Interview with Jen Portland, Founder and President of ExcelRainMan

After one too many late nights of finishing her co-workers’ Excel projects, Jen Portland was inspired to start her own Excel consulting business. In this interview, she shares her advice for turning your expertise into your own business.
Interview with Jen Portland, Founder of ExcelRainMan.

Tell me about your current business. What are you doing exactly?

ExcelRainMan is a niche consulting company, where 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… for a small fee of course!

In addition to our consulting services, we offer interactive tutorials that are customized to an individual or a company’s needs. In the tutorials (held in person or via web conference), we create a custom curriculum with the students prior to the class, and offer a spreadsheet assessment program where we go through Excel projects that our students use on a daily basis and we show them ways to get their work done more efficiently.

Finally, we bring a fresh approach to Excel Spreadsheeting: taking a complex and somewhat intimidating subject matter and making it approachable for anyone. A great example of this is our line of simple Excel templates built for “everyday” tasks. These templates cost less than $10 or they’re FREE! We use these canned templates as a way to spreadsheet some cheer, to generate some buzz for our new business, and to showcase our spreadsheeting skills and ideas for our potential clients to see without having to spend much.
ExcelRainMan was launched in May 2008 in New York, a city where businesses are born daily. ExcelRainMan is designed to help these companies whose employees work tirelessly without the help of Assistants and Analysts. Whether it’s a Start-Up P&L or an affordable Contact Management Solution, ExcelRainMan has found genuine success in providing simple (and cost effective) solutions to complex problems.

What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?
This is my first business. Prior to this (and currently) I have been working full time in reinsurance.

How did you come up with your business idea?

After a Systems Engineering degree from the University of Pennsylvania and 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.

It was after several particularly late nights of finishing others’ work that the idea for ExcelRainMan.com was born! I knew if 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.

Who did you hire to help you? Bookkeeper, Accountants, Lawyers …? Would you suggest others do the same?

I have been pinching pennies since the beginning. One thing that I learned within a few weeks of launching ExcelRainMan is that you cannot do everything on your own. Often, it is best to spend money on things you do not have the expertise or time to deal with. That way you can hire someone who is efficient and great at something you need and you can focus on your business.

In my case this was with my web developer and graphic designer. For a few weeks, I attempted do the website entirely myself. I bought some package with Register.com and I thought I could do this myself. I was sadly mistaken. For starters, the packages you can buy from these hosting are fairly limited. In addition to this, most of my business is conducted on the web so it is important for the website to be professional, user-friendly and attractive.
Due to my PowerPoint prowess, I figured that I could create our logo, business card, and fliers myself. The results were absolutely dull! I wanted ExcelRainMan to be portrayed as young, fresh, chic and funky. Our clients are small biz owners, the fashion and restaurant industry, you name it. They don’t want old school stuff. It was because of this, I hired my graphic designer. She has created the most wonderful logo for us, business cards, fliers and discount cards.

With the current economy in a slump, what cost saving tips would you have for a new entrepreneur?

I recommend that entrepreneurs watch what they spend more than anything. There is so much that can be done without spending money or much money. Specifically, I have done the following:
Keep your day job! It is easier to start a business when you can pay the rent… especially in Manhattan! There are lots of expenses that will come up when you have your own business. Things you don’t realize like how expensive printer ink is. It is nice to have some income when you have all of these expenses and probably not that many clients to start with.

Work @ home! People love mom and pop shops. You don’t need to have some fancy office or address. Typically if you are meeting a client, you go to their place anyway. If not, you can rent a place.
For free publicity, www.helpareporter.com, it does not get better than this!!! Plus, I get so many ideas of avenues that I can explore here.

In general, don’t spend money on items, like advertising, without targeting it appropriately. If you are not reaching your target audience, you are wasting your money.
Try to barter with other business so you do not have to pay for services. I am always up for offering free Excel work for a swap!

Social marketing is consistently being written about in the small business space. Has it worked generating business for you?
Friends suggested that I join Facebook after starting ExcelRainMan, so begrudgingly I did. I have created an ExcelRainMan Facebook page (as many companies do) and friends and friends of friends are able to become a fan of the business and so forth. Surprisingly, I have found Facebook particularly useful for a couple of reasons:
I am able to tell all of these people about ExcelRainMan in a slightly less aggressive manner than sending email or placing a phone call.

I have also found that it is not always the people that you would expect to be responsive that are and become clients and great referrals. These are people that would never know about the biz.
Friends are very willing to forward info to others to help out.

Temporary labor can be a great asset to an entrepreneur. Have you ever hired temps or contractors? Would you suggest this as a strategy for new business owners?

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 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.

What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?

My response is really for all business ideas (not just similar ones). For quite some time now, I have had a list of business ideas… and never did 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 will be an App for that” and your idea will have passed you by.

With the internet and blogging being so big, 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, if one doesn’t work, try the next one!

Also…watch your pennies every step of the way!

That’s good advice, especially in this economy. Thank you for sharing your experience with us, Jen.

 

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