Mimecast Expands in Boston Area, Taps E-mail Pioneer in Michigan to Drive Growth

Nathaniel Borenstein is a man you either love or hate. Or both. There’s nothing in between. If you have more than 24,000 unread e-mails in your inbox, like I do, you curse the day he was born, even if you enjoy being able to communicate with friends and business contacts in real-time, for free.

Borenstein is one of the fathers of modern e-mail systems. Currently based in remote northern Michigan, about a three-and-a-half hour drive from Detroit, he is an original designer of MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions), the standard protocol for Internet e-mail that supports different kinds of character sets, non-text attachments, header information, and other crucial (if boring-sounding) features. As of three months ago, he is also chief scientist at Mimecast, a U.K.-based company that is making waves in the U.S.—and has been expanding its presence in the Boston area.

Mimecast makes e-mail management software, primarily for mid-market and medium-size corporations. The goal of the software is to make e-mail systems and archives easier to manage, more efficient, and more secure. It also lets you do things like track detailed information about e-mails across different networks and nodes, so customers have a clear record of when a given message was sent, and exactly where it was received.

The company was formed in 2003 by a pair of South Africans, Peter Bauer (the firm’s chief executive) and Neil Murray (chief technology officer). They first introduced their product in the U.K. in 2004 and set up headquarters in London. In 2008, Mimecast came to North America with a very small team that has grown to about 50 people, including a growing office in Waltham, MA. The firm has 220 employees worldwide.

Mimecast says it has some 3,500 corporate customers, amounting to 700,000 users and about 11 million mailboxes. “We’ve grown pretty substantially,” says Mary Kay Roberto, the company’s senior vice president and general manager in North America. “Last year we doubled the business, and we’ll probably grow by 70 to 80 percent this fiscal year.”

Borenstein, 53, is key to the company’s growth strategy. At Mimecast, his domain includes intellectual property management, e-mail standards work, and research and development. He was previously an IBM Distinguished Engineer, a faculty member at the University of Michigan and Carnegie Mellon University, and a founder of First Virtual Holdings (an online payment system acquired by DoubleClick) and NetPOS (an Ann Arbor, MI-based e-commerce startup).

“It takes a lot of discipline for a company of this size to do anything but the short term,” Borenstein says. “I’m trying hard to put half the time into seeing where we can go. This is the right place to be doing it—e-mail has been and will continue to be a key infrastructure for a number of applications and processes.”

Given his historical perspective on e-mail, I asked Borenstein where the industry is really headed—widespread e-mail bankruptcy comes to mind—and what role Mimecast will play in sorting things out. “E-mails used to be a very simple thing,” he says. “The habit that business has gotten into is maintaining complicated servers…In the last 10 years, the trend in the consumer space is away from that model and towards Web mail…and complete freedom from administrative burdens. That’s not an option for business. There are way too many privacy and security problems. So [companies are] stuck doing more and more to support e-mail systems.”

That’s where Mimecast fits in. “At some point there’s a transition,” he says, where an outside agency will handle all of a company’s e-mail needs. “It’s remarkable that e-mail hasn’t made that transition sooner. What we’re doing is allowing companies to focus on their business more… and freeing up mindshare of the senior people.”

(Incidentally, Borenstein uses Apple’s mail program for his own e-mails. Why? It’s an intriguing story that involves Steve Jobs trying to hire his team out of Carnegie Mellon. The upshot is that Apple’s program works a lot like what Borenstein’s team built back in the ’80s.)

I asked what Mimecast’s biggest business and technical challenges are. Roberto cited efficiency in customer outreach and service. Borenstein said, “Most people would say it’s coping with growth. For me, it’s creating more growth. To my mind, the biggest challenge is making sure we have a platform that can grow and add more services.”

Lastly, I wondered why Borenstein would join an up-and-coming (neither new nor firmly established) company like Mimecast at this point in his career. I got the sense that part of it might be the desire to tame the beast he helped create.

“This is a major evolution in the history of e-mail,” Borenstein says. “I wanted to join a company at a certain stage that is poised for rapid growth. I wanted a company where my own history and expertise would be useful. That narrows it down pretty fast.”

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