Venturing Into the US: Story of MontiPlanet
Robert den Hollander, Product owner for the MontiPlanet website
Robert den Hollander is discussing his new venture, which has recently celebrated its initial success with the website going live. It signifies the company’s introduction to the US market, advancing them one step closer to the ambitious goal of global leadership in the educational toy industry.
The Cyfrania team has been acquainted with Robert for more than a decade. This marks the second project we are developing together.
We interviewed Robert about how the MontiPlanet idea came about, his impressions of working with the developers, whether he is satisfied with the results achieved, and what he anticipates for the future.
MontiPlanet is an e-commerce platform tailored for enthusiasts of the educational system pioneered by the Italian physician Maria Montessori.
It offers distinctive toys, educational materials, and furniture that create a structured learning environment for children. In this space, kids are enriched with the freedom to explore and learn while following their natural interests and activities.
MontiPlanet is intended to allow you to explore and buy any Montessori product available on the market, all in one place.
Story of How the Project Was Born
Can you provide the backstory of your decision to launch the MontiPlanet website?
The project began with the ambitious objective of becoming one of the worldwide leaders in the educational toy industry. That was our starting point.
My first step was to conduct complete market research. I had to understand what kind of toys are out there, which brands make them, what platforms already exist, and who the big players are in the market. This includes stores, middlemen, distributors, and the actual toy makers. I quickly found that in order to establish ourselves as a global player in the educational toy industry, we must target the major markets, notably the United States.
Then I began conducting keyword research with my team, focusing on educational toys within the United States. I found a significant monthly search volume for Montessori products, which constitute a distinct niche within the educational toys category.
Hence, it’s a good starting point to initiate the website.
What is the main idea behind MontiPlanet?
The main idea of MontiPlanet is to offer a complete overview of all Montessori toys, materials, and furniture available in the US market.
We are creating such an overview of all the existing Montessori product brands as the initial step. For now, we merely redirect our visitors to the websites of Montessori brands. However, in the future, we plan to become affiliate partners with these brands, one by one, to earn commissions for redirecting customers.
To our knowledge, you are associated with a large company that deals in educational toys.
Yes, it’s a big international corporation specializing in kids’ entertainment. They’ve invested in several brands that create children’s products, with an emphasis on playing to learn. Our Dutch website, Toverkast, serves as the platform for selling these educational toys.
Among our brands, one produces real children’s tools, including real drills, saws, and hammers, all designed to be completely safe for children aged 5 to 12 years old. Another example is a brand manufacturing kids’ smartwatches that encourage children to spend more time outdoors exploring nature. Additionally, there is a brand that offers a game that consists of play mats featuring a geographical map. For instance, there could be a map of Europe, and the kid has to place their hands on Finland or around Spain. Encouraging children to learn geography while being physically active.
And MontiPlanet is connected to other projects within your company?
Yes, MontiPlanet is just one part of our global strategy. When we position it as the leading platform for Montessori toys, where you can find any Montessori toy available in a market, it’ll also make it easier to promote our own toy brands.
We aim to commence selling six to eight of our toy brands in the US, encompassing our own platform, their individual websites, and external platforms such as Amazon and Etsy. Next year, we plan to open our fulfillment center in the US, in addition to our current facility in the Netherlands. It’ll enable us to store our best-selling products and ship them to the US customers and resellers.
Furthermore, we are currently setting up an in-house marketing agency to support our own toy brands. This is another endeavor to which I am dedicating my efforts, in addition to my work on the MontiPlanet website. The primary service offered by this in-house agency will be online marketing. Additionally, we will also provide HR services, manage customer support in both the Netherlands and the US, and take care of fulfillment.
Do you want to conquer the whole world?
Becoming a worldwide leader in the educational toys industry is quite an ambitious goal, but I’m enthusiastic about it. Moreover, I believe it’s achievable. We have a track record of establishing companies that become global leaders. One example is the online yoga retreats booking platform that we developed with the Cyfrania team.
We simply need to do it, but it will take some time.
What is the target audience of MontiPlanet?
Its target audience includes parents, grandparents, or family friends interested in buying Montessori products for children. In the future, we also aim to cater to schools and daycares that follow the Montessori approach. However, our current focus is on retail customers in the US.
What is the mission of MontiPlanet? How can it benefit its intended audience?
Our mission is simple. MontiPlanet aims to bring Montessori products to the US and all around the world. As we move forward, we’ll expand our presence to reach more and more countries.
What we offer in contrast to our competitors is a complete overview of Montessori products. Let’s imagine someone searching, for example, for a kitchen helper. This is a Montessori furniture item - a safe step stool that enables kids to reach a kitchen countertop and assist their mother. MontiPlanet’s valuable service is to offer a comprehensive overview of all the kitchen helpers available on the US market.
On top of that, MontiPlanet features very detailed, expert information about products that are not readily found on other websites. For example, one can learn what a kitchen helper is, the advantages it offers to children, the targeted age groups for which kitchen helpers are designed, and more.
Furthermore, we carefully choose the products we offer, thereby ensuring that customers receive only high-quality materials that meet Montessori standards. So, I believe that we’ve made it easier for customers to purchase this type of product.
Have you personally tried Montessori products with your own children or with your relatives?
I have three daughters, aged two, three, and seven. They did not attend a Montessori school, but I brought home several of the products featured on the website, and my children enjoyed playing with them.
I was not very familiar with the Montessori system before starting this project. I have now started researching it, and I believe it’s a positive methodology that fosters self-driven learning and gives kids a lot of freedom to decide what and when they want to learn.
However, I am not an expert, and I don’t hold any strong opinions on the subject. And I feel it can be beneficial when building a business. I don’t want to be narrow-minded about what Montessori toys should or shouldn’t include. I believe it’s much better to simply listen to the market’s demands. What do I see from keyword research? What are people looking for?
That’s why I named the website MontiPlanet, with the connotation of “Montessori-inspired” products. That means that our products don’t have to be 100% Montessori certified. We have specific criteria for Montessori products, such as the use of natural materials and the absence of batteries or lights. The more criteria they meet, the higher their placement on the website.
Chronicle of Website Development
How do you feel about your experience with website development?
In general, I have to admit that among all my responsibilities, being a product owner for a new website is my favorite role. I thoroughly enjoy the process of creating something new and generating ideas.
However, some of my prior experiences were not as nice. It pertains to the preparation of the specifications for a future website detailing what I want to incorporate into it. This time, I strived to have these specifications 80% ready when we started the project.
Let me provide more context; a decade ago, when I first contacted Cyfrania to develop an online service for booking yoga retreats, I came prepared with a meticulously crafted 50-page specification document. Nevertheless, we were only able to implement approximately 20% of the features it contained. And even as my involvement in the yoga retreat booking business concluded 8 years later, we had achieved just 80% of the features I had initially outlined in the specification.
So, this time, I decided that I’m not going to spend two or three months creating a specification document that we won’t be able to execute. It’s enough to have it 80% ready, as I can complete the missing parts later while the engineers are working. This is a common practice of the Cyfrania team, and it’s something I picked up from them.
What did the development process entail?
Upon commencing the project, I gained access to a project management tool that the Cyfrania team uses. Afterward, I began inputting user stories into the tool, describing the features that developers needed to build. In doing so, I drew from both my own thoughts and discussions with developers regarding how it would be useful to break up the user stories.
The developers started to build features. When one feature was completed, we ensured that it worked before proceeding to add the next functionality. When the website’s homepage was ready, we made it live, simply showing all products on a single page. Afterward, we began to launch the landing pages, added filters to these landing pages, and made the product page live.
I really loved to work on user stories, on each of them. When the website is already live, I like to push the new functionality to it daily or every other day, developing it in super small steps. I feel if you’re doing too many things simultaneously, and too many things are not finished, it all becomes very messy.
How did you manage the development process? What were your primary areas of focus?
I think it’s important to hold a daily morning meeting with developers to evaluate their progress from the preceding day, address any questions they may have, and discuss their plans for the day ahead.
Throughout the development stage, I made every effort to specify each story as clearly as possible regarding how it should be built, in my opinion. Furthermore, when a feature was delivered, I aimed to thoroughly test it and provide developers with feedback that was as precise as possible.
That’s because you guys can build virtually anything, but you need to have a clear understanding of your task. The better the customer knows what they want, the easier it becomes for engineers to make it happen. When this isn’t the case, things often go wrong. I believe this is the biggest problem in development projects.
If customers don’t know what they want, developers have no choice but to make guesses. They deliver something, and only then does the customer contemplate whether it aligns with their needs and what those needs consist of. As a result, developers need to redo their work, which can be demotivating. Also, the constant need to rework the app drives up the project’s costs.
Indeed, it’s much better if you already have a clear idea of what you need to build. This not only spares developers from frequent rework but also enhances cost-efficiency for the customer.
But how can you be sure if your assumptions about customers’ desires are correct? Don’t you need to validate these assumptions by collecting feedback from website visitors?
My opinion is that I need to give it my own test drive first.
In my prior project, we had a bigger development team of around 10 developers. In this setting, we carried out A/B testing for each release. With our main website receiving a million visits per month, we had the capacity to conduct A/B tests for every change we introduced and determine customer preferences.
But even in this situation, I still believe that the product owner needs to have a clear idea of how they want the feature to work, and only then, proceed with A/B testing. Random experimentation is not the way to go. You have to create something beautiful, and only after that, collect customers’ feedback to occasionally reveal that you’ve made a mistake. You should give it your best try first.
Have you collected any customer feedback for MontiPlanet?
No, to be honest. We had a lot to optimize on the website, as with any website, there’s always big room for improvement. And we had a limited budget. Besides, I felt that during the development stage, feedback wasn’t necessary because the website wasn’t in its final form yet. Only by now that it is actually ready to get customer feedback, and it would be useful to do some customer research at this point. We plan to do it next year before proceeding with further development.
Constructing Everything Around SEO
As we know, your central concern was the website’s search engine optimization (SEO), which ensures its high position in Google search results. Who was in charge of this task?
As for SEO, I largely relied on the developers because they had the expertise regarding the requirements for optimizing websites for search engines and the practical methods to meet them.
What role did SEO play in the development process?
In the case of this website, SEO is the cornerstone around which everything else is constructed.
To define the SEO strategy, we started with keyword research. Our goal was to identify keywords with the highest search volume and the strongest user intent to make a purchase. Then we attempted to determine how to structure these keywords hierarchically in order to establish the most effective way to categorize products on the website.
The structure of our website’s product catalog should be optimized for search engines, while also ensuring it makes sense to buyers. In fact, customers always come first. When determining the structure of product categories and facing a decision between two options, where the first favored customer clarity and the other favored SEO, my priority was always in favor of the customer.
What SEO aspects did you focus on?
Implementing SEO is akin to attempting to achieve a perfect 10 out of 10 score in all 500 SEO website indicators. But that is not a realistic goal. However, if you manage to score 8 or 9 out of 10 for 80% of these 500 indicators, you are already outperforming all your competitors. So you try, within the budget, to excel in as many indicators as feasible.
Regarding website speed, the developers did an amazing job. They were able to achieve a performance score of around 93% to 98%, which is remarkable for a website of this size. However, after integrating with Google Analytics, there was a slight slowdown. Nevertheless, most of the pages still maintain a score ranging between 80% and 90%. Although it’s not perfect, it still surpasses many of the competitors.
Additionally, we take measures to confirm that all technical SEO parameters meet the required standards. This includes aspects like URL structure, URL names, product category titles, and internal link structure. We simply ensured that we optimized everything within our control and budget.
What are your impressions of the development team?
What impressed me the most was a lot of commitment from both of the engineers I worked with. They wanted the website to succeed as much as I did, and I believe that’s incredibly important. In the mornings, developers would start the day by saying things like, “I’ve been thinking over this and here’s how we could tackle it.”
I felt that we had a pleasant and effective cooperation. I provided the understanding of what is needed from the business side, while they handled all the technical aspects, including researching solutions. By doing so, we could work together to find the best solution for our specific situation.
It’s almost never possible to build the perfect feature exactly how the customer wants it. Or, even when it’s possible, it might not be the optimal choice. If it will take five days, but there is another technical solution that covers 90% of the customers’ needs and can be built in one day, let’s opt for the latter.
So, it should always be an ongoing discussion. A product owner should try to understand the technical options, developers should try to understand the business needs. When this happens, projects run smoothly, and you experience a truly enjoyable team interaction.
But daily meetings can take up a lot of time. It’s sometimes challenging to find it when you have multiple roles in your company, as I do. On occasion, I even had to say, “Just create a basic feature, and I’ll provide feedback once it’s done,” because I lacked the time to specify the feature’s details.
MontiPlanet’s Present and Its Future
What is happening in the project now that the active software development phase is completed? Do you have assistants to rely on so you can concentrate on other tasks?
I collaborate with a remote team based in Indonesia. They assisted me with market research and keyword research, and they crafted all the product listings featured on the MontiPlanet website. And they are also in charge of managing the website now, which allows me to focus mainly on my other responsibilities.
Currently, the website has been live for four weeks, and the team is continuously adding more Montessori products to the catalog, with the objective of building a comprehensive overview of all available options for the US buyers. When we launched, we had approximately 400 products on the website. Today it hosted over 1,000 different items, and it’ll further expand.
What’s on the horizon?
In the upcoming months, we’ll initiate a promotional campaign. Our primary focus will be to enhance the Google score for website performance, enabling more and more of its pages to be indexed and achieve high rankings. We are already observing this happening, and we’ve also noted the first visitors who discovered our website via Google searches. It’s truly nice to see.
And then, I already have a list of features I plan to incorporate next year. Foremost among them is translating the website into Dutch, as well as implementing payment options, alongside several other enhancements.
Alright, let’s conclude with one final question: If you were starting from scratch now, what would you do differently?
I do wish I had more time. If I had been able to devote my full attention to this project without any other tasks, we might have been able to move forward more rapidly.
Nevertheless, I think the result is great. From both my perspective and the developers’ standpoint, we have achieved something remarkable by delivering a website of this magnitude and performance within just 12 weeks. So there’s nothing that I would’ve done differently this time.
Read more details about MontiPlanet project in our portfolio.