“Sports unite and motivate people. Today, the reason I am able to run a company successfully is because of the foundations I built as a sportsman.”
He was teased for his funny ‘Mallu’ accent and eating habits. He fought ‘racism’. As a small boy his ambition didn’t go beyond chopping logs in the forests like his father, or following his uncle into the Army. He sacrificed his football career for his family. Today, Varun Chandran, from a small Kerala village, is the CEO of his own IT Company, and a dollar millionaire. Remarkably, he has set up a part of his operations near the same small village where he was born. His own journey, from an impoverished home in a small village in Kerala, to a Silicon Valley millionaire, follows the pattern of a rags to riches story.
Varun was born in Paadam, a small village near Kollam. Most of the 800 families were poor landless labourers working in the nearby forest. His mother ran a grocery shop. A strong-willed, ambitious woman, she insisted that her children attend the English medium primary school in the neighboring town. “If it weren’t for my mother, I don’t think I would have gone to school. She made sure that we were educated, unlike most children of the village. “He still remembers studying under the light of a kerosene lamp, as the village wasn’t connected to the grid until he was 10 years old. “In fact, I can’t remember ever studying under an electric bulb. Even after we got electricity, power supply was intermittent and afflicted by voltage fluctuations. During the monsoon season we never had any power as the trees in the forest near our village invariably collapsed on to the electricity poles.”
Money was hard to come by. The grocery store was not doing well. Their indebtedness rose to the point that everything in their house was taken away, and they had to sleep on the floor. “The school fee was ₹ 25 a month but my parents couldn’t pay the fees for six or seven months. I was thrown out of the class many times. I had to go through this humiliating experience many times in school .I also realized how the colour of your skin puts you at a disadvantage. There were teachers who called me ‘the black boy’. It used to make me cry. That became my nickname in school. Some even called me a crow. It hurt me a lot and I hated it. I had more bad experiences than good ones in that school.” said a nostalgic Varun. But he used football to channelize all his anger. So inspired was Varun by the rags to riches story of I M Vijayan, the well-known Malayali football player, that he wanted to be like him. “I saw myself in I M Vijayan,” he says of his idol.
He soon became the school football captain and brought an inter-school trophy back to school. He won a government sports scholarship to enter a college in Trivandrum. “That was my first step into the outside world. “From then on, progress was steady for Varun the footballer. He went on to captain the Kerala University football team.” Just before finishing his college degree, Varun was picked to attend a selection camp for the next Santosh Trophy — his opportunity to play for the Kerala senior side! But during the camp, he injured his shoulder badly and had to leave. He was back in his village, nursing his injury. But the situation at home was terrible; there was no food and an air of tension in the family.
Narrating his struggle Varun said, “I had dropped out of college in 2003 without a degree. After my injury, I wasn’t a footballer either. My mother scolded me, and told me to get out and find myself a job.” He asked his grandmother for help. She took her gold bangle off her wrist, and gave it to him along with ₹ 3,000, saying, “Go and start a new life.” Varun went to Bangalore where a man from his village was a contractor. The man allowed him to stay rent-free in a tiny place that housed seven of his contract workers. Bangalore was booming at the time and there were lots of call centre jobs available. He attended around 40 interviews for call center jobs, but failed because he found it difficult to say a single sentence in English.” After each failed attempt, I used to sit at the Sivaji Nagar bus stop and cry my heart out” said Varun. He went to the public library and began to read and learn new English words with the help of a dictionary. After three months, he got a job in a call Centre.
He encountered another turning point in his life. During his travels, he met one Abhoy Singh from Delhi who gave him his email id and asked him to keep in touch. “I didn’t know what an email was. I found out that it had something to do with computers.” He joined a private institute to learn about computers. “As a footballer, I had travelled all around India. But the Internet took me all around the world. Just as I M Vijayan had inspired him to become a footballer, Abhoy inspired him to learn computing, and become a programmer and an entrepreneur. “But neither of them knows the influence they have had on my life!” he says.
Varun read everything he could lay his hands on. He got a job with Entity Data, a Hyderabad-based company, as a business development executive. He did so well, that they sent him to the US after three months. He joined SAP and later Oracle and was sent to Singapore. Silicon Valley kindled the desire to start something on his own. “I read a lot about the guys who had start-ups and dreamt of the day I would have one of my own. I knew I had to create something that would solve problems, make people’s lives easier, and be desirable. “While still working for Oracle, he had started to develop products, that would help users identify the best sales and marketing approaches by giving them data on potential customers’ likes and dislikes, and the best customers to target their products at. In 2012 he decided to set up a company from his house in Singapore. He registered the company in Singapore — the best place in the world to start a company. He created a website in just 30 minutes. He named it Corporate 360 as “we take care of organizations’ 360 degree marketing profile.”
The product he created is Tech Sales Cloud-a sales and marketing tool that analyses large datasets in order to help sales and marketing teams target customers better. He met some corporate houses and showed them the product, and within three months, he got three orders. “The first order was for $500 from a customer in the UK, and when I got it, I was screaming and jumping up and down in my bedroom” said an ecstatic Varun. The year ended with $250,000 in revenue. Then he decided to expand by hiring contractors, seven from Kerala and four from Manila. He had cleared the family’s debts and bought a house in Pathanapuram. In 2012, the company had some 50 customers and revenue of $600,000. In November 2013, Varun started a development center in Pathanapuram rather than the usual choices of Bangalore or Hyderabad.
It was initially tough to get good programmers. “When I advertised for candidates, nobody was interested. Youngsters didn’t want to come and stay and work in a small town. They feel you are not working, unless you sit in some Techno Park.” said Varun.Today, he works out of his own office building situated on land he purchased in Pathanapuram, and employs 17 people. He is in the process of building an IT park there. He wants to prove that IT jobs aren’t just in Techno Parks in big cities, that it can be done from anywhere in the world. Varun soon plans to open sales and marketing offices in Silicon Valley and London. But his product development will continue to be done in Manila and Kerala, and the head office will continue to remain in Singapore. By 2017, he plans to make it a $5 million company with operations in five countries.
His advice to young entrepreneurs is to innovate products that will be useful to millions of people. “Build products that will solve problems. Create the right culture and build your team around it. Improvise every day; don’t ever stop no matter what happens!”