Nov 18, 2010

MailChimp Launches $1 Million Integration Fund

Update: Nearly $3 million has been paid since launch, with $1 million more pledged

We just announced our $1 million MailChimp Integration Fund. It’s sort of inspired by Ycombinator, except there’s no equity involved. We basically want to help small startups with small, paying projects. Projects that involve integrating their apps with the MailChimp API. If you’ve got an idea for integrating with MailChimp (along with all these other great apps), you can fill out this online application.

Here’s the story behind the Integration Fund…

There are two questions people ask me all the time, and I always surprise them with my answers.

First, they bring up our recent growth spurt, and they ask what our "silver bullet" was. Most think it was the introduction of our freemium plan, but that’s not the case. I don’t think there is a silver bullet anymore (I say this, after chasing it for about a decade). I think you just have to work hard for about 10 years before you know what you’re doing (btw, I still don’t know what I’m doing). But I *can* definitely say that one of the best investments we ever made as a company was in our API. It’s probably the best marketing we’ve ever done. I’ve joked about this before, but it’s true — if you’re an early-stage technology company, and you’re thinking about hiring sales people, or some marketing rock star, don’t do it. Just work on your API. Then, integrate with some great companies with open APIs (check out The Small Business Web), and use their popularity to grow your own customer base. Then, before you know it, new companies will start integrating with you to leverage your customer base. In the meantime, you’re all naturally promoting each other (technical blog posts and knowledge base articles are really marketing), and ecosystems start to form around you.

Second, people ask me how/where we got our funding. We actually never got any funding. We didn’t even take out any 2nd mortgages, or use credit card debt. We funded ourselves with paying clients. See, in the early days, we were so jaded from the dot-com fallout that we thought all VCs were evil, bank loans and lines of credit weren’t that much better, and IPOs were signs of the apocalypse. So we went out and did web-dev work. All our little projects are what basically paid the bills while we built MailChimp on the side. Okay, granted, that wasn’t so much "strategy" as it was "trying to stay afloat" but still — it’s what made us what we are today: a profitable, privately owned company with half a million users.

Start small, fund yourself with paying projects, and build up a strong API. We think it’s a pretty smart approach, and we’d like to encourage all the startups and entrepreneurs out there to try it too.

In fact, we’ve been practicing this approach for a while now without even realizing it. A small startup would approach us with some crazy powerpoint presentation or boilerplate "revenue sharing" proposal where they’d tell us about how they’re going to send us bajillions of customers in exchange for x% of the money or something. We’d say, "Um, you don’t even have any customers right now, do you?" And they’d answer, "Um, no." Then we’d ask them if they’ve even built a product, and they’d usually answer the same way. So, partly just to avoid more paperwork and more pitches, we’d offer them a few thousand dollars to fund their integration, and tell them that if customers like it, we’d promote it more.

Just recently we figured, "Why not turn this into an official fund, and make it a process?" It sure would beat all the other cheesy, "Integrate with us, and win an iPad!" kinda promotions. Plus, it aligns perfectly with our philosophy.

Got an idea that could integrate with MailChimp’s delivery platform? Let us fund it. But no powerpoint presentations, please.