Subject: Have you seen this chimp?
Were you standing in line outside the Moscone Center in San Francisco? Were you walking through the Krog Tunnel in Atlanta? Have you passed through Cleveland or Nashville recently? Or Austin? Or San Diego? Did you glance up at the sky and see a floating chimpanzee's head wearing a hat and winking at you? Did you ask yourself, "Who is this curious ape and why is he winking at me?"
Subject: Re: Getting started with MailChimp
At the end of last year, Atlanta-based email marketing service MailChimp released its annual report. MailChimp is privately owned, so its annual report has little in common with the annual report on Form 10-K that the Securities and Exchange Commission requires of publicly owned companies. Instead of legalese and earnings statements, MailChimp has a different way of bragging about what it does.
MailChimp's report is arranged in an ascending list of important numbers from 2013 beginning with 0, the number of games won by the company softball team. The modest, jokey numbers (2 new datacenters, 8 new babies, 9 new billboards, 18 new users in North Korea, 72 new employees) grow until they reach staggering heights: 2.5 million new users, 3 billion subscribers added, 70 billion emails sent.
MailChimp's offices occupy two sprawling, former industrial buildings on Atlanta's Westside. The company's employees, which currently number somewhere above 200, are split by department into various rooms. Developers and programmers occupy a dungeon-like basement where a wall of flat screen televisions blinks out the latest daily metrics: 250 million emails sent, 8,000 new users, 25,000 MySQL queries per second. On a natural-light-filled floor three stories above, content creators type away at blog posts, design billboards, scribble on dry-erase boards, and stage elaborate photo shoots with various iterations of a chimpanzee mascot named Frederick von Chimpenheimer IV. Across the parking lot is a medium-size conference room where authors and artists and entrepreneurs are brought in on Friday mornings to give informal talks catered with pastries and coffee. Above that room is a support team that works 24 hours a day to answer complaints, requests, questions, and comments from users basically any place in the world with an Internet connection. Sometimes, these employees take a break to play ping-pong in a room designed like a tiki bar, complete with hand-carved wooden pillars. Other times, they'll have a meeting in the "board room," where the walls have been covered in skateboards.
Wandering through this elaborately designed, robustly staffed maze, you may wonder, "All of this just to send emails? Aren't emails free? Don't we all know how to just tap out a few sentences and hit send by now?" Maybe you can, but this company, co-founded by Ben Chestnut and Dan Kurzius in 2001, has a found a rapidly growing market in helping companies send the right email at the right time to the right group with the right subject line.
How much is that kind of thing worth? Back in 2012, President Barack Obama's re-election campaign raised $2.5 million dollars with a single email. MailChimp has had no trouble finding customers to pay a small fee for its services.
Subject: Re: The relative pervasiveness of MailChimp
While reading this, open a new tab in your browser. Open your email inbox. Search "mailchimp" and see if you find anything.
Subject: Re: MailChimp and its peers
There are other companies that do what MailChimp does. A company looking to send polished, professional bulk emails can turn to Constant Contact in Massachusetts or iContact in North Carolina or AWeber in Pennsylvania or any number of others. In a larger context, though, MailChimp is a web-based application for sharing information, which is an elaborate way of saying "an app." MailChimp's biggest customers might be Fortune 500 companies sending out newsletters to millions of subscribers, but it's also a freemium service, which means anyone can sign up and send emails from the platform for free, up to a certain limit. If social media apps like Twitter or Facebook are the Internet's public space, you might think of MailChimp's work existing in the private Internet: our personal inboxes.
The first night that I met Chestnut, whose proper title is Chief Executive Officer of the Rocket Science Group, I asked him to describe MailChimp's position in relation to other email marketing companies. He said, "We just surpassed 5 million users. I don't know of anybody else that has that many. I don't want to dwell on it, but I don't know of anybody else that has that."
He paused for a second and added, "I don't really care. There's satisfaction in helping a lot of customers. That's all we want."
Modest statements like that are not uncommon from upper-level executives and CEOs. Oddly enough, the demands of managing large groups of people and massive sums of money seem to encourage reflection about the small, basic functions of business: helping people, solving problems, making customers happy. In practice, those of us who are not upper level managers or CEOs may regard such reasons with a kind of skepticism. Does a CEO have an insatiable desire to make a large number of people happy? Or, does a CEO simply want to make a very large sum of money? We usually assume the latter.