“Entrepreneurship is a journey, not a destination”- with FusionCharts [Interview + Book Review]
Interview with Pallav Nadhani, CEO, FusionCharts, and Sanket Nadhani, Head of Marketing
Pallav Nadhani (@pallavn), Founder, FusionCharts, and his brother, Sanket Nadhani (@sanketnadhani), consultant (previously Head of Marketing), join us in this three-way chat on the exciting story of FusionCharts. Interested readers should also check out the full details and humorous anecdotes from the in-depth case study of the company, available on the company’s Web site for one week only as a free download!
The 90-page case-book is aptly called “Not Just Another Pie in the Sky,” and here is my brief review below.
Now 10 years old, the company was founded in 2002 when Pallav was a 17-year old high-school student looking for a way to make more pocket money. His team, starting off in the days of the dotcom book, took data visualisation to levels beyond average spreadsheets to visually rich animated and interactive charts based on Adobe Flash (formerly known as Macromedia Flash). Their story is a text-book case study on the importance of constant customer feedback coupled with agile learning and quick thinking on the feet, as documented in the 6 chapters of their casebook.
The company’s products now have 20,000 customers and 450,000 users including a majority of Fortune 500 companies and some of the web's most popular sites like weather.com, LinkedIn, Google Docs and the US Federal IT Dashboard. The company started off in Kolkata (“presumed barren land for IT in India!”) and now has a Bangalore centre as well. The small team of 60 people does all its selling over the web and phone -- and did not have a single full-time salesperson till they got to 10,000 customers! The strong focus on organic sales-driven growth has meant that the company did not have to raise any external venture funding at all.
Pallav started off the journey by writing an article on making animated charts for Web applications on an ASP community site. Their first product was called fXgraph, and their first US sale cost more in bank processing fees than the sale price of the product itself! Ups and downs in product development included no early takers for 3-dimensional charts, and later on a sudden tech disruption with the introduction of the iPad and the need to move beyond Flash.
By 2006 the company crossed the $1 million mark (the $5 million mark was crossed in 2011), which necessitated moving out of home to a proper office and learning the art of hiring new staff. An unscrupulous East European company copied the product and sold it at a lower price, but FusionCharts out-flanked them with an even lower-price: free versions of the earlier products! Orders and sales kept pouring in as the company focused on helping non-tech savvy people how to use visualisation tools (“people don’t want to know what a product can do, but what it can do for them”).
Appearances at public events such as NASSCOM Emerge Out and Startup City made the team feel like ‘rock stars.’ A bigger moment of pride was when the US national CIO Vivek Kundra unveiled the Federal IT Dashboard, which was built using Drupal and FusionCharts. One of the users was the US president, Barack Obama, and this fact helped drive a wave of media publicity for the product in India and the US.
As for the future, the company would like to be acquired by “someone who cooks well and lets us watch TV all the time,” jokes Pallav. More from the talented duo in this chat below!
Q. Share some details about your dad's Web development business. Do you come from an entrepreneurial/business family?
Pallav - I am from a Marwari family. So making money runs in my blood :)
My dad told local businesses like silk exporters and gifting companies how they had to have a website in the modern day and age (back in 2000!), and got projects from them. And then I did the development. Most of these were static websites that we developed by hand, so I picked some web development experience from there. He also wrote books on Tally and other accounting software which were pretty popular. He decided to get a website done wherein people who are learning Tally could come take a test and become certified Tally experts. That's where I had my first brush with ASP. After that, one thing led to another and FusionCharts happened. I haven't done any client work after that.
Q: What were some takeaways for you from the dotcom boom and bust?
Pallav- The dotcom bubble didn't really bother me. I was too young for that.
Q: What were the three key challenges you faced as you scaled up, and how did you overcome them?
1. Difficulty in finding product people. While it's changing now, still a lot of people come with their services baggage that takes a fair amount of time to change.
2. Lack of systems and processes. I am a ‘big picture guy’ with an attention to detail and expect the team to connect the dots. Sometimes that worked out, sometimes it didn't. So I decided to hire a middle management that has been there and done it before.
Sanket: When I was heading Marketing & Sales at FusionCharts, while it was relatively easier to find salespeople, there were just no product marketing people to be had. I was a one-man marketing army for my entire stint. We worked with agencies who specialised with different marketing roles like PPC and branding, and that worked well for us. It also made sure that we didn't add unnecessary bloat to the team.
Q. How is your Bangalore experience working out? Was Bombay or Delhi also a choice for you to expand?
Pallav: Not really. Before we set up shop in Bangalore, we had been to the city a bunch of times for conferences and tradeshows. The energy in the city was amazing with every conversation in every cafe and pub being about starting up. That kind of energy is infectious, and so Bangalore it was.
Sanket: Not to forget the watering holes in Bangalore :) I had been to college in Bangalore and kept hammering it in Pallav's head everyday how Bangalore was the place for us to be!
Q. Have other companies also tried to rip off your product after the East European company did so? How did you deal with them?
Pallav: No, I think how we dealt with them sent out a message to the rest of the world as well. But a lot of players have jumped into the category after we created it, and that has only helped expand it and kept us on our toes.
Q. Is your product available in other languages as well? eg. documentation translated into French, Spanish?
Pallav: Yes and no. We don't convert the documentation ourselves but we have over 100 resellers in 18 countries who do the job of converting our documentation and literature in their local-speak.
Q. How is the India market for your product - any/many takers here?
India has moved into top 10 countries for us in the last two years. Since India has a large services sector that does development for global companies, a lot of developers implementing our products are a part of this ecosystem.
Q. What smartphone adaptations have you done for your product? Is there a big market here?
We enabled our product to use HTML5, instead of Flash, to run on smartphones. For the next major version, we're adopting a mobile-first approach.
Q: What is your advice to other startups on how to deal with VCs?
Pallav - The cheapest and the most effective money is customer's money! Don't raise money until you absolutely need to.
Q. Do you plan to become an angel investor yourself?
Pallav: I am! (See Seeders)
Q. What are your parting words of advice to aspiring startups and entrepreneurs in our audience?
Pallav: You will have to read the book for that :) But here's one piece of advice anyway. Entrepreneurship is a journey, not a destination. Enjoy the lemons it throws at you!