Tell us a bit about the founders and what brought you to start a business together?
Ben and I started the business while we were still at university back in 1999, but our history goes back a lot further than that. We've known each other since we were 5 and grew up across the street from one another.
We ended up doing the same IT degree at Wollongong University and towards the end of the degree decided to start our own business. We were originally a web design shop building sites, intranets and basic web applications for a range of clients. After graduation we ignored the temptation to take on a boring job at a big bank or consulting firm and decided to stick with the business full-time.
It was the best call we ever made.
How long was it before you could leave the home office and get into a real office and what impact did that have?
For the first year or so we worked out of a spare room in Ben's dads house, which was great for keeping our expenses down. Eventually we applied for some space in a local small business incubator called the SSHED.
Moving into an office space surrounded by other small businesses had a huge impact on us. In those days we were a web design shop doing work for a range of clients. In the SSHED we met people launching product-based companies, which helped inspire us to create Campaign Monitor. Surrounding yourself with like-minded and interesting people can be extremely valuable when you're growing a business.
Tell us about how you initially got started in web design / development?
I've always been a big fan of design, and started tinkering with HTML while I was at uni in 1997. Not long after I started doing some simple freelance work for a few small businesses and it really just built from there. I was passionate about the front-end, while Ben was more interested in server-side development, so it made sense to join forces and offer a more complete service.
In those days you had to roll your own CMS, your own email marketing tools, your own everything. By the time I graduated we were working for a number of high profile clients like Foxtel and Toyota, so it only made sense to continue down that path.
Is Freshview still active outside the realm of Campaign Monitor?
The original design company is still going strong, although these days I have little to do with it. As of 2005 all our energy was focused on Campaign Monitor, and it's been that way ever since.
Can you tell us a bit about the technology you use and why this is important?
To be honest I don't think the technology you use is very important at all. It surprises most people when they find out Campaign Monitor is built on a Microsoft platform, but we've been extremely happy with how it performs. It doesn't matter if you're using Ruby, Python, .NET or Java, it's all about building stuff that people need.
The only time technology is important is developer happiness. Your team needs to enjoy the technology they're working with. If you can tick that box then focus everything you've got on the experience you're providing.
Have you ever thought about migrating to a different solution stack?
Because of our constant growth we're always evaluating other technologies out there and use a range of proprietary and open source software across our platform. Right now we're very happy with the direction we've taken.
Considering the amount of traffic your servers receive you must have experienced growing pains at some stage. Can you tell us about this and how you worked to solve them?
Absolutely. Today we have one of the highest transaction databases in the country, and you can't get to that size without experiencing some problems along the way. I think the important lesson I've learned is that while scalability is important, you shouldn't get too pre-occupied with it in the early days.
Instead of pouring all your energy into making sure what you're building will scale to this imaginary size, just make sure it's good enough and focus on getting paying customers through the door. If people are paying for your software then scalability is a good problem to have. It means you've got money coming in and can afford to make continual improvements. Scaling too early is a common mistake I see lots of startups make. Wait for it to become a problem, then deal with it.
In 2009 you suffered a fairly public attack in which accounts where compromised and spam was sent. Needless to say events such as this are fairly stressful for any company. What measures have you put in place in an effort to stop this from happening in the future?
This was a big wake up call for us, but also proved to me how amazing our team is. Ben and I were actually away on a surf trip with friends in a remote part of Indonesia with no contact with the outside world. Off their own backs our team went public with the incident, worked around the clock to fix it and kept our customers in the loop throughout. It was a public event because we knew the only way to deal with it was to be honest.
Looking back, I think being open and honest was absolutely the right way to handle it. We received amazing support from our customers and ended up having our biggest month ever the very next month. Since that time we've made a huge range of security improvements to our infrastructure, beefed up our systems engineering team and have regular audits from external security companies.
The Email Standards Project is a great initiative which has gathered some great support for a positive push forward in that area. Can you tell us about any wins which you have seen as a direct result of this project?
We started the Email Standards Project as a response to the continual movement away from web standards support in popular email clients. While the web continues to move forward embracing new technologies like HTML5 and CSS3, email is genuinely stuck in the dark ages. Gmail strips all CSS from the head by default. Worse still, Outlook 2007 and 2010 use the Word rendering engine to display HTML email.
We had mixed success in the end. We worked with Yahoo! to fix a number of bugs in their renderer. We also had some great discussions with Apple and IBM. More recently we launched a big campaign aimed at Microsoft, which you can see at http://fixoutlook.org. When we heard that Outlook 2010 was going to stick with using Word to render emails like Outlook 2007, we started a successful campaign to get their attention. Unfortunately we caught them too late in their development cycle, but they'd assured us it will be resolved in the next version of Office. In truth the damage has already been done, but at least we got them to hang a Fix Outlook poster on their wall.
With the current glut of email clients available to the end user do you see usage trending as exciting or daunting for your efforts?
Unfortunately HTML email is about building for the lowest common denominator. While it would be great to just target Apple Mail or Thunderbird, there's every chance that a big number of your subscribers (and your boss) is using an email client like Outlook our Lotus Notes with poor standards support. This forces you to aim pretty low and stick with nested tables and inline CSS when building emails.
The one area that gets me excited today is mobile email. The iPhone really revolutionised mobile email standards support and is dragging the rest of the industry with it. Now that the iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and Palm all use webkit to render HTML email, you can finally optimise the email experience for smaller screens using the @media query. It will be very interesting to see how this impacts email design as more people move away from the desktop.
Most Email Designers / Developers would have come up against the obvious flaws in Outlook 2007 and as a web designer/developer I would compare that to the frustration which IE6 provides.
Lucky for us IE6 has started to disappear, unfortunately Outlook 2007 is only relatively new in the product cycle and might be with us for some time to come.
Do you see Outlook 2007 as a major failing or just another challenge in the email landscape?
Like I mentioned earlier, I really see Outlook 2007, and now 2010 as the straw that broke the camels back. Given the market share Outlook enjoys, that's just too many of your recipients to ignore when it comes to how you build HTML emails. It ultimately meant that there was no longer any reason to encourage other email client developers to adopt web standards and ultimately meant the gap between email and the web will continue to grow, at least for the next few years.
To compare Outlook 2007/2010 with IE6 is just plain unfair to IE6. As scary as it is, Outlook is much worse.
You keep a fairly small team for a company which produces such a well known product. Is this a result of selective criteria or purely an operations decision?
I think it's a combination of both. We're really protective of our work environment, and are very careful to hire the people with the right personality as much as the right skills. Were also big believers in being able to do big things with small teams. In the end I think it comes down to the sort of company we'd like to work at. I don't want to get to a place where you don't know everyone's names and we're riddled with a layer of management between us and our team.
Of course this might change. As our customer base and their needs continue to grow we might have to grow with them. Just like the scalability issues I mentioned earlier though, that's a problem we'll worry about when it happens, and not a moment before.
Tell us about your office space and the move to closed offices vs open plan, has it aided productivity?
After more than a year of planning and construction, we moved into our new office space a few months back. Over the years we've had open plan, closed offices and a combination of both. My experience, along with all the evidence out there suggests that private offices for each team member provide the best environment to actually get things done.
While our new space features 40 private offices, we've also built a huge common area that includes a kitchen, dining hall, ping pong arena and gaming/lounge area. This way we strike a balance between shutting your door to get stuff done and hanging out with the rest of the team. You can watch a quick tour of the new space here:
Can you provide any insightful advice to any hopefuls wanting to develop their own web application as you have done?
Absolutely. Here are a few points I think are key:
1. Don’t make excuses, start building something right now. Ideas are worthless unless they’re executed. 2. Never be afraid to charge for your product from day one. If nobody is prepared to pay for it, it’s probably not solving an important problem anyway. 3. Avoid additional investors if you can. There’s nothing more satisfying than being in complete control of your destiny. 4. You’re starting a business to give you more freedom to do what you enjoy in life. Don’t let it consume the very thing you’re aiming to improve.
Just for fun, how many email newsletters do you subscribe to and what is your primary email client?
I'm a bit of an exception to the norm here as I subscribe to a pile of email newsletters to keep up with new design and content ideas people are coming up with. On any given day I probably get 30-40 in my inbox.
We use Google Apps for our email at Campaign Monitor, so my primary client is actually the Gmail interface, combined with my iPhone over IMAP when I'm not in the office. I've been really happy with that combination to date.