We’ve all had our respective quarantine activities: baking, crocheting, watching TV and movies. For current gap-year student, Joanna Shan, it was coding and creating a dating app. This past summer, Joanna and her high school friends and now co-founders, Daniel, Jonathan, and Marc, came up with the idea of making a dating app: Monet Dating. The app recently launched on the App Store, and has over 15,000 users. With 94% of its demographic being ages 18-24 years old, Monet Dating is now being called “The Gen Z dating app.”
Sometimes words aren’t enough, and the whole idea of Monet is that you use a drawing to connect with people. Megan Fabriquer sits down with Joanna to talk about the opportunities and obstacles of developing an app, and how young people are using technology to connect with each other.
Megan: Tell me about yourself and the Monet team.
Joanna: I’m Joanna. I spent my first year of college at UCSD, then transferred to UPenn, then took a gap-year, and now I’m working on this company. As for my co-founders, we got Daniel Huang, a Mechanical Engineering major at UCSB. Jonathan is a Design and English major at UPenn. And Marc is a Fine Arts and Information Science major at Cornell. We’ve been friends for a long time, and we’ve worked on different projects before and are excited that this is the one that took off. As for what our team is like, we’re all just super scrappy, green, and inexperienced. Kinda just figuring it out along the way, and it’s been a blast!
M: We love to see it! So when did you come up with the idea for the dating app and why a dating app?
J: So I’m in a relationship, but my co-founder, Daniel, has really run the gamut of these dating apps, like Tinder, Bumble, Hinge. We were thinking about how overdone these dating apps are, like the very 2013 “hot-or-not” model is kinda over. And there’s also just nothing to start a conversation about. There’s only a surface level impression. So we were thinking about how people our age use dating apps, and it’s not only just to find a relationship or just to find a hookup. It’s also just to have some fun and meet people around you. For example, I have a friend in Wyoming who is using Tinder to find people to ski with. So the idea that this one-on-one model of finding people online is really useful and fun, but it hasn’t really been adapted in the right way. So we had this idea of a more gesture-based interaction: the ability to show your personality and effort in making a match. With the drawings, you’re able to show your personality in a way that’s much more funny and authentic than it is to use a pick-up line or make a joke via text. What we’ve seen is the ability to be rewarded for just being yourself, you’re able to make a quick doodle and have that be the basis of your first interaction.
M: Right, and that first interaction, that’s what makes it different from other dating apps. I’ve been on your app, and I’ve told people about Monet Dating, but when I tell people that you send a drawing to interact with someone, I get responses like “Oh but I suck at drawing” or “I’m not an artist”. So what would you say to someone who has that initial reaction?
J: I think the worst the drawing is, the funnier it is. I don’t think it’s supposed to be a masterpiece, the beauty of the canvas is that you can do whatever you want with it. For example one of our favorite drawings is someone drew a red line, and the caption is “hot cheeto”. You don’t ever have to be an expert to make someone laugh. I don’t think people are evaluating each other based on how great their drawing is; it just serves as a starting point for a fun conversation.
M: I think people our age do use humor as an icebreaker.
J: Yeah, and if you think about it, memes are just a picture and it’s text. Essentially, you’re creating a short-form meme. It’s just a quick drawing and a caption. Even if it’s horrible, it’s probably funnier than something that’s really really good.
M: Yeah, I’ve sent and been sent some shitty-ass drawings, and it has just made me laugh.
M: With the targeted market or audience, was it always your intention to make the app for people our age?
J: I think so. I think we realized that these dating apps were built by millenials, and we realized that the current apps don’t serve the ways that Gen Z uses dating apps, which is often much more casual and platonic. We were thinking of making an app for people who are digitally native. Like they grew up online, there’s no novelty in meeting people online. People have made friends through gaming, Club Penguin, it’s very familiar. Take this one-on-one meeting people model, and make it for people who have already been familiar with online relationships, and then introduce something that’s fun and less superficial was kinda’ our goal. We weren’t really building this with 50 year olds in mind. To be honest, we were making something we’d enjoy using, and it just so happened we are a part of Gen Z, so I guess that’s just how it worked out.
M: So in October, you posted a TikTok and it has over 500,000 views. What was the effect of going viral?
J: Yeah it was pretty insane. The first day, there were VCs [venture capitalists] who slid into our Instagram DMs, people were tweeting about us, like Taylor Lorenz, an NY Times reporter, retweeted somebody sharing our TikTok. It was crazy because at the time we were treating it as more like a side-project, and it had a huge response. We wanted to have 200 Beta Testers, that was our goal, and within a day we had about 1,000 and it just kept growing. Before we kinda had a hypothesis, “a dating app around drawing would be so funny, and it’s kinda out of left-field”, and within a day we realized that not only us are intrigued by the idea, but a lot of people are, so it was worth investing more of ourselves into it. A couple days after that Daniel withdrew from school, and we decided to go more full-time on it. Before I had been doing other jobs in my gap year, but we all just went full-time and decided to think about it more seriously. It’s been really cool.
M: That is super cool. You mentioned VCs already showing interest, and you recently acquired funding, and now it’s on the App Store. When you were talking to VCs, did you have any expectations for investors? What was it like talking to these people?
J: The startup world is very interesting. There’s a lot of rules for raising rounds and strategies for creating that correct hype. We were SO new to it, no connection besides the people that reached out to us first, but in the world of startups and VCs, everyone introduces you to someone else. We know a first “layer” of people, they introduce us to a second “layer” of people, and so-on. There were also outbound things and things we applied to and received funding. It was a really foreign concept, especially as people who hadn’t had an experience in space before.
M: That is really insane. If someone told me they’d give me a large amount of money for an idea, I wouldn’t believe them or take them seriously, but maybe that’s just us being young. Regarding your age and being so green, were there any hindrances or concerns VCs had with you guys being so young?
J: Yeah there were pros and cons. I think they really liked that they were building for our age. Having a “founder-market fit” is when you understand your market really well, and for us that’s definitely true. But then there’s questions about our plans about returning to school because they want to to make sure that they’re investing in something that’s going really far. That’s one thing VCs question us about being so young, and it’s also because we don’t have a lot of business experience. Being first-time founders, they had questions like “how are you going to turn four friends doing something into a company?”, so lots of questions going that way.
M: Going back to making the app, what were some challenges you faced when making the app?
J: Any time we change anything, it breaks. In terms of making it work, Daniel does all of it, he’s our only functional engineer. Conceptually, you say “this should work”, but things will break, and you fix it, but that fix will break ten other things. Everything is really sensitive. We’re really inexperienced, so one of the reasons we got funding was to hire other engineers that can make our spaghetti code into something more robust.
M: In terms of adding things, from conception to what it is now, what are some features you’ve added based on user feedback?
J: We have a Discord with like 2,000 people, which is really great. People will contribute their ideas and request features, and we actually use a lot of them. One of the things we’ve added was pinned chats, which was a request. We also now have a saved gallery of your own drawings, which was also a request.
M: That’s really cool how you have a connection with your users like that and you make yourselves really accessible. In terms of design, did you know the interface you wanted or was it more like a variation of the other dating app interfaces?
J: We spent a long time designing, so there were a lot of iterations. Can I screen share? Can you enable screen sharing for me?
M: Yeah, one second.
Joanna begins to show me their creative process, which I can really only describe as well-thought out. From their initial sketches of phone screens from July to digital mock-ups, they had a clear vision for what they wanted the app to do, but they spent a lot of time trying different things and making each interaction within the app unique.
Joanna showed me design strategies from Jonathan, the creative director. Early on in the process, they had mission and values, and they incorporated principles from the artist, Monet. Monet as an artist was interested in the “clash between soft and hard”, so for Joanna and the Monet team it was a clash between digital art and drawn art (fine art). Joanna said they had a real “frick fine art” mentality, and that truly anything could be considered a masterpiece. There was a time in Monet’s (the artist’s) life where his wife was sick, so he had to cut back on the amount of colors he was painting with. He went from fifteen colors to six, and those are the six core colors they have in their app.
M: Wow I really didn’t know you guys put so much thought into Monet (the artist) while making the app; it’s really well-put together. I can see that it’s evolved and changed over time. In terms of the purpose of Monet Dating as an app and now as a company, is there something that you guys have been going back to, to keep you grounded or focused while on this ride?
J: There’s a lot of ideas to make the app more social. Our primary goal is to form one-on-one relationships, so that will always be a focus regardless of how many directions the app will go.
M: So you’re open to it being more than just a dating app?
J: Oh yeah for sure. We’re excited to do more cool, social things in the next year. Things that go beyond drawing. It’s very exciting.
M: Now that you have your own company, and you mentioned that you’re gonna hire more people. Have you been considering ethics or social responsibility when expanding your company?
J: I think our goal is to not create something that impacts you worse than it started with. In terms of how we as humans are consumed by our phones and media, our goal is not to try and steal or commodify your attention. People design ways to keep you on the app longer and profit off your attention, but our goal is to keep it a human goal: make human connections and use technology to get there. And also create cool stuff, and have technology be the medium in which you create art. In terms of how we design, we keep more humane goals in mind rather than profitable goals.
M: Now that you’re on the App Store, what are the numbers and demographics like?
J: The demos[demographics] were really interesting. 94% of people are between 18-24 years old, and it’s overwhelmingly female, which is really cool and unique for a dating app. All dating apps wish they had more women than men. It was cool to see that demographic; to see that we’re also creating a dating app for people who haven’t felt previously comfortable on other platforms. A lot of times that’s women who receive creepy messages from men, but people have specifically said that Monet is a more safer, more wholesome environment.
M: So being on the App Store, does that mean more people can use it? Like internationally?
M: What about Android users? Is it available to Android users?
J: Not yet, we have to develop an android version, and that’s hopefully coming next year.
M: To wrap up, what advice would you give to a young person who has a good idea for an app or a company?
J: My advice is to go into not thinking it’s going to be a billion dollar company, maybe that’s just how I personally see it. But we made Monet for kicks, and previously we made another app about setting goals, which was also just for kicks. I think you can build things and learn how to build them with very low stakes, like the Internet is a great place to learn how to do things and there’s lots of resources for you to do so, if you do your research correctly. I think there’s a lot you learn out of making something in general, so my advice is just to go for it. If you have an idea to build something, you can still build it with the idea of having just yourself using it. Like with the goal setting app, we were like, “haha no one’s gonna use this, but we’ll use it, and we’ll have made it”, so that’s all the personal satisfaction we needed. My advice is just to go for it, and also to lower your expectations. Like sometimes things don’t pan out, sometimes you get lucky, sometimes things happen out of your control, but just you keep your expectations correct, like “I’m building this because I care about X issue”. Keep your intentions clear, and remove that voice in your head that’s like “this needs to be a billion dollar company”; just build it to build it for you and your goals.
M: I think that’s really good advice for anybody, even if they’re not in tech. Even just someone with a good idea.
J: There’s lots of ways people have made small businesses and stuff. I think entrepreneurship is like a cringey word, and I never really thought of myself as an entrepreneur. I was just someone who was making something for fun. And I think we’re all creators or builders in one way or another. So if whatever you want to do, sell jewelry or whatever, just go for it. Make opportunities for yourself to the best ability you can. Don’t be afraid if it fails or it doesn’t pan out the way you wanted. You should have learned something from building it.
M: So what would you say is the most important thing you’ve learned from making Monet Dating?
J: Lots of things. Lots of things about working with other people, especially people that I’m really close to. [I’m] still learning how to have a work-life balance when your friends are your co-workers, and previously we were all living in the same house. I’ve learned a lot more about VC and startup culture, about the ups-and-downs of it. I think I’ve learned that it’s not as shiny as it seems. Like not to be so wide-eyed about it and sell yourself short. I think I’ve also learned to just go for things and make your own opportunities. Before posting that TikTok I was like “Oh my god this is so lame, like it’s literally going to flop. I can’t believe I’m talking about this on the Internet for 200 people to watch”. But sometimes things just happen, so just put yourself out there. I think it’s been luck, everything has happened serendipitously. There have been other things in my life that I have done at the same level of effort, and they haven’t panned out to nearly the same success. But I think that’s just a [way] to think about life; I think you should just take opportunities as they come and try new things. Again, this doesn’t happen all the time, and there’s so many privileges and lucky things that have happened to get [us] to this point. But, take life by the balls or whatever and just do whatever.
M: “Take life by the balls” is gonna be the headline.
J: That’s good.
M: So what can people expect from Monet Dating app or Monet the company?
J: We’re leaning against the Monet Dating branding, we wanna just be Monet because people can use Monet to make friends and also just create. As for what you can expect, there will be merch and college ambassadors. Potentially new media, not just drawings, maybe audio or other things. Overall, I think you can count on Monet just to provide you [with] a place to have fun, destress, and meet new people without feeling like you have to project any kind of personality- just be yourself.
M: And where can people find Monet?
While other dating apps will get you hookups and cheesy pickup lines, join Monet Dating for a fun, more wholesome vibe. Monet is a place for connections in a time of masks and 6ft apart guidelines. A silly drawing can spark a fun conversation and maybe a lasting connection. Take Joanna’s advice and use this as an opportunity to try something new!