Venture Atlanta Conference 2016
Venture Atlanta
Apr 2 /

Interview with MailChimp CEO Ben Chestnut

As part of this edition on talent acquisition and retention, we sat down with Ben Chestnut of MailChimp to talk about the company’s culture and talent management strategies.

Chestnut was quick to disclaim the company’s “startup” status since it had been in existence since 2000 as a web development consultancy but given their growth trajectory after transitioning into a SaaS business in 2007, MailChimp has “street cred” in abundance to provide information relevant to startups; especially those that are in the mid-to-later stages.

Q1. What was the timeline for the transition into a SaaS business?

It was 2007 when we decided to shift our focus to SaaS, and put all our eggs into the “MailChimp basket.” We grew rapidly from there, but it wasn’t until 2009 that we introduced our freemium plan. That’s when people first noticed us, and it’s why people think we’re relatively new on the scene.

Q2. How does the evolution of the company affect what the company looks for in a new hire?

It makes our situation different from startups because we’re looking for solid, long term crafts people who love what they do. I want a programmer who loves programming, and a designer who loves designing. We want the kind of people who love solving big problems for millions of users with massively large amounts of data. We want people who love to work hard, and go home with tired brains. And boy do we pay them well.

Having a “startup” aura around us is nice for attracting talent, but it also attracts people who try a little too hard to show that they’re “startup entrepreneurs,” which I equate to “mercenaries who kill for stock options.”  When we tell them we’re self-funded, intend to keep it that way, and are in this for the long run, you can see the confusion and disappointment on their face.

Left: Ben Chestnut, MailChimp Co-Founder & CEO
Right: Dan Kurzius, MailChimp Co-Founder & CCO

Q3. How difficult and competitive has it been to attract the talent you want and need?

It’s been extremely difficult, but I’d say it’s because of us, not because of a lack of talent in Atlanta or anything. We’ve got a uniquely weird culture here, and we take a lot of time to vet people for culture fit.

Q4. What are some examples of perks that are offered at MailChimp?

We have the typical “super generous benefits that come with working at a high-margin tech company” such as:

via MailChimp on Flickr

– Fully paid health insurance for you and your family

– Fully paid dental insurance

– Fully paid vision insurance

– Disability insurance

– A 401(k) plan

– Free smartphones and monthly service (iPhone, Android, AT&T, Verizon-your choice)

– An endless supply of t-shirts and hats

But we’re careful about not going crazy with perks. People here know that the insurance-related benefits aren’t for recruiting. They’re so that we never have to worry about our family health coverage. We’ve got that covered here. We can just focus on our work.

There is one perk I’m personally proud of. We encourage our employees to learn new, weird things through our weekly(ish) Coffee Hour Speaker series.

We invest a considerable amount of time and money there. It’s like an internal “TEDTalks.”

Q5. How about something unique that you offer that nobody else can match?

An extreme responsibility to be creative. MailChimp’s got a ton of resources for a private company that’s completely self-funded. You’d think that would make things easy, but that actually creates a huge sense of responsibility that some people just can’t take. It means that when we plan our product roadmap, and when we build new features, and when we design our app and our ads and when we write our content–we can’t lean on the “we have to please our investors” crutch. You can’t say: “integrate with this social network thing over here, because our investors would want that.” You can’t phone it in and say: “Just make the ad have a big giant logo and tagline and URL, because that’s what our investors would expect.” There’s no “Let’s just be safe and boring and corporate” safety net. We actually have to build things our customers find useful and truly enjoy. Otherwise, we’re out of jobs. If we fail, there’s nobody to blame but ourselves. That’s a big responsibility for our staff to be creative.

Q6. Is there one success story you can share? (Landing the person you wanted by “leaving no stone unturned”)

We stumbled upon an impressively complex app that someone built by integrating with the MailChimp API. We found out the developer was based here in Atlanta. We reached out to see if he’d want to work here full time. He said, “No thanks.” I tried again, and as if to brush me off once and for all, he suggested I talk to his friend, who might actually be searching for a job. I told the guy, “Thanks, tell your friend the pay is awesome, and we don’t really care about education background or pedigree–just talent and work ethic.” That inspired this developer to say, “Wait, maybe I do want a job at MailChimp!” He joined and has been programming happily for three years now.



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