Varun Chandran: From farm to fortune

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34-year-old tech millionaire Varun Chandran has known rags — and now, he knows riches.


Karen Ann Monsy

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Published: Fri 5 Jun 2015, 12:32 PM

Last updated: Tue 21 Nov 2023, 11:43 AM

He tells Karen Ann Monsy why he can never forget his days of surviving on one meal a day.

Varun Chandran’s polished English betrays nothing about his roots — let alone his former life of poverty, hardship and mistreatment. For someone who was once not very fluent in the language, an inability that cost him close to 50 rejections at job interviews, you could say: he’s come a very long way.

Growing up, the only life he knew was that of a farmer and his highest aspiration was to be a truck driver. Today, the 34-year-old tech millionaire is the founder of global start-up Corporate 360, a B2B marketing data software company, with operations out of Singapore, California, Leicester, Manila and Pathanapuram in Kerala — and he credits it all to a visionary mother and the beautiful game of football. Here’s his story.

Difficult beginnings

I was born and raised in a tiny farming settlement called Padam in Kollam, on the border of Kerala. The community there consisted of about 300 families that thrived on farming as well as hard labour in the nearby forest.

My parents didn’t have any glorified past to speak about. I grew up helping my father with his work as a log cutter, but the work was very seasonal. My mother ran a small grocery shop. She was a strong woman, who dreamt of sending her children to school. That dream changed everything. We had a lot of issues because of the lack of finances but my parents worked hard to put food on the table and took loans in order to educate us.

There were no telephones in our village and my older brother and I had to walk 3 km to the bus stop everyday, from where a bus would take us to school 10 km away. Going to school was a privilege. If there was a storm and the roads were blocked, we’d have to walk all the way.

School, in general, was tough for me because we couldn’t afford the fees. We had arrears for six months, and I’d often be made to stand outside the classroom for several days. Back then, people really looked at you in terms of your status. And I felt that segregation right from primary to high school.

Academically, however, I wasn’t too bad. I was always in the top five to 10 ranks in class — but I was more oriented towards sports. Thanks to the manual work I did on the farm, I was in excellent physical form. And it was a trait that would soon turn life around for me.

“Black boy”

After I finished grade five, my mother put us up at a public boarding school in a nearby town called Pathanapuram. It wasn’t a posh school at all, but most of the students at the hostel were NRIs. Coming from a poor background made me incompatible with their status.

The teachers were no better. They used to call me “black boy”. In class, seating was allotted in the order of your rank, with the smartest boys up front. But although I was always sixth or seventh in rank, I was constantly made to sit on the last bench. I had a teacher who would ask the student in front of me to stand in class, just because he didn’t want to “see my face”. It was so disgusting and, despite the decades that have passed, the memories still make me so angry.

I’ve since invested half a million dollars in Pathanapuram, but I haven’t gone back to the school. I’m often asked to deliver speeches at different colleges today — and it’s something I always talk about. Being called derogatory names in front of 40 other students… the kind of impact that has on a young mind can be pretty hard. I had to learn to look beyond that. And football was my release.

The beautiful game

Sport was the only activity I enjoyed at school. I was captain of the school football team and we went on to win different championships under my captaincy. My hero was [former pro Indian footballer] IM Vijayan, who also came from the streets of Kerala and started out selling peanuts and sodas in stadiums. His was a story that really stuck in my mind and inspired me more than all the stories I’d ever heard of Gandhi and Nehru. It’s why I always ask people to look for inspiration “next door”. You could find something happening right around you.

I started playing football seriously and earned a sports scholarship at a government college. That was the biggest turning point in my life because, for the next five years, I did nothing but play football. Those years really shaped me. I made new friends, started watching English movies and learnt to use cyber cafés. We went on to play and win for Kerala University and state football teams. I travelled across the country — it was the first time I was seeing a plane, train or big city — and it was the best exposure ever.

In my fifth and final year, however, I sustained a shoulder injury and had to return home. The situation there hadn’t changed much… We had a lot of accumulated debts from the days when my parents were trying to put us through school and the loan sharks were constantly coming home and pestering my mother.

I eventually signed up for the Sevens football tournament that is popular in the Malabar region. Each player made about Rs500-1,000 per game. I managed to make some money, but couldn’t continue playing with them because of the injury.

Running away

The day I went back, there was no food in the house for some reason. Hungry and frustrated, I vented to my grandmother. To date, I don’t understand why she did what she did, but she took off the gold bangle from her hand, gave it to me and told me to go find a job. That was my ‘moment’. I packed my bag, left home without telling anyone and boarded the bus to Bangalore, with about Rs2,000 in hand. There, I found a construction worker from my village, who offered me shelter. There were 12 guys to a room, sleeping on the floor.

A week after getting there, I rang up my father — and found out my mother had also left home. That was about 13 years ago, but the pain of losing her is real even today.

Over the next three months, I attended 48 interviews and received 48 rejections. It dawned on me that, without fluent English, I wasn’t going to get anywhere. I went down to one meal a day to save on money, and started doing odd jobs, going to libraries and borrowing money to buy books. My priority was learning the language, and I would watch BBC and CNN with a notebook and dictionary in hand to look up new words, or pick a topic and conduct conversations with myself — in English — as I travelled around town.

By the 48th interview, you could say I’d become something of an expert. Having now got the hang of the pattern of questions, I decided to take a ‘short cut’ — and Googled the ‘best’ answers to possible questions for the next interviews. The tactic got me two jobs on the same day. I knew I’d be in trouble once I got in — because although my English was improving, I still wasn’t fluent in it — and the thought scared me. The job I accepted was for a call centre at Dell, which put me directly into American English training. I was marked ‘untrainable’ on day one. It was so embarrassing I couldn’t take it, and I stopped going for training. They pushed me to come in because they needed people… but after a few months, I was fired. It was the same story with the next few jobs.

Turning things around

From the money I’d managed to save so far, I decided to invest in myself. I spent Rs10,000 for training in English diction and SAP software training, and got much better.

The next interview I attended was at an IT services company. The emphasis there was not on communication but on skills and sales experience. The interviewer liked my confidence and honesty, put me in training… and a few months later, sent me to California on a business visa for three months. I made a lot of American friends — that’s where I picked up my accent and confidence — and began doing quite well for the company, bringing in deals, accumulating experience… Six years passed, and I moved on to other companies such as NTT Data, SAP and Oracle. It was a major learning curve. In 2008, I took a transfer to Singapore — and I’ve lived here ever since.

During those years, I bought my dad and grandmother a house in the town, paid off the loan sharks — and got our land back. But more than the new house, I know my dad appreciated getting back the land he worked so hard to raise us on.

It was never my intention to start a business of my own. In fact, it was my ex-boss who first suggested I start my own company — but I didn’t have the courage to. I had less than $40,000 in hand, and no plan. For 6-9 months, I didn’t leave my job, but worked on developing my idea on the side. Years ago, I used patterns to get through the initial interview rounds. Now, I worked to use data algorithms to identify patterns and use them as sales indicators for customers.

In 2012, I finally left my job to start a ‘one-man show’. I basically used focus marketing to shortlist 10-15 companies and target their key decision-makers. I reached out to them with ideas about how I could help them solve their problems — instead of trying to promote how good my product was. Within nine months, I’d made a quarter of a million dollars. That’s when I knew I had something valid. I started hiring freelancers and, by the next year, made revenues of $600,000. In November 2013, Corporate 360 was formally established. Last year, we brought in revenues of $2 million.

Meanwhile, my brother, who had completed 16 years of service in the army, decided to join me in growing my business. I wanted a set-up in Kochi or Bangalore, but he pushed me to think beyond that; about how I could impact people’s lives by bringing IT jobs to rural Kerala. It was his suggestion to go back to Pathanapuram and do something for the people there.

I was hesitant. With all of my childhood experiences, and the tragedy of losing my mother, I was pretty set against going back to Kerala. But he pointed out how all the major companies and IT parks were hiring only rank holders, without giving others a chance. It was segregation all over again. What about the thousands of students who didn’t score 90 percentile marks but had the potential to develop skills? That was the biggest eye-opener for me.

We put in ads in the paper, looking to hire freshers with some background in technology programming, who we could train in data analysis — and got zero responses. A &bigger ad got us five interviewees — all of whom came in with their parents. In the end, we ended up getting interviewed, because they were trying to ensure we weren’t trying to scam them. Word soon spread and, today, though we have vacancies, we can’t hire anymore because the building is full. We’ve currently bought 10,000 sq ft of land, where we’re planning to build an IT park as well as a 30-bed hostel for employees.

The whole idea is to create jobs on the ground, in our own homeland. Everyone has their sights set outside India. But we have to create jobs, generate salaries and spend money right here on the ground, because it’s the only way to achieve economic empowerment. Our other major focus is on women empowerment, because of what happened with our mother. That’s why 70 per cent of our employees are women.

There’s also nothing in my company called an interview. We don’t look at marks, family status or religion. The only question I ask is: what can you do for us? That’s the culture I’m trying to build. We test them for a week, figure out if we like them and they like us — and that’s how every one of my employees has been hired.

The biggest gamble has been taking in people who had arrears. We had a guy come in who had yet to clear 38 of his papers. He’d been working construction jobs till then, because he couldn’t find work elsewhere — but he is one of our best performers today. Another gamble has been opting not to hire managers from outside, and promoting people within the team instead. Without a background in management, some end up unable to handle the pressure, but others have excelled. We’re learning as we grow.

Looking back

I can never forget what I’ve gone through — but I also know it’s because of those experiences that I am where I am today. It was a survival game for me, and that’s what pushed me. We have to learn to turn roadblocks into positive energy and opportunity. Whenever something goes wrong, people run for cover, look for excuses and try to hide the pain away in a box. Why not turn it into positive energy instead? When you don’t have mentors or friends, you end up making a lot of mistakes — but you never make the same ones again. Those are learning opportunities and you learn to move on.

Football too was a major game-changer for me. It taught me a lot of life skills: being a team player, tolerance, communication, real-time decision-making — and how to deal with setbacks. You go down a game, you fight back. That’s how it works in real life too.

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