After soul-searching and brainstorming, Matt Ronge and Giovanni Donelli found something they believed in: technology’s ability to help humans create. With that vision as their guide, these founders developed products that allow people to use their digital devices for creative projects.
Together, they built Astropad and bootstrapped the company to $4 million in revenue with a team of 15 people. Their products, Astropad Studio and Luna Display, were designed for the creative community – including illustrators, photographers, animators, and painters.
Inspiration Can Strike When You Least Expect It
Matt, the co-founder and CEO of Astropad, is a software engineer who’s had the entrepreneurial bug from an early age. He’s created many companies over the years, but Astropad has by far been the most successful. Back in middle school, he built file management apps and tried to sell them on the internet.
“Even though they weren’t very good, I was determined to do it,” Matt says. While many of his projects never launched or sold, one of them, Monkeybread Software, made good money and was growing consistently. While he was doing well with it, Matt wanted to push his engineering career further, and he’d always dreamed of working at Apple.
He started his corporate career as a Software Engineering Intern at Apple. “This was a long time ago, before the iPhone existed. This was during the iPod days,” Matt says laughing. This is also where he met his now co-founder and Head of Product, Giovanni. Six years later, when Giovanni and Matt had both left Apple, they reconnected on Twitter and started working together on custom email app development for the iPad and iPhone.
Matt says, “We were okay at being contractors and consultants, but we weren’t great at it. Our heart just wasn’t in it. We wanted to build a product company – we just didn’t know what that would be.” Giovanni had taken a similar path to Matt, launching and selling a variety of internet projects that were unsustainable in the long run.
“One day, Giovanni went for a run and saw an ad for the Microsoft Surface laptop. It was showing somebody using a stylus on the screen with Photoshop. He stopped running and thought to himself, ‘That’s cool – why can’t we do that on a Mac?’ Giovanni came back from his run and shared the idea with me. Out of all the ideas we brainstormed together, we both instantly felt connected to this one.” And that’s how Astropad was born in 2013.
The founders participated in a statewide business plan competition, The Minnesota Cup, shortly after coming up with the idea for Astropad. They pitched it, got great feedback, and ended up winning the whole thing. The $75,000 prize money helped get the business off the ground.
Matt and Giovanni burned the midnight oil for months to develop software that would allow people to use their iPad as a drawing device – without the need to buy specific hardware. Meanwhile, they consulted on the side to make ends meet.
“We showed it to a Pixar artist. He was drawing on it, looked at us, and said ‘Guys, this is going to be huge.’” We were super excited because this was coming from the best in the industry,” Matt says. After two years of development, they launched Astropad Studio. “It caught fire because it was something that people were interested in. We were the first app out there that could turn an iPad into a professional drawing tablet!”
Products That Help People Imagine And Create
What made Astropad Studio unique was that it could mirror a desktop Mac with extremely high-quality imagery and low latency. Competitors suffered from low quality mirroring and high latency, making it harder for artists to draw. Astropad Studio is designed for the most demanding creative work, allowing artists to work faster and more efficiently. They can also customize the software to their workspace preferences.
A couple of years into running a successful business, the founders realized that their product suffered from some limitations. Matt says, “We knew one of the constraints was that it only mirrored your screen, it didn’t extend it, which was a common ask from our users. That’s when we decided we needed to get into the hardware game. Originally this was only going to be an accessory for existing customers, but it ended up morphing into our second product: Luna Display.”
Luna Display started as Astropad Studio’s companion but appeals to a much larger audience. Luna Display turns your iPad into a wireless second display, harnessing the power of your desktop and extending your workspace to a touchscreen device. Customers can mix and match devices for a seamless and remote workspace, with either a Mac or PC.
Luna Display allowed Astropad to broaden its market, selling software and hardware for creative people in general. Many people who use Luna Display aren’t necessarily professional artists but want capabilities like high-quality image reproduction and low latency.
When Your Launch Is Lightning in a Bottle
The founders spent two years developing Astropad Studio. “Not something I necessarily recommend, but we needed to have a good product, so we took our time. It was something that we knew people wanted and we had to deliver on that promise,” Matt says.
Two months before the big launch, they went into marketing mode. While Giovanni finished polishing up the app, Matt enlisted help to create the website and a powerful video. “We didn’t have a lot of money, so we had to ask for favors. We had to find people within our small budget, but still manage to create high-quality content. The video was key to our marketing because it described the unique concept better than words could.”
The founder says the video is also why their product initially took off. People hadn’t seen anything like it before. Until then, using your iPad as an accessory to your desktop computer was a foreign idea. They had to educate consumers on how they’d benefit from it.
Matt read the popular Burned-Out Bloggers Guide to PR. He learned about pitching to the press and proceeded to pitch to everyone he could find. “And because we had a unique product and an interesting proposition, they wrote about us. We were nobodies at the time, but this brought us initial traction. From there, we went viral on social media,” he says.
Astropad Studio ended up being their biggest launch to date. Despite getting better at marketing over the years and building their marketing list, they’ve never been able to replicate that initial launch. It was lightning in a bottle.
A Leaky Funnel Needs Fixing
Did this big launch turn into revenue for the business? Matt says, “Well, that was the interesting thing. We had tons of eyeballs on our product and while we did reasonable sales at the time – enough for us to go full-time – we didn’t sell as much given the attention we garnered.” It was a spectacular launch in terms of awareness, but not revenue.
Matt and Giovanni spoke to several startup founders and discovered others had sold far more with far less coverage. So what was wrong? Their sales funnel was leaky, and it took them several months to figure out what to optimize and change to increase revenue. They changed how they were selling the product, their free trial setup, and their price point.
Astropad initially charged for their Mac app and iPad app through their website. It switched to using Apple’s app store and charged an upfront price for downloading the app. It also cut the price from $50 to $30, which led to more people trying it out. In addition, the convenience of being able to pay through the App Store accelerated the company’s revenue.
“On top of that, we took all the feedback that we received after our launch and worked on the pain points that were brought up by those first customers. We made sure the speed was good, the image quality, no latency, and so on. And any extra features that kept coming up, we just iterated on and then shipped, shipped, and shipped,” Matt says.
“We learned a ton from our initial launch about how to price our product, what features to add, what needed to be improved, and new markets to go after. We listened to all that input and, over the following six months, we took what was a shaky proposition into something that we could be committed to full time.”
When Investors Aren’t Aligned With Your Vision
Astropad has been proudly bootstrapped since its inception. Matt and Giovanni toyed with the idea of getting funding over the years, but they didn’t need it. “People from the Minnesota Cup competition urged us to go out and get funding. So we talked to some investors, but they pushed us to pursue different project ideas. As far as they saw it, our target market wasn’t big enough,” Matt says.
“At the time, Wacom out of Japan was dominating our market of graphic tablet users. That was a $300-million-a-year business internationally and wasn’t big enough for a lot of investors – but we disagreed. We thought this was a fantastic opportunity and that Wacom didn’t have enough competition. If we could get a slice of that $300-million market, we would be thrilled. And we figured that we would expand that market by having a lower cost and more accessible solution than buying a brand new tablet.”
If Astropad wanted to go the investing route, they would have to switch to building a more general product. Matt says, “That seemed insane to us because we had had such success with the product thus far – why would we go into the unknown and try to get product-market fit again? Our goals and the investors’ goals did not align, so we decided not to raise money. Plus we didn’t need it!”
The founders invested the profits from Astropad to fund development of their hardware product, Luna Display. They paid for the prototypes and then launched on Kickstarter. The campaign was phenomenally successful and helped them to continue bootstrapping the business as well as get into the physical hardware game.
It’s Hard to Compete With Apple as an Underdog
One of Astropad’s largest obstacles was Apple’s competing product, Sidecar. Matt says, “We’d had conversations with people at Apple before, so they were fully aware of us and what we were doing with our products. Apple implemented a feature in their latest operating system called Sidecar that competed directly with our product – and was very much inspired by our products.”
“This is not unique to Apple though. This is across all of big tech where they look to the smaller player for new and innovative ideas. When a certain idea gets traction, then they will recreate it themselves. Amazon does it, Facebook does it, Google does it. But that was hard for us because all of a sudden Apple became our direct competitor.”
Apple introduced it as a free feature bundled with their operating system. It allowed people to use their iPad as a display that extends a Mac desktop. So now Astropad had to compete with a free solution from a billion-dollar company. It took them almost two years to sail through those choppy waters, but they managed to get through it.
They had to diversify their product by adding new features and Windows support – enhancements that Apple did not have. They went deeper than Apple was willing to go and that’s what ultimately helped them come out on the other side.
Here’s the biggest takeaway from the entire experience that Matt wants to share with other entrepreneurs: “If you’re dependent on a platform, which a lot of bootstrappers are because it’s a great way to start a business, make sure that you diversify as early as you can. If you’re a Shopify plugin, then add in support for WordPress or Squarespace, for example. Don’t be dependent on Shopify because they might do the same thing as Apple and create their own version of it.”
“For us, that meant supporting more than just Mac users. We should have added Windows support earlier to avoid the obstacles we ended up having. Diversify early on, so that not any one platform or any one company holds your destiny in their hands.”
Over time, Astropad has expanded its audience and they’re going after bigger markets. But Matt says they will do it at their own pace, taking baby steps and a snowball approach to growing the business because that’s how they’ve been successful so far. “We’re not going straight from the startling line to the biggest market possible. We have a path we’re taking to get there and we’re going to follow it.”
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