To 16,000 customers starting with a computer and a desk

Sanket Nadhani

FusionCharts is today a common name among web developers with over 16,000 organizations in 110 countries using it. It is used by names as big as LinkedIn, weather.com, Google, Cisco, GE and World bank. Howmuchever it sounds like a carefully crafted 12-point business plan by a left-brained Harvard-passout, it is so much the opposite. It was a simple plan by a 17 year-old to make some pocket money on the side.

Back in 2002, in Kolkata, India, Pallav Nadhani was just out of high school and had taken a liking to writing software code. He used to frequent forums and tech article sites to talk to developers and exchange programming wisdom with them. One day, he chanced upon a site which paid a handsome $500 for writing good tech articles. And that was his Eureka moment. He thought long and hard on what could make a good technical article for the website, and finally decided on combing two polar opposites for writing the article – Adobe Flash (then Macromedia Flash) that was used for creating snazzy banners and website intros, and ASP, a web scripting language that meant all business. In his school days, he had put together a number of Excel reports and was constantly bored by the dull nature of the charts and graphs that Excel offered. Nadhani decided that is exactly what he was going to change. He wrote an article on how to make exciting charts for web applications using Flash & ASP, and the community loved it. Nadhani decided to build upon the idea to come up with an entire software for making charts, a very niche field in those days and built what is now called FusionCharts.

“In the initial days, it was very tough to reach out to people. All I had was a computer, a table and a room where I could stretch my arms and legs, one at a time. I had all of $500 that I got from writing the article, which I had set aside for having fun, not for marketing & promoting a software. There was no Twitter or Youtube that you could use to promote your products for free, as is very prevalent these days. Search engines and software directories are all that there was and I duly used them,” says Nadhani on how he started spreading the word about the product. He had some prior experience of building websites since his dad used to get client work for developing websites which Nadhani actively helped with. With that experience, he built himself a very basic website for the product with basic literature. He priced the product at a very elementary $35. Every five minutes, Nadhani checked his mail to see for mails from his payment gateway on a sale. Nothing, not on day 1, not on day 2, not on day 3. Nadhani started to wonder what was wrong since the developers had appreciated the idea when he wrote the article. What had gone wrong now?

After some looking around on the Internet for companies in similar domains, Nadhani realized that to sell stuff on the Internet you have to look credible. “On the internet, no one knows you are small. I realized that to look trustworthy, I had to enhance my website and product literature and decided to start work on it,” says Nadhani. Luckily, seven days after the first release, Nadhani sold a license. “Somebody paid me $35 to buy my piece of software. Real hard-earned money of theirs. I was delighted.” With his faith in the product vindicated, Nadhani continued to work to enhance the brand around the product. But that was not all, to look credible meant looking like a professional company that would last through time and continue to improve upon the product. “I put up different email addresses on the website for support and sales, put up my residence number as the office number so that people didn’t think it was a one-man company, let alone a 17-year old’s,” recalls Nadhani. The enhanced brand around the product certainly helped and some people, though only a trickle more, started coming in. Nadhani realized that to reach a wider mass, he had to please this initial lot, get them to spend time with the product, understand their feedback and get their backing. So he started talking to these people who were willing to try out the product, gave them support even on weekends and wrote code for them to implement the product on their applications. The people liked what they saw and sales started picking up.

Then came the most critical phase for him. He had gained an initial set of adopters, mostly developers since that was the language Nadhani was himself comfortable talking. This was the time for him to move up the value chain, from developers to product managers of SMEs. He had an initial set of customers whom he could cite or reference as people using FusionCharts successfully. Since the first version was very basic, Nadhani decided to enhance the product itself. With a better understanding of how and where people used charts, he added more chart types, more flexibility and powerful features to them with extensive feedback from his early adopters and came out with v2 of the product.

With a better product, a small but proven customer base, it was time to move up the value chain. But to do that, Nadhani decided to play with the pricing strategy too. “People tend to believe you get what they for. With the extremely low prices we had for the first version, product managers would have been hesitant on what they would have perceived to be a low-end product. So I played around with the pricing strategy keeping in mind that the pricing should not be so high either to require purchase approvals either. A lot of pricing strategies failed, but some worked. I stuck with the ones that worked.” Slowly, FusionCharts was becoming known by a bigger mass of people and Nadhani had money to be spent on marketing and reaching a mass market.

With no prior experience in marketing either, Nadhani played around with a variety of mediums. “FusionCharts is not the best thing since sliced bread. The only reason people would buy it if it is solving a pain point for them.” With that principle in mind, Nadhani marketed his products organically getting into people’s head by conveying benefits to them – how it made them look good, how it saved them time or cost. With the visual nature of the product, word-of-mouth exposure for the product started gaining ground too. Nadhani shared customer success stories on the website in the form of testimonials. FusionCharts was now a brand, albeit a small one, but a brand nonetheless.

Nadhani now decided it was time to target enterprises. To go big, he needed more people. He hired his first employee, a developer, in 2005 – 3 years after FusionCharts was born. FusionCharts now started building more products in the data visualization space itself, all of which were again suggested or asked for by the users themselves. Nadhani started talking to big companies to initiate OEM partnerships, tied up with resellers in different countries and forged technical partnerships to build bridge products. With a team of ten, in November 2006, Nadhani released what has been their biggest success till date – FusionCharts v3. “It is the most powerful version of the software we released which was a game-changer not only for us, but the entire charting market in general. People could not do with boring Excel charts after that, they wanted animated, interactive and good-looking charts like the ones we offered.”

With the growing charting market, other competitors came up too. FusionCharts being an open source product, customers could use the source code of the product and customize it to their needs. But it also led to rip-offs – companies who picked up the product, rebranded it as their own and brought it to market. To keep such rip-offs at bay, Nadhani decided to release the previous version of FusionCharts for free. A big part of the reason was also that at 20, Nadhani wasn’t too well versed with the law and was happier writing code. Luckily, the strategy worked wonders. It killed all the rip-offs in the market, helped the company build an ecosystem around the product and gain a lot of goodwill.

FusionCharts today has over 16,000 customers and 280,000 users in 110 countries. Even US President Barack Obama uses it as a part of the Federal IT Dashboard in which FusionCharts has been used extensively for data visualization. FusionCharts today employs 30 people and has 2 offices in Kolkata, India. They have a total of 16 products, 4 core and 12 vertical solutions which included 5 free offerings as well. The company was also honored as being among the Top 10 Emerging Companies in India in 2009 and the 272nd fastest growing company in Deloitte Fast 500 Asia Pacific. “We reached our 10,000 customer base without a dedicated sales person in the team. Now we are looking to expand our reach with a dedicated sales team, entering new markets and enhance our leadership in existing markets by giving our customers first-of-its-kind capabilities.” The latest from their camp is oomfo, their foray into the PowerPoint market with an easy-to-use plugin for creating stunning charts in PowerPoint.

The entrepreneurship journey has not been smooth all the time for Nadhani. “When starting off, if someone had too many differing ideas from mine, I thought he did not fit into my company vision. Only later did I realize that people who disagree with me are exactly the people I am looking for. A yes-army would mean people who just do whatever I ask them to. The reason I hire people is they are better at their part of the job than me, and they should be ready to bring it out and disagree with me.” Nadhani, 25, now advises budding entrepreneurs by speaking at various industry events and through Seeders, his angel investor fund. One of the principles that has worked wonderfully well for him and he tells everyone he meets is – “On the internet, no one knows you are small. So whether you have an online business or an offline business, leverage the power of the internet to create the buzz around your product. Give solid product literature, feature case studies of customers – all of these help in developing your company as a brand.”

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