Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Matt Ronge and I’m Cofounder and CEO at Astropad. At Astropad, we make software and hardware tools for creative people. Our two main products are Astropad Studio and Luna Display.
Astropad Studio is an app that mirrors your Mac on to your iPad, turning it into a high-end drawing tablet. We’re incredibly proud that Astropad Studio is used by tens of thousands of creative professionals and companies like Pixar, DC Comics, Disney, Nintendo, Twitter, and even Star Wars!
Our second product, Luna Display is a small hardware dongle that turns the iPad or another Mac into a wireless second display. You plug the Luna device into your Mac and then install the app on the device you’d like to use as your 2nd monitor, and you’re all set!
My cofounder Giovanni Donelli and I started the company in 2013 and through bootstrapping we’ve grown the team to 16 people across 5 countries. Our first year selling products was 2015 where we made $500,000 and we’ve grown that to $3.4 million in revenue last year.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
My co-founder and I are both software engineers with an entrepreneurial streak that we’ve had from an early age. We separately dabbled in making shareware utilities for the Mac market back in the ’90s with some success. Once we tasted the freedom of having a business, we knew that was ultimately the direction we wanted.
We first met in 2006 as interns at Apple after being placed in corporate housing together, as I’m originally from Chicago and he’s from northern Italy. We hit it off but ultimately ended up going different directions for almost 7 years. In 2013 we serendipitously met through Twitter again and started doing contract development together.
We did okay at contracting, but we wanted to build a product company, so we were always on the lookout for and playing with new ideas, and we had a lot of bad ideas. One day Giovanni went for his end of day run and came across a poster advertising the Microsoft Surface with a stylus while running Photoshop. He took a picture of the poster and showed it to me the next day, and since we were very familiar with the iPhone and iPad we started discussing if we could build something to do this with an iPad.
We were both drawn to this idea because we had experience with graphics tablets from Wacom and we were frustrated with both the cost and skill required to use them. We knew that if we could bring this drawing tablet capability to the iPad it would open it too far more people.
We also loved that we’d be building a creative tool as we are makers at heart who have always been inspired by helping others develop their creative projects. It certainly didn’t hurt that we had extensive experience with the iPad and Mac, having worked at Apple.
We worked on Astropad Studio for 1.5 years before releasing, developing the technology on nights and weekends. It wasn’t until a year into the process that we got the validation we needed to push the project forward. Through a friend, we connected to a director at Pixar who was working on a new animated short – his short would later be nominated for an Emmy. We showed him an early prototype of Astropad Studio running on the iPad connected to his Mac and he looked at us and said, “Guys, this is going to be huge.” Everything changed at that moment. We soon fired one of our consulting clients to free up time and doubled down on shipping Astropad Studio.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Building the Liquid technology that powers Astropad Studio and Luna Display was a complicated process. A big concern was if it was even possible to deliver the kind of low latency and visual fidelity that we needed to make Astropad Studio a working product. We started with off the shelf software tools that we plugged together to create a graphics tablet, but the experience was awful. It became clear pretty quickly that to make it work, we were going to need to build completely custom tech.
Luckily we had enough working knowledge of Wifi, networking, video codecs, and streaming to be dangerous. We started building prototypes that early on they were terrible. For example, we only had a black and white video for months. Those prototypes barely functioned, but we were constantly improving them.
After a 1.5 of nearly continuous development on our Liquid tech, we had something truly unique that delivered the first high-quality graphic tablet experience on the iPad. Despite the praise we had gotten during the development phase, we were still terrified that we’d built a glorified technology demo that nobody wanted to buy. The only way to find out was to launch…
Here’s a video of a test run we did very early on before we’d tuned performance.
Visiting Pixar about 1 year in
Describe the process of launching the business.
About two months before launch, I switched into full marketing mode. My cofounder continued to finish the remainder of the app while I dedicated all my time to figure out how to market our new product.
This turned out to be an excellent strategy, creating sharp marketing to launch the product required dedicated focus. We were launching a product that used the iPad in a novel way, so the messaging had to be crystal clear if anyone would understand Astropad.
I also was interested in marketing, so it was pretty easy for me to focus on it. The idea that you can “build it and they will come” is one of the biggest misunderstandings holding back new creators, and it’s also the reason I tweet about marketing so much.
I focused on three main areas: building a website, producing a product video, and preparing our PR outreach strategy. All of them were essential to the success of Astropad.
We’ve had a lot of success writing interesting blog articles. Some generate tons of traffic, and others fall flat, you can’t predict which ones will succeed so it comes down to a numbers game.
We connected with a fantastic designer via a mutual friend who was critical in turning my marketing copy in a Google Doc into a stunning website. Via that same friend, we also got in touch with a small marketing agency that agreed to do a product video. We were financing everything ourselves via our consulting practice, so we were upfront that we couldn’t pay market rates for the design or the video. Thankfully everyone we spoke with loved what we were doing and agreed to help us out – we later sent lots of business their way once the product was a success as thanks).
Our launch strategy and journalist outreach were all done by me. Most of my plans were based on the book The Burned Out Blogger’s Guide to PR which was phenomenal for helping me think like a journalist when pitching. I created a massive spreadsheet of press contacts and went to it.
When our launch day came, all of our preparation plus a significant dose of luck paid off dramatically. The tech press loved Astropad and got coverage from most major sites like Techcrunch, The Verge, Forbes, Business Insider. Our video went viral on social media. Even 5 years later, that day was the highest traffic day on our website ever.
The biggest lesson learned from this process was that your product is good enough at a certain point and you can keep polishing into eternity. Before you reach that point, you need to pick a date, stick to it, and ship. Every major project I’ve worked on has always had this moment.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
To attract and retain customers, you need to have the essential ingredients right:
- Solve a real customer problem
- Have a great product
- Combined with great marketing
This sounds so simple, but in practice, it’s not easy. Many companies fail to get these 3 components right, so you’ll be leagues ahead if you can.
Once you have the basics in place it’s time to look at marketing channels. The marketing channels that will work well for your business will probably be different than what did for us as it’s industry dependent. However, the marketing channels that have done well for us are PR, YouTube reviews, App Store, podcast sponsorships, blogging, and word of mouth.
We’ve had a lot of success writing interesting blog articles and then sending them to press outlets or communities in the tech industry. Some articles generate tons of traffic, and others fall flat, you can’t predict which ones will succeed so it comes down to a numbers game.
An example of this is the recent series we did on the antitrust investigation into Apple. We wrote a series of suggestions on how Apple should reform itself to avoid antitrust scrutiny and it got picked up by quite a lot of press.
We’ve also used podcast ads to find new customers. The podcasts we picked were industry-related (like art and design). We found that just advertising on one episode didn’t move the needle, but the advertising for a couple of months did generate new signups.
It always takes longer than you think. Whether that’s’ building your prototype, getting to your launch, or scoring that first sale. Starting is tough and don’t beat yourself up if it feels like you’re not making enough progress.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, we are a profitable, bootstrapped company. Our products have been exclusively for the Mac and iPad, so our next significant milestone is adding support for Windows 10. In the future, both of our products Astropad Studio and Luna Display will work when the iPad connects to a Windows 10 PC. This is by far our most requested feature and has been years in the making. We are super excited to bring our products to the Windows platform, as there are 10x as many Windows users as there are Mac users.
Porting our products to Windows has been a massive effort, requiring us to rewrite almost all of our core code in a new programming language. The enormous effort will be worth it, as we’ll have a powerful cross-platform base to build future products. We’ve also blogged extensively about our journey to Windows on our blog.
If you’re interested in being one of the first to get your hands on our Windows products, sign up for our mailing list!
Luna Display running on Windows 10
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Building on someone else’s platform can be a fantastic way to get your business started, but be very wary of the platform owner. This applies to if you’re building on any 3rd party platform like the iPhone or iPad, Facebook, Salesforce, Slack, Zoom, etc. If your product adds a useful feature to a 3rd party platform, and you’re successful enough, there’s a good chance the platform owner will try to copy you (or if you’re lucky to buy you instead). We learned this lesson the hard way when Apple decided to add similar functionality to our products directly to macOS.
It always takes longer than you think. Whether that’s’ building your prototype, getting to your launch, or scoring that first sale. Starting is tough and don’t beat yourself up if it feels like you’re not making enough progress. All good things take time.
Finally, ignore your imposter syndrome and just start. Nobody has it all figured out and there will never be a perfect time. So get going today!
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
For running our websites we use Wordpress hosted by GetFlywheel and Shopify for shipping and fulfillment of our hardware products. For development and app hosting we use Github, Azure, Sentry.io, and Heroku. Customer support handled via email using Helpscout.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Ries and Jack Trout is the go-to book for understanding how to position your product and create the right marketing strategy.
For more tactical marketing tips I highly recommend Traction by Gabriel Weinberg, it includes tons of practical suggestions to get you started.
The Burned out Bloggers Guide to PR by Jason Kincaid is my bible for doing press outreach. Without it, we wouldn’t have gotten a fraction of the press coverage we did.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
- Side projects are a great low-risk way to start bootstrapping a business.
- Run towards the fire, always seek out the biggest problems and risks first.
- Spend time learning marketing, “build it and they will come” is a myth.
- Overnight success is 10 years in the making. There are the flashy stories about 20 something successful founders, but the reality is most entrepreneurs are older, you aren’t running out of time.
- Don’t give up, ever. If you can keep going, you’ll get enough at-bats that eventually you’ll hit a home run.
- Take entrepreneurship one step at a time, you’ll be frustrated by what you can accomplish in a day but you’ll be amazed by what you can do in a year.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Follow me on Twitter to learn more about marketing and bootstrapping
- Or reach out via [email protected]
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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