'How I Turned My Idea Into an App'
A little over two years ago husband-and-wife team Santiago Prieto and Alexis Monson decided to quit their jobs at IDEO and Brit+Co to launch an app. Their idea? Help people send personalized and personality-filled, hand-written cards easily. Called Punkpost, the app has since been featured on sites like Brit + Co and STYLECASTER, attracting an influx of new users and prompting the duo to begin working full time on their business.
We chatted with Alexis to find out how they decided to leave their jobs to start a business, tricks on getting early users, and learning to code. Even if you're not looking to launch an app of your own, it's worth checking out this seriously design-driven online experience (and even send a few hand-written thank you notes of your own.)
How long after Punkpost concept did you leave your job and decide to focus on the app full time?
We started working on Punkpost in August 2014, but it was truly just an idea then. Santiago [my cofounder] was on a business trip and found a handwritten "Good Luck" card from me in his hotel room. Being from Mexico, where greeting cards are a rarity because of a poor postal system, he found himself speechless. This experience got him thinking about ways of making such handwritten greetings part of our everyday lives. The idea involving saving time on going to the store, getting stamps, writing and mailing a card was a result of this trip. So in October 2014, he left his job as an industrial designer to work on building the app. Then in June 2015, I joined him to launch a live beta version of Punkpost into the app store. Just in April 2016, we just launched what we consider our first real version of Punkpost and since then things have really taken off.
What practical things did you have to achieve to know it was the right time to focus on the project full time?
Before you go turning in your two weeks notice, test your idea. Get validation and not just like a "yeah, I like that idea" from friends and family, but a real emotional response—excitement and a clear proof of concept. We definitely did this before we decided to take the leap. We tested with anyone who was willing to test on a desktop version simply built on SquareSpace before we committed ourselves fully.
Do you think it's necessary to leave your job to focus full time on a startup idea?
A startup is a lot of work! To make this sucker take off, you should probably be prepared upfront to quit your day job and focus all of your energy on your big idea. And feel confident in this choice. I was recently talking to Gloria Cortina, a successful interior designer in Mexico City. Not long ago, she launched a furniture line. She said to me, “I truly believe that you can make any idea, service or product work if you’re willing to put in the time.” I completely agree with her. However, certainly you need to calculate all of the risks, expenses and account for other factors to ensure that you have all the necessary assets to last for a long while and really focus on all the things you need to be doing for the company.
How did you acquire your first users that weren't friends and family?
We were lucky to get some great press coverage very early after the beta launch, and that certainly helped us drive downloads. We offer the first card free for all new users, so word of mouth and people sending their first free card and getting positive feedback for it really helped drive new user acquisition. We are really focusing on two priorities: sky-high card quality with amazing artwork, like the type you'd find in boutique card stores (except you won't because all of our cards are exclusive to us) and top-notch handwriting to ensure that both senders and recipients really love the experience. When people genuinely enjoy the product, they are more likely to talk about it and share this experience with their friends.
How did you find a technical team to work on the project?
Santiago actually learned to code just so we could launch the app and tackle several initial iterations. He’s a great designer, so it was the technical part that he needed to learn which proved to be a challenge, but doable. After almost a year of steady growth, we've now been able to hire external help for further app developments. For us, it was the right move to do as much as we could ourselves for as long as we could. If you need to refine your offering based on customers’ feedback (which you most definitely should be doing on a weekly basis) then you need to be able to do it yourself and not wait for a freelancer to find time to work on your product. Also, by learning how to code, not only will it let you understand and guide your developers, but it's going to save you loads of money. (Bay Area developers go for $120 per hour. Yikes!)
How have you found launching a business with your husband?
There are certainly ups and downs, but in general it's been great. If you're gonna go on this crazy weird adventure with someone, who better than your partner?
We work from our one-bedroom condo in San Francisco. In the beginning, we talked about getting a separate work space to be able to disconnect, but when you're starting a business, you never really disconnect anyway. So, we decided to put our money toward building a better service. As you can probably guess, we spend most of our time together and try our best to follow the advice we got from our friends Andy and Rachel Berlinger, the husband and wife team who founded Amy's Kitchen, who told us, “When you’re not working, talk about things other than work.” We give it a good go, but so far it's kind of been next to impossible for us.
How do you start your morning?
Besides walking our dog (and Punkpost mascot!) Ziggy, our morning routine still involves writing a few Punkpost cards while having a cup of coffee. In the beginning, we wrote all of the cards ourselves which took a lot of our working hours, but also helped us gain great insight into the exact amount of time various orders can take, what our customers expect in the way of lettering and what additional features were necessary for the writer’s app before we could start engaging external writers. Now we have a band of amazing writers to help with the daily orders. Writing is still something we do daily, but with the help of an incredible team. Handwriting is an extremely meditative activity as well as an opportunity to stay in touch with our customers’ interests.
Describe an average week day.
We wake up, have breakfast and take turns running our dog or taking him to the beach. Then we write some cards. Santiago spends most of his day working on the app development and what’s next for Punkpost (both in terms of the technical and strategic aspects). I work with our writer community, as well as with card designers on future collections and marketing Punkpost as a whole.
What are the practical things anyone wanting to develop an app needs to consider?
When it comes to all things tech, there are never-ending bugs and updates to work on. APP CRASHES galore. You just have to be prepared to deal with it on a daily basis. Talk to your users, apologize and thank them for being patient and understanding (which they usually are) and then fix it and move on.
When Punkpost first launched, we got a piece of press from Brit + Co, which sent us over 600 downloads on our first day. Unfortunately, the app was crashing left and right. Rather than dwelling on it, I reached out to every user personally to apologize while Santiago got back to work that same day to introduce a quick update with the needed fixes.
You also have to be prepared to consistently spend time on marketing your app and driving downloads. It’s unlikely the app will be discovered by users on its own. We've been working on press coverage, social media, and events where we could show the app to users, which has brought us some great results, and if you score a jackpot in the form of being featured on the app store that’s simply awesome! We were lucky that Punkpost was recently featured in the lifestyle category, which brought us lots and lots of new users.