We created Menagerie to make it easy for modern couples to confidently choose their wedding vendors. We envisioned a future where every couple would be able to receive personalized virtual wedding assistance and was equipped to seamlessly discover high quality vendors that fit their budget, style and vision.
Along the way, we grew our team, launched a MVP, joined an accelerator and received funding, pitched at Demo Day on both coasts, and worked very hard to deliver our vision to our couples. While there was much success to be celebrated along the way and our second launch in November showed promising initial traction, we eventually discovered that we were struggling with product-market fit.
Last week, after a year and half, our team made the difficult decision to shut down Menagerie. In this reflection, I want to summarize and share our biggest learnings, and express gratitude to all those who inspired and supported us along the way. I hope this can not only become a valuable read for existing and future founders, but also motivation knowing that regardless of the outcome, you will have helped people and/or businesses along the way and that this startup journey will forever be one of the most rewarding experiences and greatest learning opportunities of your life.
Menagerie was part of a new wave of wedding startups that offered chat-based wedding planning services and personalized vendor recommendations. Our predecessors and incumbents were primarily content platforms and vendor directories that published content on wedding ideas/ trends/general advice, and made money from vendor listing fees. Our opportunity was also these content platforms’ biggest problem — expensive vendor listing fees resulted in high vendor churn because of low ROI, which led to stale vendor listings/data that inhibited their ability to provide personalized vendor recommendations and eventually facilitate transactions.
Our empathy for the wedding vendor’s struggle with discoverability and profitability enabled us to quickly grow a community in New York, and work with vendors to build a comprehensive database of their business information, services, pricing and images of their works. We did all of this with just typeform, dropbox and excel. Four months later, equipped with our growing vendor community and database, we were confident that couples would come to us and start requesting vendors because we were free, offered transparency on vendor pricing and services, and guaranteed high quality via curation. Wrong. We had only a few requests and most people came to just look at pictures.
Lesson Learned: Modern marketplaces require more than transparency, beautiful design and a curated supply base to establish trust with users and achieve liquidity. A superior, differentiated user experience is necessary.
In an effort to better understand the hesitation and needs of those who were coming to us, and engage couples with more hand-holding, we launched Irene, our chat-based virtual wedding assistant. Leveraging Chatra, we were able to launch her in less than a week. She was a hit, people loved Irene and we instantly began having real conversations with users, receiving requests for vendors, and started sending personalized vendor recommendations via email. Looking back, we should have doubled down on Irene and stayed focus on how we could increasingly deliver value to couples through her. At the time, Loverly, Lady Marry, Joy and many others had not yet even introduced virtual wedding assistance. So why didn’t we?
Lesson Learned: Focus on scaling something that is working.
Over the summer, we started prototyping new ideas on how we could begin facilitating the next phase of the wedding decision making process. Why? Because we were eager to extend our relationship with couples beyond chat and facilitate their full decision making process when choosing a wedding vendor. We got distracted by features that might work rather than focusing on what was working.
We began bringing couples into our office for interviews and prototype testing. We collected their wedding planning assets — spreadsheets, research, vendor communications, and more. We met with dozens of couples, we listened, we took notes…but we heard feedback, not intent. The consequence of this inaccurate user research was a roadmap that directed us to build our couples’ assumptions and introduce features to respond to “I would need to do this to use your product”.
Feedback misled us to focus on improving their existing wedding vendor research methods — collecting vendor information and entering it into excel spreadsheets — instead of focusing on delivering quality recommendations and building trust to eliminate the reliance on their extensive research process (that had ultimately evolved from a mistrust of existing wedding products and lack of personalized solutions). We thought we were building with our users, aligning with their existing behavior and delivering exactly what they needed. But instead we ended up designing an alternative experience rather than optimizing for what our couples needed.
Lesson Learned: Separate user Feedback from Intent because users often assume what they want and don’t actually know what they need, which is no different than founder assumptions.
The night before Demo Day, our team ambitiously attended a New York bridal expo to do a soft launch of Menagerie. Couples lined up to sign up for Irene and expressed excitement about a personalized budget and vendor recommendations. Our messaging resonated strongly with couples. That night, many couples logged back in to chat with Irene and visit their dashboard. Things were looking up. The next two months we had more than 500 New York couples signing up.
As we were celebrating new couples joining Menagerie, we began to notice an increasing decline in retention. We thought maybe these couples needed a reminder to stay on top of their planning and that this behavior was natural; so we increased our email campaigns to draw users back in the following weeks after they signed up. But it didn’t help, because ultimately, they didn’t have a need for many of the features we offered, and as a result, most couples concluded that Menagerie wasn’t for them.
Over the last year and a half, our team invested a lot into building our vision and persevered through many startup challenges. While this was not the outcome we had anticipated, this journey was filled with many accomplishments and presented the learning opportunity of a lifetime. Menagerie enabled me to grow as a female leader, uncover and eliminate my fears, improve as a product/project manager, develop tremendous empathy for founders, customers & investors, and finally, discover gratitude for every opportunity and person in my life.
Starting Menagerie was never just about the opportunity, it was about the people that would be a part of this journey and the shared experience of crafting a vision, building our ideas, and celebrating once-in-a-lifetime milestones.
Thank you Harlan, Jeff, Dino, David, Moni, John, Sushma, Scott, Abby and Jenn for your belief in Menagerie, your hard work and the fierce energy you brought to the team every day.
Thank you to all of our wedding vendors that joined our community and brought so much excitement to Menagerie. Thank you to all of our couples who allowed us to be a part of your once-in-a-lifetime wedding experience.
Thank you Matter Ventures for investing in our vision and supporting us along the way. You never forget those who believed in you from the very beginning.
Onwards and upwards!