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May 26, 2019
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A young entrepreneur is building the Amazon of Bangladesh

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At just 26, Waiz Rahim is supposed to be involved in the family business, having returned home in 2016 with an engineering degree from the University of Southern California. Instead, the young entrepreneur is plotting to build the Amazon of Bangladesh.

Deligram, Rahim’s vision of what e-commerce looks like in Bangladesh, a country of nearly 180 million, is making progress, having taken inspiration from a range of established tech giants worldwide, including Amazon, Alibaba and Go-Jek in Indonesia.

It’s a far cry from the family business. That’s Rahimafrooz, a 55-year-old conglomerate that is one of the largest companies in Bangladesh. It started out focused on garment retail, but over the years its businesses have branched out to span power and energy and automotive products while it operates a retail superstore called Agora.

During his time at school in the U.S., Rahim worked for the company as a tech consultant whilst figuring out what he wanted to do after graduation. Little could he have imagined that, fast-forward to 2019, he’d be in charge of his own startup that has scaled to two cities and raised $3 million from investors, one of which is Rahimafrooz.

Deligram CEO Waiz Rahim [Image via Deligram]

“My options after college were to stay in U.S. and do product management or analyst roles,” Rahim told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “But I visited rural areas while back in Bangladesh and realized that when you live in a city, it’s easy to exist in a bubble.”

So rather than stay in America or go to the family business, Rahim decided to pursue his vision to build “a technology company on the wave of rising economic growth, digitization and a vibrant young population.”

The youngster’s ambition was shaped by a stint working for Amazon at its Carlsbad warehouse in California as part of the final year of his degree. That proved to be eye-opening, but it was actually a Kickstarter project with a friend that truly opened his mind to the potential of building a new venture.

Rahim assisted fellow USC classmate Sam Mazumdar with Y Athletics, which raised more than $600,000 from the crowdsourcing site to develop “odor-resistant” sports attire that used silver within the fabric to repel the smell of sweat. The business has since expanded to cover underwear and socks, and it put Rahim’s mind to work on what he could do by himself.

“It blew my mind that you can build a brand from scratch,” he said. “If you are good at product design and branding, you could connect to a manufacturer, raise money from backers and get it to market.”

On his return to Bangladesh, he got Deligram off the ground in January 2017, although it didn’t open its doors to retailers and consumers until March 2018.

E-commerce through local stores

Deligram is an effort to emulate the achievements of Amazon in the U.S. and Alibaba in China. Both companies pioneered online commerce and turned the internet into a major channel for sales, but the young Bangladeshi startup’s early approach is very different from the way those now hundred-billion-dollar companies got started.

Offline retail is the norm in Bangladesh and, with that, it’s the long chain of mom and pop stores that account for the majority of spending.

That’s particularly true outside of urban areas, where such local stores almost become community gathering points, where neighbors, friends and families run into each other and socialize.

Instead of disruption, working with what is part of the social fabric is more logical. Thus, Deligram has taken a hybrid approach that marries its regular e-commerce website and app with offline retail through mom and pop stores, which are known as “mudir dokan” in Bangladesh’s Bengali language.

A customer can order their product through the Deligram app on their phone and have it delivered to their home or office, but a more popular — and oftentimes logical — option is to have it sent to the local mudir dokan store, where it can be collected at any time. But beyond simply taking deliveries, mudir dokans can also operate as Deligram retailers by selling through an agent model.

That’s to say that they enable their customers to order products through Deligram even if they don’t have the app, or even a smartphone — although the latter is increasingly unlikely with smartphone ownership booming. Deligram is proactively recruiting mudir dokan partners to act as agents. It provides them with a tablet and a physical catalog that their customers can use to order via the e-commerce service. Delivery is then taken at the store, making it easy to pick up, and maintaining the local network.

“We’ll tell them: ‘Right now, you offer a few hundred products, now you have access to 15,000,’ ” the Deligram CEO said.

Indeed, Rahim sees this new digital storefront as a key driver of revenue for mudir dokan owners. For Deligram, it is potentially also a major customer acquisition channel, particularly among those who are new to the internet and the world of smartphone apps.

This offline-online model — known by the often-buzzy industry term “omnichannel” — isn’t new, but in a world where apps and messaging is prevalent, reaching and retaining users is challenging, particularly in emerging markets.

“It’s not easy to direct people to a website today, and the app-first approach has made it hard,” Rahim said. “We looked at how companies in Indonesia and India overcame these challenges.”

In particular, he studied the work of Go-Jek in Indonesia, which uses an agent model to push its services to nascent internet users, and Amazon India, which leans heavily on India’s local “kirana” stores for orders and deliveries.

In Deligram’s case, the mudir dokan picks up sales commission as well as money for every delivery that is sent to their store. Home deliveries are possible, but the lack of local infrastructure — “turn right at the blue house, left at the white one, and my place is third from the left,” is a common type of direction — makes finding exact locations difficult and inefficient, so an additional cost is charged for such requests.

E-commerce startups often struggle with last-mile because they rely on a clutch of logistics companies to fulfill orders. In a rare move for an early-stage company, Deligram has opted to run its entire logistics process in-house. That obviously necessitates cost and likely provides significant growing pains and stress, but, in the long term, Rahim is betting that a focus on quality control will pay out through higher customer service and repeat buyers.

A prospective Deligram customer flips through a hard copy of the company’s product brochure in a local store [Image via Deligram]

Startups on the rise in Bangladesh

Rahim’s timing is impeccable. He returned to Bangladesh just as technology was beginning to show the potential to impact daily life. Bangladesh has posted a 7% rise in GDP annually every year since 2016, and with an estimated 80 million internet users, it has the fifth-largest online population on the planet.

“We are riding on a lot of macro trends; we’re among the top five based on GDP growth and have the world’s eighth-largest population,” Rahim told TechCrunch. “There are 11 million people in middle income — that’s growing — and our country has 90 million people aged under 30.”

“An index to track the growth of young people would be [capital city] Dhaka… you can just see the vibrancy with young people using smartphones,” he added.

That’s an ideal storm for startups, and the country has seen a mix of overseas entrants and local ventures pick up speed. Alibaba last year acquired Daraz, the Rocket Internet-founded e-commerce service that covers Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Nepal, while the Chinese giant also snapped up 20% of bKash, a fintech venture started from Brac Bank as part of the regional expansion of its Ant Financial affiliate.

Uber, too, is present, but it is up against tough local opposition, as is the norm in Asian markets.

That’s because Bangladesh’s most prominent local startups are in ride-hailing. Pathao raised more than $10 million in a funding round that closed last year and was led by Go-Jek, the Indonesia-based ride-hailing firm valued at more than $9 billion that’s backed by the likes of Tencent and Google. Pathao is reportedly on track to raise a $50 million Series B this year, according to Deal Street Asia.

Pathao is one of two local companies that competes alongside Uber in Bangladesh [Image via Pathao]

Its chief rival is Shohoz, a startup that began in ticketing but expanded to rides and services on-demand. Shohoz raised $15 million in a round led by Singapore’s Golden Gate Ventures, which was announced last year.

Deligram has also pulled in impressive funding numbers, too.

The startup announced a $2.5 million Series A raise at the end of March, which Rahim wrote came from “a network of institutional and angel investors;” such is the challenge of finding a large check for a tech play in Bangladesh. The investors involved included Skycatcher, Everblue Management and Microsoft executive Sonia Bashir Kabir. A delighted Rahim also won a check from Rahimafrooz, the family business.

That’s not a given, he said, admitting that his family did initially want him to go to work with their business rather than pursuing his own startup. In that context, contributing to the round is a major endorsement, he said.

Rahimafrooz could be a crucial ally in future fundraising, too. Despite an improving climate for tech companies, Bangladesh’s top startups are still finding it tough to raise money, especially with overseas investors that can write the larger checks that are required to scale.

“I think the biggest challenge is branding. Every time I speak with new investors, I have to start by explaining where Bangladesh is, or the national metrics, not even our business,” Pathao CEO Hussain Elius told TechCrunch.

“There’s a legacy issue. Bangladesh seems like a country which floods all the time and the garment sector going down — that’s a part of the story but not the full story. It’s also an incredible country that’s growing despite those challenges,” he added.

Pathao is reportedly on track to raise a $50 million Series B this year, according to Deal Street Asia. Elius didn’t address that directly, but he did admit that raising growth funding is a bigger challenge than seed-based financing, where the Bangladesh government helps with its own fund and entrepreneurial programs.

“It’s hard for us as we’re the first ones out there, but it’ll be easier for the ones who’ll follow on,” he explained.

Still, there are some optimistic overseas watchers.

“We remain enthusiastic about the rapidly expanding set of opportunities in Bangladesh,” said Hian Goh, founding partner of Singapore-based VC firm Openspace — which invested in Pathao.

“The country continues to be one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, underpinned by additional growth in its garments manufacturing sector. This has blossomed into an expanding middle class with very active consumption behavior,” Goh added.

Growth plans

With the pain of fundraising put to the side for now, the new money is being put to work growing the Deligram business and its network into more parts of Bangladesh, and the more challenging urban areas.

Geographically, the service is expanding its agent reach into five more cities to give it a total of seven locations nationwide. That necessitates an increase in logistics and operations to keep up with, and prepare for, that new demand.

Deligram workers in one of the company’s warehouses [Image via Deligram]

Rahim said the company had handled 12,000 orders to date as of the end of March, but that has now grown past 20,000 indicating that order volumes are rising. He declined to provide financial figures, but said that the company is on track to increase its monthly GMV volume by six-fold by the end of this year. Electronics, phones and accessories are among its most popular items, but Deligram also sells apparel, daily items and more.

Interestingly, and perhaps counter to assumptions, Deligram started in rural areas, where Rahim saw there was less competition but also potentially more to learn through a more early-adopter customer base. That’s obviously one major challenge when it comes to growth, and now the company is looking at urban expansion points.

On the product side, Deligram is in the early stages of piloting consumer financing using its local store agents as the interface, while Rahim teased “exciting IOT R&D projects” that he said are in the planning stage.

Ultimately, however, he concedes that the road is likely to be a long one.

“Over the last 18-20 years, modern retail hasn’t made much progress here,” Rahim said. “It accounts for around 2.5% of total retail, e-commerce is below 1% and the long tail local stores are the rest.”

“People will eventually shift, but I think it’ll take five to eight years, which is why we provide the convenience via mom and pop shops,” he added.

Mobile ticketing company TodayTix raises $73M in new funding

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TodayTix, a mobile ticketing company that makes it easy and relatively affordable to go to Broadway shows and other live performances, is announcing a new $73 million round of funding led by private equity firm Great Hill Partners.

The company was founded in 2013, and it served initially as the mobile equivalent of New York’s TKTS booths for discounted, last-minute theater tickets. TodayTix says it’s now sold more than 4 million tickets, representing 8 percent of annual Broadway ticket sales and 4 percent for London’s West End.

Beyond that, co-founder and CEO Brian Fenty said that a little over 10 percent of the tickets sold now fall outside “theater and performing arts, narrowly defined,” covering things like comedy shows and experiential theater.

“I think to the consumer, we will be a holistic ecosystem to engage in the city’s art and experiences,” Fenty predicted. “However culture is defined … we want to be their partner in discovering those things.”

To do that, TodayTix will add more cities to its current list of 15 markets. Fenty said this expansion is driven by existing partnerships (like launching in Australia through its partnership with “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”) and by seeing where people are already downloading the TodayTix app. His ultimate goal is to be “geographically agnostic.”

Fenty also said the company will continue investing in the TodayTix Presents program, through which the company puts on its puts on its own shows (albeit at a much smaller scale than a Broadway production).

And of course he wants to improve the app itself, introducing more personalization and curation — Fenty pointed to Netflix and Amazon as models. After all, he said TodayTix is currently offering tickets to 297 shows in New York alone, so it needs to ways to “effectively guide people through that.”

“We’re actually a media company, with our own content and perspective — not on the quality of the shows, but to have a point of view on how users should and could engage with this content,” he said.

He added that those improvements will include more basic things, like the process of purchasing a ticket: “The hardest part is to complete the purchase in 30 seconds or less, as compared to the average ticketing platform, which is somewhere between 3 and 7 minutes … How we continue to squish that conversion?”

Fenty is also hoping to work more closely with show producers, providing them with data about which shows are selling, as well as helping them use data to find the most effective ways to promote themselves.

TodayTix says it’s raised a total of $90 million since it announced its Series B back in February 2016. Fenty told me the new round includes a direct investment in the company, as well as secondary purchases of TodayTix shares from previous investors.

“TodayTix is rapidly changing the way millennials and other consumers connect with live cultural experiences,” said Great Hill Managing Partner Michael Kumin in a statement. “We look forward to working with Brian, [co-founder] Merritt [Baer] and their talented management team to expand the Company’s product and service offerings and accelerate its push into new geographies.”

Google Express becomes an all-new Google Shopping in big revamp

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Google is giving its Shopping destination a revamp and introducing a universal cart across its platform of services, including Search, Shopping, Images, and even YouTube. The search company announced today an entirely redesigned and now personalized Google Shopping experience where shoppers can discover and compare products, then checkout instantly using their Google account.

As a result, the Google Express app will become the new Google Shopping app as the standalone “Express” brand is merged into the new set of Shopping products and features.

The changes appear to be a competitive move meant to rival all the new ways consumers shop and discover products online — such as browsing Pinterest, or being inspired by Instagram ads or shoppable posts, for instance.

Meanwhile, Google knows that its network of sites are also often part of the shopping process, but it hasn’t always well-capitalized on this. People today use web searches, or look at pictures of products they want on Google Images. Sometimes they even watch YouTube videos where the products are unboxed, demonstrated, and discussed.

Now it aims to leverage its various platforms and increase its ad revenue.

For starters, it’s introducing a new, personalized Google Shopping homepage where consumers can filter products by brands they love, or features they want, as well as read product reviews and watch videos. For example, explains Google, if you were in the market for a set of new headphones, you could filter for attributes like “wireless” or a brand like “Sony.”

Some items will also include a blue shopping cart button that, when clicked, will allow the consumer to add the item in question to a universal cart where the purchase is backed by a Google guarantee, plus customer service and easy returns.

This, says Google, represents a merging of Google Shopping with Google’s other checkout and delivery service, Google Express. Following the changes, the Google Express app will update and become Google Shopping instead. it will feature the all-new Google Shopping experience which has the transactions built in and the universal shopping cart.

Brands that already participate in Shopping Actions for Google Assistant will be included in this new purchase experience, which is going live now across Google Shopping, Google.com, and the Google Assistant.

Shopping Actions will expand to Google Images and YouTube later in the year.

In other cases, retailers may use ads, including the highly visual Showcase Shopping Ads, to drive traffic to their own websites instead. These ads were previously available on Google Shopping, and are now expanding to Google Images, the feed on Discover, and soon, YouTube.

That means if you’re on Google’s app or watching YouTube videos for ideas, Google will now be able to capture that interest and turn it into clicks and conversions. These ads today appeal mostly to newcomers to a brand, as 80 percent of traffic to retailers’ websites from a Showcase Shopping ad is from someone who just discovered the brand, Google notes.

In addition, Shopping ads are being updated to drive in-store pickup traffic. That is, when consumers shop online and click through to buy from a Shopping ad, they will have an easier way to purchase items for in-store pickup. This beta feature requires merchant participation, however. The retailer will need to have product landing pages on their sites that show when in-store pickup is available as well as a local inventory feed in the Merchant Center that shows which items are in stock, and optionally a list of items that can be quick-shipped to a local store.

Retailers will also now be able to optimize their Shopping ads not only by specific goals but by where the ads display, too. For example, they can choose whether ad campaigns appear on Google.com, Images Search, YouTube or elsewhere across the web. Brands can also work with their retailer partners to use the brand’s own budget in order to help promote top products in retailers’ shopping campaigns. Those interested in this Shopping campaigns with partners beta program, have to sign up to participate. 

Google has been moving towards this direction for some time. Google Express wasn’t really working, but Google knew that it had the traffic elsewhere across its platforms that could turn product discovery into ad dollars, clicks, and conversions. In the past, it began testing new layouts for Images that looked just like Pinterest, and tried used its Image site to connect users to Pinterest-like interests, including recipes and products. On YouTube, it’s been rolling out Merch shelves under videos, as well, which allow creators to sell items — a feature that blazed a trail to make YouTube a more shoppable platform.

“We’re making the places where people come to browse and explore products on Google shoppable,” said Surojit Chatterjee, Vice President of Product Management, Shopping, in an announcement. “These new shopping experiences let people shop and purchase frictionlessly right where they already turn to for research and inspiration: Search, Google Images, YouTube and a redesigned Google Shopping destination,” he noted.

Walmart announces next-day delivery on 200K+ items in select markets

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This month, Amazon announced it’s investing $800 million in its warehouses and delivery infrastructure in order to double the speed of Prime shipping by reducing it to only one day. Now Walmart is following suit with a one-day shipping announcement of its own. The rival retailer says it will begin to offer free, NextDay delivery on select Walmart .com orders over $35 — without a membership fee.

This offer will initially be available to customers only in Phoenix and Las Vegas beginning on Tuesday, May 14, 2019, and will then expand to customers in Southern California over the next few days. The rollout will then continue “gradually” over the months ahead, with a goal of reaching 75% of the U.S. population — including 40 of the top 50 U.S. metros — by year-end.

Today, Amazon Prime covers more than 100 million items, which are available for two-day shipping to Prime’s more than 100 million subscribers. To make an inventory of that size available for one-day shipping is a massive investment on Amazon’s part.

Walmart, on the other hand, is starting smaller. Its NexDay delivery will be available as a standalone, curated shopping experience where customers can browse up to 220,000 of the most frequently purchased items.

This includes things like diapers, electronics, toys and household needs, and soon more. Everything in the cart has to be NextDay-eligible and total more than $35 to qualify. The cut-off times for the order will vary by location, Walmart says. Orders will be delivered primarily by national carriers, and in some cases, regional carriers.

This more limited focus in terms of inventory (for now at least) makes NextDay more of a competitor to Target’s Restock than to Amazon one-day Prime ambitions, as — like Restock — it requires a $35 minimum order. Restock, though, has customers “filling a box” with items and is largely focused on day-to-day shopping. Meanwhile, Walmart’s NextDay selection is wider than Restock’s some 35,000 items. (However, ahead of Walmart’s announcement, Target pushed out news that its same-day “Drive Up” curbside service had now expanded to over 1,250 U.S. stores.)

Walmart’s focus on matching Amazon’s efforts — but with a different set of conditions and “without a membership fee” — is now par for the course.

For example, Walmart in early 2017 first announced it would begin to offer free, two-day shopping on more than 2 million items with no need for a membership — as long as orders totaled $35.00 or more. The retailer had been trialing such a sped-up shipping system for years — starting with a test of its answer to Prime back in 2015. Dubbed ShippingPass at the time, the program initially began with 1 million items and three-day delivery, then was lowered to two days while the number of eligible items doubled. 

This past October, Walmart expanded two-day shipping to its Marketplace sellers, as well.

Now, it’s focused on one-day. Walmart says this is not in response to Amazon’s news, but rather had plans already in progress.

“We can offer fast, convenient shipping options because we’ve built a network of fulfillment assets that are strategically located across the U.S. We’ve also done extensive work to ensure we have the right products in the right fulfillment centers based on where customers are located and what they’re ordering,” said president and CEO of Walmart E-Commerce, Marc Lore.

Lore had sold his e-commerce startup Jet.com to Walmart for $3 billion in 2016. While it lives on as a more urban-focused delivery service, its influence on Walmart’s broader e-commerce efforts — particularly around delivery logistics — is seen in these expanded efforts to improve delivery times that also reduce costs while keeping prices low for consumers. Jet, for example, had offered credits to consumers who bought their items from the same nearby warehouse. That’s not entirely different from what Walmart NextDay is doing.

As Lore explains, NextDay is affordable for Walmart.

“Our new NextDay delivery isn’t just great for customers, it also makes good business sense. Contrary to what you might think, it will cost us less – not more – to deliver orders the next day,” he says. “That’s because eligible items come from a single fulfillment center located closest to the customer. This means the order ships in one box, or as few as possible, and it travels a shorter distance via inexpensive ground shipping. That’s in contrast to online orders that come in multiple boxes from multiple locations, which can be quite costly.”

Forrester analyst Sucharita Kodali suggests a bit more caution. She agrees that having another place to get overnight shipping is a win for consumers, but there could still be challenges.

“I think that makes sense theoretically, but whether or not they can make the economics work depends on the quality of the assortment and how many people actually use it. Also, I don’t know how easily it scales,” she says.

Mailchimp expands from email to full marketing platform, says it will make $700M in 2019

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Mailchimp, a bootstrapped startup out of Atlanta, Georgia, is known best as a popular tool for organizations to manage their customer-facing email activities — a profitable business that its CEO told TechCrunch has now grown to around 11 million customers, is on track for $700 million in revenue in 2019.

To help hit that number, Mailchimp is taking the wraps off a significant update aimed at catapulting it into the next level of business services. Beginning later this week, Mailchimp will start to offer a full marketing platform aimed at smaller organizations.

Going beyond the email services that it has been offering for 20 years — which alone has led to multiple acquisition offers (all rebuffed) as its valuation has crept up reportedly into the billions (depending on what multiple you use) — the new platform will feature technology to record and track customer leads, the ability to purchase domains and build sites, ad retargeting on Facebook and Instagram, social media management and business intelligence that leverages a new move in the artificial intelligence to provide recommendations to users on how and when to market to whom.

When the service goes live on Wednesday, Mailchimp also plans a pretty significant shift of its pricing into four tiers of free, $9.99/month, $14.99/month or $299/month (up from the current pricing of free, $10/month, $199/month) — with those fees scaling depending on usage and features.

(Existing paid customers maintain current pricing structure and features for the time being and can move to the new packages at any time, the company said. New customers will sign up to the new pricing starting May 15.)

The expansion is part of a longer-term strategic play to widen Mailchimp’s scope by building more services for the typically-underserved but collectively large small business segment. Even as multinationals like Amazon and other large companies continue to feel like they are eating up the mom-and-pop independent business model, SMBs continue to make up 48 percent of the GDP in the US.

And within that, marketing is one of those areas that small businesses might not have invested in much traditionally but are increasingly turning to as so much transactional activity has moved to digital platforms — be it smartphones, computers, or just the tech that powers the TV you watch or music you listen to.

In March, we reported that Mailchimp quietly acquired a small Shopify competitor called LemonStand to start to build more e-commerce tools for its users. And the new marketing platform is the next step in that strategy.

“We still see a big need for small businesses to have something like this,” Ben Chestnut, Mailchimp’s co-founder and CEO, said in an interview. Enterprises have a range of options when it comes to marketing tools, he added, “but small businesses don’t.” The mantra for many building tech for the SMB sector has traditionally been “dumbed down and cheap,” in his words. “We agreed that cheap was good, but not dumbed down. We want to empower them.”

The new services launch also comes at a time when an increasing number of companies are closing in on the small business opportunity, with e-commerce companies like Square, Shopify and PayPal also widening their portfolio of products. (These days, Square is a Mailchimp partner, Shopify is not.)

Marketing is something that Mailchimp had already been dabbling with over the last two years — indeed, customer-facing email services is essentially a form of marketing, too. Other launches have included a Postcards service, offering companies very simple landing pages online (about 10 percent of Mailchimp’s customers do not have their own web sites, Chestnut said), and a tool for companies to create Google, Facebook and Instagram ads.

Mailchimp itself has a big marketing presence already: it says that daily, more than 1.25 million e-commerce orders are generated through Mailchimp campaigns; over 450 million e-commerce orders were made through Mailchimp campaigns in 2018; and its customers have sold over $250 million in goods through multivariate + A/B campaigns run through Mailchimp.

There are clearly a lot of others vying to be the go-to platform for small businesses to do their business — “Google, Facebook, a lot of the big players see the magic and are moving to the space more and more,” Chestnut said — but Mailchimp’s unique selling point — or so it hopes — is that it’s the platform that has no vested interests in other business areas, and will therefore be as focused as the small businesses themselves are. That includes, for example, no upcharging regardless of the platform where you choose to run a campaign.

“We are Switzerland,” Chestnut said.

Given that Mailchimp took 20 years to grow into marketing from email, it’s not clear what the wait will be for future expansions, and into what areas those might go. Surprisingly, one product that Mailchimp does not want to touch for now is CRM. “No plans for CRM services,” Chestnut said. “We are focused on consumer brands. We think about small organizations, with fewer than 100 employees.”

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