I don't have business cards: A conversation with Michael Tavani

The cofounder of Scoutmob and Switchyards, a new consumer brand incubator, talks about being quoted in a recent cover story about MailChimp


  • Michael Tavani

While working on last month's cover story about email marketing company MailChimp, I noticed that Scoutmob founder Michael Tavani announced that he would stepping back from his day to day role at the company he helped found. To accompany that news, Tavani published a short mission statement on Medium, "Founders Gotta Found."

Among other things, Tavani wrote, "When you find your calling, you follow it. All I ever want to do is start companies. So I'm excited about diving right back in. In fact, I'll be working on a few projects simultaneously  -  and hatching them at Scoutmob HQ. My Evernote file on future projects is gigantic. The goal is to start a lab where I can quickly crank out new products  -  it's so cheap to get to launch nowadays."

In light of the conversations I had with MailChimp's co-founders Ben Chestnut and Dan Kurzius, Tavani's comments were particularly interesting. In part because of their experiences in late 90s tech boom and bust, Chestnut and Kurzius expressed a real commitment and long term dedication to owning and stewarding the company they founded. Tavani was making an interesting case for creative founders starting businesses and getting out of the way. Scoutmob and MailChimp being two of Atlanta's most recognizable tech brands, I thought the contrast between their attitudes was especially compelling. In the final story, I ran a quote from Tavani's post above some comments from Chestnut about his discomfort with the current start-up climate.

After the story came out, I noticed Tavani, who has since founded the consumer brand incubator Switchyards, tweeting that I'd gotten something wrong in the story. We agreed to meet up at Octane Coffee to talk about it.

Wyatt Williams: Well, you said that I got something wrong, and I'm curious, because I want to hear more if I got something wrong.

Michael Tavani: So, maybe this is just my take, but I think you probably used my story because it was maybe recent, and because it was like a high profile example of maybe a startup founder going out to start new things and then it was paired with Ben's comments.

You know, I loved the story, but what I thought more than anything else was, if you went to Atlanta Tech village, 60 percent of the people there would be exactly what I think what you were trying to describe with me. They wear a blazer with their t-shirt underneath with the company logo and they're like, "Hey man, let me tell you about my SaaS application." I don't have business cards. I don't wear the t-shirt. I actually don't want to raise money at all for these next companies. I want to build lifestyle companies where we don't raise money at all, and the goal of that is to actually build. MailChimp just happens to be a huge lifestyle company, but they don't want to sell, because they're having a blast doing it. That's exactly the kinds of companies that I want to build. I'm not like, "Hey, lets build this SaaS app, I see an opportunity to build this thing and sell it in two years and make a ton of money and we'll either start another one or go to the beach and retire."

So, I think that part I thought you had gotten wrong, you kind of used me as the example of the cheesy startup guy that's like pitching their business to sell, getting real big and sell and the passion for the company isn't there.

I actually - and I think some people would tell you this - I care a ton about brand and design and MailChimp is an amazing example of a company that cares abut brand and design. There aren't many in Atlanta that do. I want to start an consumer incubator that is only focused on the brand and the passion of the product and the craft of the product. Not, "Oh, we saw an opportunity to exploit a market, let's make a ton of money real quick," which I think is maybe the bad nature or the negative nature that you were trying to portray. You'll see a lot of that at Atlanta Tech Village. Had you went there, you probably would have gotten a ton of examples of exactly what you're describing.

WW: Well, hear me out. I did use that quote from Medium because it was topical, but also because you were being honest in a way that people typically aren't. If I popped over to Atlanta Tech Village, I'd likely get a pitch, not someone explaining the purpose of their life. You put everything on the table in that post and, I think, made an interesting case for a founder like yourself being suited to starting companies but not running them in the long-term way that someone like Ben is. You wrote, "When you find your calling, you follow it. All I ever want to do is start companies. So I'm excited about diving right back in." I don't need to quote this back to you. So, help me reconcile this. That quote seemed to be a fair illustration of your business style and ambition.

MT: So, maybe there's probably a few different things going on. On some of it, I think you're exactly right. I don't know that the point Ben was trying to make in the following paragraph was, "I don't like guys that start things." The point that I remember standing out to me was about the guy that hands out business cards while, like, hyping their business. Just because you're starting companies doesn't mean you're like that. The reason I'm now taking a step backwards is because I love the back-of-the-napkin small company, and we're beyond that phase now. I'm just a founder, and everyone has a calling. We have a guy at Scoutmob right now that doesn't have a creative bone in his body. He's an operator, and that's not me. You know, he can't start companies and I can. I don't love the operations phase.

I think MailChimp is in the phase where, at some point, I do think they're gonna get thrown, this is just my guess, they will get thrown a number, like a billion dollar number, a multi-billion dollar number. It's gonna be so great that they're gonna say we cannot pass it up. I don't think it will happen in the next 6 months. It will be a while down the road. But I do think at some point they're going to say, "We can change generations of our family, and we're kind of tiring," or whatever.

I think you were trying to paint MailChimp as in it for the long haul and they're never gonna sell the company and they just don't want to found multiple companies, this is it, this is their thing. I think its easy for them to say that now that they have hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue, I don't think they were thinking that way until recently and I bet if we pin Ben down, he would say the same thing. He was that guy probably hawking MailChimp back in the day.

I never was that guy. I've never had business cards. I hated that style.

WW: Well, I didn't say the words that Ben said, but I did put those quotes next to one another for a reason. I was less interested in comparing the culture of the business cards and pitches and more interested in putting these styles of business into context. You know, I did try to pin Ben down and he told me again and again that he doesn't want to sell the company, he wants to be a steward of it. His mindset is focused towards this style and management of the company that is very unusual in tech right now and that's what I was trying to contrast between those two quotes. I'm not saying one works and the other doesn't. I don't run companies; I'm not a CEO. I'm trying to illustrate what I think is an interesting contrast.

MT: Fair enough. From the article's perspective, I think it was a fine enough example to use that quote. If you went to Atlanta Tech Village, you would have really seen a contrast from Ben, I mean it would have been glaring. But, to be honest, I think Ben's style is so different from anyone else, you don't even have to go there. It's just different than anyone's style. I think they're unique for any company and they're in the fortunate financial position where they actually can be unique.

I mean, if they were based out in San Francisco, no one would join MailChimp and start working there. In the early days, they would never have been able to attract employees, because they don't give out equity. The reason why they don't have to do that here is that no one gives out equity. People in Atlanta don't even know what equity is, so they just join because it's a good company. They would've had a hard time taking off. Now, they're in the spot where they didn't give out equity, they own the whole company, they can put up billboards with no branding on it, just a plain blue billboard on Ponce because they make a lot of money and all that.

Scoutmob's one of MailChimp's bigger customers, and we've been with them from the first day we started Scoutmob. Our office is next to theirs. We love those guys, but I have heard rumblings from just people that want to chew off MailChimp's business. There are kinds of business guys that go crazy raising money like you're describing or whatever, and they want a piece of that pie. They're giving out equity and being aggressive and they're kind of the anti-MailChimp. There's an academic debate to be had about what will win over the long haul, and some people say that style's not going to win out.

They're being slow and they're not being aggressive. So, it's gonna be an interesting 5 years to see if that style, which is a very much anti-VC, anti-quick growth, anti-whatever style will win or this other, aggressive, we're gonna throw money at it, we are gonna fund, and we're gonna take a lot of outside money and all that. I don't know who's gonna win.

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