn: So it sounds like you just had made sure you had all questions answered, you had all the information on the table so when someone came to your site, I mean, they knew cut and dry what they were getting and what was available and there were no questions, hopefully no questions unanswered.

Pallav Nadhani: Right. And to top off on it since I was 17 and I couldn’t drink all weekend, so even if you sent a technical support tag on the weekend I was sitting behind my computer to reply. So people like go like, they loved the idea of getting a reply in five minutes on weekends. So that helped the initialties as well.

Tim Jahn: Man, so you were doing product support too? I mean, how did — it’s just a lot for one 17 year old to be handling from the get go. But I mean, you’re a very driven individual so I can see it. At what point did you hire somebody to start helping out with all these tasks?

Pallav Nadhani: So I mean, in terms of product, we had a couple of re-users by then, two major re-users, six or seven minor. Plus I was working on another product like getting data visualization. And then I thought I could have someone who could help me with the code, get some more ideas which — get me knowledge which I did not have.

So that is when I had my first developer who was going to do the core of Fusion tasks for a couple of years. And thereafter, we kept on expanding like we built up a little team, we built up a design team, we built up like a different PSP team, a different ASP.net team for different kinds of work.

And in terms of team expansion, like today we have support team of four people which handles around 18,000 customers. But the learning which I got from which I got for me which was right from day one when I was working alone. But if you can try and keep most of your tasks automated, let’s say for example, even code that will help you keep your costs down. Costs down, less customers will find commission much easier. So if you have a — it’s a very simple example.

If you have a very active community, user community forum or if you have a very exhaustive documentation and knowledge base, most of your end consumers or end customers would use that and would not even send you an email. All you have to do is make it very searchable, navigatable, and good to look at, good, presentable. So these are small learning’s of cutting down costs and optimizing things, automating things have helped us keeping our team size small even today.

Tim Jahn: I see. So when you were — you said yeah, even now you’re constantly thinking about what you can do to cut costs and automate. But I imagine when you were only person, I mean when it was just you, that was probably a lot of what you spent time on was figuring out what can I automate and not have to deal with on a daily basis? What — because support makes sense. Was there anything else that you were able to kind of automate and really spend less time on but at the same still moving the company forward?

Pallav Nadhani: Sure. Simple example here again. So we have something called, Excel Sheet. Like for each chart, there are hundreds of parameters you could configure. And each parameter gets explained in the documentation. And if you have 50 charts, in most cases, around 50% of the attributes would be common. If you were to write this entire documentation manually, it would take you weeks if not months.

So what I did was I created a framework, a documentation framework which is another program which helped me create this documentation programmatically. So all I had to do was enter for one chart, select okay, this goes to this chart, this chart, this chart, and this chart. Just change this and the entire effort which would have been, which would have taken me weeks was cut down to three or four days. So small things like this helped me save a lot of time.

And it also helped me like — so what happened was when I bring to the documentation to — when I saw that all information regarding each chart is also there, I figured out why can’t I use this as a example for all the charts. So using that O framework, I made an automated QF framework so half of the testing was now automated because the data was already there.

So it just kept on happening. I mean, you don’t start with a notion that — or you don’t start with a bigger plan that I’m going to do this. But once you start getting some output, then you hop on and you can say, “Oh, this is good, I already have this information. Why can’t I do this and why can’t I do that?” And it just keeps on going and that’s the beauty of it.

Tim Jahn: Those are some great examples. I can’t believe that you actually built a separate application to write the documentatation for you. But like you said, three days versus three weeks, that’s a world of a difference.

Pallav Nadhani: Yes.

Tim Jahn: You have amazing, amazing clients using these charts. You have weather.com; you got LinkedIn on their polls, Facebook on their polls, Google Docs. And I know you have a whole enterprise product. How did you get companies like this? I mean, these are well known companies in the tech world and outside the tech world. A lot of people use weather.com. I didn’t even realize everyday when I’m checking weather.com, that graph is provided by you. How did you get companies like this to buy your product?

Pallav Nadhani: So you really want to hear the true story?

Tim Jahn: Of course.

Pallav Nadhani: So, I was out Friday night partying, Saturday morning when I come that is at my — when I checked my emails, I see there is weather.com, they purchased an enterprise license of heating charts. And that actually is a true story. So most of goes all the way that we never use any sales. Like until today we don’t use forced sales. We would not call you unless you have to come to our website or shown interest in our product. So that’s how we paved this emotional locket and it’s –

Tim Jahn: I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to interrupt you. So weather.com requested to buy your product, you didn’t sell it to them?

Pallav Nadhani: Yep, neither did we to Google, neither Facebook, neither to LinkedIn. To none of these customers. What we had to do was — so we starting being like very marketing, organic and educational marketing driven. Like tell the customers what you can do with the product, how it can enhance their application, how they can benefit from it. So rather than selling features, we were always selling benefits. And we wrote a lot of articles, we built up a lot of demos, we built up a lot of case studies showing how they could use it.

And we did a lot of marketing on like say today we do on Google Adwords, we do it on every single Tech magazine you could pick up in the US or some of the other countries. So people saw it there, they been at some point find, came to our website so if this is something I could use in the future, maybe bookmark it, came back later when they had a need for a charting engine, downloaded that trial, went through the validation process, sent out self support tag if they needed it. Once they were satisfied, they went to our website; purchased it and then the next day when I come back from the party, there they are our customers.

Tim Jahn: And what were you feeling at that moment? Kinda happy huh?

Pallav Nadhani: Oh pretty happy. You get money and you get clients like those.

Tim Jahn: So your technique was to build up the documentation, built up like we’re talking about before that beautiful website with all the questions answered so that you know, they would come and hopefully realize that you have all this information, all this knowledge, that you are the chart system they should be using and then hopefully they would buy it?

Pallav Nadhani: Right. So that’s what I called the emotional lock and like. You get the use — drive the user towards you, you give him everything he wants, give him the product he wants, make it the best looking product out there, make it very easy for him to use, give him the source code as well like that’s a part of license, give him all the support required, it’s like even before purchase it doesn’t matter if you’re a customer or not, you can send us unlimited support queries, we even debug your code and we get back to you saying, this is the problem.

And plus we give you a lot of — of course like, as I mentioned, we give you a lot of free code like code samples, demo’s, ready to use gallery item. So people start using it and they say, “This is good.” So we know our product is like loved because of its looks and user views no. And then there comes a point where people say, “Okay, this it it, I’m stopping the violation of public confidence, lets talk about the price.” Then we talk about the pricing as in when they need volume licensing, then they contact us. They just go on the website and they buy it. So that’s how simple it is.

Tim Jahn: That’s another great example of the automation you’ve you know automated the sales process. Were you still the only one working on FusionGarage when companies like weather.com and Google bought your product or was this at the point where you had a bunch of employees already?

Pallav Nadhani: So I don’t remember precisely when weather.com, which year they had purchased. But I would say we had a lot of enterprised customers before I had had my first employee. But weather.com, Facebook definitely when we had Facebook as a customer, we had brought many on people here. With Google, they had licenses, so it depends on which license you’re talking about. Weather.com I don’t specifically remember as of that.

Tim Jahn: Okay. I was just trying to get a sense of, I mean, you’re, you know, you have enterprise customers and you’re just a one man shop and you’re still supporting all these people and you know we talked about you doing all the tasks of the business still. That’s a — you know that’s amazing.

Pallav Nadhani: Right. So I mean with enterprise customers, the licenses which they were using were pretty standard. So for example like today also if you need to use it on your website or internet we have very standard licenses so you do not need to speak to our sale guys. Just come download, evaluate, buy; that’s how simple it is. Or if you need to use it in your say, SAS application where you do not know how many servers you’re going to be using or your software product where you want to embed FusionCharts as a part of it.

And again, you do not know how many distributions you will be having. Then you get to be in touch with our sales rep and they help assist you with the pricing and the right licenses. Otherwise, we try to keep everything automated because that helps us stay fast. And the other part is since we are on like exactly opposite time zones for our sales team to be up late in the night is not feasible. So most of our sales guys work nine to five, nine to six office hours and they do all the enterprises even for those accounts in dual time.

Tim Jahn: Okay. How did you — so you, so you’ve made everything automated in terms of download, I can come to your site, read all about, buy it without ever having to call you and ask you any questions. Did you — and that works especially well for enterprise customers I imagine. Did you do any testing or experimenting before you got to the point where you knew it was, it would sell itself? I mean, were there any bumps in that road trying to get it so well automated and just self serve, or did you kind of hit that right off the bat?

Pallav Nadhani: So I’ll answer this question the other way around. Do I have another option to sell it wherein if it’s not automated I can still make the same sale while I’m sitting in this part of the world and not having the team there in the US. I mean, now I do have sales and marketing in US but back then I never had this option. So there was nothing else.

So I only had this option and I used it. And the only thing I was trying to figure out was how to maximize this option rather than even looking at the other option. But once we had figured out that, okay, this is where we will hit near saturation level, and this is where we need to get in our sales and marketing people in the US, that’s were we got interaction, we got sales and marketing in US. So it has been a mix of both. But initially when we knew these were our constraints, we stuck with something which could have been pulled off.

Tim Jahn: So it was in a sense born out of necessity. You weren’t even thinking about any other way of doing it? You had to do it this way because it was the only way it was going to work for you.

Pallav Nadhani: Right.

Tim Jahn: Gotcha. I think in some ways that’s the best way. You know they say constraints sometimes breed the most creativity because you literally have to think outside the box when you have such a small little box. What’s one –

Pallav Nadhani: Any constraints –

Tim Jahn: What?

Pallav Nadhani: Constraints and one more thing. When you don’t know too much, then you know that’s only the thing that you know and you have to start providing on that. So starting with an empty canvas, that’s one more, other beautiful thing because then you’re not scared of a lot of other things as well.

Tim Jahn: That’s a great point. And I’m a firm believer in that like you said. Sometimes the less you know, the better. What’s one piece of advice you’d give to fellow creative entrepreneurs in terms of a similar situation to yours, if they have an idea and they’re still just a one person shop. What’s one piece of advice you’d give them to kind of getting their venture off the ground?

Pallav Nadhani: The first thing I would ask them to do is to test the idea. Run it through a potential client or someone who can submit a client. Not your friend, not your family because they’re going to give you biased opinions. Their biggest ways to test it I mean like for me it was writing an article, putting up some code and writing an article and seeing peoples response.

Though it was not meant for testing it was meant for pocket money, but retrospectively that that is what I was doing. I was testing the idea and I was doing free code. So you can do mockups, put it up there, maybe spend some money. So don’t just dive into the product, don’t just dive into the business, make sure you do some amount of testing with the customers before actually getting on to it. That’s I’d say one of the most important lessons which we have all to learn for our new products.

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  • SherryHaridas

    Kudos to creative Pallav, thanks for sharing this Tim