A first in a series of monthly interviews Busy Building Things will have with all sorts of interesting builders. This month we got the chance to chat with Ben Chestnut, co-founder and CEO of Mailchimp. If you haven’t heard yet, things have been going bananas for them lately and we were excited to learn more about their wonderful product.
BBT: 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: 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?
Ben: 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?
Ben: 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?
Ben: 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?
Ben: 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?
Ben: 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?
Ben: 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!
Ben: 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.