Non-technical founders success stories: A $12B side hustle

In September 2021 MailChimp was acquired by Intuit for $12B. The crazy part? Mailchimp has no real technical founders and was fully bootstrapped to $1B in revenue.



It began as a bad joke

It all began more like a bad joke. Nothing promised their success. There was a project manager and a failed DJ. They were both laid off their companies, and had some savings. They came together to do some web design. They failed. But then a side project suddenly kicked off. Ben Chestnut was the son of an army codebreaker and an immigrant entrepreneur. His mom ran a home salon — that's where he learned the basics of entrepreneurship while literary hiding under the kitchen table. Half Thai and half American, he never fit into a small southern town

Dan Kurzius was born in Albuquerque, working at his family's bakery until a big chain pushed them out of business when he was 12. His father died of a heart attack shortly after that, and the family lost their primary income.

As millions of teenagers, Ben was not sure what he was interested in. He ended up in web design. But his major was in industrial design, so he had to teach himself the basics of HTML and CSS to do the web. One day he got an interview at Cox Media – not for websites, though. For the banners. Still, Ben chose to accept the offer — just to learn more about web development hands-on style.

At the same time, Dan Kurzius made his way to Atlanta as a part time DJ and competitive skateboarder. Not your traditional picture of a non-technical founder, huh?

When he settled down with his wife and had a few kids, it was time to get a "real" job. You've heard about coincidence right? So, around 2000, Dan applies for a gig writing at a — what do you think — music startup backed by the same Cox Media.



He was interviewed by no one else but Ben who had climbed his way up the ladder to become a project manager and web developer at that same "startup" - MP3Radio. Right during the interview Dan realised that the job was about writing code, not the music reviews as he'd expected. He knew nothing about coding. But he wanted the job, so he just lied. And got the offer! Dan used 2 weeks he had before showing up in the office, to learn the basics of code. He spent his first day terrified he would be found out as a fraud. He turned out to be a natural talent, but that didn't matter. MP3Radio shut down a few months later. Did it lead to the birth of MailChimp?


The failed agency

As many non-technical founder success stories this one was not so fast too. First, there was another failure. Ben and another coworker, Mark Armstrong (curiously, a non-technical founder too), used their severance checks to found Rocket Science Group (RSG) — a web design and development agency for big tech companies. Miraculously, they called Dan too — they just liked the guy.

It was the beginning of 2001. The agency did not have too many customers to begin with. But after the dot com crash they felt they needed a pivot to stay alive. What did they choose? Airlines, from all things. After 9/11 they had to pivot again — this time, into real estate. That did not work very well either.


— Big corps are stretching us thin, — complained Dan. — They want too much white glove services that we just can't deliver.


But targeting small businesses was an absurd idea — they did not want $30K websites.

What they wanted was email marketing. Ben had the idea of a simple email app that looked more like a greeting card. The tech was a piece of cake even for a non-technical founder like Ben: some HTML and scrapping. He decided to launch it with a small Adwords budget. MailChimp was running as a side gig for the agency for several years.




Until one day Ben put together the agency numbers and was shocked by the realization: the agency was slowly failing. The only reason they were still alive was their email business. So, they went all in.


By 2007 they were full time on the email platform for small businesses, Mailchimp. They had 10,000 users and barely broke even. To boost revenue, they switch to monthly fees from charging per send email (that was the standard back then).

By 2008 it was a classical SaaS. Mark, the third partner, could not take it any longer. Ben and Dan had to buy his shares out. By Sept 2009, they reached 85,000 paid users. And then they introduced Freemium.



It was a big bet but tying their success to their customers was a game-changer. Profit grew by 650% that year! MailChimp was adding 30,000 users every month. By Sept 2010, they had grown to 450,000 users and just over $2MM ARR. It only went upwards from there. By September 2012, the company had reached 2 million users. They were growing 10-15% every month! They over doubled in 2013 and added 2.4 million new users that year. They hit 5MM users at the beginning of 2014 and then went mainstream.



MailChimp marketing


MailChimp marketing activities are now studied in colleges and part of the marketing education program. But back then, whatever they did, was an innovation. And partly because of that it paid off so well.


Freemium

It was a model that brought MailChimp huge success. Now it is used by most SaaS services but in 2008 it was a gamble.


Sponsoring podcasts and shows

Companies did not invest in TV or podcast shows in early 2000. Mailchimp was one of the first to spot this marketing channel. It sponsored shows like the Joe Rogan Experience to fuel growth, and a 'Serial" — a true crime story told in tantalizing weekly installments by the producers of This American Life. A friend introduced Ben and Dan to a not yet launched show, they agreed to sponsor season 1 for $300k. "Serial" was a breakout success. More so, while recording the ad Dana Chivvis and Julie Snyder mispronounced the service name, and the mistake it went life. Instead of devastation Ben and Dan were ecstatic with happiness — a mistake went viral, that led to creation of different mailChimp related memes. And brought them 8 million users that year.


Content marketing

Mailchimp again, was one of the first to leverage this strategy. Blog posts, educational videos, emails to the users with guidelines on how to build efficient marketing campaigns – they all sealed the deal.


SWAG

Mailchimp uses swag a lot to make their customers feel special. All items are shipped for free. Read here my article on how to build a successful tech business on SWAG being a non-techie founder with zero coding skills.



But MailChimp swag is not your "put your logo here" variety. It's funny and unique and remarkable. For example, these funny cat hats were sent out to all new subscribers in 2012 — everyone who followed the link in the Facebook announcement.



— Piggyback on every noticeable event. In 2018 the pictures of the giant black hole was a hit in the scientific community. What did Mailchimp do? They issued a series of videos Mailchimp vs a black hole that explained how to use marketing budgets in a smart way (vs draining it all in the black hole). Obviously, that got Mailchimp some boost in the search results.





In 2016 Mailchimp got a $2 billion acquisition offer. They declined it. By 2018, there were multiple offers above $4 billion. In 2021 Intuit offered $12B and Mailchimp accepted. By then it became the leader of the market with 62% market share and ~$300MM in EBITDA for 2020.

It took two non-technical founders 20 years to get there. But without a doubt, a noticeable success story!


If you are a non-technical founder and don't want to learn how to code when building your own startup — find a tech cofounder or hire a talent for less! Check out my course how to do it hustle free.