Mar 1, 2010

Can MailChimp Handle My Large List?

We’ve been going to more email marketing industry events recently (and by "we" I mean Amy, from our marketing team). We’re not going to exhibit, sell, or get new clients. I’m not even sure Amy has business cards. We’re just going to learn. And boy are we learning. Apparently, people are a little confused about MailChimp. They ask us, "you guys are powerful and innovative and fun and all, but can you handle large lists, like some of the enterprise solutions out there?"

The short answer is yes. And here’s a graph showing our email delivery volume for all accounts with over 50,000 subscribers:


But you should really read the long answer…

Small biz? Or enterprise? Neither.

It seems like a lot of ESPs gravitate toward serving either "small business" or "enterprise" customers. A year or two ago, we arrived at a similar fork in the road. We were sitting in our conference room, discussing our infrastructure. We were growing so fast, it really felt like the old days when AOL was crashing because of all their users. If you’re too young for that, imagine the long-ago days of twitter’s fail-whale.

We had to decide whether we wanted to architect our system to handle hundreds of thousands of "small lists" (that’s if we wanted to target small businesses) or thousands of "large lists" (if we wanted to "go enterprise"). Keep in mind there’s a huge difference between those two. If you know you’re going to be serving small businesses, and their lists are usually less than 5,000 members, you can build everything in sort of a shared environment (gross over simplification there). Kind of like putting everyone in an apartment building. They have individual rooms and all, but they all live in the same place and share a lot of the same resources. On the other hand, if you know that the enterprise is your target market, you tend to have to build very separate — um, single family homes for each of them. Some homes are bigger than others, and some homes have to be custom-built. And usually, they all need housekeepers (account executives). If you can make this "big or small" decision early in your business, I think life is easier.

So which did we choose? Neither. Or both, depending on how you look at it.

Back to the meeting.

I listened to the pros and cons of small vs. large, then decided: "Self-serve users. Whether they’re big or small." See, the whole reason we started our company was to un-complicate stuff, so that people could get back to business. Last time I checked, both small and large businesses needed help with complicated stuff. And we’re here to help the ones who are eager to help themselves. Smart, inquisitive, "power users" who aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. Just a little. Photojojo is a great example of a MailChimp power user, and this case study shows the benefits they get from our system (near-100% deliverability, anyone?). They’ve been sending emails all by themselves for years. And they had no problem diving deep into our sample code, API, and knowledge base to get their stuff implemented. We see power users like this signing up to MailChimp all the time. Digg, GigaOm, Ars Technica, Smashing Magazine, and so many more. You can find a lot of example campaigns over in our Posterous showcase. They’re all self-selected. We don’t have any salespeople here.

Oh yeah, back to the meeting again.

So after I said that we’re not going to decide between small vs. large business, and that we instead would focus on "self-serve power users," the engineers got very quiet. Disturbingly quiet. They kinda just walked out of the room without talking much about it. I will never forget that meeting. Awk-waaaaaard!

Anyway, they eventually figured out how to handle it, and I think we’re better for it. Our infrastructure detects when a "small" user turns into a "big" user, and needs to move out of his "apartment" and into his very own home. And we do it all automatically.

So why did I say "self-serve users" in that meeting, instead of jumping on the enterprise, or small business, bandwagon?

Because we’re not VC-funded.

Okay, seriously. It’s because of our history. Many years ago, my co-founder Dan and I ran a website design business. We managed a lot of high profile "enterprise" clients. We loved it. And the profit margins were good (so long as they were in the right client quadrant). But that business wasn’t scalable enough for us. The only way to grow a business like that was to add more people and/or increase our billable rates. And the more people you add, the more tolerance you need for — let’s just call it, "imperfection." Nothing wrong with that. McDonald’s doesn’t employ a gazillion burger perfectionists, and they do alright. You can get by on well-trained drones. But the name of our company back then was "The Rocket Science Group." Yeah, not a lotta room there for imperfection.

One alternative that we considered to scaling up our service company was to add a few recurring income products on the side. This would even out our revenue peaks and valleys. MailChimp was one of those services, but it eventually became our sole focus (even longer backstory here, if you care).

So that’s why back when we created MailChimp, we chose to make it a completely self-serve system where customers could log in, pay us that sweet, sweet money with their credit card, and then get on with their business. With no intervention whatsoever from us. Don’t get me wrong. We have plenty of customer service. And they’re smart, and they provide excellent service. But we deliberately chose to avoid the "here is your account executive, and he will wash your car and walk your dog" route. Been there, done that. In some cases, that’s a necessary approach. In the case of email marketing, however, we felt we could make stuff so easy, you wouldn’t need any help at all.

Ahead of its time?

In the early days of email marketing, enterprise customers (with big lists) didn’t really like our approach. They wanted more hand-holding. They wanted account executives that they could call, and ask to explain stuff. Or ask to run some report. Or to put together some campaign for them. Stuff that we felt could be better handled by, oh, I dunno — pressing a button? We actually joked about all this in an April Fool’s blog post. But I can’t blame those enterprise companies for needing help. That’s because in the early days, email marketing services that chose to "go enterprise" were so busy managing so many clients’ ginormous lists and campaigns, they didn’t have much time to develop their applications. I’ve seen some of those apps out there. They look really powerful. Like green-screens and "type in your own SQL query" powerful. Yikes. Once they have a ton of those big clients on their giant mainframes, it gets extremely difficult to be nimble and innovate. Not impossible. Just difficult. And it doesn’t help that each one of those big clients has their own set of very demanding wishlists. Kinda hard to stay on your own roadmap that way. It’s hard to blame ESPs who go the "full service" route. You get nice, comfy padding in those monthly services and CPM invoices.

On the flip side, self-serve email marketing products had great interfaces for building campaigns in the early days. But managing giant lists, running reports, and delivering to millions of people on dedicated IPs was just not what we were built for. On top of that, most email marketing companies in the self-serve space decided to really, really, really focus hard on the small business space, after a certain someone kinda had an awesome IPO.  In fact, after that defining moment, self-serve email marketing seemed to mean "small business email marketing" to most people.

Not to us.

Times are changing

If you’re a high-volume sender with a large list, and you’re interested in un-complicating your email marketing, and you don’t think that in today’s world of interconnected APIs and cloud computing that it should cost you several thousand dollars to have someone click the "Send" button for you, then yes, MailChimp can most definitely handle your list.

See also: