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Interview with a Successful Startup Founder

From Screwed MVP to an $8k MRR Bootstrapped Startup in 3 Years

Dominic Monn
Dominic Monn
May 11, 2021
Category of startup
Education
Country of startup
Switzerland
Revenue of startups
$0-$10k/mo
Interview with a Failed Startup Founder

From Screwed MVP to an $8k MRR Bootstrapped Startup in 3 Years

Dominic Monn
Dominic Monn
May 11, 2021
Category of startup
Education
Country of startup
Switzerland
Cause of failure of the startup

Dominic founded MentorCruise, a mentorship marketplace for people in tech. Mentors can provide people support and accountability. After 3 years of bootstrapping, they've grown from $700 MRR to $4,600 in 2020. Since then, they've already doubled and are sitting at $7,800 MRR.

You MUST validate your startup ideas if you want to avoid failure. In our course "Pre-Sell to Validate" we teach you an actionable framework to do it. You can get it here.

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Hi Dom! Who are you and what are you currently working on?

Hey, thanks for having me! I’m the Founder of MentorCruise.com, a mentorship service for people in tech.

I’m 23 years old, living in Zurich, Switzerland. I launched MentorCruise when I was only 20 years old, working on it during an incredibly long commute that I had.

The idea behind MentorCruise is simple: To reach their goals, people need support and accountability. Both can be provided by a mentor.

However, good mentors are sparse, and getting someone to formally engage with you in a mentor-mentee relationship almost always only happens in schools and organized work relationships.

So that’s where we swoop in – we have around 500 mentors on file with what they are happy to provide for mentees, and how much it’s going to cost them.

Other than other services, we don’t rely on sessions, paid calls, or by-the-minute billing to do so – you sign up with a flat monthly fee and have access to your mentor when you need it. We take a cut.

As a solo founder, I have my hands full with all areas of the business. Today, I have two part-time helpers in customer support and development, but there is still a lot to do when it comes to product, growth, marketing, and community support.

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

Before building MentorCruise, I was engaged in various forms of online education, such as MOOCs. Out of all these courses and schemes, it was the ones that offered 1-on-1 mentorship that had the most impact on me.

However, these mentorship programs were mostly side-projects of these companies. The core was always the coursework. Once you didn’t do the coursework anymore, you’d also lose access to your mentor.

Even more crucially: When you’re done with your course, when the crucial time of job-hunting and interviewing starts, your mentor is gone.

As a career starter at 19 years old, I experienced this first-hand and found that many of my peers experienced this too. Many of us also were on both sides of the market – looking for a mentor and also mentoring students ourselves, so I decided to initially just create a little index of all of us.

That’s how we got our first dozen users or so – I ended up talking to around 100 potential mentors before launching something and a few of them came from those learning communities.

I had many attempts to build a business or to come up with a nice business idea I could work on, but this one was the first one that clicked and then also ended up making real revenue.

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How did you go from idea to product?

As a first-time founder, this was incredibly painful. Today, I know all about how you should validate an idea first, talk to customers, build an MVP, seek further validation and then think about a proper product. Back then, I had no idea!

I had never heard of sites like ProductHunt or IndieHackers.

So, I took the tools that I already had in my belt (being able to code stuff in Python and write some crude HTML/CSS) and started building. First a landing page, then the full product.

MentorCruise Landing Page v1

If I look back to this, I made a ton of mistakes: instead of letting my early potential users dictate my scope, I thought of all the cool features I could add during my commute.

Instead of validating the business and asking potential mentors and mentees what they’d look for, I did it all in my head. Honestly, thinking back to it this would’ve been destined to fail.

What I ended up with was an overblown MVP scope. The site had to have a scheduling feature to schedule meetings, right? And the chat solutions that were out there were too expensive, gotta build my own. Let’s add a to-do list function, a way to send sample projects to each other, and what about a community? Let’s add that one too.

If there is one thing that I did right, it was talking to people every day. In my head, making this work relied on having good mentors on the page, so I DMed and emailed people every day, asking them to become part of it.

The MVP took me around 4-5 months to build, which is a stupidly long time and mainly caused by the huge scope. When I was ready to launch, over 100 people were interested to become mentors, many of which had 10,000s of followers on Twitter.

The strategy was clear: They’d all sign up, share their profile and all their followers would come streaming in.

Well, that didn’t happen of course. Out of the 100 interested people, around 10 ended up signing up, and maybe one or two of them ended up sharing their profiles elsewhere. Now, the work began.

Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

I undersold my little “influencer technique”. Adding these known faces as mentors did have some impact. The first ever paid customer joined the site around 2-3 weeks after launch. I saw the application come in, saw the mentor accept it, saw the mentee set up their payment, and boom – I got my first $5 or so (I had a very unattractive commission scheme back then).

Turns out, their mentor profile got indexed by Google and when they were researching about this known developer figure, they found the offering and took the chance.

So, I’d say this was probably how we got our first 10 paying customers. I ended up spending an hour or two per day just getting new mentors to sign up. Over time, the team grew from 10 mentors to 20, then 30, then 50. Most of them were able to get someone on their network to sign up with them.

Later, I recognized how powerful search was for this. I ended up creating a lot of different landing pages that today dominate the first page of Google. I invested a lot into our blog, becoming a welcome resource for career changers. Whenever someone complains online about not being able to find a mentor, we are there too.

However, this took years to pay off.

MentorCruise Montly Revenue Evolution

But in the end, it’s all about the service. The fact that existing mentors tell their coworkers and friends. The fact that mentees write about us and tell their friends. It’s a nice network effect where every new mentor usually also attracts other mentees and mentors.

Today, we do a lot to sustain our growth and momentum. We have a new affiliate program, we run a referral scheme for mentors, we do paid ads, we ask mentors to share more, we have a community blog and incentivize mentors to do well.

How are you doing today and what are your goals for the future?

In 2020, MentorCruise has experienced its greatest year to date. We’ve grown from about $700 in MRR to around $4,600 by the end of 2020. Since then, we’ve already doubled again and are sitting at $7,800 in revenue.

One question that often comes up is whether that’s all we make or just our cut. When we talk about revenue, we only talk about our cut. The volume of the whole marketplace currently sits at around $40,000 per month. It’s crazy!

MentorCruise Landing Page

We grow at a healthy rate, roughly 10% month-over-month. Our profits before hiring are very healthy – we pretty much just pay $15 per month to Postmark, $49 per month to Tapfilliate, and $20 per month in hosting.

Most of the rest goes out to hiring – we work with Embarque for our content and as I already mentioned, we have two amazing part-time people in support and engineering.

I hope that we can keep up the growth in this sustainable way for the near future. It would mean that we’d sit at over $16k in MRR by the end of the year. Enough for me to comfortably work full-time on the business and also hire one or two helpers additionally.

To achieve this, we can’t sit still though. Currently, I’m focusing a lot of energy on making sure that mentors can perform at their best. Since last month, mentor profiles look drastically different, for example.

MentorCruise Profiles

Since starting MentorCruise, what have been your main lessons?

That’s a hard question. Truth is, I had no idea how to build a business at the start of this. Since then, I have had time to reflect on a lot of early decisions I made during building MentorCruise, but there are new things I learn every day.

I am fortunate that I can reflect on a lot of questions again when I mentor others.

  1. The first step in building a business is always to seek validation. Do not start on the solution before you get to know 10 people that would pay to get a problem solved.
  2. Your MVP scope should be as small as possible. If you can earn some money without building a product at first, you might have a winner on your hands.
  3. As important as your idea is your growth channel. If you have no idea how to grow a product, do not start it.
  4. Listen to your users, but don’t do everything they say. It’s easy to fall into panic if someone reports a bug or has a feature request. You need to prioritize though.


What were the biggest obstacles you overcame? What were your worst mistakes?

We talked about the overblown MVP. That’s one of the things that bugs me a lot still since it didn’t only cost me those 4-5 months it took to initially build it, but also months of work to get to a common ground again (and removing a lot of the features in the process).

I also mentioned that our first paying customer brought us about $5 in commission. We were simply scared to charge enough:

  • We were charging on a weekly basis, which made people anxious and didn’t provide a lot of security for us
  • We only took 10% as a commission when some of our competitors took up to 30%
  • We didn’t give people any kind of suggestions on what they should charge.

After taking care of that and switching the business model around, we started growing a lot quicker.

I could count a lot more things, but it comes down to one thing – I was scared to take risks. When I had my $100 in MRR, I didn’t want to switch things up because I thought I’d lose it. When I was at $500 in MRR, I thought that the business works as-is.

But the point is, you can’t assume that whatever got you to $500 in MRR will also get you to $5,000 in MRR. You need to take risks and it’s easy to do so the smaller your business still is.


What tools & resources do you recommend?

Built to Sell by John Warrillow is one of the books that changed my thinking about building a business the most. I think it’s a good guide for entrepreneurs that are deeply personally connected with their business.

It has also taught me a lot when it comes to hiring people, spending money, or automating a certain task. It’s probably the reason why, as a founder, I can still take a week away from work without stuff going up in flames. Not many can say that about themselves. It puts me at an advantage because I could run this business forever without burning out.

I am not a big fan of online communities. Many of them got overly business-ized and don’t provide a ton of value. Throwing a bunch of people in a Slack channel, that’s no community.

That’s why I love Founder Summit. I think they are an incredibly smart bunch of people and the only community I check regularly.

Then, the classics – IndieHackers, ProductHunt, Reddit. All good places to talk to new people.

And, my love-hate relationship with Facebook Groups. I hate Facebook, love the groups. They are a huge ecosystem in themselves and often include a lot of people with no other social media. Good to get out of the bubble.


Where can we go to learn more?

I tend to share more about my work on my Twitter. If you are a fellow founder, also check out my Substack on building an online marketplace, I am sure it can help you.

If you’d like to become a mentor, please apply! People love being a mentor on MentorCruise. You’ll become part of our community, a tightly knit network of people all around the tech industry. From FAANG veterans to YC founders, we have them all!

And finally, if you are in the trenches trying to find a new job, leveling up in your career, or finally building that business of yours, consider getting a mentor.

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