The latest from the BBT Blog
Love What You Do
Ben is the CEO and co-founder of MailChimp.com, one of the most successful e-mail marketing companies around, with over 1.2 million users. They were recently featured in “Fast Company” for their non-traditional corporate culture and creative environment. In this Creative Mornings presentation, Ben talks about the history of the company and what he does as a manager to cultivate such a creative culture.
Busy Building Things: Mailchimp has been around for a little over a decade over a million users now (congrats!). Where do you find the inspiration to keep going?
Ben Chestnut: Our customers. We love getting their ideas and feedback, then “reading between the lines” to dream up what they *really* need, then build it. As our customers change, their needs change, and it keeps things interesting.
BBT: As a formerly aspiring Industrial Designer, do you still get an itch to make something physical?
BC: I absolutely sucked at Industrial Design. I’m too impatient to make physical objects. Moving pixels is so much cleaner, because there’s no sandpaper involved.
BBT: We’re big fans of Mailchimp and use the service for our newsletter so the “easter eggs” are always a pleasant surprise. Apart from doing it for our amusement, what kind of effect does personality have on your customers?
BC: Hmm, nobody’s ever asked it that way before. They usually go into, “It must be great to have all that loyalty to your brand” which always bugs me, because we’re not trying to get loyalty. I mean, who wants customers that stick around, even when you suck, just because they’re “loyal”? I want people to stick around because of our merit. But back to your question. When we started MailChimp, all we wanted to do with this “fun personality” stuff was make it easier to talk to our customers. When I tried to write formally and sound big and corporate, I never wrote, because it was too hard. When I could just write like I speak, it got easier. So I guess the effect is that maybe our customers are more likely to actually listen when we talk? Or at least less likely to vomit from the corporate-speak. I’ll take either.
BBT: Tell us about the importance of “investing in your customers.” You’ve given out tons of swag in the form of t-shirts and colouring books, but then Mailchimp announced something huge: a million dollar integration fund. How has it panned out so far?
BC: I wouldn’t call this “investing in our customers.” On the surface, that sounds nice. But the truth is, when you invest in something, you’re *expecting* greater returns. And I can’t honestly say we’re expecting anything back from our customers in return for the t-shirts, coloring books, etc. All of that stuff is simple business. We’ve done the math, and it just worked out cheaper to send nice stuff than to spend it on the usual mix of Google Adwords, TV, radio spots, etc. Plus, we have fun making that stuff, and we have even *more* fun surprising and delighting our customers with gifts. Which is the reason we won’t open a store and sell this stuff, even though our customers are begging us to let them pay for it. That would take away our fun! In an ironic way, this is a much more selfish act than a giving one. I’m sorry if that sounds cold and calculating, but I actually think it’s more human and honest than investing and expecting returns.
The Integration Fund has been ironic as well. When our API was new, we had to write all our integrations with other apps. Then, as we got more awareness of our API, other people approached us–about building their integrations for them. They tried to offer revenue sharing and stuff, but there’s no time for that kind of paperwork. So we did this fund, where we could tell people, “No. But here’s some money so you can go build it.” Turns out integrations attract more customers, who have lots of different needs (see my answer to question #1) which begets even more integrations. So we’ve had to form *another* team to build more integrations for the new customers that we got from the prior integrations.
BBT: E*Trade had a baby, Energizer had a bunny, and Coca-Cola has cute polar bears. It’s become evident that mascots are the way to go not only for consumer products (B2C), but apparently e-mail marketing as well (B2B). What do can you share about your experience with spokescharacters and what we can expect from ‘Freddie’ moving forward?
BC: Having a spokeschimp has had one big, major advantage (which I never realized until recently): it scared away a lot of stuffy, corporate customers. Granted, I love money and I’ll even take it from stuffy corporate people, but we probably would’ve killed ourselves in the process. By starting out with more tech savvy, cheerful, primate-loving, self-serve customers, we developed a stronger culture that embraces creativity and innovation. Which has helped make life more fun for everybody involved. And what’s really fun is that the innovation seems to be attracting the big stuffy corporate customers anyway (in spite of the monkey business).
BBT: Let’s talk about the (rocket) science and art of making things. You talk about chaos as a key ingredient for creativity. How do you strike a balance between chaos and order?
BC: Keep chaos and order so damn busy, neither has time to get cocky about himself.
BBT: You also said something worthy of a Busy Building Things print “Humans want to create lots of cool stuff, then they want to see other people using that stuff. A lot.” As a manager of a creative company how do you create and maintain an environment that allows people to keep making cool things?
BC: Please don’t turn that into a print. It was the worst slide in my presentation! The context of that slide was that upper management tends to blabber incessantly about making creative *companies* and don’t realize that companies *can’t* be creative. It’s the people inside that are creative. And that’s not meant to be a wishy-washy “love your employees” statement, either. If you want your company to be known for its creativity, structure it so that people are–okay are you ready for this–always busy building things. Seriously, you should send me a couple free prints for that one. We don’t think it’s about designing a collaborative office space, or using whiteboard paint everywhere, or having an ultra-powerful intranet where people share ideas. We have all that stuff, but we think creativity comes from keeping deadlines and dev cycles short and fast-paced, so people don’t have time to over think or groupthink stuff. Keep people making stuff, making mistakes, making peace with their mistakes, making stuff again and again and again.
BBT: We’d love to give our community a behind the scenes glimpse of your actual workspace. Could you send over a picture of your desk, office or some of your tools of the trade to go along with the interview? Show us where the magic happens as they say!
BC: My desk is an embarrassing mess. So I’m enclosing a snippet of the only interesting part of it: an A-Team van that my 4-year-old thought was lame (he’ll learn), a bullet I found in our parking lot (it should probably be some poignant reminder of how fragile or short life can be, but I just keep it because I never, ever find cool stuff on the ground), and my iPhone dongle-thing. Sadly, the iPhone probably would’ve been the coolest thing on my desk, but I had to use it to take this picture.
“I don’t have enough time to work out.”
Physical health seems to always take a back seat to the rest of our lives. Scapegoats include our careers, our dedication to art, our families, our social lives, and so on. So we won’t mind not being in shape, we’ll eat anything that tastes good to cope with stress, and we’ll “sacrifice” sleep to get more done. While this sounds like a noble endeavor, it may not be as effective as you think.
Increased motivation, better teams, and fewer mistakes
In an age where social media runs rampant with humblebrags and constant barking, humility grows scarcer every day. While this trend may not appear to have any face value, it holds significant implications for your personal achievements, your team building and relationships, and a more realistic projection of the future.
Embracing humility, and being humble, doesn’t mean never talking about your achievements and accomplishments. As 19th century author and preacher Charles Spurgeon eloquently explains it:
Humility is to make a right estimate of one’s self. It is no humility for a man to think less of himself than he ought, though it might rather puzzle him to do that. (Click to Share)
Let’s explore some of the modern benefits of humility, and why the best entrepreneurs and makers are humble…
What do software development hosting service GitHub, venture capitalistFred Wilson, and entrepreneur Karen Cheng have in common? They all practise every day. GitHub built a calendar with capabilities to track when users have contributed to their projects (using the Seinfeld chain method, mentioned later in the post). Fred Wilson writes every day. Karen Chenglearned to design in six months, and subsequently got a job at a great startup.
Why Every Day? Benefits of the Spacing Effect and 10 Years of Silence
Disrupto co-founder and These Daysauthor Jack Cheng recommends working on something for no more, and no less, than thirty minutes per day. As it turns out, this method of consistent practise works with our long-term memory rather than against it. Remember cramming for tests in school and college? The reason why so many of us are not able to remember any lessons from this time is because cramming is effective only for memorizing information that will be recalled several hours later.
A general method of mastery was introduced by Florida State University’s K. Anders Ericsson, whose “10,000 hour rule” is applicable to a wide range of activities.
For those unfamiliar, Ericsson observed that it generally takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practise for people to master their crafts; this principle applies from chess to design. This type of practise — popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers” — makes it possible for us to harness and hone our talents and refine them into expert skills. So, what exactly is deliberate practise? How do you make sure you’re doing it right? How do you keep doing it consistently?
How to Practise Effectively
Deliberate practise isn’t about mindlessly repeating a task. It requires constantly challenging your current abilities, and progressing to challenges that increase in difficulty. Journalist John McPhee deliberately practised when he moved from profiling one subject per article to a more complex structure of four subjects in one article. Chessmaster Magnus Carlsenpractises against computers that regularly defeat humans at chess. NBA athlete Kobe Bryant doesn’t leave the court until he makes a few hundred shots every day.
Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect. — Vince Lombardi (Click to Tweet)
While these masters have accomplished some remarkable things, they’re human just as you and I are. It’s important to keep in mind that achieving your dream isn’t an impossibility; it just takes regular practise. As Seth Godin writes for 99U, you can’t wait until you’re in the mood to practise; you have to do it regularly. You’ve probably been told this quite a few times before. How do you make sure you’re practising every day? Here are two practical tips:
Practical Tips to Enforce Daily Practise
A popular technique for creating good practise habits comes from Jerry Seinfeld, who advised software developer Brad Isaac to employ some old-fashioned materials:
“He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.
He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. ‘After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.’”
We’ve taken that advice to heart: in fact, we’ve created a calendar specifically dedicated to that concept. It’s a single 36” x 24” page that allows you to create a visually impressive record of your achievements that is simultaneously a spur to achieve more—a never-ending chain. Alternatively, if you’re looking to test this method in a smaller chunk before investing in a whopper of a calendar, print out a monthly calendar and start building your chain.
It’s easy to practise on the days you feel like it; however, what about the many off days throughout the year? Merlin Mann shares his advice on how to get unstuck from procrastination: selecting a modest goal for the day, just to get started. He calls them dashes, and he identifies three types:
- Time-based dash — Most jobs lend themselves to a time-based dash, so pick up a kitchen timer at your local drugstore. Choose an amount of time that gives you enough room to do something but that’s brief enough to seem completely unintimidating. For some reason, eight minutes seems to work well for most of my own dashes.
- Unit-based dash — Alternatively, depending on the tasks you’ve been avoiding, you could go with a unit-based dash, during which you agree to plow through an arbitrary number of pieces associated with your project (such as pages to read, words to write, glasses to wash, etc.).
- Combination dash — In many cases, the best solution is a combination dash, in which you get to stop the hated work whenever you reach either the time or unit goal first.
When in doubt, simply use a time-based dash. Don’t use your phone, find a timer of some sort (or invest in one), and promise yourself you’ll do just several minutes of your work. While this may sound like a negligible difference, it’s a proven way to help build momentum for the rest of the day.
Rick Ross isn’t the only character who hustles every day; entrepreneurs, athletes, and artists from all around the world use this method to refine their craft. Don’t work only when you feel like working: put in some solid practice every day. As basketball player Ed Macauley said, “When you are not practicing, remember, someone somewhere is practicing, and when you meet him he will win.”
Ensure you hustle everyday with a calendar from Busy Building Things.
“When you are not practicing, remember, someone somewhere is practicing, and when you meet him he will win.” (Click to Tweet)
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