Pictured: Blackbird investment associate Silk Kadala and Sunroom co-founder Lucy Mort. Photo credit: Gener8 Media.

Lucy Mort on what it takes to build an app to rival Instagram and OnlyFans

Sunroom has raised $10.4 million to support its team of seven in creating a brand new way for women to make money from their sexuality, emotional labour, and expertise online. Lucy's humble, she's ambitious, and oh boy – does she have a ton of founder wisdom to share.

We hit Blackbird’s 2024 Sunrise event in Carriageworks last week, and the amount of incredible women gracing the stages was seriously epic to witness.

Introducing Lucy Mort, one of the co-founders of Sunroom, who's an Aussie native who flew to Sydney from her home in Los Angeles to talk about the realities of founder life and the lessons she’s had to unlearn on the winding journey to finding product-market fit.

Sunroom is a consumer-facing app that aims to help women make money online with their hot bods, killer personalities, and savvy business mentorship. Aesthetically and philosophically, Sunroom sits in a space somewhere in between Instagram and OnlyFans. 

To date, Sunroom has raised $10.4 million in three batches across January 2021, February 2022 and August 2023 to help its team of seven execute on their vision to help women make money online.

Here, Lucy generously shares what she's learned on the ride of a lifetime so far.

Natasha Gillezeau: Lucy, your talk on Navigating Founder Pitfalls: A Journey of Resilience & Discovery was super inspiring today. Great use of visuals in the presentation, too. How have you grown as a person and a leader since you and Michelle Battersby came together to start Sunroom? 

Lucy Mort: As a person, I’m just more tough now, and more confident. The things that phased me early on, don’t really phase me that much any more. I’ve gotten really comfortable with the riskiness of what we’re doing and the fact it might not work. I think that was terrifying early on. In terms of how I’ve grown as a leader - I have a better sense of how to empower people now, and how to naturally get our team inspired and feel like they want to work with us and create Sunroom. 

How do you manage the different dimensions of the business - product, marketing, tech, sales - and what do these different aspects actually look like at Sunroom? 

We basically have two teams - product and engineering, and then creator nurturing and marketing. Michelle does creator nurturing, I do product and engineering, and Nick leads the engineering team. But it's also pretty collaborative because we are only a seven-person team.

We are figuring out our product roadmap almost all the time. So every couple of weeks, we huddle together as a team and go, 'Alright, what should our focus be next?' We’ve looked at our data and we’ll be like, 'Okay, we think there’s something to chat'. Creators are making so much money in chat, we really haven’t emphasised chat [the app's direct messaging feature] much at all, so that’s the theme - how can we make more money in chat. I will write a message in Slack the day before, saying, 'Get stewing on this, here’s what we’re going to talk about, and then get everyone in a room together'.

What applications do you use to manage the business?

Pilot for accounting, Braze for emails, Github for deployments, Slab for product specifications, Figma for design, Amazon Web Services for our servers, and Zen Desk for customer support. We’ve ditched all task tracking software - like Jira - because we found it slows us down. From a product roadmap perspective, we use Slack, Google Docs, and a lot of verbal reminders. We can only do that because of our size. 

Is there any content on Sunroom that’s really blown you away? 

Comfortable In My Skin. She’s a really big and loud advocate for feeling comfortable in your body and normalising women’s bodies.

Are there any content trends in particular that are working right now? 

It’s just chat. Most of our highest earning creators - including me - earn most of their money from chat. Sunroom until now has been very orientated around the grid of posts on your profile, but we’re like, we think the design emphasis is wrong. So we’re about to run an A/B test where we kind of flip it, and lead with chat. 

But Sunroom is such a visual platform … that’s so interesting. 

But if you think about it, people get so much value out of one-to-one interactions. We're exploring what more we can do with chat now.

How do you toe the line between having a thesis for your product, and adapting the product based on user feedback, without watering down the initial idea too much?

It’s the search for product market fit. There have been moments where I’ve been like, we have to dilute parts of our brand, or we can’t really heavily lead with this particular messaging, because it’s going to mean the focus of Sunroom is going to be too narrow and will alienate other people. But it’s not up to me – I’m building something for a great number of people. And ideally a profitable and sustainable business, so I think I’d be foolish if I wasn’t paying attention to that. 

Have you ever had a misinformation problem on Sunroom? Would you step in if you saw users sharing information not backed by evidence? 

It’s come up around vaccines … if something comes up like that, we have really stringent content moderation. We literally have a person looking through and going through every post on Sunroom.

So fair. What’s the biggest breakthrough that you’ve had on the innovation side? Your anti-screenshot technology - would you say that’s the biggest in terms of R&D? 

Yes, in terms of technical innovation, Sunblock. The amount of hardcore R&D that we had to go through, we spent a year trying to figure it out. It was figuring it out in a way that was performant. So, Netflix and Hulu have a similar technology - but it’s a different use case where you’re loading a single movie. So it’s like load, load, load - movie starts, and you don’t have to reload very quickly like you do on Sunroom.

Oh, so the streaming services have anti-screenshot technology themselves?

Yes, but what happens is that every time you bring a piece of content into the view, you have to download an encryption key, which is what protects the content from screenshots. You have to do one key for each piece content. So each piece of content needs its own key, and that’s like a call to a server and back again. We ended up relying on the inbuilt hardware or server that’s in each phone. 

So instead of sending it to your AWS servers, you actually send it to the server that’s in the smartphone? Wow. Cool.

Mmhmm. And we utilise that technology that’s there.

There has also been design innovation - for example, customer experience. That came from seeing how OnlyFans creators would manually make a pdf and connect it to their profile somewhere. I thought it’s crazy that this isn’t productised if it’s such a core selling point for people. The creators themselves would put together a pdf on Canva or whatever of like - feet pics $10, 15 minutes of chatting $20.

Lucy Mort showing one of Sunroom's biggest design innovations - 'custom experiences' - a menu price list inspired by an insight that OnlyFans creators usually mock up their own versions of this for followers/clients.

On the funding side - can you please share a bit about the funding model you guys have gone for with Sunroom? And what has that enabled for you in terms for hiring? 

There’s a lot of development that’s needed for a product like Sunroom. We just had to build a lot of software, so we always knew that we’d have to raise money to pay for software engineers. I’m technical, but I can’t code, and neither can Michelle. We raised our first round mostly from angels and smaller funds, and since then it’s been Blackbird and another fund Red Swan Ventures in the US and a few more syndicates and angels along the way - we’ve done three different rounds, which I think is really good.

We have never had this huge wad of cash where we’re like “Oh let’s live large, and we have all this time in the world.” It’s kept us building quickly, and hiring sparsely. 

We hear that raising capital is harder for women. There is ample research to show that only 2 per cent of venture capital goes to female founders. Do you have a comment more generally on that situation? 

I don’t know if I’ve felt it necessarily with raising, the thing that I’ve felt with raising is that the product that we’re building is more in a grey area because some of the content is more sex positive, more body positive.

It’s more the American investors, to be honest – they have a more puritanical stance. So that’s the pushback we’ve faced - the category that we’re in. But it’s hard to really know. I was having a conversation with one of the Blackbird investors the other day, because they’re making an effort, and they understand that that’s been a problem historically. And this person’s take - which I do agree with - is that women tend to feel we need to do a lot more before we’re ready to go and pitch and put ourselves out there. Whereas men are like - yeah, I have an idea, and I’m f*cking confident and I’m raising $3 million. Women need more of a push. On Deck was that push for me - they took me under their wing, they were like, we’re going to help you raise, because what you’re doing is dope.  

Are there predictive factors of someone being a high income earner on Sunroom?

You have to be willing to text a lot, and chat a lot to do well on Sunroom. You have to be kind of glued to your phone - younger people have grown up with that. Audience size doesn’t matter - some people have tiny audiences, like 1000 followers, 2000 followers. I only have 2000 followers on Instagram, and I make $1500 a month on Sunroom. Location doesn’t matter. 

People who make too much money from other income streams don’t tend to do as well on Sunroom, because they don’t need to hustle as hard. 

Sunroom is a place where users share a lot of their inner and private life online - who stands to gain from this? And who, if anyone, stands to lose? 

Firstly, the creators stand to gain, because people are interested. People say: I want to know what’s really going on in life. People are interested in people’s lives - prospective members will say “I want the truth, I want to know what’s really going on.” I think there's a nice cathartic feeling to sharing like that - I have a nice bond with members who I will almost share anything about what’s going on with me truthfully. I do wonder if there are times when you need to retreat, and not share as much. Every creator ebbs and flows with their energy around that. But who stands to lose? I don’t know. None of that content has been leaked ever. 

What are you reading or listening to at the moment? 

I’m listening to The Diary of a CEO. Steven Bartlett is a phenomenal interviewer, and gets some great guests on. I’m reading an erotic fiction book - I’m trying not to read too much non-fiction self-help books. But honestly, my biggest leisure activity right now is embroidery. 

Love it. And finally Lucy – what’s your ultimate vision for Sunroom? 

We want millions of people to make money on Sunroom - so we’re always looking to increase the amount of money on Sunroom. That's the nugget.

Lucy Mort on … 3 famous design principles 

1: 'Less Is More' 

Lucy Mort: “Yeah, I agree with that. We’re going through this process with Sunroom right now – stripping things back. You kind of have to assume that everyone is ‘stupid’ when designing your product, and I think the more functionality you add, you’re making adoption much harder to achieve.”

2: 'Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable' Pioneered by Raymond Loewy, this principle means you want to be at the bleeding edge of what’s cool and fashionable, but still within an acceptable boundary. 

“Yep, I agree with the bleeding edge. But there has to be elements of something familiar. It’s the 101 of innovating. Change one thing quite dramatically, but keep everything else quite the same.”

3: The way you do one thing, is the way you do everything 

“No - my opinion on that has changed. When I started Sunroom, I was such a perfectionist. I’d come from a team where I led design at Hinge, and all I’d do is ‘perfect’. But it was honestly slowing us down at Sunroom having to make sure that the effort I was applying to one screen must be applied to every other screen because they are all of ‘equal’ importance - but they’re just not. I now focus on key parts of our user flow. Some parts need a lot of experimentation and A/B testing, other parts are just a random settings screen.”

Editor's note: Missing Perspectives received a media pass to attend Sunrise courtesy of Blackbird to cover the event.