Photo: Mad Mimi
Entrepreneurship isn’t solely about selling things. It’s also about creating something useful that people need, and executing it to its full potential.That was what Gary Levitt did when he founded his startup Mad Mimi, a bootstrapped email marketing startup that he says now hauls in between $4-8 million in revenue each year.
But it was a strange, long road to get there. Born and raised in South Africa, Levitt was a pro skateboarder and musician before becoming an entrepreneur. He went to Boston when he was 19 to study bass guitar, where he would stay to play jazz for the next five years. His first foray into business reflected that background.
Levitt started a commercial music company in the late ’90s, writing jingles. That was when the power of email changed his life, giving him the foundation for the multi-million dollar company he would later found.
“When I was promoting my music company, I wanted to send an email out because that was sort of a cheap way to get people around you to know about you,” Levitt says. “And me coming from an arts background, I struggled to try to create this email, and eventually I hacked it together using DreamWeaver and whatever available software there was to me.”
One of those emails made its way to the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2000, and it earned him a big time gig. He would create original music for the show for the next six years.
Then, Levitt decided to switch paths. No more music. There may be something to that whole email thing, he thought, so he began to put together the first pieces of what would become Mad Mimi.
“It took about three or four months of me messing around to spend my dev budget of around $13,000,” he says. “It really wasn’t enough to get anywhere, and I started again with another budget — cobbled together from friends and family — of $100,000, which bought me a year of life and a bunch of debt.”
Money wasn’t the only struggle. Levitt had no technical experience whatsoever, and needed to find help. He bought stacks of books to help him learn everything he could about the business, tech and design of email marketing.
But it would take more than just books to make Mad Mimi a reality.
Levitt scoured the web for strong, visionary coders. “I went through 86 of the most authoritative developers,” he says. “I went through each one, researched them, sent them a personal email and told them a little about the project. Between 30 and 40 of them responded, and one of these people was Dave Hoover.”
Hoover, once a family therapist that got into coding to escape the profession, worked for software development firm Obtiva. He thought that Levitt’s project had major potential.
“He was really hungry for the gig and thought that it would help build up this new company he was working for,” says Levitt. “He just gave me really good energy. So yeah, I thought, Dave is the man.”
Levitt’s instincts were correct, and the two of them built Mad Mimi from the ground up.
“It was basically me handling all the design, branding and customer service, while Dave would do the whole back end side,” says Levitt.
But as with any startup, there were struggles. Things were still rough after raising the money, starting the company and getting Hoover on board, as Levitt worked tirelessly on his new website.
“I was living in a one-bedroom apartment with a family of four. I actually used to work from a coffee shop,” says Levitt. “But eventually a couple people find out [about the company], and another few find out, and it just started growing.”
Hoover’s company happened to grow too. Obtiva was acquired by daily deals behemoth Groupon in August, and Hoover is now a senior engineer there.
As for Mad Mimi, Levitt says that the company has grown to 20 employees, and the service has around 90,000 users, sending out about 30 million emails each day. Its clients range from big brands like Air Canada and Squidoo to local mum-and-pops stores. He stresses that the business is “highly profitable,” and that he hasn’t accepted any VC money. His crew has been working for the past two years on a new version, which Levitt plans to finally unveil this month.
How’d it manage to be so successful? Levitt attributes it to Mad Mimi’s relationship with its customers and product design.
“We’ve never done any marketing,” says Levitt. “One of our main ways of growth is shocking people into evangelism. I just pumped every little bit of energy into customer service. When a customer writes in a question, we suggest improvements, redesign their theme, and do all these cool things they wouldn’t expect. And they get wowed, adding this virality that spreads on Twitter and Facebook.”
Pretty savvy for someone that doesn’t have a business background.
“As an artist, as a musician, I try to make the best possible music,” says Levitt. “I don’t do something in order to get something back. I don’t think about how I’m going to sell it — typical starving artist strategy, huh? But I just use all that to produce an impeccably executed product.”
So far, it’s working.
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