By Devesh Dwivedi
Today under the “Our Heroes” series we hear from Jen Portland, a systems engineer turned successful entrepreneur. Jen often found herself doing Excel work for her co-workers while working in reinsurance. After receiving fame for her spreadsheet talent, she choose the route of an entrepreneur and started ExcelRainMan. Today, her company provides Excel based solutions for anything ranging from monthly reports to vacation schedule templates. Let’s hear more about what Jen has to say…
DD: Who are you and what kind of corporate job were you at?
JP: My name is Jen Portland. It all started when my parents sent me to computer camp at the age of 5 instead of paying for a babysitter during spring breaks and sadly some summer breaks as well. I then studied Systems Engineering, with a minor in Mathematics, at the University of Pennsylvania (Class of 2003). I ended up working in reinsurance, specifically in property catastrophe reinsurance. This entails finding protection for insurance companies for hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, terrorism, and so forth. This may seem kind of random, but I needed a job!
DD: What made you leave the job? When did you realize that you wanted to be an entrepreneur & why?
JP: After a few years of working in “Corporate America” I became an expert in the “business art form” of Microsoft Excel. While this certainly has helped my career, it was also a difficult cross to bear, as co-workers inevitably discovered my Excel talents and as a result I found myself doing colleague’s Excel work for them. In addition to my reinsurance duties I found myself all of a sudden in the Finance, IT, and HR departments with regular tasks, in addition to doing my own work. I would also have to privately train all new hires (at my corporate job) in Excel.
I found this situation to be incredibly aggravating as it was holding me back from my career in reinsurance; that being said, I enjoyed the small fame I got from it and how much of my students learned to love Excel. Plus I enjoy Excel in this fabulously lame way. It was after several particularly late nights of finishing others’ work that the idea for ExcelRainMan.com was born! I knew that if the demand for this particular skill was so prevalent in my company it must exist elsewhere. I decided to test this theory and offer these services to the general public and in May 2008, ExcelRainMan started cranking out Excel Spreadsheet consulting work for companies of all sizes.
I would say that I always felt like an entrepreneur and the entrepreneurial/freelance spirit is in my blood. I grew up surrounded by people who always worked for themselves and through all of their successes and failures they were always pursuing their passions. My grandfather, who passed away when I was 3, started numerous small businesses in Pittsburgh, PA. In addition to starting his own ventures, he also helped others finance their entrepreneurial dreams as well. My mom told me that he only asked that people pay him back if they succeeded; I could really use him now. Following in his footsteps, my mom started her own Real Estate brokerage firm in Pittsburgh when she decided that she didn’t quite like the commission structures at the other firms. Finally, my father is a freelance photographer (markportland.com) and an incredible artist – really the best there is!
Can I complain a little? While this is not a very original response, I have found Corporate America to be pretty lame… other than the biweekly paycheck, which is pretty nice. I never enjoyed having a boss. I loathe sitting in a cubicle for a set time when there may be no work to be done. In addition to this, it is so hard to live up to your potential when there is so much structure around what you can work on and getting promoted, and working in a team merely means dishing the same work down to each level. I always thought team meant each person brings something different to the table.
So one day, when I was helping a dinosaur at work with his excel work, he called me the Excel Rain Man. I totally preferred this over Excel Queen or Guru, and I found myself willing to help him anytime he wanted! Basically, ExcelRainMan is the simplest form of consulting that I can think of. We help individuals along with both small and large businesses with their specific Microsoft Excel problems. Put simply, people submit their spreadsheet–related questions/problems to ExcelRainMan.com and in turn, we offer our skills to help with whatever the issue may be. The real point of this business is that people have so much stress in their work and the last thing they should have to worry about is a silly spreadsheet. We want people to come to us for help so they can concentrate on the fun and important part of their work and then they can be creative, not get caught up in the small stuff.
In addition to this, oftentimes people just need to learn a little trick and then they can get their work done in no time. That’s what we are here for… we help people get their job done faster! We also offer classes (in person or over the web) and sell or give away silly templates on our website. I would say what makes us unique is that we make this lame technical part of someone’s day fun and fresh. People feel comfortable talking to us because we can relate to their pain at work and we are approachable.
DD: What did you do to break the corporate jail? How did you prepare yourself for the employee to entrepreneur transition?
JP: The 1st thing I did was buy a domain name and get a website up and running. This was important as ExcelRainMan is based on a Microsoft product. Technically speaking I have not made a clean break from the corporate jail. As many people know starting a business costs money and so does rent, so for the time-being I get my ExcelRainMan done in the early mornings, evenings, weekends and during my lunch hour. With blackberries and wireless internet, I can take my laptop anywhere and still work.
On May 28, 2008, Daily Candy promoted ExcelRainMan in their Daily Email Newsletter. All of a sudden, my little website had 7,000 clicks, I had hundreds of emails to respond to, and I was away for work for my “day job”. This proved to be a huge challenge but extremely exciting as I had so much work to get done, not enough time to get it done, and no money to hire any help. It was originally just yours truly providing the spreadsheet expertise and my husband helping out with everything from IT to our Facebook page. After a few weeks, it became abundantly clear that we needed a few more excel ninjas and we were lucky enough to find two amazing subcontractors (now we are up to 4 subcontractors) who help out with responding to customer inquiries. They also assist me in creating our templates and assembling class materials. While these folks have other commitments (one is in law school and the other as a day job), they have helped make ExcelRainMan run smoothly and I adore working with these people! I highly recommend this. In terms of pay, I only pay them when we have work… so I am not in a position where I owe them a paycheck, but do not have any money.
Another major challenge in the beginning of the business was the tremendous amount of admin work involved. I may now have a fancier title than I ever had in Corporate America (I can now say I am a Founder, a President, an Excel Diva… anything), but the amount of times I have to run to staples because I am out of printer ink or paper is astounding. There are certain “office luxuries” you get used to in Corporate America, like IT, and travel, and supplies, and everything. Now not only do I have to handle it myself but I have to pay for it too! Ahhh!
DD: What are your Top 5 tips for employees who want to be entrepreneurs but are hung up on something?
JP: 1) What are you waiting for? For quite some time I had a list of business ideas ready and had never done anything about it. I’m not sure what I was waiting for! I recommend jumping into the deep end! Because before you know it “there’s an App for that” and your idea will have passed you by. With the internet and blogging so big these days, you can create a website and generate buzz about your business for a reasonable price while still having a day job. So my advice would be to explore your ideas and if one doesn’t work, try the next one!
2) Keep your day job for as long as possible. Building on my first piece of advice, similar to it being easier to find a job when you have a job, it is also easier to start a business when you have some supplemental income. Keep your day job as long as you can, no matter how lame, since it is paying your rent and giving you healthcare. However, you need to come home every day and work and remember that your real job is you, not this day job that pays the bills. When people ask me what I do, I never say I am in reinsurance, I say something like, “I just started this funky excel spreadsheet consulting business.”
3) Don’t get caught up in the small stuff. Once you start a business, don’t get caught up in the small stuff. If I did not work, I could still be the busiest person in the world. My scheduled would be packed. I would go to yoga daily, deal with laundry and dry cleaning, go to the grocery store, make meals, clean up, and go to the post office… The point is that it is easy to be busy, but don’t lose sight of the objective. The admin work, taxes, QuickBooks and paying the bills will get done. You cannot stress over this. The number one most important thing is getting customers. If getting customers means paying a bill late or filing an extension, then so be it. Once you have the customers, you can then hire people to take care of that other stuff for you!
4) Continue being creative! We are entrepreneurs because we have an idea. Spreadsheet consulting was my idea. That being said, if I had stuck with my original plan ExcelRainMan would probably not be where it is today. In addition to having a good idea, it is important to be creative as to how you sell, package and deliver your product. It is also important to continually change things and be fresh.
5) Watch your pennies every step of the way!
DD: How are you now? Are you still in the same business, and how do you feel?
JP: Things are hectic, but amazing. I am still in my corporate job, but ExcelRainMan is evolving. I am continually thinking of new ways to make ExcelRainMan a place for spreadsheet-weary individuals to seek refuge. I feel like I am juggling so many things, but I am getting so much done! Today (Saturday) I went to yoga class and then to a bridal shower in Brooklyn. I spent the subway ride drafting a response to your email. Tonight I will draft a newsletter about our free March Madness brackets and then I will troubleshoot the bracket tomorrow. In addition to this, I am recording video excel classes that will be viewable over the internet on our site in May (I am so sick of hearing my voice).
By the way, things are not perfect. I should mention that I had a minor melt down in between the yoga class and the subway ride. Namaste!
DD: Wow Jen! Thank you so much for talking with me and for letting me into your life of reinsurance pro “turned” founder/president/diva of ExcelRainMan. I wish you all the best in the future, and maybe one day soon we’ll be hearing “need ExcelRainMan? There’s an App for that!”
JP: Thank you, Devesh, for having an interest in my story and for understanding the importance of entrepreneurship. It is amazing to get to know people who understand what it is that entrepreneurs do and why they do it; to live a better life and to help others while they do it! I also wish you the best of luck.
DD: Jen Portland everyone, founder of ExcelRainMan. I was really struck by something she said: “We want people to come to us for help so they can concentrate on the fun and important part of their work and then they can be creative, not get caught up in the small stuff.” I think the whole of Corporate America needs to hear that statement and start to enjoy what they do; and if they don’t enjoy it, they should become entrepreneurs too!
Success to all!