Growing My Side Project to Profitability Despite a Three-Hour Commute

Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?

Hey! My name is Dominic Monn and I am the founder of MentorCruise. In my 'real life' I work as a Deep Learning Engineer (AI) for a Silicon Valley Startup, remotely from Switzerland.

MentorCruise is a marketplace that connect mentors and mentees in Tech. Mentorship is proven to help people succeed in their professional career, so we are helping you find a mentor. We currently offer services from 60 mentors from companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, helping you in Software Engineering, Data Science, Design, Business, and more.

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Today we are generating around $1,500 in monthly revenue. We launched in March 2018 and had more or less steady growth of around 20% in the last few months. Since we are a marketplace, we don't get to keep most of this.

Our take rate is 15% — something we hope to lower in the future. The rest goes out to all our helpful mentors. We have over 600 registered users on our marketplace, 50 of which are in a mentorship right now.

What motivated you to get started with MentorCruise?

The idea for MentorCruise came after I did an online course with Udacity. I never went to college, so online education has always been a good way for me to keep on top of things. During that time, I was supported by a Udacity mentor, which was an amazing experience and the first time I had a formal mentor in my life.

When I graduated, I stayed on board as a mentor for others, but I didn't have access to my own anymore. I met other people who have experienced the same need for a mentor and I thought, “there needs to be an easy way to solve this.”

I got my validation by talking to people who were in the same boat as me. Self-taught folks in particular are often trying to reach out to more experienced people for mentorship, and they get ignored. "Mentorship isn't formal, it evolves naturally," is a common thing they hear. However, if you are desperate to find someone to help you on your path or you are a little confused on what to do in your professional career, this comment is discouraging. So I decided to build mentorship in the most formal way possible: a marketplace.

What went into building the initial product?

This was and still is a side project, so the time I was able to work on this is mostly limited to evenings and weekends. It goes without saying that building an MVP after a day of work and (at the time) 3 (!) hours of commuting was a pain. It took me about 5 months to get to an — admittedly — over-featured MVP. It definitely involved a lot of long nights and no free time.

I decided early on to do this in the form of a marketplace and that I'd take a 'take rate' — or processing fee — to keep myself afloat. What was left was to decide what tools I'd implement for the mentors to mentor effectively. Today I'd interview users for that, but back then I didn't consider that. I ended up deciding on a handful of core tools, some of which are more useful for mentors than others.

I also wanted a way for new mentors to apply for a mentorship position so that I could weed inexperienced mentors or bad profiles out. Then mentees had to apply to mentors. I had to build a chat, the payment and payout process, and a management dashboard for me. Today I would take a much leaner approach.

The platform is built with Django and I used Bulma to get it to an acceptable state in the frontend. I was never a big frontend guy and had a lot of experience with Django, which was the only reason I chose that technology. I know that there are better, faster, and newer technologies out there, but I'm comfortable with Python and Django and can code away without the technology being a crutch for me. Since we work with a lot of mentors in India, Stripe was not an option for processing the payments, so we used PayPal, which has given me quite a few headaches the past few months.

How have you attracted users and grown MentorCruise?

Launching a marketplace involves a lot more initial work than putting your SaaS out there. There is this famous 'chicken-and-egg' problem. You need to balance the supplier (mentor) side and the customer (student) side. Depending on what kind of marketplace you are building, you need to saturate one side first.

Uber, for example, had to attract drivers before they could attract riders. But attracting drivers is difficult if there is nobody to drive. The same thing applied to eBay, Airbnb, etc.

about

For MentorCruise the situation was clear: before we launched, we needed a ton of mentors. I ended up building a small landing page and personally reached out to mentors on Twitter. I also contacted a lot of potential mentors with a high social media following. My idea was that if they became a mentor, they'd share their mentor profile on social media and tons of their followers would come in, get a mentorship, or browse other mentors.

When I had around 120 people on my mentor mailing list, I decided to do a soft launch and seed the marketplace with my mentors. Well, of the 120 people, only around 20 ended up signing up. It was a little underwhelming to be honest, but at least I had some people.

I decided to launch on HN, ProductHunt, BetaList — you name it. The verdict after 6 months of work, mentor acquisition, and a public launch was a handful of upvotes and one single paying mentee. I was discouraged.

I started doing public interviews with mentors on our blog, which was a lot more successful in terms of social media sharing. I then went to subreddits like /r/mentor and shamelessly plugged my services.

I also put in a lot of hours on Twitter with reaching out to mentors personally, which helped pull in a lot of really amazing mentors and also helped me meet a lot of amazing people. As more mentors came in, so did a lot of mentees. It is in the interest of most mentors to get mentees, so they became a big part of bringing in new users by sharing their profiles.

I realized that I needed to test out as many acquisition channels as possible and double down on the ones that work. Reaching out to the press didn't work, for example, but posting on the appropriate subreddits did. It takes some time to figure it out.

What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

Deciding on a business model was difficult for us. Usually, marketplaces have a take rate (the percentage of a transaction that goes towards the platform), but paid mentorships are not a thing. We decided to make it a thing, but keep free mentorships as an option, in which case we would also earn nothing.

The plan was great. Today, the paid model is primarily a way to be able to weed out bad actors and have more spots for mentees that are serious about making a change and growing. It is keeping mentees accountable. We get to keep 15% of the transactions.

Since we had to pay out the money at some point, we had to go for a payment processor that supported this. I'd initially wanted to go with Stripe, before realizing that it's not quite internationally available yet. I went with PayPal and set up an overly complicated system, including Billing Agreements (to be able to charge the customer every week), checking their status (if somebody ran out of credit/cancelled their PayPal) and then used the Payouts API to create a payout.

It all went smooth while testing, but when I went live, I suddenly couldn't do Payouts anymore. After a lot of fighting, I found out that I had to do $50k in MRR before I could get access to the Payouts API, so I have to do it by hand now. In the following months I had a handful of silly issues with PayPal, that have robbed me of a lot of time.

Last month we processed around $1,500 in revenue and got to keep $200 (15%) of it as take rate/profit. We had a drop in revenue early on, due to early customers losing interest, inactive mentors, and mentors leaving the platform, but have since addressed these issues and are on a good path to grow every month.

My advice is to not focus on your MRR too early and focus on your product and your users instead.

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My advice is to not focus on your MRR too early and focus on your product and your users instead. When I had my first drop in MRR, I was annoyed and incredibly disappointed. I had focused so much on acquiring users and bringing in new, fresh money, that I didn't consider talking to my user base and addressing their concerns. Arguably more important than gaining new users is to keep the ones you already have!

What are your goals for the future?

In the next few months, we want to:

  • Widen our selection of mentors even more, especially in the business sector
  • Address some feedback we have received in the past few months which should help mentees feel more comfortable with their choice
  • We have just implemented a user feedback loop, so we are excited to see what's coming out of there
  • Connect more mentees with their perfect mentor

Revenue-wise, we don't have firm goals. This is a side project and I don't expect this to take over my life in the near future. I believe that if we all keep on doing our best work and addressing issues that our students have, the growth will come by itself. That being said, if we can keep up the growth of about 20% every month, I'm more than satisfied.

What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

I think I made three bad key decisions, which I now have to live with:

  1. Going with PayPal. Their customer support does not care about small players. We regularly have to fight with our account getting blocked, long response times, getting stuck in support loops (getting passed around to different support agents) and other randomness — for example, billing agreements not being available in Germany. Migrating all users would be a big pain.
  2. Building an MVP with a lot of unnecessary features. Nowadays, I build my products very lean and fast. I rarely spend more than a week on a product before I ship something. With MentorCruise, I now have quite a heavy codebase with a lot of unnecessary features and some others missing. Talk to your users, people.
  3. Burning bridges on Reddit. PSA: advertising on Reddit is okay in most subreddits, if you combine it with a good piece of advice or maybe share a blog post instead of plugging your product. I didn't care about this early on. That is why my product and username is now banned on some very valuable and active subreddits.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

The most helpful thing was getting that initial kick from the first set of mentors. I spent over three months acquiring users. Had I not done this, I probably would still sit on a handful of mentors.

I am also glad that I took in a lot of feedback, but also decided to ignore some. Especially when it comes to pricing, you need to separate the good advice (“I think this is a little too expensive for the value it provides”) from the horrible advice (“charging for this is a joke, I could easily build this myself”).

I also recently posted a free ebook I found on ProductHunt. It was a little too late for me, but it perfectly describes a lot of the challenges that a marketplace faces, and might help you with your initial seed of your users and deciding on pricing techniques: https://versionone.vc/marketplaces-guide-ed2/

What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?

Especially for technical people: take care of your landing page and copywriting. Designing a good, converting landing page is an art and you might want to get help from other IndieHackers. My first landing page was really rough and even though even my current 5th iteration is not perfect, I definitely see a lot more people signing up. In general, focus on the benefits of your product, not the features.

Take care of your landing page and copywriting. Designing a good, converting landing page is an art and you might want to get help from other IndieHackers.

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People should also learn to be a little less active with their products. Iterating is good, but I see people around IndieHackers pivoting, shutting down, or redesigning their products after one or two months. When it’s difficult to find customers, the problem is almost always with your acquisition channels and/or your landing page. If you fail to keep customers, there is a problem with your product or pricing and you can find out what that is by reaching out to them.

Don't get disheartened by people telling you that they got to $10k of MRR in a few days. That's not the norm. Most of us work years to get to a bootstrapped living wage.

Where can we go to learn more?

The best way to find me or get in touch with me is my Twitter. I would love to chat! I'm always somewhere around IndieHackers, so if you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comment section below!

dqmonn , Founder of MentorCruise

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