Interview with Mailgun CEO Ev Kontsevoy – a Y Combinator company

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This is definitely a must read if you are considering applying for an accelerator program!!!

We recently caught up with the co-founder and CEO of MailGunEv Kontsevoy. Here Ev talks about what the the startup process was like for Mailgun and what to focus on when trying to get into an accelerate program. Mailgun is part of the Y Combinator graduating class of 2011. Probably the most recognised accelerator program in the world along with TechStars.

“The main focus of Mailgun is to make developers’ lives easier. Mailgun enables developers to tightly integrate email into their apps, giving real email mailboxes to their users, their web pages or any objects in their apps. Their tight email integration enables functionality like private user mailboxes for photo uploads from cell phones, email-driven comments, discussion groups and more.”

The video above is from a great interview that Ev had with Robert Scoble, that focusses on the Mailgun product.

This interview is JUST ONE of the 150 interviews conducted for Accelerate - the 1st comprehensive guide on startup accelerators. If you’d like to gain startup insight from hundreds of founders, join an accelerator program, or simply learn the “must knows” about accelerator programs, pick up the ultimate guide here. You can also download a pre-view here!

How did you come up with the idea for Mailgun?

We did not have to. I literally had to build several “mailguns” while working on various projects around 2006-2009. First, I needed Mailgun while working on where we tried to make Big Internet more accessible to children. Email for kids was a big part of it. Being naive, I had thought we’d just get it from a hosting company and it was quite shocking to discover that we had to build it ourselves.

Later on, we built another “mailgun” for a now defunct service, called Dunegrass App. It allowed users to interact with our software via email. Blackberries were big back then, browsers sucked on them, so providing an email interface proved to be hugely popular with the business users. At that time, I already felt that an email API could be a business by itself, and even offered my brother and a few other engineers to start a company around it. The response was “why don’t you do it yourself?” And why not indeed?

I even had the name for the company sitting on the shelf. Back when I was learning English, I really liked the sound of the words “nail gun”. It was just so perfectly suited to the purposeful and brutal nature of a tool. All I needed was to change one letter and convince some guy in Brooklyn to sell me the dot com for it.

What were some of the challenges that you faced starting a company?

Nobody would give us money. Potential employees and co-founders would refuse to join us. Landlords in San Francisco would not accept my application. The fundamental fact is that when you are starting a company, you are in the business of not dying. Being a cockroach in the middle of a highway and staying alive was the biggest challenge.

There were marketing issues as well. Selling APIs did not sound like a hot business plan in 2009. APIs were usually seen as a free add-on to a revenue generating product, not as a product by themselves. Amazon Web Services and Twilio helped changed that.

You were part of the prestigious YCombinator accelerator program, what difference do you feel being part of an accelerator made to your company?

All the difference in the world. We went from nobody giving us money to having a menu of investors who wanted to. That was by far the biggest, pleasantly suffocating difference.

The second advantage was the YCombinator network. Having moved from the East Coast (New York) to the Bay Area, we had no connections. We didn’t know anybody. At the end of our YCombinator batch we became close friends with other founders and I must say, people tend to underestimate the importance of this. When you’re trying not to die, having so many like-minded, supportive friends is extremely comforting and helps you get over the bumps. The extended YC framework only adds to that. With 11 classes, there will always be an expert to help with whatever you need…from raising money to scaling MongoDB.

What advice would you give to people looking to start a company?

Someone, I believe it was Paul Buchheit, once said that an advice is someone’s limited personal experience multiplied by over-generalization and I agree. One cannot merely copy&paste someone’s experiences and expect similar results. I can probably say something like this: get a math degree, find a great co-founder like I did, get accepted to YCombinator like I did, move to San Francisco and don’t forget to get lucky 2 or 3 times in between. Yet, I’m sure there will be great companies started by single founding history majors rejected by YC. But they’ll still have to get lucky a few times. You do need to get a few breaks but you can also get lucky by brute force, by virtue of persistence. Yes, that – be persistent.

What advice would you give to an entrepreneur looking to get their company into an accelerate program?

I cannot comment on other accelerators, as I hear that some of them are very different. I’m assuming you are asking about our YCombinator interview experience. The basic purpose of the interview is for you to prove to YC partners that you will succeed.

Trying to prove something, it is often easier to have a single but amazing and irrefutable argument than a bunch of so-so ones. Walking into that room it helps to have a single killer answer to this one question: “why will we succeed?”. And no matter what they ask just go with it, because that’s really the answer they’re looking for regardless of the shape and form of the question on the table. Let them know “we’re doing $X/month and growing X% week to week.” Don’t hope for them to stumble upon your greatness, show it off yourself.

A massive thank you to Ev for taking the time out of his busy schedule to put down some great answers. We look forward to catching back up with Mailgun next year to see how things have progressed. In the mean time check out their site site, you can also follow them on twitter.


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