ICYMI: Meet Mailchimp’s CTO Eric Muntz
Welcome to In CASEYou Missed It, where I take a brief break from my Weekly Walks to get to know some of the most interesting and innovative personalities behind the greatest startups in the world.
Today I’m talking to Eric Muntz, CTO at Mailchimp, to find out what he believes are the most important qualities of a leader, his secret to achieving inbox zero, and the TV show he’s been on twice.
If there were a Mailchimp movie, or a movie about your life, who would play you?
That’s a tough one. I asked my wife, and she reminded me there’s an actor that she thinks I look like: Jesse Williams. He’s on Grey’s Anatomy. We’re both bi-racial and have really short hair—I think that’s where all the commonalities stop. But, hey, if I get to pick who’s playing me—yeah, I’d go with that.
Who is your favorite superhero? And if you had a superpower, what would it be?
I don’t really have a favorite. I guess I would go with someone like Batman because he didn’t just get a superpower—he became super.
If I had a superpower, I always toggle between being invisible because it would be really fun to spy on people. I guess that’s creepy, but it would be super fun to go into the White House or the Pentagon and just watch people make decisions and learn from that.
But also having some sort of massive strength or ability to run super fast would be great. I’m terrible at running—it’s just not my jam. It’s an athletic weakness that I can’t get fixed. So it’d be awesome just to have it fixed.
Maybe now’s your big moment to become a runner.
There’s a thing called Grease the Groove that helps you get better at certain movements—the whole premise is that you practice the movement in short intervals, often throughout your day as opposed to doing it to failure. So I’ve been doing that with pull-ups because I’m terrible at pull-ups, and now I can do a lot more.
Then I thought, I wonder if I did that with running—if I just ran up and down my street five or six times a day, if I’d get better at it. I doubt it, but I’ll let you know.
What’s the most useful tool you’ve discovered in the last year?
It’s not so much about a tool that I’ve found, because I just don’t really use many. It’s more about if I reframe a tool as a skill set.
What’s been most useful for me is focusing my skill set on business and business success. How I can view technology through the lens of a business that’s trying to help small businesses, and figure out how to make it so that technology enables us to do all of that. And, partnering across the business and thinking more about Mailchimp’s overall success, the marketing team’s success, and how technology can enable our marketing team to be more successful. Because that enables us to be more successful—and it will eventually enable our small business customers to be more successful.
How do you explain what you do to people who aren’t in the industry?
I just say I lead technology. Everyone hears that and says IT, and I say, “You know, yeah—IT’s a part of it, but it’s mostly software engineers who are writing code and building software for small businesses for a marketing platform.”
Most people get it when I say that, and when they’re like, “Okay, well, what do you actually do all day?” I say, “Well, I go to meetings and talk to business leaders and technologists about doing better things for our customers and how we can do better with that.”
Back when I was writing code, people would say, “But what does writing code actually mean? Are you writing words?” And I’d have to describe it: “Yeah, you write some English words, and you invent a few words, and there’s just a bunch of weird curly braces and semicolons and parentheses that all come together and make things work.”
And they’d just kind of scratch their heads and go, “Okay, so you’re a nerd.”
And I’d be like, “Yeah.”
What would you be doing if there were no Internet?
I’d be teaching math at a high school level, maybe at a school where somehow the math was a non-required thing, so I was teaching kids who were jazzed about math. And maybe I could get regular kids jazzed about math.
But algebra and calculus are my favorite things ever. I actually have a math degree, not a computer science degree. And if I could do that and coach baseball… it’d be the jam.
What’s something you’ve learned in the past six months that you think everyone should know?
I’ve actually been training in self-defense for about 10 years. A really good friend of mine started a school where they focus on fighting, yoga and strength as the three pillars. Although I’ve only been able to visit him a few times, I’ve gotten a few videos of how to do things. Especially with the current pandemic environment and working from home, I started having some back pain, and he posted something about the spring equinox and how you’re supposed to do 108 sun salutations right around the equinox, so I tried to do it.
I only got to like 80-something, but that sun salutation is just a really great thing to do. It gets you centered and helps your body. It’s helped with my back pain, it helps me focus, it helps me feel good and strong, and it’s a nice, perfect break.
You can just do four or five of them and get back to work, and it only takes a couple of minutes.
How do you manage your inbox?
I’m a big inbox zero person—I get to inbox zero multiple times a day.
I manage it by setting reminders. If there’s a thing I’m not going to get to now, I just tell it to return to me. And then I have a waiting box for things that I know are important that I want to work on, but just don’t need to sit in my inbox.
I go through it every few hours when I get a break and I just do a blitz of pruning all the email I get that’s not important or not even really for me anyway, and then I do quick replies. I also have a fantastic executive assistant.
I’m big on declaring bankruptcy, so if I come back from vacation I just select all and archive and move on. If it’s important, it’ll come back.
I do the same thing with Slack and browser tabs. Every Monday, I clear my browser tabs. My far left tab is my calendar, so I right-click and say, “Close everything to the right”—and everything that was open just goes away.
And if it’s important, it’ll return.
What does your morning routine look like?
Pre-pandemic, it depended on the day. I’d get up around 6am on Monday, Wednesday and Friday to exercise for an hour. After that, I’d help the kids get ready for school. Once they left the house, I’d sit back down and read a fiction book for 15 minutes.
But now, I get up and immediately start helping the kids. My wife and I have been walking a 5K every morning, so we’ve been trying to get up before the kids are up—we leave them a little note, and then we go for a nice big walk. It’s our only time alone. And then I still do the little piece of fiction reading.
What book are you reading right now?
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.
What are the most important qualities of a leader?
First and foremost, it’s important to be clear and transparent in who you are and what’s important so that you can set expectations around them. So if you’re the type of leader who cares about people putting in a certain number of hours, state that.
My number-one rule is never hide a problem. That’s about transparency—it’s not about how you shouldn’t create problems. If a problem’s hidden, we can’t do anything about it, right? We can’t help our customers with it, we can’t help the business, we can’t get better.
The other thing that I’ve found is important is figuring out how to empathize with your team and separate leading a group of people from leading individuals. That’s really helped me a lot, and it’s been a big part of my learning in the last eight years—that the way I focus on leading an individual through understanding what’s important to them, what makes them tick, how they cope with stress, and what activities they can do at work to de-stress is different from how I lead a team.
I like to set a team up to say, “What matters is that this team succeeds, and this is not about us caring about our individual success or any of that—this is about the team succeeding. And the only way for the team to succeed is for all of us to buy in that team success matters more than individual success. Then we need to go and talk about what that means for us as a team.”
It means holding each other accountable, calling each other out and setting up psychological safety where people feel like they can actually talk to each other openly and honestly—and that can be really tough. Just stating all of that out in the open and declaring that leading a group of people is very different from leading and managing individuals is hugely important.
When you were a child, was there a book or TV show that you wanted to live in?
I grew up in Hawaii and my father worked on Magnum, P.I., so I was actually on Magnum, P.I. twice.
My all-time favorite cartoon is DuckTales—especially when they started adventuring. Book-wise when I was a kid, I loved Encyclopedia Brown. I would sit in the dryer with a flashlight and read Encyclopedia Brown just to be alone. Being the neighborhood crime fighter just would be awesome.
What song gets you pumped up in the morning?
Missy Elliott—she’s just the best. She’s also my answer to “Who would you have dinner with?”
A lot of people go for someone really serious or someone they’d learn so much from. I just think that if I’m going to do that, let’s have a blast. I can’t imagine anyone more fun than Missy Elliott.
My favorite song of hers is called “Slide.”
Do you have any unusual skills?
Mailchimp does this thing called Night School where people teach things that they know how to do, so I taught a Night School class called How to Whistle Hella Loud. Unfortunately nobody was able to get it, but a few people got close.
One time at the beginning of a company all-hands meeting, our CEO couldn’t get people to calm down. He looked over at me and said, “Whistle.” So I started whistling, and he pretended he was doing it and kept going, and I would go up and down with him.
I’m really proud of my whistling skills.