Dan Kurzius

It’s not often that you come across a story of someone, let alone two people, who changed the course of an entire industry. Not only that but also a story that is so well-documented and true. But, with email marketing pioneer Dan Kurzius, you have just that. Starting from the bottom and working his way up, Dan started from scratch. He, along with his friend, Ben Chestnut, created one of the most successful email marketing companies in the world, MailChimp – and they did it all through sheer grit, determination, and self-funding.

Family Life

Dan came from a background of hard work and determination that ultimately paved the way for him. His father Karl was a first-generation American who owned a bakery/deli in New Mexico. He and his brothers learned well from their parents the value of being industrious. Which gave Dan always the drive to succeed.

Dan and his brothers, Rex and Kurt, grew up in a small town where almost every single business was family-owned and operated. The local newspaper was run by family friends of theirs, and the toy store was owned by one of their classmate’s family. This made Dan and his brothers wonder what kind of business they would one day run; entrepreneurship was ingrained at an early age. But of course, he also learned that running a business wasn’t easy. His father gave the boys menial tasks but made them feel important, giving them a sense of pride in their work and a quality finished product.

Dan recalls waking up at 2 A.M. to go to the bakery because a snowstorm had collapsed the roof. The event was also memorable because while on the way home, the family was struck by a drunk driver. They all walked away from the accident, but it left a lasting impression on him. Karl would get out of bed every day at 3 A.M. to start his day. But despite the long hours, and the toll on his health, the bakery never really took off because it just couldn’t quite compete with other, larger chain establishments.

Facing Hardship

Then, in 1984, the Kurzius’ moved to Dallas. Dan’s father had an idea to start a new bakery and work with Texas A&M’s agricultural center to develop gluten-free bread, which would have been revolutionary. But that dream was never realized because just six weeks after the move, Karl Kurzius suffered a heart attack, which ended his life. After his father’s passing, Dan’s mother, Laurel, took over running the family.

This was a hard time for Dan and his family. Laurel had been working in the bakery with Karl most of her life. She would keep the books and help where needed. But now without Karl, she had three boys to take care of, with no real idea of what to do. She found odd jobs here and there like selling carpet cleaners to make ends meet. Eventually, the Kurzius’ moved in with their grandparents in North Texas to help. But the whole family was always on the edge of poverty. The first Christmas after Karl’s passing, Dan’s family only had a tree, no presents, and moldy food. They had to search through the grocery store to find deals on expired or damaged foods.

Dan made the decision that wasn’t going to let that get him down. He worked hard in school, and he and his brother, Rex, would start little businesses like mowing lawns to make money to buy things like clothes. In college, he took part-time jobs when needed the money. He was a DJ, a competitive skateboarder, and eventually got into real estate. And eventually, he graduated with a degree in computer science from Georgia Tech.

Onwards and Upwards

Of course, this story would be incomplete without mentioning Ben Chestnut. It was during college that Dan met Ben, who would go on to co-found MailChimp with him. But they didn’t start right out of school. Instead, Ben got a job working for a dot-com-era venture, as a coder. Ben didn’t have the background for it and bluffed his way through the interview. So, he talked the company into hiring Dan. Kurzius would code things, and Chestnut would present them. Their former boss later said that the two of them stuck out. He said that Dan was the brains, but Ben was the flair. Anything that Ben got his hands on, no matter how mundane, would come back ten times better.

After that venture folded, the two friends took their severance money and launched a company of their own, Rocket Science Group, that focused on web design. They would create websites for small to middle-sized businesses. But they soon realized that many of the businesses they worked with needed a platform to send out mass correspondence to their employees and customers. So, seeing an opening in the market, they pivoted their business into creating a service to meet that need. They began calling it MailChimp. This endeavor would soon become one of the leading email marketing providers in the world and revolutionize how businesses communicate.

Did you mean MailChimp?

With its intuitive design, MailChimp became the first email marketing provider that made it easy for anyone to use. They made it so that no one had to know things like CSS or HTML to set up beautiful emails, newsletters, or marketing information. Almost all their tools are “drag and drop” which means that businesses can put together the elements they need to assemble the message they want, and then that it can be sent to as many people as needed. At first, growth was slow. They could only really market themselves to small businesses in the area. But that could only take them so far since both Dan and Ben weren’t salesmen.

So, they went to the internet with their quirky brand of marketing, using humorous video ads that used wordplay like “JailBlimp” or “KaleLimp” to get people to put those terms into search engines and come back with search results saying, “Did you mean MailChimp?” With these tactics, word began to spread about their service, and it quickly grew in popularity. Soon after, MailChimp had become a global phenomenon, with millions of customers around the world. But even with all that quick upward growth, they soon topped out on what they could accomplish

Birth of the Freemium

Smaller businesses and individuals who were just starting out using MailChimp for more personal uses weren’t sure they wanted to pay for the service. So, Ben made the decision that would change everything. After talking with Dan, they concluded – they would make the tool free to use.

This decision alone would increase MailChimp’s user base exponentially, and the company was well on its way to becoming one of the biggest success stories in business history. Once the tool became free to use, Dan and Ben said they saw as many as 14,000 new accounts pop up daily for several months. The only time the service would charge its users is once they got to a certain level.

Businesses can decide to upgrade to premium services at any time, or it will happen naturally once the account holder’s audience grows to over 2,000 people or sends over 1,000 emails in a month. This is perfect for business owners because the reason they would need to upgrade signifies one thing, growth. Both Dan and Ben think it’s beautiful to see people make the switch from free to premium services because it means that MailChimp is doing its job, connecting businesses with their customers.

Kings of Bootstrapping

Dan and Ben both came from families that had businesses, but those businesses failed. They also saw the toll that came from it and noted that their parent’s businesses weren’t “scalable” which means that as the business grew, so could their ability to meet demand. So, they were determined to make sure that MailChimp would be.

They never accepted a dime of outside investment. That was because they didn’t want to feel like they were owned or had to take orders from other people. They wanted to be the ones at the helm and continue to even lead the company after they were bought by Intuit, the tax software company. Leadership in their company was so important that the two of them even turned down additional money to just walk away from the company and turn it over to Intuit.

Today, Dan’s net worth is estimated at over four billion dollars, making him one of the top 10 richest people in Georgia. But he points to his parents for his success. He says that they instilled in him the value of hard work and resilience no matter what. Dan Kurzius and Ben Chestnut are at the helm of a company that helps millions of businesses around the world communicate with their customers and employees.

Through their hard work, they were able to turn an idea into a reality, and the world is better off for it. Because they showed that not only is it possible to “bootstrap” or in other words start from nothing and pull a business up to great success and profitability. They also showed that it’s possible to start a tech company in a place that isn’t Silicon Valley, where many tech company startups are born.

Philanthropic Efforts

Ben Chestnut and Dan Kurzius haven’t let success go to their heads. Ben continues to try to give back in numerous ways both through donations and charitable events. They also like to lobby for “the little person” since both came from nothing. They like to seek out good and growing talent and provide them the opportunity to grow working for MailChimp.

Dan Kurzius’s Charitable Donations

Since Kurzius only recently came into the kind of success that landed him on the “Forbes 400 List”, he is a relatively blank slate, philanthropically speaking. Both he and Ben have worked to build up Atlanta’s poorer sides, where their headquarters are located because they were a little run down and they have tried to make them better a place to live, work, and spend free time. But other than that, there has yet to be seen any major philanthropic work from him. But that just makes the potential more exciting, because it’s clear that both founders are passionate about helping their community, and they understand the power of giving back to help make their city a better place.

The story of Dan Kurzius and Ben Chestnut is an incredible journey. From Dan’s poverty to his friendship with Ben to their passion for helping others. This story extends beyond the business world and might not have happened had it not been for Dan Kurzius’ determination to make something of himself, despite the odds. He is a great example of what you can accomplish if you keep working hard and never give up on your dreams. There has been no one more deserving of their success than Dan Kurzius and Ben Chestnut of MailChimp. It’s an inspiring story that stands as a testament to what one person can do when they set their mind to it.