MailChimp is a well known freemium email marketing service.
I interviewed Ben Chestnut, MailChimp co-founder and CEO to find out more. This is the hundred and eighteenth in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Ben!
Describe MailChimp in under 50 words.
Monkeys send your email, so you don’t have to. Only they’re apes, not monkeys.
What were you doing before MailChimp?
I ran a web-dev agency called The Rocket Science Group. Pretty much sucked at it.
What made you decide to start working on MailChimp in 2001? Why did you wait until 2007 to dedicate yourself strictly to MailChimp?
Back in 2001, we had multiple customers who needed help sending their email newsletters. They were using really big, expensive, bloated software. We had some “scrap code” lying around from a previous business idea that failed (e-greetings), so we modified the code and turned it into an email newsletter app for them. We opened it up to the public, set up some Google Adwords, and basically forgot about it.
In 2005, we noticed it was a better business than our web-dev agency (it was growing faster than us humans, and its recurring revenue was basically keeping us afloat) so we decided to take all of 2006 to wind down the agency business and beef up MailChimp’s features. We officially hit the “reset button” in 2007 and became a product company.
How did you come up with the name? Does the chimp have a name?
The big, bloated email software back in 2001 required you to manually code your tracker links, your HTML emails, and all kinds of things. We thought it was silly to force users to do a bunch of repetitive coding that a monkey could do for you. We also had this philosophy when it came to our web design projects: “If all else fails, add a monkey. Clients love monkeys.” So we called it ChimpMail. Then we learned the domain was taken. So we called it MailChimp. One day, a customer asked us for our mascot’s name, so we came up with the most ridiculous one we could think of: Frederick von Chimpenheimer IV (aka “Freddie”). It’s amazing when I look back at Freddie’s history. We really didn’t spend that much time fostering his image or brand or anything. It was our customers and employees who brought him to life and gave him his personality.
Your non-traditional creative culture scared away a lot of typical corporate customers. Did this affect your growth at all?
Yep, it made our growth more fun.
Seriously, corporate customers are stodgy and high maintenance. We avoided them, because we always dealt with them back when we were a web-dev agency. We had our fill. The whole point of starting a software business, in our opinion, was to make scalable, self-serve apps. We felt like we shouldn’t need to talk to customers, nor should they waste any of their time talking to us (they should be spending their time smelling flowers, or hugging their mothers and stuff). The app should be so easy, they just get things done.
So that’s what we focused on: making it easy. Turns out a lot of those big corporate customers seem to like simplicity too, and are signing up to MailChimp despite the monkey business.
You often send customers gifts and handwritten postcards. How have you built customer loyalty?
The gifts we send are just fun. We know they’ll surprise the hell out of our customers, because nobody does that kinda stuff anymore. Plus, we’re an online-only company, right? So it’s ironic to send something hand-written and tangible. We love irony.
The goal isn’t to buy any kind of loyalty. I really don’t believe brand loyalty exists (anymore), and I don’t believe a company should waste any time trying to earn it. People want what’s best for them, and they can switch on a dime, because there’s always a new disruptor disrupting the last disruptor. So companies should just strive to keep changing and adapting to their customers’ needs.
I get the impression MailChimp is a fun place to work! How have you cultivated the culture?
I can’t say we really try to make it “fun” around here. Just “fulfilling.” I do my best to keep changing things up and to keep coming up with new, difficult, challenging projects that make your brain hurt. People who think that kind of work is fun tend to hang around longer. Kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy?
What does a typical day as CEO consist of?
On a good day, it consists of a lot of walking around to talk to different teams about what they’re working on. I can help connect ideas, plant new ideas, show people it’s okay to be weird, prevent meetings, etc.
On a bad day, it’s just me stuck at my computer.
MailChimp went ‘freemium’ in September 2009 and increased the number of paying clients by 150%, while growing profitability by 650% during its first year. With now over 2 million users, what would you say are the main factors that have led to MailChimp’s success?
I spoke about this recently.
1) Going freemium.
2) Being different. Different in our design, our name, our personality, our approach with customers, and just about everything. By being different, and therefore not dwelling on the competition or playing by their rules, it basically made us more creative and nimble.
Did you expect such massive growth and success?
Expect? No. But massive growth and success is kinda the whole point of starting a business, so I definitely dream about getting it one day. All. The. Time.
What are your thoughts on the future of email marketing?
Like everything else, it’ll change. The challenge is staying nimble enough to adapt.
Can you tell us about the data research you’re doing under EmailGenome.org, which you started to help improve the email ecosystem?
It’s been a challenge just wrangling the massive amounts of email data we have. But so far we’ve uncovered lots of awesomely cool things, along with some awesomely disturbing things. Like the predictability of reader engagement. And how we can find the optimal time to send an email to each recipient. And how there are networks of comment trolls, constantly signing up for certain types of lists. We can also uncover trends in email, like whether or not certain industries are dying. We’ve been able to tell when accounts import stolen lists, and identify where the lists originated from. We can tell who is human, and who is not. Perhaps the most interesting part about this “big data” initiative is the fact that it produces so many innovative product ideas, it’s hard to choose where to begin. The data keeps growing, so the possibilities (and scope) keep growing.
What do you wish you’d have known ten years ago that you know now?
That it takes about ten years before your company really hits its stride.
Where do you see MailChimp in another ten years time?
Not sure what business we’ll be in, but I’m pretty sure we’ll be coming to work in jet packs. Bet on it.
What is your favourite app or piece of software that helps you every day?
Hmm, that’s a hard one. Helpful and used every single day? Communication apps: Gmail, Apple Mail, iChat, and Jabber.
What is one mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?
About 10 years ago, I put my life savings into Apple stock (when it was around $17 a share). It was a wild bet, but I kinda liked where Apple was going, and I thought OSX might be huge one day.
After a year of no change whatsoever in the stock price, I chickened out. I took some stupid advice I read in a book about “diversifying” and I traded it all in so I could spread it out into safer stocks. All of those stocks–every single one of them–flattened out or declined. Sigh. If I could go back in time, I would’ve put all that money into MailChimp instead. I can’t control someone’s stock price, but I can at least have some control over my own company.
What one piece of advice would you give to startup founders?
It’s hard. And just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. There’ll be times when it just keeps getting worse and worse and worse. Meanwhile, everyone else around you is getting better and happier and richer. You’ll feel like the only one who hasn’t figured it out yet. You’re sinking, your life sucks, and your business isn’t going anywhere. Oh yeah, and you’re not getting any younger, either. And just when you think about finally throwing in the towel, and saying “f* all this!” that right there is the test that all founders are eventually faced with: when things get too hard, you decide to stay, or you decide to quit. My advice is this: Before you decide, look at all those great, successful businesses that inspired you to start your own. They stayed.
What’s the best prank someone has played on you at work?
Years ago, someone arranged for some accomplices to ring my landline, send an email, pop up a chat message, send me a TXT, and call my cell phone all at once. Everything just suddenly started beeping and buzzing all around me. I was paralyzed. I had no idea which to answer first. The sheer logistics of making this happen is pretty impressive, considering this was before telephony APIs.
What key goal have you yet to achieve?
Sadly, I’ve yet to finish a business plan.
What gives MailChimp a competitive advantage?