Building a mentor marketplace to 20,000 users
MentorCruise is an impressive mentor marketplace which has grown to 20,000 users. I interviewed the Swiss bootstrapper, Dominic, who is the creator of MentorCruise about how he's helping to connect mentors with people wanting to get mentored. We discussed why he set it up in the first place, the power of SEO and why two-sided marketplaces don't have to be as hard as some people make them out to be.
Can you tell us what you’ve achieved with MentorCruise?
We have over 2,500 mentors available and over 20,000 registered users. Every month we’re matching over 500 new mentors and mentees with each other. Over the past 12 months, we’ve paid out $1.5M to mentors all around the world and have had one million visitors come to our website.
Why did you create MentorCruise?
I had a non-traditional path into tech (read my No CS Degree interview about learning to code 😉 ) and so I missed out on a lot of mentorships that my peers in big tech or university were able to profit from.
I realized the power of mentorship when I got assigned a mentor in an online course. That mentor helped me over a lot of hurdles, introduced me to the right people, and ended up indirectly getting me a job I would not have been able to get without him.
The downside is that you lose mentors like this quickly, usually, after the course ends, so the motivation to build MentorCruise has always been driven to create a resource where you can find powerful mentors with the same ease and without small print.
Did you focus on getting the mentors first or the mentees?
It makes sense in a marketplace to focus on one side of the equation, to find the side first that’ll attract and fill up the counterpart. For us, this was mentors.
Imagine – there are a lot of people that would like a mentor in their lives. And it’s fairly easy to find mentees if you’re open to that. Comparably it’s pretty hard to find a mentor. So we concentrated on bringing in the more sparse resource first – the mentors.
The upside of all that was that mentors are usually also well-respected industry professionals with large networks. Meaning the right mentors would bring in their own mentees, simply by sharing their profiles. This gave us that initial kickstart.
What are some of the challenges of the 2 sided marketplace? What makes them harder?
I’m not sure they are harder – but they are more capital-intensive, usually to a point where it might not be attractive to most entrepreneurs.
Marketplaces are very rarely a tech problem, so it’s not like I, as a coder, could build a tool and start to charge money for it. It’s a growth and traction problem, where you’re trying to convince two different sides of people to work with you. I’d argue it’s an easier business model to build as a non-technical or very well-connected founder. But for most people, it’s just incredibly hard to build that leverage. A tech problem is much easier to solve.
Product-wise, it’s also just often twice the effort. You need to have a toolkit for supply AND demand. For example, our mentors have a large suite of tools for billing, invoices, pricing setups, and profile creation, whereas mentees have filtering tools, wishlists, and an entirely different set of invoices and billing tools. Again, I don’t think it’s hard – just a ton of work.
Where it gets tricky is when introducing changes and building features. You need to balance both sides of the marketplace. A feature might bring a big benefit to one side but create more work for the other. A new policy might make your offer cheaper, but also decrease the earnings of your suppliers. That’s probably the hardest part.
I would also say that marketplaces have much easier things. For example, the network effects involved. While I love to focus on marketing, we don’t have to spend a lot of time or money on it. We have 2,500 mentors that help us market MentorCruise on LinkedIn, Twitter, and other communities. I don’t think SaaS businesses in our revenue range get the same amount of Word of Mouth.
What have been the best marketing channels for growing MentorCruise?
Early on it’s been our mentors with large networks that have been driving a lot of the initial growth. Since then, SEO has kept playing a larger role. We also do paid ads now, both on Google and social media.
Word of mouth still plays a role, but it’s incredibly hard to measure. At times, we’ll see the ripple effects from a well-connected person, though. For example, just a few weeks ago Darren Murph joined as a mentor. He has pioneered remote work at GitLab until after its IPO and has recently started working at Andela, a billion-dollar company, at the VP level, too.
Since he shared his profile, we see a lot more remote work advocates, VP, executives, and senior HR people joining. That can indirectly be attributed to him.
Can you talk about how you coded MentorCruise?
Like so many other indie hackers, I was an avid coder and so I wouldn’t have even imagined that I could solve this problem without a whole bunch of code. Of course, times have changed and marketplaces are a well-defined problem. There are products like Sharetribe out there now, that takes a lot of the standard work off your hand. You wouldn’t code your eCommerce store nowadays, you’d use Shopify. Sharetribe is the same. If I could go back, I’d set up the first version of the product with that.
Who are your favorite founders that inspire you?
It would be hard to pinpoint only a few founders that inspired me over the years. I’ve had the pleasure to talk and work with so many founders that have impacted my thinking and motivation. Still, let me try:
- Michael Lynch (https://twitter.com/deliberatecoder/) showed me the true face of big tech and how it feels to be a pawn in a big game. It motivated me to try and be a big fish in a small pond, instead of a small fish in a big one. At the time, I worked in big tech, so it was crucial for my later decisions.
- Pieter Levels showed me what permission-less entrepreneurship looks like. Just sit down, build, and make money online. I wasn’t aware this was possible.
- I met Monica Lent (https://twitter.com/monicalent) early in the life of MentorCruise and her progress and challenges (Covid!) showed me how important it is to stay flexible, how to act in the face of adversity and how to overcome difficulty. She also inspired me to hire early and build a great team.
- I was in the (virtual) room when Julian Canlas (https://twitter.com/jic94) founded Embarque and it’s been incredibly inspiring to see someone with such a brilliant work ethic and creative mind get this thing off the ground and through all sorts of challenges.
What’s your top tip for people running a marketplace business?
Before it becomes painfully obvious that you should build a marketplace, don’t do it. Try out every different option. Turn your freelance marketplace into a productized agency instead. Build a Shopify store of handmade goods, before trying to rebuild Etsy. Avoid at all costs.
Running a marketplace business is a big investment. The most profitable marketplaces I know were started because the founder had a vast network or access to a very precious, scattered resource. Most people don’t have that.
The best marketplaces out there make a very hard-to-access resource suddenly accessible. That may be raw resources, talent, private loans, gig work, or exclusive goods. They help the supplier make more money or save a bunch of time, e.g. by supplying software or taking over billing. There are not that many business cases where this is viable.
What is your average day as a startup founder like?
There’s no average day anymore :) But I do try to plan my days thoroughly and keep two afternoons free for coding. Other than that, anything can happen! On Monday, I spent the whole day on a new SEO setup and looking for a few freelancers. On Wednesday, I spent an hour with my mentor (a marketer working on one of the biggest marketplaces in the world) and then recorded three podcasts. Very different days!
To try and keep some kind of organization, I follow the GTD productivity method. We also very rarely have meetings at MentorCruise that are not necessary. I sometimes ask people to send me a Loom, instead of setting up a call. That means I often have hours of uninterrupted work, which makes my days more productive.
Where can people find out more about you and MentorCruise?
Come over to mentorcruise.com and see for yourself :) I’m also active on Twitter (https://twitter.com/dqmonn) and LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/dmonn/). Come follow for some behind the scenes.
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