Why we shut down the Monograph service.
After we sent the Monograph closing email last week, we had an inbox full of amazing messages with support and love. It can’t be emphasized enough, we genuinely appreciate every single person who was a part of the community! If any of you are ever in SF, I seriously encourage you to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Lunch or beers are on us!
From a purely pragmatic standpoint, Monograph had growing costs that were difficult to sustain as a side project by a two man team (about $2,500 in 2015). With that said, the uploaded work is incredible and deserves to be hosted online for others to learn from, so we elected to create an archive of all the published projects. We’ll also be adding a tool to help users download their data, and we’re going to be open sourcing the Monograph codebase.
Sooooo what happened?
We want this closing to not be a sorrowful event, but something we can all learn from. What follows are some mistakes we made that we believe limited our ability to grow Monograph. We’re turning those mistakes into strengths as we move on to our new project!
1. Not focusing on the User Experience (UX) and Support
As design technologists, we love building beautiful things and writing clean code. For months, we were heads down coding away and refining the Monograph Editor to be super simple, but we never ever did user testing.
After six months of product building, a friend came over and asked if she could upload one of her projects. Once she signed up and hit “CREATE”, she had literally no idea what to do. There was no on boarding, tutorials, faq’s or even a basic support email! Six months in and 300 users, and our “super simple” product was essentially useless.
Over time we corrected these things, but we were nearing the end of our funds. UX is a mentality and less something you can just implement, so ultimately Monograph never was able to fully gain that new found understanding.
Takeaway: Needless to say, customer support and UX are our new identities. In fact when you sign up for our new product, you are automatically assigned a personal concierge (a real human!) who will help you along your journey.
2. Users liking, but not loving the product
I’ll let you in on a little secret: about 80% of the public projects on Monograph were photoshopped and uploaded by me. That’s a pretty clear indication that Monograph—as a product—wasn’t very valuable to our users.
After a project was featured on Monograph, internally we’d see 1000s of people viewing the project, but we didn’t have a great way to translate those views into useful metrics for users. Sometimes users were launching a Kickstarter and other times they were looking for help on their next idea, but as a platform Monograph had no way to focus on these goals.
While publicity can be very helpful for someone looking for project or skill exposure, it’s not their actual goal—they’re looking for new projects or talented contributors.
Takeaway: This is a fundamental lesson for startups, you have to focus on having a few users who love your product as a opposed to a hundred liking it. If you can build a product that a couple of people can’t imagine life without, that’s the key component to start focusing on growth.
3. Iterating on the Business Model
As a self-criticism of ourselves as startup founders, we’re way too timid. In the year that we worked on Monograph, we never asked for money from any of our users (how is that a business?). But we also never felt strongly that we were providing adequate value to our users to charge for the service.
We started with portfolios for makers as our initial idea, citing a shortage of places to publish physical projects online. Websites like Instructables have a great set of tools, but they’re ad-driven and lack ways to personalize your portfolio. While website builders like Squarespace don’t have all the great tools to represent the complexity of maker projects.
Problem: Portfolios aren’t a big need in the maker community. Engineering and Technology jobs don’t require them, and a lot of makers are hobbyists or researchers.
As I was posting new interesting projects on Monograph, we were generating pretty serious amounts of traffic. Getting project exposure without detracting from the work with social buttons or ads was a core tenet of Monograph.
Problem: Online publications across the board generate revenue via ads and sponsorships. Since we were firm in our beliefs, this business model wasn’t an option for us.
We ran four pilot semester projects at institutions like MIT and KU who used the platform for their robotic and engineering courses. We also started to get interest from Stanford, Coursera and many high school programs.
Problem: The budget and bureaucratic process of selling into schools was an overwhelming negative for us. While sales is a part of any startup, our skill sets are much stronger in product and marketing as opposed to direct enterprise sales. There is a big need here (and we’d love to chat with someone working on this), but we weren’t the right team to successfully build it.
Takeaway: We’ve learned that charging for your product is one metric that helps determine whether users value your service. Also we’ve become more self-aware of our strengths and weaknesses which helps us decide what type of company we want to build.
So I kinda buried the lead, but we’ve been actively building a new product that attempts to learn from our earlier mistakes.
Monograph v2 is a website builder with an assigned person to help you style, edit, update and market your business website. Our initial focus is on the architecture niche since that’s our team’s background, and we know there is a huge need to improve technology and online marketing in architecture.
UX and Support: Beyond the personal concierge who you’ll know on a first name basis, Monograph’s main focus is on user experience. Documentation, video tutorials, and design resources are first class products of the platform.
A product people love: In our customer development interviews, we’ve heard from Every Single Person that they want to talk to a real human and have that person direct them in marketing efforts. Monograph’s core product is friendly people with expertise rather than technology.
Business model: Since we’re building a product people love, we’re able to charge for the service. We love creating beautiful websites and helping businesses grow in the process, which in turn makes us passionate about the company and it’s overall mission. So damn excited!
Thanks again to everyone involved with Monograph. We’ve learned a ton and are happy to chat with anyone who is working through similar problems with their own startup.
A special thanks to Andrew Manto, Josh Burker, James Coleman, and Bryan Maddock for all your support and being pro-level users of Monograph. Also thanks to everyone a part of MIT GFSA for taking a chance on us!