The product development cycle I learned from Mailchimp's founder

The product development cycle I learned from Mailchimp's founder

Back in 2018, Privy was the leader in email list growth.

List growth was our wedge, and the big ESPs at the time like mailchimp loved us because our product was laser focused on growing lists, then syncing those new contacts to their ESP. And since they charge their customers based on list size, mo contacts = mo money .

So I was down in Atlanta for a Shopify event, and was lucky enough to get a meeting with Ben Chestnut, Mailchimp's cofounder and CEO, at Mailchimp HQ.

No real agenda other than putting a face to the name. We had been in touch a few times via snail mail and some partner swag.

Super nice guy, and someone I have always looked up to as inspiration.

There was a ton to chat about, our product integration, comarketing, the shopify ecosystem (this was pre breakup btw, and even then he had some spicy thoughts).

And after we got through that stuff, I just asked him, "how'd you build the engine"?

His answer really blew me away.

I think about it almost every day, at each stage of the Privy journey, and certainly in most of my conversations with founders I'm investing in.

Here's what Ben said:

  1. We listen very closely to what our customers want.
  2. We prioritize those things and build them.
  3. We write a blog post once its ready, and email it to our customers to let them know.
  4. Repeat.

That was it.

Seems so obvious, right? But are you actually doing every single step of this today? Why not? Habits start early.

As I reflect on the Privy journey, we were amazing at this early.

It was just me and my technical team in a wework no bigger than a bathroom. I'd be on live chat all day, and keep tallies on how often a customer was asking for a specific feature. As the list grew, we'd talk about it as a team, looking at their account specifically. That way the devs had full context on what it was, why the customer couldn't achieve it today, and why it was important.

We'd spend a week or two building it.

I'd write a blog post about it.

I'd follow up with the list of customers in intercom that had previously asked for it, with a link to the post.

And we'd email the rest of the base announcing the launch.

Many would adopt it.

It was so gloriously simple. That was the extent of our marketing (we had no sales team at the time either).

This cycle took us to $2M ARR with like 5-10 people, tops.

This cycle surfaced the demand within our existing customer base to build product number two and three, and cross sell the base. It's what got us past $10M ARR.

Listen > Build > Announce.

But remember, if you don't hit each of the steps, i.e if you are skittish to "announce" frequently, how the fuck are your users supposed to know you launched it?

Or if you're not building what customers are asking for, at a certain point, expect them to churn.

Hugely powerful. And as simple as it sounds, it gets harder as the team size grows.

Because devs don't have as much connectivity to customers, and support doesn't have as much influence over roadmap. In moments where Privy had plateued in between growth spurts, it was ALWAYS because we had gotten further away from this simple cycle. Maybe it was people, or process, or whatever.

This was 100% my fault. A bad hire here, investor pressure to grow headcount, etc. But I always knew in my heart when we were slowing down on that cycle, and my only regrets building the company were not acting faster to get us back into it.

And like clockwork, as soon as you get back into that rhythm, you'll grow again.

It shows that you're listening, shipping what customers want, and it builds their confidence that this is the right platform for their needs.

It also keeps you top of mind. Companies that ship what users want and announce tend to "suck the oxygen out of the room".  There's no room for anyone else to get in the mix.

When you're in this really tight cycle. That's when the magic happens.