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Interview with Ben Chestnut, MailChimp co-founder

We keep the interviews going! This time we’re  not featuring a startup email marketing company, but a quite well known email service provider: in this case MailChimp. Co-founder Ben Chestnut has taken time out to answer the following questions about the office culture, his daily tasks and more at MailChimp. Enjoy!

Remy: You have a ‘fun’ culture at MailChimp, as the platform, the people working there and the special projects (the coloring book for instance ) all show. Do you feel like you have attracted certain companies as clients that have comparable company cultures?

Ben: Ha! Turns out the fun stuff works as a great filter to scare away stuffy people from our website. In our early days, we experimented with taking all that fun away, and being more serious and businessy. That attracted a lot more customers, but they generally included more “frowny” people that made life miserable for us. We brought back the chimpanzee, and yes, that attracted more of the creative types (customers *and* employees). So it does work well if you want to fend off mean people (customers *and* employees) out there who might hurt your young startup company culture.

But I’d argue it’s the fun/creative customers who raise the creative bar and force *us* to seek a similar company culture as theirs. Our support team’s an interesting example. They’re comprised of the sort of young, hip, creative kids you’d see behind the Genius Bar at an Apple Store, or who might be building iPhone apps on the side. They know design, they know some code, and they can multitask in chat windows and make funny ha-ha jokes with customers (then follow up by sending customers monkey hats and monkey post cards offline).

We seek out those types because our customers won’t accept anything less. If we tried to outsource our customer-facing support to another country, or try to scale it up to a couple hundred support drones, our customers would balk.

Remy: Are there any recent new features or other updates to the MailChimp platform that you are especially proud or fond of?

Ben: I’ve never really allowed much time in my life for pride. That’s not because I’m humble. It’s because every time I get too happy or proud about anything, something extremely bad happens to me immediately after. I think I’m cursed. So I’m not about to point out anything that makes me proud. My laptop will explode in my face or something.

I *will* say that I’m “somewhat pleased” (definitely not proud!) of the fact that after all these years of building so many innovative features, and then making them available through our API, that people are referring to MailChimp as a “platform.” I don’t believe you can just proclaim your product or service as a platform. I think you have to earn that designation.

Ben Chestnut during a presentation at Creative Mornings

Remy: Talking about new features / updates: are most of new features inspired in-house by the product management team, or do client and other platform users bring in enough feature requests and tips for the team to just make a selection and work on that? How did the recent ReplyTo app  get inspired, for instance? Was that out of your own need/want, or did the user base request such a feature?

Ben: We don’t even have a product management team right now. We take sort of a roundtable approach. We have over 1.6 million users, and they send us tons of feedback every day via email, live chat, Twitter and Facebook. We sort of soak all that feedback in, but we don’t usually take any immediate action on any one request.

Everything we program has to benefit the masses, not just one customer. We’ve lost large customers because we wouldn’t fork our code and build something custom for them, but in my opinion it was always the right philosophical choice (no better way to lose smart, creative programmers than by asking them to fork the code).

Anyway, we try to do what I refer to as “reading between the lines” to figure out what users *truly* need. We supplement that by watching a small circle of customers (representing different segments)  and looking at trends in their behavior. Then we propose new feature ideas to each other internally. If enough people seem to have some buy-in, we post our ideas into our ticketing system. Then, we hope someone eventually picks it up and implements it.

ReplyTo is something I’ve wanted for years. Putting it into the MailChimp app has always seemed like a non-trivial project, so we kept putting it off. I’m glad we did, because building it as a separate app that connects via our API is so much cooler, plus it’s there for people who need it, and it’s not bloating the app for people who don’t need it.

Remy: Let’s talk about your typical day at the MailChimp office. What part of work do you dedicate most of your time to: meetings, communicating (email/phone/chat), planning, designing, management etc?

Ben: On a *good* day, all my time is spent walking around and meeting with different teams and finding weird connections between their ideas and their work. Those days are more rare than I’d like. On a *typical* day, 70% of my time is spent in my office writing about stuff, and the rest meeting with teams.

Remy: What are your thoughts on the future of email marketing when it comes to mobile platforms: will it become easier to develop mobile email campaigns due to standardization, or more difficult because of the growth of platform diversity?

Ben: The future will be easier. Then difficult. Then easier. Then difficult again. Not trying to be obtuse, but I started my career as a web designer. We had 800600 pixels of screen real estate to design on. That was somewhat consistent, but then we also had to consider that most laptops were at 640480. Then there was this silly thing called WebTV, where we had some crazy resolution I can’t even remember anymore. Some websites could support the Shockwave plugin, but most didn’t.

Then Shockwave became Flash. You could design more websites that were Flash-enabled, but then you had to make alternate versions for the non-Flash users. We had Netscape and Internet Explorer to design for. In all cases, streaming video was some far-off dream that we could achieve if we all somehow got broadband to our homes.

Eventually, flat screens got cheaper and we got comfortable designing for 1600 pixels. And we got comfortable designing for Firefox and Safari (and I think *not* designing for IE). And we got comfortable assuming Flash was installed everywhere. And we got comfortable assuming JavaScript would not be an issue. We all got kind of comfy.

Then along came smartphones, with their tiny screens. And iPhones with no Flash. And Android with a bajillion manufacturer specs. And the Chrome browser. And the iPad. And Internet Explorer is supposedly great now. Back to normal. Normal is chaos. My point is it’s pointless to wonder if it’ll get easier. Besides, solving hard problems is where the money is.

Also, email marketers can deal with mobile device renderability. Hacking code to make logos and fonts bend to our will is what we do. That’s just a superficial concern, imho. There are more fundamental issues for email marketers to consider when it comes to mobility.

Remy: Since the introduction of the forever free plan, the MailChimp user base has exploded. However, you once noted in an interview (can’t find the url right now) that you suspected that MailChimp’s success for the larger part comes from the extensive API and all the integrations that have been built over time. Do you still stand by that opinion, or has it changed in recent times?

Ben: We’re very fortunate to have done both. The API allowed for integration with a bunch of different apps out there, who all linked back to MailChimp. Users would say, “Wow, you connect with my favorite xyz app *and* you’re free? Sign me up!” The API and the freemium plan together are probably what made things explode. The fun personality, which we discussed earlier, probably helped a lot because we have a more tech-savvy audience. I don’t think you could convince just any business to sign up for freemium apps, let alone connect our APIs.

Remy: Back to your typical day: what’s your favorite work related task at the MailChimp office?

Ben: Reminding people that it’s okay to try weird things.

Remy: A while ago, you had automated nerf guns at the office (http://blog.mailchimp.com/mailchimps-robotic-double-vulcan-nerf-gun-turret/) – is life still sometimes hectic or dangerous around there, or have things calmed down a bit?

Ben: I have a “slush fund” that I use to spend on weird projects like that turret, various attack robots, security apps, apparel, customer documentaries, pool tables, etc.  As our company has grown, I’ve since started using the funds to bring in interesting speakers for our Friday morning coffee hours (aka Fred Talks).

People who make robots, security experts, hackers, documentary film producers, pool sharks, and authors. It’s all over the board. You could say it’s less dangerous, but more hectic. Or you could say I’m trying to educate and inspire others here to be more dangerous and hectic (all in the name of scalability).

Remy: Is there a message or tip you’d like to give to email marketers who are just starting out ‘doing’  email marketing and don’t have a lot of knowledge yet?

Ben: It’s just talking to customers. In my experience, the less formal you make the process, the easier it gets. As a result, you’ll practice more and get better and have much better conversations. Find your voice, get comfy with your voice, then write like you talk. Everything will come naturally after that. Worry about stats and “best practices” later.

Remy: Finally: any hints of what we can expect from MailChimp in the near future, or is that all still a big secret?

Ben: Sure. We’re spending a lot of time recently on our Mandrill.com service. Sending transactional email is different from sending bulk email. It’s more one-to-one and more real time than bulk, and that changes our infrastructure, our abuse prevention mechanisms, and the way we design our platf–er–our API.

We’re also building and researching a lot in the area of mobile–not this silly idea that “wow, people are mobile!” but that *computers* are mobile now. As an example, I’m not a “mobile” person who’s always on the go. I’m too often immobile, with my butt firmly planted on the damned couch. But I’ve got my computer (my smart phone) with me all the time on that couch.

That changes things in weird, interesting ways. When everyone has a $399 computer with a camera and wifi in their pocket, what’s that make them? More connected and “social.” When everyone’s connected to one another in more human, more personal ways, and can talk to each other from tiny computers on couches that are thousands of miles apart, how’s that change their email needs (besides needing stronger reading glasses)? That’s what our TinyLetter team thinks about.

And then there’s all the exciting big data research we’re doing under EmailGenome.org, which we started to help improve the email ecosystem. I don’t know where any of the above will take us, and I suck at predicting things, but I do know that everything we’re doing, we’re doing to help make email better.


I’d like to thank Ben Chestnut for his patience and taking the time for this interview!

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