In the fall of 2020, Joanna Shan should have been starting her sophomore year as a student at the University of Pennsylvania. Instead, she and four friends took a gap year, moved in together in Portland, and started working on an idea they thought up over the summer: What would a less awkward dating app look like?
They came up with Monet, a dating app where you send a drawing, sketch, or doodle as the first move. No more DMs that just say: “Hey.”
Shan, along with Daniel Huang, Jonathan Xue, and Marc Liu started brainstorming in June, moved in together in September, launched a beta in October, and deployed a full-fledged app in December. Shan shared videos of the team’s milestones on TikTok, racking up hundreds of thousands of views — and thousands of beta testers.
Today, Monet has 20,000 users, a 2,000 member Discord community, and $500,000 in seed funding from investors like Pear VC, an early investor in DoorDash, and Sahil Lavingia, the founder of Gumroad.
Of Monet’s users, 94 percent are between the ages of 18 and 24, a demographic increasingly uncomfortable with the imposed expectations of apps like Bumble, Hinge, or Tinder.
“I think a lot of young people use these platforms just to have fun and to meet new people,” Shan says. “This model of meeting people one-on-one is really valuable, but there are ways it could be less superficial and more meaningful, while still being laid back.”
Here, Shan shares her playbook for building a friendlier dating app, marketing to Gen Z, and inspiring community. Her answers have been lightly edited and condensed.
What have been some of your early learnings since launching the app?
We’ve learned a lot from the users in our Discord community. Our Discord channel is up to 2,000 people. We started it as a place for people to share drawings, initially thinking people would share drawings they received from matches. One thesis behind Monet was that it’s a cool thing to receive a drawing — something made personally for you.
But surprisingly, it’s been mainly people sharing drawings they’ve made themselves. That shows there is actually a lot of joy in your own creativity.
We’re all naturally inclined to create content. A lot of platforms with this aspect of content creation — like Instagram and Snapchat which are really immersive and engaging — allow you to connect with your existing friends, but we haven’t gotten there yet with platforms that introduce you to new people.
What do most brands get wrong about marketing to Gen Z?
I think a lot of people fetishize Gen Z, and I think it’s kind of gross. I’ve seen articles like, “Hacking Gen Z’s Mind,” or “What These Emojis Actually Mean To Gen Z.” I think that’s the wrong way to approach it. You can’t think of Gen Z as a market, or a customer to unlock.
The way to build for Gen Z is not to think about what they buy or consume, but to think about the circumstances that shaped their generation and their behavior. So what we’ve been building for is this idea that Gen Z is really comfortable with digital relationships. They’ve been making digital relationships for their entire lives, they’ve grown up online. Their online friends are just as meaningful as the relationships that they make in person. I have a lot of friends who have made genuine, lifelong friends through gaming, through Neopets, through these online communities that are very common among the younger generation.
I think Gen Z is really about community. Even on TikTok you see this mutual sense of community form: “Hey I made this thing, check it out,” or “Let’s blow this song up, help me get to 100,000 views.” It’s a mutual desire to help each other.
How are you building brand and community at Monet?
With our Discord, people have started to play games on our server. They’re there every night of the week. A genuine community has come out of it. They’ve become actual friends and they’ve connected through this platform. Monet inherently forms relationships. We saw this tweet where a girl who lived in St. Louis and a guy who lived in LA met on Monet and flew to meet each other in person. There’s a lot of joy in relationships and seeing them come to form.
In terms of brand, dating apps can be a pretty weird thing. You don’t want to be caught on Tinder, right? It’s a bit like, “I’m not super proud to be on this app right now.”
But because Monet has been this wholesome place to be, and fun activity to do to meet friends, we’ve seen that a lot of the members of our community feel really proud to rep it and share about it.
I have to ask. Tips for brand marketing on TikTok?
I think a lot of different approaches can work well. For us, we were at the beginning of our journey, so it was one of those, “Let’s just share our story, check it out, help us out,” kind of things.
But honestly, my advice is just to be genuine. Don’t take it too seriously. Things blow up all the time. Things don’t blow up all the time. It’s not a big deal. Just keep trying to until you get something right. And then don’t be too grimy about it, the viewers are not just customers, you’re not just vying for their attention. Create fun content that helps people, or that just gets the word out about your brand.