Dominic Monn (@dqmonn) created a marketplace for mentors where none existed, and quickly grew it into a positive revenue stream. What's more, he did it while enduring a 3-hour commute and working a demanding internship. In this episode, we discuss how Dominic leaned heavily on cold outreach to populate his marketplace, the joy of reaching out to (and hearing back from!) satisfied users, and the importance of planning when most of your day is already booked with a full-time job.
What’s up, everybody? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com and you’re listening to the Indie Hackers Podcast. On this show I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and I try to get a sense of what it’s like to be in their shoes. How did they get to where they are today?
How do they make decisions both in their companies and their personal lives and what exactly makes their businesses tick? And the goal here, as always, is so that the rest of us can learn from their examples and go on to build our own, profitable internet businesses. Today I am talking to Dominic Monn. Dominic, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me.
You are the founder of MentorCruise, a side project you’ve been working on for a number of years. Why don’t you tell us what it is and who uses it?
What MentorCruise is, it’s a marketplace for people in tech to find a mentor. If you’re just getting into tech, if you want to reach for a promotion, learn something new or if you want to change your career into tech, it’s nice to have someone in the boat with you, someone who can guide you through that process.
That is what MentorCruise is here for, for people to find someone to get them through the journey. It’s a marketplace right now, so we have a list of 160 mentors that you can search for. It’s all about being in tech, so there are design mentors, there are engineering mentors for different technologies, but also mentors for people in management, project management, things like that.
People can look for these mentors, get in touch with them, usually for a weekly fee between $0-$50 a week, they get matched up with them formally and start working together with them on a long-term basis.
I love that. So pretty much anything you want to do in tech, anything you want to get good at or any new job you want to have, I can go on MentorCruise and find somebody who is already and expert and then pay them to spend an hour with me just talking on video chat or something?
No, that’s the difference in MentorCruise is that it’s for long-term mentorship. You pay a weekly fee and during that time period you have open chat connection with you mentor. You can organize the mentorship as you want. Some mentors do provide weekly video calls where we check in. Some others do it twice per month or once per month to check in. The idea is that you can book a mentor and stay with that mentor for months, if not even years. I have a few mentorships now who have been going on for one and a half years. Just to have somebody during the whole process, whatever you might want to learn or achieve, during that whole time you have access to a mentor you can write at any time.
Very cool. I have a chess coach who I pay $30 a week to meet with. I love the whole idea of having somebody who is an expert to help you out because it’s a forcing function. I will be lazy most of the week and not practice chess.
Wednesday is coming up and I’m like, I don’t want to be embarrassed and not have done anything and then I get my stuff together and it just motivates me to be better.
It’s an excellent source of accountability. I think that’s the first ever observation I got from this, is that mentors tend to give you the resource that you could find on the internet, too, yourself but they’re there for you to have someone to check in. You have a source of accountability.
You have somebody who knows your process. I think that’s why this coaching thing is coming up more and more now.
The internet is such a valuable source of information, you can find pretty much everything but it’s missing that crucial ingredient which is motivation. Just because the information is there doesn’t mean you’re going to find it and it doesn’t mean you’re going to motivate yourself to read it and sit down every week.
Somebody else can light a fire under your butt and get you to do those things. You said “we” have a list of 160 mentors but MentorCruise is just you.
It’s a one-person operation. I think you’re making something like $700 a month now, is that correct?
What motivated you to start this side project?
I started this a while ago, as we said. I think I got the idea in 2017. My background is a bit unusual. I went through this apprenticeship program at WFU in Switzerland for software engineering. Towards the end of that I was getting into machine learning, started to teach that myself through courses and Udacity.
Udacity has a thing where you get a – at least at the time, you got a mentor with your course or with your degree. Somebody who checks in with you, somebody who keeps you accountable. I really liked that. When I left Udacity I lost access to that mentor. I was going into an internship at a big tech company which was quite demanding, and I had to study, I had to learn and keep up.
During that time I would really have liked to have a mentor, too. I got this idea where, “What if I build a site where anybody could go and find a mentor?” Not just if you’re in a course, not if you’re just in school or if you’re in a job. Just somebody who sticks with you no matter what, if you change jobs or schools or whatever.
I love how that’s on your own experience. You had, as you said, an apprenticeship, which is very much like having a mentor, and then you had your mentor on Udacity, so you also got a second shot at having a mentor.
It’s no surprise that you could build a mentorship platform and you know exactly what needs to go into it because you’ve been in that position before.
I think mentorship is immensely valuable. Even when I went into my internship, I had a mentor again and I just think it’s somebody who went through whatever you went through so they can point out the tripping wires and can help you get further, quicker.
The problem is always if you switch employers, if switch schools, if you switch from an apprenticeship or internship, you’re essentially losing access to that mentor and even if you have a new mentor you have to bring them up to speed. Having somebody from a third party with you is quite valuable in my opinion.
I’ve never been to Switzerland, where you live. I’m curious what the tech scene is like there. How do people react if you tell them you’re working remotely for a Silicon Valley startup and that you’re also building your own app on the side?
There is a tech scene in Switzerland or in Zurich specifically where I live. It’s quite smaller, I think the Europe hub is more in Nordic countries, in Sweden. But there are definitely a few interesting startups here. I think a lot of the startups are based around financial tech or Fintech.
That’s what Switzerland is known for, banks. A lot of the startups here are also trying to break through in that space. There is also a world-class university here, which provides a new source of people that start startups. A lot of people here are in the same mode as me where they’re working and working on something else on the side.
But having this aspect of working remotely, as I said, I’m working here remotely for a San Francisco startup, I think is quite special. I think that combination is not as common, but for me it’s quite nice. You get both sides of the coin where you’re working for a startup which is obviously very exciting but then you have this little thing on the side that you have during nights and weekends where you have full control and you can bring your creativity in that.
If you’re building a side project that is generating revenue, you’re really every employee so you’re responsible for marketing, you’re responsible for building this.
You wear every hat.
You’re responsible for product, you’re responsible for sales. I think builds a very broad skill set which is quite in demand nowadays, too.
It’s interesting as a founder to also work at a company because you see everybody with these specialized skill sets but you realize, as you said, you also have to do all those specialized skill sets yourself when you’re a founder.
Maybe you don’t go as deep as everybody, but you have to go broad and you have to understand the tradeoff between, “When have I written enough code and when do I need to focus on more sales? What’s the interplay between these things?” When you’re an employee at a company you don’t have to think that broadly.
I think that’s super exciting and valuable as well. If you work in engineering, more of the technical side, I think a lot of people tend to lose focus of the greater thing and just worry about the engineering parts of it. If you have something on the side and you work on marketing and sales and design and all that, you’re starting to see things again from a bigger view.
How do you juggle having the time to work a full-time job and also have a side project that’s a full business for you because you’re trying to generate revenue. A lot of people want to do that but it’s hard to work up the motivation, to find the time. How do you do that, Dominic?
I think it’s a matter of planning. You have to block off day work, which is blocked out for the company that you’re working for. There are a lot of hours around that. You need to find a way to use the time that’s available to you for the best reasons.
As a remote worker I don’t have a commute, so I get a bit of extra time every day. Even if you have half an hour or an hour every day, you need to plan every day, “What am I going to do with this specific hour?”
Then you end up with a backlog and you end up throwing things away that aren’t as important for the things that are more important, and you tend to specialize or concentrate on things that are truly important to the app or to building that side business. The more time, the better but if you have an hour every evening and maybe some time on the weekends, I think you can do quite a bit with today’s tools.
I love that point about being willing to throw away things that are less important for things that are more important because time is this fixed thing. It’s really hard to create more time, even if you’re this super-efficient planner, at the end of the day you have this fixed amount of time, so you have to shift the scope of what you’re working on to match that fixed amount of time.
That might require being ruthless about not building that feature you want to build or not sending that email you really wanted to send because you just don’t have time to do it. Do you remember what you planning looked like in the early days of MentorCruise when you were just getting started?
I think it’s different from anybody else but in the beginning my to do list for MentorCruise was quite empty. I had the features that I wanted but especially after I built the MVP, I concentrated 100% on marketing and that’s where I tried out a lot of things.
I just reserved 20-30 minutes a day to try out a new channel, to post things on Reddit, to write something. Nowadays it’s a lot more complicated. I have a user base that’s given me feedback. I need to work on new features. I need to work on marketing and getting the word out. So I think now it’s quite more difficult to balance that.
What about the pre-MVP days where you were just starting to build what would eventually become MentorCruise? How long did it take you to get to the point where people could actually use it?
Way too long, that’s the first part. Back then I was in my internship, so I had a commute, a very long one, like three hours.
Three hours every day?
One and a half hours each way. So there wasn’t a lot of time. I also didn’t understand what an MVP is, so I had way too many features on my app. I guess the implementation part took three or four months. That was just every day, one or two hours. Maybe if I went to sleep a little later it was three or four hours, and then on the weekends.
It probably took me one or two months where I was doing some pre-launch marketing because it’s a marketplace, so I had to get mentors on there before I was able to launch this. I worked another month or two just doing that.
I talked to Chad Pytel on the podcast a few months back. He’s the CEO of a development agency called Thoughtbot. They build all these different products for different clients and help them launch their MVPs and every single client they have they say the same thing, “You don’t need half of these features you think you really need to launch. Let’s pare it down and get you the essentials and you can iterate from there.”
But when they’re building their own internal products and tools they fall into the same trap and they find themselves justifying that they need to put this feature in their MVP and that feature in and it’s really hard to keep the scope small, early on. Four months isn’t that long, especially working an hour a day. It seems like you were pretty successful at reducing the scope.
One part of it definitely that you have this new feature on your plan and then when you have to build it in your one or two hours of free time you start asking yourself, “Do I really need to build this or can I build this a little more lightweight?” One good example was an appointment scheduler.
You want to be able to ask your mentor for a video call and then you want to be able to schedule this. Right at the beginning I was planning on writing my own scheduling thing. Then I was thinking, “Well, there are already services. There’s Calendly and all these things. Why don’t I just provide the link to that and let people do it themselves?”
Boom, instantly you’ve saved two months of time.
Exactly. I think a lot of things started going like that where I was thinking to myself, “Do I really need to build my own chat? Do I really need to build my own task management software?” And then start using software that is available.
One of the challenges with a business like MentorCruise is that it’s a marketplace. You’re trying to connect these two different groups of people. You have mentors on one side and mentees on the other.
It’s notoriously difficult to get a marketplace off the group because no one wants to be the first. Why would be a mentor on a platform where there’s no one to mentor and why would you be a mentee on a platform where there’s nobody to mentor you? How did you get over that hump in the early days?
I was aware of that difficulty when I planned this, so my plan was before I launched the platform I should have at least 30 mentors already on there, day one, when I launched. So as I told you, I was building the platform and when I was about done, I realized, “Oh, now I need to fill it up.”
So I had this very, very small landing page up. It was basically just, “MentorCruise, connecting mentors and mentees” and then an email field. I was reaching out to people on Twitter and I think a few hundred people, people who work in tech who are on the senior side but also people who have a certain audience and following.
I was DMing them and asking, “Hey, I’m building this platform. You’re able to make some money with it but not too much. Would you be interested mentoring some people?” And a lot of people didn’t answer me. A lot of people didn’t reply. Some people gave me their email address. I think in the end like 60.
Sixty people gave me their email address. So at 60 I was confident and launched it. On the first few days I had about ten or twelve people going through and creating their profile on MentorCruise. Which isn’t a lot, but I had 12 people on there who were available, and people could book them.
The other thing is I was looking for people with a certain following, so people tweeted it out, at least some of the 12 people had a bit of an audience, so they tweeted it out and said, “Hey, I’m on MentorCruise. Would you like to work with me?” That gave the first boost of people coming in.
Reminds me a lot of the early days of Indie Hackers. Sending hundreds of emails, most people not replying, and then I ended up launching with ten or twelve interviews. Early on that’s all that really matters. A dozen or so is all you need to get started. You can grow from there.
I was talking about doing things that don’t scale on a podcast episode last year and somebody commented and said, “I like the Indie Hackers podcast except for when they get into this really basic stuff, like do things that don’t scale. Then I just roll my eyes.” I think of it so differently. Those are the fundamentals.
The fundamentals in anything you do are the most important thing you can do. It’s really easy to confuse, I think, being familiar with a particular bit of advice, because it’s so cliché, it gets repeated all the time, solve your own problems, do things that don’t scale, talk to you users. It’s like, “Oh, I’m so familiar with this, I must understand it.” But just because you’re familiar with something doesn’t mean you understand it.
Yes, that’s right.
Just because you understand it doesn't mean you’re adhering to it. You could know all this stuff and not do it. I like that you buttoned down the hatches early on and talked to as many people as possible.
You knew that even though marketplaces are hard to start, if you focus on one side first and you get that built up, you sent a ton of emails and a ton of direct messages then you can go to the other side and convince mentees to join the platform. What happened with that side of the market? Did people actually respond well when you first launched?
I think a lot people responded very well. There was a lot of the followers of the initial mentors who said, “Hey, I’ve wanted to talk to you for a while, so let’s get started.” There was also this Udacity crowd which was in the same boat as me. I knew that people would lose their mentors quickly and then people started coming in and either signing up as a mentor themselves or want to get continued mentorship.
Then over time, I built this base of mentors. They were able to bring more people in. Then the SEO effect kicked in and people searching for mentors got shown our website on Google. I think it’s quite compelling if you say, “I’m looking for a python mentor, a machine learning mentor,” when you see 10 people you can book right now who are able to teach you that. I think that’s quite powerful and people started noticing that and coming through those channels, too.
What do you think was the biggest single channel for helping you find more mentees for your platform?
Right now it’s SEO and Google for sure.
What about finding more mentors? I know you have considerably more than just the initial 12. How have you continued to get more people to come onto your MentorCruise and agree to mentor others?
That’s a great question. A lot of it has been the same thing, really. Messaging loads and loads of people and seeing if they are interested. I think with size MentorCruise got more credible. I see now, before I launched, I messaged 100 people. I’ve written every message by hand and personally, by the way. I don’t really like spamming.
I messaged those people and out of 100 people maybe 10 answered me and eight of those answers have been, “No, I’m not interested, thank you.” Now when I message 10 or 20 people because I really like them and I think they do really great work then it’s a little bit different when people see the platform and people like it and they think it’s great that they’re getting approached. I think it is a lot more attractive to people, essentially.
How does your business model work? You’re making a $700 a month. I’m assume you’re just taking a small cut of what the mentees are paying the mentors.
That’s right. That’s the main channel right now. We are taking 15% of every transaction. There are a few more channels now coming. We recently launched sessions. Which, instead of signing up for a mentor long-term you can sign up with them and get a CV review.
We get a fixed price on top of that, not a percentage. There are a lot of things I want to discover in the future because scaling that little cut is really, really difficult. I don’t want to make it more expensive because it’s taking away from the money that people earn. That seems predatory, so exploring other revenue sources is something that’s on my plan very soon.
That’s an interesting pool. On one hand you want to make as much money as possible yourself, but on the other hand, your platform is more attractive if your mentors are making as much money as possible. How do you figure out the equilibrium point where you’re doing the best in both areas?
I like that MentorCruise is focused on consumers. You’re really selling this to average individuals. You’re not selling this to businesses. Some of the most common advice is, as a founder, you should sell to businesses.
They have the money and they pay for more things than consumers do, but I do think there is a group of things consumers are happy to pay a lot of money for. Education and learning, especially if you’re teaching somebody something valuable they think could make them more money in the future or give them a career, people are happy to fork over thousands of dollars, maybe even tens of thousands to do things like go to college or join a programming bootcamp or even maybe have a mentor.
How do you think about the fact that you’re selling to consumers, how do you think about trying to convince them this is something worth paying for when, quite frankly, most people don’t pay for mentors and aren’t really used to doing so?
That was a big deal in the beginning. Mentorship traditionally wasn’t paid for. It’s closer to coaching. A lot of people were a little bit upset about that at first. But that doesn't matter.
When people want a mentor and they’re lacking the network, they’re lacking people they can reach out to, it’s very convenient to have someone saying, “Hey, give me $10 per week, which isn’t a ton of money, and I’m going to be with you every step of the journey.”
At times I think selling to consumers is cumbersome, especially at times when you have somebody spending $10 and then sending 10 emails because they weren’t satisfied and want a refund. Then I’m asking myself, “Is this really worth it?”
But people like to pay for development progress, education. There are people paying $200-$400 a month for a mentor. They say it’s totally worth it. They would do it as long as they have that disposable income that they can use for self-improvement.
You wrote a milestone on your Indie Hackers product page for MentorCruise last month where you said, “I just wrote 120 emails.” So you went into your database, you queried all your power users.
These are mentees who have been signed up with mentors for six months or more, who’ve paid over $1000 for MentorCruise over time. You wrote a personal, unique email for each one of these people. How did that turn out? Did you learn anything?
That was probably the most amazing thing I’ve done in the past few months. We were talking before about talking to your users. I think I was part of that crowd who said, “Oh, I know what talking to my users is because I’m sending surveys with my email newsletters a few times and I get a few responses sometimes so I’m totally talking to my users.”
At some point I realized I’m getting messages from people who are not satisfied, people who want refunds, people who give bad ratings. I never thought about reaching out to people where everything goes smoothly. That’s what I did. I got 20-30 replies from those 100+ emails. I should probably follow up with more people.
It was amazing to discover what kind of people are on the platform and what they use it for. I think I was missing that before because I tried to put everyone in a survey or somewhere as a data point.
But if you send everyone email you get the personal stories behind it. I’m not sure if it’s another Indie Hackers milestone but a few success stories came out of that from Ryan Wilson, who used to be a pro basketball player in the UK. After he retired, he wanted to get into Cyber Security and got into that with the help of one of our mentors.
I’m talking to another long-term mentee right now who has paid beyond $1,000 for mentorship from two or three different mentors now. He’s an Afghanistan veteran and is trying to break into full stack development with the help of two or three of our mentors. Those stories are just amazing, and I think you don’t hear about them if you just send an email newsletter or put everyone in a survey.
It’s interesting to think about who you are listening to in terms of your user base because you mentioned when you send one type of email you’re getting responses from the disgruntled users who are unhappy and want fixes or changes or refunds, but if you identify the best users you get a totally different type of feedback and totally different stories. I think it’s hard to decide, “Should I be improving things for people who are unhappy?”
Should I be fixing bugs, issues and making the minimum experience better? Or should I be doubling down on things that are working really well for the users that are having a good experience? What do you think is the best way forward for MentorCruise?
I think you need to listen to both sides, but obviously if somebody is disgruntled, somebody didn’t like the service in many cases it’s something that you can’t do anything about. Sometimes some expectations weren’t met. Sometimes something went bad.
You need to listen for things that are recurring, I think. If you see that people cancel your service and leave your platform for this one reason every time, that’s something you should listen to and something you need to improve on.
On the other side, if you talk to people who like your service and they tell you, “Hey, I’d really appreciate it if you’d do that or this.” That’s probably something that could make your service better for the people that are already there and make them stay longer. Both are very, very, valuable.
Listen, Dominic, I am a fan of MentorCruise. I’m a fan of mentorship in general. I think most people listening to the is podcast would probably be better off if they found some mentors, too.
Can you let us know what your advice is for people who are in the position where they need mentors? People who are just now starting side projects or considering starting side projects, so they’re where you were a couple of years ago. What would you say to them?
Get someone in the boat with you. That’s my number one advice. Be it through MentorCruise or through your network. I think Indie Hackers is another great platform where you can get people to be part of your journey. I think when you’re building a side project but also if you’re changing careers or learning something new.
It’s a long process and you need a lot of motivation. I think not a lot of people who aren’t in the same boat as you can give you that type of motivation. Get somebody who stays with you. Get to know some people at Indie Hackers meetups or in the forums. If you don’t know anybody who can help you, head over to MentorCruise.com and get somebody there.
Thanks so much, Dominic, for coming on the show.
Thanks for having me.
Can you tell us where to go to find out more about you and what you’re up to at MentorCruise or get in touch if anyone’s interested?
I’m pretty active on Twitter. You can find me at @DQMONN. That’s D-Q-M-O-N-N. I’m also on Indie Hackers. I think my name might be D-Q-M-O-N-N, too. You will see my face in the forums, and it’ll be in the comments under this podcast for sure.
If you’re looking for a mentor, go over to MentorCruise.com. We have 160 mentors in tech. If you want to have somebody on the journey with you, that’s a good place to go.
Thanks again, Dominic.
Yeah, thanks for having me.
Quick note for listeners, if you’re interested in coming on to the podcast to have a quick chat with me, go to IndieHackers.com/milestones and post a milestone about whatever it is that you’re working on. It can be about anything. People have posted about launching or finding their first customers.
They posted about growing their mailing list or hitting a thousand followers on Twitter. They posted about getting to $100 or $1,000 or $100,000 a month in revenue. The sky is the limit. Whatever it is you’re proud of, come post it on IndieHackers.com/milestones and the rest of us will help you celebrate.
What I will do is at the end of every week I will look at the top milestones posted and reach out to people to invite them to come onto the show for a quick chat. Once again, that’s IndieHackers.com/milestones. I’m looking forward to seeing what you post.
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