The Abbreviated Story
I’ve always liked to draw cartoons. I don’t know that I have any signature style or particular skill for it, but it is a fun and effortless creative diversion for me, something I’ve done since elementary school to help me focus, or meet people, or explore my thoughts or feelings.
One weekend in late 2009 or early 2010 I sat at our dinning room table with an old Strathmore 18″x24″ newsprint pad and started to draw. Elliott came to the table and asked me to draw something, and for some reason I started to draw some monsters (this is the drawing from that day).
From there I thought I should refine and “digitize” them. During this same period of time I was working on a client project that utilized your Twitter feed to create personality profiles based on your Tweets (looking for specific groups of words that would put you into a kind of category). I thought it might be fun to do the same sort of thing with these monsters — create a monster for certain personality traits based on your Twitter feed. I called it “Everyday Creatures“. The site was simple, just in your Twitter handle, get a monster in return, download an iPhone wallpaper.
This spawned what would become ChoreMonster. My partner at the time. Chris, called my one summer afternoon to talk to me about a conversation he had with someone named J.B. I remember being outside, on my deck, pacing back and forth as he told me his idea to take these monsters and their personalities and turn it into a startup to “gameify” chores.
Quickly that first conversation turned into a quick logo for a pitch to see if we could get into this local startup accelerator called The Brandery. I believed what I created was temporary, and that it and even the name would change (because honestly, I thought the name was obvious and uninteresting, but we were never able to come up with a better name; a lesson about MVPs is that 76% of the time the MVP becomes your product).
Much to my surprise we were chosen to be in The Brandery class of 2011. We also received $25,000 Commercialization Award from Cincinnati Innovates. All of this allowed us to spend 3 months building on the idea, because we literally had nothing but the logo. I designed and developed it all, using what I knew, PHP and MySQL. The very definition of “agile” far before I knew what the term even meant.
After countless pitches to various venture capitalists, advisors, investors, where we continuously honed the message and purpose of our product to a version that we could launch and build on, came “Demo Day”. Chris stood in front of hundreds of potential investors, seated inside a banquet hall of Great American Ballpark, and pitch our product. It went well. But after all the demos were completed, and we gathered and mingled, no one talked with us. Not a nibble of interest. We had a planned trip to New York City to demo with a few of our fellow Brandery classmates, which we believed would be our last for ChoreMonster, and we would go back to doing what we did a few months prior. A kids app about chores, with limited and risky means to generate revenue, just wasn’t sexy.
But by the end of the year CincyTech became our lead seed round fund. I quit my full-time work at Wiseacre, become the Chief Creative Officer, we hired a fellow Brandery classmate as our CTO, brought in a full-time iOS developer, and started building. I refined and refined the design and platform, expanded our monster library — drawing countless hours, creating insane names and biographies for each, developed a unified message and tone. We hired more and more people (another designer, an illustrator, office manager, content manager, product manager, etc), and moved into our permanent office. We painted a mural, made a TV commercial, recorded a radio spot, . Things were moving quickly. It felt like a dream. We still had issues, mostly focused on our revenue model — I wanted to focus on a “freemium” program, allowing free use of our platform but with limited features to allow parents and kids to understand purpose and need, and pay for more options; whereas my partner and other advisers through we should remain free but search for brand integrations, opting for a large check but more compromise to the platform. Ultimately I lost that argument.
In 2014 we submitted ChoreMonster to be apart of the first class of the Disney Accelerator program. I can recall sitting in our office lounge with our employees discussing what would need to be done if we were accepted — who would move, where we would live, how much it would cost, what we would need to focus on, etc. We were competing against hundreds of other products, ones easily larger, better, and more profitable than ours. Somewhere in the back of my mind I hoped we would not get accepted, as I worried it might be unhealthy for our team to be separated (those unable to leave or relocate their families would feel separated from the experience), split the focus of our small team between ongoing development and new exploration, and ultimately pull us apart. And yet somehow we made the cut.
Half the team moved to L.A., living in the somewhat infamous Oakwood apartments, known for housing young Hollywood hopefuls (believe me, we had many fights about whether doing an AirBNB or HomeAway for everyone would be more economical, I still firmly believe it would have been not only cheaper but better for the team), while others of us travelled back and forth for weeks at a time. It was a dream come true. I was told that my creations were marketable and something we should exploit and build from the masters of children’s content. We thought about an entire gaming platform by which kids could explore the app — a monster world (where monsters were summoned to help kids with their chores). We started making cartoon shorts, and adding more and more features to the kids platform; exploring premium options for kids to buy tickets, games, monster add-ons, etc.
While the experience did teach us to be more disciplined in our focus and processes, rather than making us grow stronger as a company and platform, things got more complicated. Voices got more divisive and combative. Pressure mounted. And countless missteps began distracting our attention and unity. Our relentless pursuit of Disney related brand integrations drove our creative efforts and the pursuit of positive metrics led to uncomfortable compromises. Our platform experiences became divergent, disengaging, and divided. I grew unhappy with building ads and catering our features to brand desires, but was determined to stay and nurture what I had put my entire being into growing and building. The truth is that relationships soured, interactions became fraught, and I felt attacked, belittled, and ignored, and in May of 2016, I was asked to resign.
It was one of the more traumatic experiences of my life. The split did not go well. I was suddenly without work, with little severance buffer my descent, and no idea what to do next. In the end, while it certainly was far from an ideal or amicable situation, it was for the best.
I learned more about building unified and robust products, about shaping positive behaviors, about creating a unique and consistent brand, about forming and leading teams, about designing delightful engagements, and over time it has served as the foundation of me regaining confidence in my abilities. Through my work at ChoreMonster, I’ve been presented more opportunities, been able to reach out and help far more people, had countless experiences to grow not only myself but others.