LATE-AFTERNOON SUN IS SHINING on Atlanta’s BeltLine, an
abandoned train track converted into a green pedestrian path.
Children cluster at a cart selling small-batch raspberry-lime
Popsicles. Commuters swarm past on bikes and boards and
feet, the city’s gleaming towers at a picturesque remove. And
Chestnut, a slim and sober presence in near-monochrome
navy beneath his mop of black hair, is contemplating a bicycle.
“You start a company, and then you wake up one day and
realize you don’t remember what any of your hobbies are,” says
Chestnut, 43, the co-founder and CEO of MailChimp. “It gets
scary when you don’t really understand what it is that you like.”
He’s had some time to fgure that out recently. MailChimp,
which spent the frst half of its life fguring out what exactly
it could do well—which turned out to be handling companies’
email marketing—today is one of the most successful small
businesses in America. Except it hasn’t been small for a while,
not with more than 700 employees and 16 million customers
and 14,000 more signing up every single day.
Chestnut, who’s watched his company grow “from startup
to grownup” with a parent’s mixed emotions, has some free
time now that he’s no longer always worrying about survival.
His father recently reminded him he was once a good cyclist,
so now Chestnut has a group of mountain biking friends, a
Peloton at home, and a Strava addiction. He has a couple of
weekend racecars, too, to go with the Tesla he drives to work.
Tonight, he’s riding a cheap, lightweight company bike that
someone at MailChimp, in-house quirk frmly in place, has
named the Batmobile. It’s somewhat apt: Take away his quick
and slightly goofy grin, his ready embrace of the absurd, and
what one employee calls “the Mister Rogers look,” and Chest-
nut sometimes seems like he could outbrood Bruce Wayne.
“People will ask me, ‘Your business is doing so well. Aren’t
you happy?’ No. I’m in pain,” he says. “But that’s how you
know you’re growing.”
IT’S AN EXCELLENT PROBLEM to have, of course—one Chestnut
and his co-founder, chief customer ofcer Dan Kurzius, have
learned to embrace over the almost 18 years that they’ve
devoted to their company. MailChimp, which grew out of
a discarded web business, is proftable, still entirely owned
by its co-founders, and growing by more than $120 million
every year; Chestnut estimates that in 2017 it will post
$525 million in revenue.
That’s despite the fact that some undisclosed percentage
of his customers never pay MailChimp a cent. In fact,
MailChimp started succeeding when it stopped charging
everybody—when it deliberately tied its fortunes to the small
businesses that make up its core customers. It’s kept growing
at a torrid pace for years—this, while many more prominent
tech companies are losing money, customers, CEOs, and
credibility. MailChimp has never taken a dollar from venture
capitalists or other outside investors. And long before entrepreneurship was cool, it made itself crucial to the ecosystem
of new and emerging businesses. For all those reasons, in
2017, MailChimp is Inc.’s Company of the Year.
It’s a beautiful day
in his neighborhood,
and Ben Chestnut is
thinking about pain.
company of the year