What does a “Twitter” and “People” Chrome Extension have to do with "expats", "personal assistance" and "international health insurance"? On first sight nothing. And maybe there is no connection all all except for the fact that my brain desperately wants to see them.
Before starting mon.ki I was happily working “non profit” rebuilding First Tuesday in Latin America. It was the best job I ever had. Go to some country in Central America, surf a few days, do a key note, have a few cold Coronas with smart entrepreneurs and top it off with an interesting lunch with some big wig minister of some screwed up economy. Yes, there was always the nagging itch to get back into the ring but the cold water of Punta de Lobos would soothe that just fine.
Soothing big time in Punta de Lobos
Then the itch met the pain.
While my personal network was growing rapidly it was getting harder and harder to remember and find people when I needed to. Who was the kite surfer guy that worked in Miami and runs a software company? What was the name of the startup with the biotech project in Ecuador? All lost in the clouds.This is when the idea of MonkeyContact (before we rebranded to ) came about: a bunch of monkeys”organising everything I ever knew about everybody I ever met. My private Google that would index my contacts. I packed my stuff and moved with my wife to Silicon Valley. While we build the first prototypes nobody understood what were trying to do. Not ourselves and less potential investors. Only few people including Joseph Smarr and Jay Bhatti with experience in out specific field saw what ever it was we were puzzling together.
Fuck the monkey. Best thing we got rid off. ever.
The technology we built kicked ass, it scaled and we filed a few patents. But we had no “beach head" and even less anything close to a business model. At some point however it occurred to us to ask: “Why search for contacts?” at all. We realised most of us looked for contacts when they have a question they can’t answer by just typing it into Google. In essence “The people we know and trust are indispensable when we take decisions”. At this moment we invented the concept of “Social Context”. The prototype was simple: Go to any web page and mon.ki would tell you who you know that relates to it. Visit Microsoft.com and see who you know that works at Microsoft or maybe is just Microsoft certified. Visit Bali and see who you know that lives, works or travels there. Look for a product and see who of your friends “likes” it or tweeted about it. Got the idea?
Anyway, investors liked it and we raised a few hundred thousand dollars in seed funding. No business model or money making plan at all. What we learned quickly was that the value proposition - as cool as it still is - was to generic. Raising too little money and overestimated ourselves did not help much either. Even better when you add overspending, rookie mistakes and bad hypothesis in the mix. We realised it might not be such a good idea to take on the entire online travel, e-commerce and knowledge management industry as well as Google, Facebook and two hundred other start-ups at the same time.
God has balls.
Lets ”niche to win” we said in Jan 2013 and decided to tackle the tiny billion dollar "local search" market. The idea was - similar to Stik.com at that time - to allow people to get recommendations from friends to identify local services providers you can trust. Need a paediatrician? Find a divorce lawyer? A mechanic? Your friends help you find it. We wanted to kick Yelps´s ass. Ironically we later found out that our idea was the exact same idea Yelp founders had started with.
It did not take us too long to realise that “local search" required to further focus. You can not launch local and global in the same time. You can not launch Bejing, Bremen and Sao Paolo the same day. And there is more then one reason for that. We needed local focus as well as potentially vertical focus and from Jay from Stik.com was kindly to reconfirm that. However, one of our advisors suggested to focus on a specific user segment instead. This would allow to create “self referencing groups”. Somehow that idea stuck with me. The question was "What is that segment?"
My step dad teaches computer science at high schools and while he does not share my “business angle” on things he clearly shares the fascination for the technical side of what I do. During one of these talk in 2013 I discovered one important thing: My parents would be our worst users. Ever. Same lawyer, same accountant, same gardener, same doctors for more then 25 years. They could not care less about the service we wanted to build.
My step dad.
At this point we stopped asking “Why search for contacts?” and instead started asking “Who searches for contacts?”. We realised that my “contact problem" was caused by my lifestyle: I was an expat or worse now becoming a "digital nomad". When you change locations several times a year a whole bunch of needs get triggered simultaneously: bank to bakery. The way to do this was to rely on the opinions of friends as well as other expats.
Since then we have obviously learned a lot more about us “the expats": there are more than 200 million people that live outside their home country but nobody knows how many are considered “expats” and how many “immigrants” (if there is any difference really). Today there are many “subspecies” and there are as many "reasons to become an expat" as there are expats.
I could now go on and on about this topic but in the end it comes down to the fact that we believe that (i) we - the expats, digital nomads, global citizens - have many simultaneous challenges to solve, (ii) we are underserved market and - most importantly - (iii) every day there are more of us out there.
What does that have to do with mon.ki again?
First of all we are still dedicated to building tools and services that solve my "personal challenge”. Second, its still a problem of getting the right answers from the right people.
Some of the expat problems can be solved by asking friends. Some can be solved by asking other expats. Some require professional expertise. Others deep local knowledge. But they all depend on people. And this is where we started.
Map your friends. it rocks.