Bootstrapping a Multi-Million Dollar Start-Up

| May 24, 2012


Founder and CEO, Mad Mimi

It was the music world that led him from Johannesburg to New York. But how did this entrepreneur end up being the founder of an e-business with revenues of almost $8 million? Gary Levitt of Mad Mimi shares with SAABC his fascinating journey, perspectives and philosophies.

Born on a remote farm in Southern Africa, went to school with Nelson Mandela’s grandchildren, was a skateboard pro and champion and is a killer bass player, Gary Levitt functions as Mad Mimi’s CEO in New York. He’s responsible for the site’s interaction design and tactical product management and the overall direction of the company. He holds a degree in music from Berklee College of Music and lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn with his wife and kids.

Where do you live now? New York, USA

How long have you been in the US? Since 1998

Where was your company founded? Brooklyn, NY

Give us a brief description of your business: Mad Mimi is a simple, easy to use, self-serve email application that lets small businesses create, send and track email newsletters and email marketing campaigns and promotions.

Tell us briefly about your journey that brought you to the USA? Jazz. When I was 19 I came on a scholarship to Berklee College of Music where I focused on jazz performance, my primary instrument being the bass guitar. I returned to South Africa in 2001 to play and teach around the country with guitarist Lionel Loueke, starting at the North Sea Jazz festival in Cape Town, and ending in Soweto.

What lead you to designing an online email marketing company? Mad Mimi actually began as an online application for Musicians and about 6 months into development, I pivoted and focused on email. For a while, I had scoured the internet for an email marketing company that reflected my needs and personality, and all I could find were hard-sell enterprise-geared expensive services. I thought: I’m going to build an email application from the ground up – the way I would want one to be. And so the journey began.

What personal traits do you believe you hold that have propelled you along this extraordinary journey? Desperation *not* to be a busboy for the rest of my life. No, seriously, I worked in New York for a couple of years following graduation from Berklee College as a busboy in various New York restaurants to supplement my music. Every week, I would actually *pay* musicians, good ones, to play with me at a weekly gig I had at the restaurant I worked at – a place called “Madiba’s” in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. I got to play with Tony Cedras quite a lot there – and for those of you who don’t know, he’s on Paul Simon’s Graceland record playing accordion – and because of all this, even though I was a busboy, I tried to focus on surrounding myself with talented and strong people.

There’s a strong culture of deep appreciation of the Mad Mimi customer

What aspect of your approach do you feel has been instrumental in causing your success? My activities centered around always fixating, most of the time obsessively, on perfect execution and design. The programmer who I hired to build Mad Mimi with me for three years, Dave Hoover, now leads the engineering team over at Groupon in Chicago. His company was acquired by them last year. I also have the entire company operating remotely. No office, no meetings, hierarchies. There’s a strong culture of deep appreciation of the Mad Mimi customer. I believe these approaches have helped us create an impressive customer service model, fixated on generosity, intelligence and impeccable articulation as opposed to being fixated on cost and scale. Since we never did any traditional advertising or marketing, our customer service in a large part fueled our growth, particularly in the social media realm.

What tips do you have for entrepreneurs trying to start a business? I think a Clark Terry quote (famous trumpeter from the 60’s) put is best: Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate. When you’re starting out, deeply analyze what makes something attractive on the web (I’m focusing on the web here), and at the same time, stuff that isn’t great. That’s why imitation is great at first. It helps you isolate the attractive (and at the same time, unattractive) elements of the thing you’re wanting to innovate at the end of the day. I can’t say enough, how valuable the process of imitation is. It’s the core of being able to understand the difference between good and bad, beauty and non-beauty, perfection and mediocrity. Ah – also, learn HTML and CSS, and learn how to lead your own product design! No one is going to care in the same way you do about your baby.

Who do you most admire in this world – living or passed? Why? Moses! 🙂 They say he was the most humble person ever to exist. He wasn’t meek though, and he led millions of people. How can you be humble and lead? I think the ultimate humility is humbling oneself to being “bottom-line” oriented, and recognizing the truth where your emotions are telling you to be subjective. I think cutting through “nonsense” is a huge thing, and you can only recognize “nonsense” if you have power to control your own!

What attitude or favorite “motto” do you follow in life? “I know what is right”. I’m following my convictions – not yours. It means everything has a right time, and I know what that time is, not anyone else. It also says, “I’m bringing to the world, something unique, something expressive of myself.” The core of originality is this attitude – a carefully measured determination and self-belief enhanced by an open mind.

What are your tips for South Africans looking to pursue global careers/businesses? There are no rules! There are no real boundaries that exist, and while the cultural gap is perhaps the most tricky element of global business and career, if you see yourself as a “global” guy or gal, you’ll be in good shape. I think one amazing thing about South Africans (and we employ several) is that their ability to communicate across cultures and markets is unrivaled. South Africans specifically write and speak beautifully, universally, and I think the natural tools are there right now for any South African entrepreneur to produce a globally-viable product on the web today.

What’s your perspective of being a South African in business in a foreign country? Feels a bit lonesome at times. I’ve been in New York for a few years now, so the contrast is less pronounced though even after all this time, I’m still a South African in New York, not a New Yorker.

What strengths do South Africans bring to business no matter where they are in the world? Why do you think this is? We South Africans have an inexhaustible store of optimism that I just don’t see much around here. Optimism is different to ambition. Ambition is a “get ahead” attitude. While many of us may certainly be ambitious, South Africans have the ability to approach “getting ahead” in a warm (as opposed to cold) way. South Africans also have a certain mystique that’s unique. I think that our leveraging of, or just merely recognizing these qualities and using them loudly in our customer service and product areas have made the Mad Mimi business super popular in the U.S.. When I look around me I’m constantly reminded that I’m South African and that I’m really lucky!

How has growing up in South Africa influenced you in business?
I think it allowed me to be a more of a free thinker – being in a foreign environment having had a history somewhere else helps me be free of a desire to necessarily “fit in”.

What South African expression, phrase or word do you use most often:
Howzit. Cliche, I know. It’s not unique, I know – but seriously, it’s infectious!

For more on Gary’s extraordinary journey see:



Category: Success Stories

About Jacqui B: View author profile.

Comments are closed.

Announcing the launch of our SX Family website!
Robe de mariée en ligne France, la mode.. Robe De Mariée en diverses occasions ici, c’est de bénéficier d’un meilleur rapport qualité/prix. vous promet une bonne qualité de chaque article desrobes de mariée2016 Retro domstol stil har alltid varit representant för spetselement, slitage spetsar kvinnor är de sexigaste Balklänning , mest feminina, spetselement och även har varit en återkommande besökare till mässan,Balklänning varje säsong designersBalklänning har inte glömt det. Balklänning Robe De Mariée Robe De Mariée Balklänning