The Monsterpin story
I learned that the best way to learn a lesson that live wants to teach you, is to write it down. Monsterpin taught me some very important lessons, so here is to learning from them:
In 1999, during my first term at UVic, I noticed that aside from the lefty student newspaper there was no media on campus that really reflected the students’ opinions. I thought it would be a really cool idea to create a website, where students could post their thoughts, opinions and engage in good discussions. I didn’t know very much about the internet, but I imaged the website to be like a big blackboard, where you would pin your little pieces of paper to. When looking for a name, I came up with Monsterpin.
At first I started pondering how to build such a website with a fellow student of mine. He was a computer dude with some HTML knowledge, but when he found out about all the features that I planned on implementing, we soon realized that he wouldn’t be able to help very much with that.
With school and live taking up most of my time, the Monsterpin idea staid dormant for the next couple of years. It wasn’t until the end of my university career before I revisited the idea and decided to run with it as a start-up business. It came in quite handy that during the entrepreneurship module in the last term we had to write a business plan...guess what mine was about ;)
In June 2002 I incorporated Monsterpin Information Exchange. Soon afterwards I was out looking for folks that could help me build the Monsterpin Website. After a little while, I met Kevin Vogt, who agreed to implement the entire community and business section outlined in my concept for $2000 (Canadian!) and part of the company. He thought it would take him a good 6 weeks.
Kevin was a great guy. Uber-geek and totally committed on getting the job done. He soon realized that 6 weeks was a pretty optimistic guess. Even though he literally worked 7 days a week for 14 hours a day, the task lists I was handing him, just wouldn’t end.
In September an old friend of mine from Germany joined the team. Karsten Schmidt came over to Victoria to do an internship at Monsterpin. He was a great help with getting the promotional material organized. Together with UVic art Student Kent Gaskill, we had designed the Monsterpin Logo as well as a bunch of flyers and posters. Kent was just great with the design and we got a lot of praise for it later on.
During that time my tiny 1 bedroom apartment had turned into the Monsterpin Headquarters, with Kevin and Karsten coming by every morning and staying till night...I basically lived in my office. It was exiting!
At the beginning of October 2002 we finally had the website at a stage, where I felt comfortable with launching it. We did and started a 2 week long guerilla marketing campaign on campus. By the end every windshield had a flyer on it and from every corner on campus you could spot a Monsterpin poster. Students were asking us what this was all about...if we were a sect of something.
The first people started signing up on the website. I wish I had taken screenshots back then, but everything happened with such a rush that I didn’t think of the future.
At some stage a strange E-Mail popped into my inbox. It was from the UVic System Administrator to some Professor who wondered what that Monsterpin thing was all about. The professor had complained that we had sent a massmail to all teachers, whose email addresses I had grabbed of the public UVic website. The Sys Admin guy replied that if we really had wanted to spam the school we would have taken the file xyz from location abc and send a email to all students...welll...this guy just told me how to tell everybody at UVic about Monsterpin...guess what we did the next day? ;)
While I was working on getting more traffic on the site, Kevin kept working on improving the community. I had a 1000 ideas for features and design improvements.
At the end of 2002, I was in dire need for cash. Developing the software took way more time than anticipated, which prevented me from starting to sell advertisement on the site. I had worked out a grand scheme for allowing businesses to target the otherwise closed university market (check out the pitch to local businesses.). It was sort of a combination of Restaurant.com’s and Google’s AdWords (which I didn’t know back then). Looking back at the idea, I can still see the business value in it...I was just way out with estimating the time it would take before the first dollars would started rolling in. It all looked so logical on paper, but when shove came to push the system was set up too complicated and business users weren’t willing to spend the time one managing their ads.
By summer 2003 we had the business part of Monsterpin at a point where I could start selling advertisement space on it. I started making cold calls to hundreds of local businesses and for the first time realized that not everybody was as enthused about the website as I was. These businesses got calls from ad salesmen every day and were not very receptive to paying for getting their name on yet another website. In the end I told them that it wouldn’t cost them anything, unless students actually buy from them. They thought that was OK and about 40 signed up.
I was preparing a big on campus campaign, when I realized that the students were just about to leave for their summer vacations. In Canada about 70 to 80% of the student body leaves campus for 4 months in the summer to take it easy or to work (most did the latter). Since there was no reason to market on a dead campus, I organized some 'free' money in form a Canadian Research Subsidy. With that money I hired altogether 5 students that were supposed to enhance the Monsterpin features.
We worked a lot that summer to built a great community website and make it technologically more flexible. Towards September I realized though that the business part we had coded at the beginning of the year was not working with the new community features anymore. Basically the techies had revamped the entire code base of the community, but didn’t get around to doing the same with the business part of the site. I thought that this had been done and was extremely frustrated. The thing was that I didn’t understand a single bit about programming and that I trusted the judgment of fresh university grads. Well, lessons you learn.
The real bad news at the end of September though was that I was running low on cash. I basically had $3,000 left before rock bottom. There I was having put all my money and that of others and a full year of 24/7 work into my baby, realizing that my baby wouldn’t start making me money for quite a while.
I didn’t quit right away, but because I needed to focus on how to make money, Monsterpin started to move further and further away. Since I didn’t want to spend any more money of paying developers, I bought a book PHP/mySQL and self taught me how to code in 6 weeks. I built a website called studentgiftcertificates.com that basically represented the business side of Monsterpin.com on a stand alone site. I got some businesses signed, but wasn’t able to give it the attention needed to make it lift off.
I never really pulled the plug, but simply let the site slide away. For about a year, I didn’t even look at it, because the feeling of disappointment about this huge sunk cost was just too big. The other day my dad said that a lot of this web 2.0 talk in the news sounds like what I was doing with Monsterpin ... I smiled and laughed about the missed opportunity. Well, I did Monsterpin because I believed in the idea. Seeing how people are more and more creating their own reality using the internet, I am confirmed in that. The idea was good, but the execution had to many bugs in it. If I had the chance, I would do it again without hesitation.