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From Oprah to Email, Pro Skateboarder Builds Successful Email Biz


Gary Levitt is not your typical CEO. One look at his past work experiences will tell you that. He has worked as a busboy, a self-described "kick-butt" bass player, a professional skateboarder and commercial musician for "The Oprah Winfrey Show."  Today, he is the chief executive officer of Mad Mimi, an email marketing tool that lets users create customer email marketing campaigns and track their results.

Levitt’s journey is a lesson on how the road to becoming an entrepreneur is often a long one that has many unexpected detours.

"I grew up in a remote farm area of South Africa, and when I was 18 years old I went to study music in Boston at Berklee Music School," said Levitt. "From there, I went to New York City to play jazz as a bassist. Since being a jazz bass player in New York is synonymous with being a busboy, I was also a very good busboy."

It was music, though, that resonated with Levitt and he soon accepted a job as a commercial musician working for "The Oprah Winfrey Show ," but he shortly tired of the job. It was this desire to leave commercial music, though, that prompted Levitt to go into business on his own.

"I needed to get out of commercial music," said Levitt, who wrote 110 pieces during his time on Oprah. "I wanted to create a little product for musicians and I didn't want to deal with big companies. I thought, I’ll just make a product for musicians to be able to schedule rehearsals and send emails to venues who could then book them."

With that simple idea, Levitt started to teach himself HTML and collect money from investors .  His initial investment of $10,000 proved to be too little and Levitt's first attempt failed. Undeterred, Levitt was able to learn from the failure and improve his product.

Narrow focus

"I was back at square one," said Levitt.  "At that time, I learned a lot about the mistakes and the way I was building software. This time, I got about $110,000 in funding for project No. 2.  About six months into developing Mad Mimi, I turned it away from musicians and simply focused on email. I think we stumbled upon a really cool new way to build email, and I was focused on opening it to all."

The determination paid off as Mad Mimi launched in April 2008. Today the company has 89,000 customers who use the service to send out 30 million emails a day.

Despite the success of Mad Mimi, Levitt says the unique name still generates the most questions from people.

"I wanted the name to be unique and have no relevance to email marketing," said Levitt, who will be launching an updated and streamlined version of Mad Mimi in October.  "I wanted it to be Mimi.com, but the domain name was taken. At the time I was sharing an office building with a company called Madstone Productions and I took a mixture of the two."

A musical approach

Levitt believes it was his past work experience, no matter how seemingly irrelevant, that was the key to his future success. In particular, Levitt credits his odd jobs early on with giving him the foundation for launching Mad Mimi.

"I always start with the mantra 'imitate, assimilate, innovate’ that jazz musician Clark Terry came up with," said Levitt. "I spent a lot of time imitating other successful businesses in terms of their design, brand and copy. I sort of cherry-picked from all these businesses and assimilated by looking at them. That assimilation really resulted in me having the confidence to move onto the next step; innovating."

Levitt's innovations and confidence were the cornerstones of his never-say-die determination.

"I entered a really crowded market, but I never looked at the competition," said Levitt. "I had built a product only from the mindset of what I wished software would be like."

Levitt's wishes soon became the reality behind Mad Mimi. Despite bucking the trend on starting a business without doing much research, Levitt feels that in order to achieve success, one must listen and trust themselves first.

"I never think about revenue," said Levitt. "I never think about what is going to generate more money or what customers will want. I think, 'if I was a customer, what would I want?' I listen to customers, but I listen to myself as well."