Host of Hacker Noon Founder Interviews
Dominic is making it easy for both mentees and mentors to build professional relationships with MentorCruise.
Davis Baer: What’s your background, and what are you working on?
My name is Dominic and I’m a Machine Learning Engineer working remotely from Switzerland. Since last year I’m working on a product called MentorCruise, a marketplace to bring together students, new grads and career changers in tech with experienced mentors.
The product is currently processing $2,000 per month, on which we have a 15% take rate. Today, over 700 users are registered on the platform, with nearly 100 mentorships created so far.
What motivated you to get started with your project?
I was looking for a mentor myself for a long time. I was a student at Udacity for a long time, where I always had a mentor. When I finished my courses there and went out in the “real” world, this mentorship aspect was suddenly missing.
I realized that a lot of other people in my shoes have the same problem: You get guided through all your studies and looking for your first job, but when you are there, you are being left alone. People are told to look for mentors in their social circle or on social media, but it’s awkward and nobody wants to commit to a formal mentorship. I decided to create a very formal way of bringing together mentors and mentees, where expectations of both mentor and mentee are well defined.
What went into building the initial product?
At the start, I was planning on building a simple MVP. I was in an internship with a long commute, so it was important for me to keep the effort that goes into the proof of concept very low.
It didn’t work. In the end, I had an over-engineered product that took over 6 months of evening and weekend work to create. In my mind I needed a lot of features for this to work, I didn’t talk to my users. Nowadays I rarely spend over two weeks on a product before I launch a simple version.
Today MentorCruise runs on a few DigitalOcean droplets, using Django (the technology I’m most comfortable with through my previous work), a few Python scripts to automate things and a few external tools such as SendGrid and Drift.
How did you attract your first set of users and solve the chicken-and-egg problem that marketplaces encounter?
The chicken-and-egg problem is unique to marketplaces since you need a supplier and a customer. For eBay, the suppliers are the sellers and the customers are the buyers. For Uber, the suppliers are the drivers and the riders are the buyers. For us, the suppliers are the mentors and the students are the buyers.
For us it was important to saturate the supplier side first, so we reached out to potential mentors from the beginning. By the time of launch, we had 100 potential mentors on our mailing list — 15 of which signed up on launch.
Through community outreach and word-of-mouth of the mentors, we grew our mentee side quite quickly. We currently still have a over-saturation of mentors, so mentees shouldn’t have problems finding a mentor, but it also allows us to be more picky with new mentors coming in.
What’s your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
As usual for marketplaces, we use a take rate — sometimes called processing fee — to generate revenue. In our case, this is 15% of each transaction. Overall, our mentors currently generate revenue close to $2,000 per month, of which we get to keep 15% as profit.
The growth for this was slow and steady: In our first month, we made nothing. Then we made our first $60, the next month it was $300 already… I think it’s important to focus on your users, retain the ones you have and keep them happy, while trying to grow. This is how your product gets successful over time.
An important measure for us was also to track the behaviour of our users. I’m not a fan of shady tracking techniques, so one thing I did was simply add a ‘How did you find us’ field on the purchase page. This is where we found out that most of our customers find us on Google, while I spent most of my time doubling down in communities, talking to coding bootcamps and similar.
What are your goals for the future?
On one side, I’d like to improve the quality of mentorships. I do this by tracking mentorship cancellation reasons and acting on them. I want mentorships to last as long as possible, so when a mentorship relation holds less than a few weeks, there might be something wrong.
Since we started calculating more metrics recently, I’d also like to act on those. For us this means making the user flow — such as payment — better, improving the UX drastically, doubling down on SEO and bringing more quality mentors to the platform.
Until the end of the year, I’d like to have at least 100 active mentorships, currently there are a little more than 50.
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 should’ve built a lighter MVP. There are definitely times where I struggle with the blown up codebase and the unfriendly UX. I had all these features in my mind that weren’t needed and that would’ve saved time I could’ve used for other things. A large refactoring is planned, but there are always 100 bigger things to do than making the code look pretty.
We also had continuous problems with PayPal as a payment gateway. It’s a bit scary when a provider who is at the foundation of your business decides to block certain APIs or threatens to block your account because they aren’t accepting your address verification. I haven’t worked with PayPal ever since for other projects, but for the time being we are stuck with it for MentorCruise.
Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
At the start, I lacked insight into my platform and motivation. I think it’s important to track metrics and focus on firm trackable goals. Nowadays I’m tracking a lot of metrics in-house, such as the monthly revenue, the drop-off rates at certain levels, where users are coming from and who they are.
It has helped me decide on the next improvements to make and keeps me motivated. When my goal is to gain 10 new paying users this month, I can easily track it.
What’s your advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
Start small, speak to your users and grow from there. Sometimes your idea has potential but needs some work to get where users would pay for it.
Professional engineers tend to plan out their features like they do in their day job, because they are used to getting firm requirements. But these requirements usually come from customers as well. When you work on your own products, you start making these requirements up in your head. The real requirements will come from real users, so make sure to stay flexible.
Where can we go to learn more?
You can find me on Twitter, my DMs are open so feel free to reach out. If you need help with building or growing your own platform, or you want to get into Machine Learning and Neural Networks, I’m also mentoring on MentorCruise, which is a lot of fun.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comment section below.
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