Hype’s How We Work series focuses on how successful southeastern tech companies are developing authentic work cultures.
2017 might as well have been the year of MailChimp — the email marketing company saw lengthy features in the press, quirky-but-memorable new marketing campaigns, product rollouts, and to cap off the year, the designation as 2017 Company of the Year by Inc. Magazine.
While the almost-18-year-old company has racked up such national accolades recently, in its hometown of Atlanta it has been woven into the fabric of the city and community for some time. So much so, in fact, that MailChimp’s “Investor Relations” page, where a private company would usually display figures aimed to attract potential dollars, instead showcases dozens of community initiatives, non-profit organizations and local projects that the company has given over $3 million total to help.
That Investors Relations page tagline? “Better, Weirder, More Human.”
“We talk about empowering the underdog in the form of small businesses, but we also look at empowering underdogs in the way we support the Atlanta community as well,” says MailChimp’s Director of Talent Strategy Aynn Collins.
Collins says that attitude also aligns with the way the company hires, onboards, and supports its now over 700 employees. In her role, she manages each employee’s experience from the time they sign their offer letter to when they leave the office for the last time. She also manages MailChimp’s “employer brand”, ensuring they’re a company that top talent wants to work for.
Collins has been with MailChimp since the beginning of their culture revamp five years ago, when she was brought on to develop a mindful and well-rounded recruiting process. A 150-person shop then, she has seen them through developments that include a full onboarding training, the development of not one, but two, employee educational programs, and a diversity commitment that permeates both their recruiting process and company culture.
As they gear up for even more growth in 2018, Collins walks us through MailChimp’s entire culture-building process, from the way they use their own product to onboard new employees, to how they identify diverse and successful talent, to the many ways employees are encouraged to continue to learn and develop while at MailChimp.
At MailChimp, how do you build a recruiting process in order to find and identify the people that will be a good fit for your culture?
When I came in five years ago that was the focus — what are we looking for, what is it that makes MailChimp special, and how do we hire to make that continue? So we took a year to really listen to employees and look at what made them special, and then went back and defined values for the company. At that point the company was already over 10 years old, but looking at what values were consistent among our high-performing employees and then creating recruiting plans that worked to that.
The three values that we defined were humility, creativity, and independence.
During the interviewing and recruiting process, how do you go about identifying not just the hard skills an employee needs, but also the soft skills and the values that you just talked about?
We like to say our recruiting process is very high touch. You spend a lot of time with the recruiter, a lot of time with a hiring manager, you’re probably going to be in the office at least two times for a formal interview before an offer will be made. You’re spending two to three hours minimum in a face-to-face interview.
We talk a lot about people’s experiences, where they’ve worked before, or what has worked in the past. Those questions let us understand what makes that person motivated and if they’ll fit at MailChimp or not.
Once you extend an offer letter, what do you do for new hires during onboarding to make sure the transition is smooth?
I think we’re really good at this. We have an employee integration team of four people that are focused on just that, integrating employees that are new or are changing jobs within the organization. For new employees one of the most fun things we do is, obviously in a digital age you get a job offer via e-mail, but we also send new hires a package welcoming them to the company. It’s got MailChimp swag like a really fun postcard that says “Will you be my co-worker?” It’s just an exciting thing, a physical thing that they get in the mail that makes it feel real.
We actually use our product to help onboard them to the company. We set up a series of onboarding campaigns for new hires, and they start getting them to get excited about what their first week at work is going to look like: what they need to bring, where they park, encouraging words that we can’t wait to meet you.
Once they get to MailChimp they go through a full week of onboarding; they are not expected to do any work at all. They honestly see very little of their team for the first week because they’re in a cohort of new hires. During that week, they’re listening to leaders from throughout the company talk about their function and how it all ties together.
Our motto is “listen hard, change fast”. We think the most important thing you can do when you come to MailChimp is listen really hard to the culture, understand where you can make an impact, before you jump in.
Looking at diversity in hiring and in your employee base is something that MailChimp as a company talks about a lot. Why is this important?
Diversity has always been really important to us. I think we have always seen that diversity just makes us a better company, it lets us understand our customers better, it lets us see a different point of view in building all of our products and working with one another. We’ve taken the last 18 months to be more intentional about our diversity efforts. But back to why it’s important — it just makes us better as people and that leads to better business.
We have spent a lot of time this year looking at how we could be more intentional from a recruiting perspective. Our recruiting team is really creative at thinking about where are we not, where do we need to be to attract candidates that can add to our diversity.
What about fostering diversity after you have hired those candidates, once you’re all in the workplace?
We have an employee resource group here called the Mothership. Two summers ago, when everything was going on with Ferguson and there were just so many terrible things happening in our country, a small group of employees went to Marti Wolf, our Chief Culture Officer, and Ben Chestnut, our co-founder. They said, we’re just really upset about what’s going on the world and it doesn’t seem right to not be able to talk about it at a place where we spend a lot of our time, here in the workplace. So Marti and Ben said absolutely — let’s do an open forum and bring employees together to talk about how they’re feeling.
Honestly, it was a little bit scary. In an open forum where there’s no moderator, where people’s emotions are really raw in the workplace, you don’t know what to expect. But it was one of the most amazing things. People were very open and talked about their fears — what it was like to be marginalized, what it was like to be a person of color. That’s what kicked off this Mothership movement here at MailChimp. They’ve done an amazing job of creating a purpose and doing things that help employees feel included and understood, but also help us to reach out and improve our diversity.
They’ve partnered with certain department heads to create an open house-type event where everybody in the company looks at their network and says, who can we invite to MailChimp that can really add to our makeup? We’ve done that twice in the last six months and they’ve been incredibly successful. We’ve gotten new hires out of them, and more importantly we’ve just expanded our network.
Retention is a really big issue that tech companies have to tackle nowadays. How do you make sure that your employees stay happy and motivated throughout their time at MailChimp?
We are really proud of MailChimp’s retention rate — we only have a 4 percent attrition rate which is kind of unheard of in the general tech world. I think we’re good at making matches of people that align with what we do, with our values, and we work really hard to keep them happy.
We feel like our people come here for three things. We think they come here for a community that they feel very connected to, that shared set of values and being engaged in Atlanta. We also think they come here because they believe they can make an impact — the employees that do well here are very connected to our broader business goal and vision of empowering small businesses. And then possibly the biggest one is growth — making sure people always have a great learning opportunity here. We have an incredible learning and development team that not only offers technical training opportunities, but just as importantly, soft skills.
There’s another thing that sounds a little cheesy, but it works really well. Everybody that comes to MailChimp gets assigned a person outside of their department matched according to interests, called your “Chimpanion”. So you have this person that you can form a relationship with outside of your department, like your safe buddy — your cultural guide to the company. People get really into it! I have four Chimpanions, and they have Chimpanions, so we have family gatherings together.
Can you talk about the opportunities MailChimp employees get for extended learning? What about the opportunities for employees to interact together?
We have a program called MailChimp University, which is an MBA-style learning program that is accessible to every employee. Once you’ve been here for six months you get on a list to be enrolled — it’s 40 hours in the classroom with continuing education throughout the whole time you’re here.
There’s a women’s empowerment group that formed about nine months ago. I actually started an employee resource group (ERG) back in Q4 of last year for people over 40 at MailChimp. Right now there’s an LGBTQI group forming as we speak. So we have about five groups right now and we encourage anybody in the company to suggest an ERG.
Another thing that you focus on is giving back to the community, and you touched on the importance of giving back to Atlanta. So why is that important to your culture?
Ben and Dan [MailChimp’s co-founders] are very dedicated to Atlanta, and feel like it is sometimes overlooked as a great place to build a tech company. We talk about empowering the underdog in the form of small businesses, but we also look at empowering underdogs in the way we support the Atlanta community as well. They’re not necessarily the things that are obvious places to give to, but things that are more grassroots where we think our dollars will make a bigger impact.
One of the things that I know a lot of employees are really engaged around is a literacy action program, where taking a mother with a family who can’t read past a 4th-grade level and getting her up to a 12th-grade level changes the whole trajectory of that family’s future. It’s something that we can not only give money to, but employees can get involved in terms of volunteering. All of us get 2 paid days off a year to volunteer in the community.
We also have this amazing program called Community College for a small cohort of employees. It’s a lot like our MailChimp University program — its in the classroom, there’s prep work. You spend 60 hours in a workshop setting with community leaders from all over Atlanta to talk about all the elements of community and ways things like poverty, homelessness, mass incarceration affect the community. It’s basically teaching people how to be leaders in the community.
To wrap up, how does this whole process — the intentional recruiting, the values, the onboarding process, community focus — how does that all feed into making MailChimp more successful as a business?
You know, we are still growing up, where we are definitely established but we still see so much ahead of us in terms of building an amazing marketing platform for small businesses. We talk about listening hard and changing fast, and we’ve got to constantly be on the edge — I think all the recruiting and onboarding and getting employees engaged quickly is the key to that.
I like to say all the time I think that our founders, as dedicated as they are to building a product that helps small businesses grow, they want to make an amazing place for people to grow as best as they can at MailChimp. The key is that it has to be a constant effort. We have to constantly be repeating and practicing the values and the way we work to our employees and leading by example.
Photos provided by MailChimp. This interview has been condensed for clarity.