Menagerie’s Final Update

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.

Team Menagerie Demo Day SF 2016
Team Menagerie at Demo Day 2016

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!

Menagerie’s Demo Day

Menagerie Demo Day

My team and I are grateful for Matter Venture’s support and all those who have shared with us the experience of crafting a vision, building our ideas, and celebrating once-in-a-lifetime milestones.

I’m excited to share our pitch at Demo Day video!


My Notes on “Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future”

I’ve decided to share my notes and thoughts on Peter Thiel’s Zero to One. Additionally, I’ve also embedded suggested reads in my notes that are relevant to the topic or chapter. For those who haven’t read the book (read it!), here’s a preview of it and some of the more powerful takeaways for me while reading it. For those who have read it, I hope this is a helpful reminder for you and a good reference as you continue to help build our future.

Note: Comments in parentheses are my own.

Zero to One
Peter Thiel with Blake Masters

(1) The Challenge of the Future

The act of creation is singular, as is the moment of creation, and the result is something fresh and strange.

By creating new technologies, we rewrite the plan of the world.
Debate: Is there a formula for entrepreneurship?

The single most powerful pattern I have noticed is that successful people find value in unexpected places, and they do this by thinking about business from first principles instead of formulas.

What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

Conventional beliefs only ever come to appear arbitrary and wrong in retrospect; whenever one collapses, we call the old belief a bubble.

What triggered dot com bust / bubble pop?

Dot Com Timeline

(2) Party Like It’s 1999

4 Lessons from Dot Com Crash:
1 – Make Incremental Advances

2 – Stay Lean and Flexible: lean = unplanned. You should not know what your business will do; planning is arrogant and inflexible. Instead you should try things out, “iterate” and treat entrepreneurship as agnostic experimentation.

3 – Improve on the Competition: don’t try to create a new market prematurely. The only way to know you have a real business is to start with an already existing customer, so you should build your company by improving on recognizable products already offered by successful competition

4 – Focus on Product, not Sales: technology is primarily about product development, not distribution

( Did companies like Product Hunt have a market-ready product first or did they build with the market and succeed with distribution as a result of social media?)

(3) All Happy Companies are Different

Monopolists, by contrast, disguise their monopoly by framing their market as the union of several large markets:

Search Engine X Mobile Phones X Wearable
Computers X Self-driving Cars

Monopoly is the condition of every successful business

(4) The Ideology of Competition
Carl von Clausewitz
Sun Tzu

(5) Last Mover Advantage

A great business is defined by its ability to generate cash flows in the future.
(Bubbles form when individuals inflate a company’s ability to generate CF in the future!)

Characteristics of a Monopoly:
1 – Proprietary technology: rule-of-thumb prop. tech must be at least 10X better than its closest substitute
2 – Network effects: network effect businesses must start with especially small markets
3 – Economies of scale
4 – Branding

People then products then traffic then revenue – Marissa Myer’s rebrand of Yahoo!

(It’s a balance of first-mover advantage and last-mover advantage)

(6) You are Not a Lottery Ticket

“Success is never accidental.” – Jack Dorsey on twitter

(Most people believe getting a job in finance is impossible without previous finance experience or technical skill set. The same is true for when people think about getting a job in tech. It’s possible to create the experience for yourself by accessing the same resources, engaging in the same conversations and building the same relationships with those already in those roles in the industry. So really, nothing is impossible because nothing can’t be learned.)

(Diversification of experiences and skill sets. In my opinion, specialization is overrated. I haven’t felt the need to specialize to be successful, only to be good at what I’m currently doing. And if you’re doing what you’re passionate about, you can’t fail.)

You’ve spent a decade curating a bewilderingly diverse resume to prepare for a completely unknowable future. Come what may, he’s ready – for nothing in particular.

Indefinite Optimism

Today, “good design” is an aesthetic imperative
It’s true that every great entrepreneur is first and foremost a designer
Visual + Experiential Perfection

(Design your business)

(7) Follow the Money

Two Rules for VC:
1. Only invest in companies that have the potential to return the value of the entire fund
2. Because rule number one is so restrictive, there can’t be any other rules

People who understand the power law will hesitate more than others when it comes to founding a new venture: they know how tremendously successful they could become by joining the very best company while it’s growing fast.

(8) Secrets

What secret is nature not telling you?
What secrets are people not telling you?

The actual truth is that there are many more secrets left to find, but they will yield only to relentless searchers.

A great company is a conspiracy to change the world.

Thiel’s Law: a startup messed up at it’s foundation cannot be fixed

(9) Foundations

To anticipate likely sources of misalignment in any company, it’s useful to distinguish between three concepts:
1. Ownership: who legally owns a company’s equity?
2. Possession: who actually runs the company on a day-to-day basis?
3. Control: who formally governs the company’s affairs?

Anyone who doesn’t own stock options or draw a regular salary from your company is fundamentally misaligned

Any kind of cash is more about the present than the future.

(10) The Mechanics of Mafia

‘Company culture’ doesn’t exist apart from the company itself: no company has a culture; every company is a culture

Never outsource recruiting

Why should the 20th employee join your company?

2 Great Points of Evaluation of a Candidate:
1. Good candidates can answer why your mission is compelling or why you’re doing something important that no one else is going to get done
2. Why is your company a good match for the individual personally

Everyone at your company should be different in the same way

The early team should share a common, unique obsession/idea that relates to the company’s mission
(Value propositions must be defined early on. Essentially, you’re forming a cult. Airbnb is one of the best examples of a great culture that’s continued despite its growth in size)

On the inside, every individual should be sharply distinguished by her work

Defining roles reduce conflicts
– Most fights inside a company happen when colleagues compete for the same responsibilities; startups face an especially high risk of this since job roles are fluid at the early stages
– Eliminating competition makes it easier for everyone to build the kinds of long-term relationships that transcend mere professionalism

Every company is also its own ecosystem

(11) If You Build It, Will They Come?

The engineer’s grail is a product great enough that “it sells itself.” But anyone who would actually say this about a real product must be lying…

If you’ve invented something new but you haven’t invented an effective way to sell it, you have a bad business – no matter how good the product.

Advertising works for startups when CAC and CLTV make every other distribution channel uneconomical (i.e. The advertisements justify the method of acquisition because of users and revenue achieved…all about ROI)

A product is viral if its core functionality encourages users to invite their friends to become users too. (Network effects in The Networked Age)

Just get on distribution channel to work, then have a great business

Important to have PR strategy; selling company to media is necessary part to selling to everyone else

(12) Man and Machine

People compete for jobs and for resources; computers compete for neither

But big data is usually dumb data. Computers can find patterns that elude humans, but they don’t know how to compare patterns from different sources or how to interpret complex behaviors. Actionable insights can only come from a human analyst

(Will this statement always be true? Maybe the human role will change but will not become obsolete with new technologies that require human guidance but predictive analytics will become so powerful that patters across sources can and will be effectively interpreted by computers)

(13) Seeing Green

Seven questions every business must answer:
1. The Engineering Questions: Can you create breakthrough technology instead of incremental improvements?
* Proprietary technology significantly differentiates?
2. The Timing Question: Is now the right time to start your particular business?
3. The Monopoly Question: Are you starting with a big share of a small market?
* Identify and Own a niche market
4. The People Question: Do you have the right team?
5. The Distribution Question: Do you have a way to not just create but deliver your products?
6. The Durability Question: Will your market position be defensible 10 and 20 years into the future?
* The Last Mover
7. The Secret Question: Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?

Myths of Social Entrepreneurship:
“…corporations have great power, but they’re shackled to the profit motive; nonprofits pursue the public interest, but they’re weak players in the wider economy. Social entrepreneurs aim to combine the best of both worlds and ‘do well by doing good.’ Usually they end up doing neither.”

Great companies have secrets: specific reasons for success that other people don’t see.

(14) The Founder’s Paradox

A unique founder can make authoritative decisions, inspire strong personal loyalty, and plan ahead for decades.

Paradoxically, impersonal bureaucracies staffed by trained professionals can last longer than any lifetime, but they usually act with short time horizons.

*We need founders…a great founder can bring out the best work from everybody at his or her company

(Conclusion) Stagnation or Singularity?

“Our task today is to find singular ways to create the new things that will make the future not just different, but better – to go from 0 to 1.”

Some Thoughts on Online Education in China

I don’t think online education can or will replace the prestige of attendance at an established university in China or abroad, but I do believe it will complement it.  I had previously thought online education would allow for individuals who could not afford to study abroad to gain access to the resources provided at those foreign universities; however, I have found that Chinese students who study abroad are not evaluated on the content studied abroad but rather their experience.  Also, I have found that Chinese students are motivated to study abroad for 2 main reasons, which do not include access to foreign content: (1) It is a way to avoid the College National Exam / local university pressure and (2) younger students are able to enhance and practice their English (English is a school subject in China and is a full separate section on the College National Exam).  Additionally, this past October, a group of top Chinese universities partnered to launch their own MOOC and learning portal (similar to edX launched by Harvard, MIT and Berkeley).  Given these reason, I don’t think the online education opportunity is in traditional/higher education.

As China transitions from its manufacturing and export-dependent economy to a services and skills-based economy, it will require a more skilled workforce to meet those market demands, suggesting the need for increased vocational education opportunities.  That vocational education has been historically perceived as a low-status education compared to academic-based education (theory over practice belief), suggests that there is a strong divide between the two and students are unable to easily gain access to both.  This traditional ideology naturally encourages students to pursue an academic-based education, creating a workforce that is over-educated but under-skilled.  Additionally, given the competitive job market in China right now (~16% of the record ~7 million Chinese university graduates last year were unemployed), there is increased value in additional learning/training for individuals.  Finally, the need for innovation is necessary for China to maintain its growth, supply jobs and become a knowledge economy, and to fuel that innovation will require access to content beyond school borders and local resources.  This may be where the online education opportunity lies.

Of course, the challenge lies in Chinese government intervention and facilitation of online education.  So far, there are few foreign online education companies that have been able to successfully expand into China, with the exception of Coursera as of the end of last year, in which it partnered with an internet site to launch on that site.  And local companies will struggle to compete with the government/university-backed online offerings (especially if they start to offer not only academic courses but vocational/technical trainings) as they will find it difficult to compete for online enrollment of students and brand themselves as a credible learning site.  I think a company that is focused on offering courses and resources and building a community around a certain subject (become the go-to online destination to learn coding or personal finance or a language), such as Codecademy, will thrive given the current Chinese learning environment.

I’m Lovin’ It: Going Global by Going Local

The end of standardization has been realized for many years now, and it is even more apparent today as companies compete to break into international markets.  We are seeing this with ecommerce companies, sharing services, fashion houses, pharmaceutical companies and a host of other businesses.  Achieving international market growth is not easy and involves constant development of product, brand and distribution strategy as well as awareness of the government’s role in the country and the country’s policies and plans.

By evaluating McDonald’s we can learn effective strategies on how to “think global, act local”.  Over the years, McDonald’s has continued to innovate its menu and adapt its go-to market system, allowing it to maintain its leading global presence, retain its customers and uphold its reputation as the “Golden Arches”.  Many companies are able to break into a new country or environment quickly but fail to tailor their products and services to the needs and demands of its local customers.  Localization must be applied at every level of the business to achieve successful international market growth.

A comparison of the different McDonald’s website by country shows us the importance of brand consistency, language, design and variation of product offerings to accommodate local market conditions.

United States








Most noticeable is the use of color to develop brand recognition and connect with local customers.  The golden arches are displayed in the upper left corner of each of its websites and yellow is a commonly used color across all the sites.  However, notice the McDonald’s French and German websites have replaced the iconic red background with green.  This color change in 2009 was intended to aggressively communicate a more eco-friendly image to help the company connect with a pro “green” customer base in Europe.  In this instance, color was a driver to reflect shared values between the business and its customers, suggesting that the original red and yellow logo colors were not well received in Europe and some separation from the U.S. home company image was necessary.

At a NYC Hacker Growth Event I attended last November, a former LinkedIn employee shared his experiences with launching LinkedIn abroad and how they came across the language factor.  They found that using the local language (initially launched in English) on the website for that country led to increased engagement.  Yes, this sounds obvious but many companies have failed to do this and just think how challenging it will be for young companies with blogs to accurately translate their posts across their different websites (God forbid a grammatically incorrect and Babblefish translation!).

Language is the medium of culture, allowing a group of individuals to share their knowledge, beliefs, values, attitudes, politics and religion.  And because culture is largely tied to identity and influences our interactions (human-human and human-product interaction), decision-making and interests, language is key when building brand equity abroad.  As my best friend Erica Baba beautifully summarized:

“If we look at culture on an individual basis, we can see the impact of one’s cultural ideologies and values on the way one lives and carries himself or herself.  Everywhere we go, we bring with us our culture.  You see, there are things we all choose to do or ways we choose to be because of the cultures we identify with and what they mean to us.”

Allowing an individual to visit a website in his or her own language gives the individual a sense of ownership of the site (most basic form of personalization), allows the individual to easily navigate the pages and explore features, and adds content to the products offered.  As a result, the individual is more likely to return and a community is more easily formed, which is crucial for marketplaces as they expand abroad.

Beyond cross-cultural design and language, and equally as important, are localized products, services and payment options.  Product adaptation and innovation enhance a company’s product offerings because it is tailored to local preferences and culture.  For example, McDonald’s in India does not have beef or pork on its menu (a friend of mine found this out when trying to order a beef burger there…).  And did you know that once a year in China, McDonald’s offers the Prosperity Burger in celebration of Chinese New Year?  McDonald’s has also recently launched a new “rice based” menu in China this past year and The McCamembert, a burger with the French Camembert cheese, in France.  The geographic variations to its menus demonstrate McDonald’s sensitivity and adaptability to local cultures and preferences.

The McCamembert burger from McDonald's. mcdonalds-new-rice-based-menu-for-china mcdonalds-mcarabia-egypt-1 McD taro pie

Check out a few more menu options outside the U.S. here.

Product inventions aren’t always successes (Some of the stuff Taco Bell has introduced is total crap!) but more often than not they resonate with the local consumer.  Product variations should also account for demographics, infrastructure and local trends (e.g. the international car market is particularly sensitive to age group, lifestyle and roads when designing and selling cars to a region).

In addition to menu innovation, McDonald’s has also continued to reinvent its space.  The McCafe was introduced in Europe to adopt the European café lifestyle, capitalize on the growing coffee trend at the time and offer customers a new breakfast option.  And just this past November, Starbucks introduced a new store concept in its Beijing store that was inspired by China’s one-child policy atmosphere and aimed to create a hub for the number of young people near the location.

From the product and service to the product packaging to the company website, the brand is continuously being built and communicated.  The consumers’ knowledge, impression and experience with the product or service will determine the viability and sustainability of the business.

Localized payment methods can best be examined with Flipkart, India’s first billion-dollar internet startup, and Amazon.  Both Flipkart and Amazon offer Cash on Delivery (COD)—the individual pays for the good upon delivery in cash.  According to an article from May 2013, there are less than 20 million credit cards in circulation in India, representing a penetration rate of about 1.7% among the country’s 1.2 billion population.  Additionally, approximately 70% of Flipkart’s transactions are currently completed using COD.  This phenomenon is largely tied to Indian culture, which maintains a leery attitude towards non-cash transactions because of its intangible nature (the physical exchange of cash or gold is symbolic in Indian culture) and perceived lack of security and transparency.  I believe the following excerpt from a research paper titled “Facilitating Global E-Commerce: A Comparison of Consumers’ Willingness to Disclose Personal Information Online in the U.S. and in India” also helps explain some of the resistance to credit adoption:

 “In India, because of its collectivistic culture, consumers may be more willing to extend and preserve their relationship with an organization because it is seen as part of an extended community… Consequently, their desire to maintain the relationship is realized through sharing of personal information.”

Flipkart achieved fast adoption and significant growth in India because it offered services and payment methods that revolved around India’s transaction preferences.  In one year, the company increased its customer base by more than ten times from 0.2 million to 2.08 million as well as increased its website visits from 40 million to 102 million.  Amazon was quick to observe this and prepared to tap the attractive Indian ecommerce market, and since launching, it is also offering COD (although COD is currently only available for Amazon fulfilled products).  Despite COD being the more expensive payment method for the company, Amazon is offering this payment option because it realizes user acquisition would not be possible without adapting to local methods of transaction in India.

Finally, awareness of the local government and legal regulations is extremely necessary as a company looks to expand beyond its domestic borders.  There is significant operating risk from a government that is unsupportive of foreign businesses and that highly regulates marketing activities and distribution channels.  Such is the case in India and China, in which the government becomes a priority customer to the firm.

Of course, this is easier said than done and it will take time.  Localization will require not only an immense amount of research and capital at entry, but also throughout the existence of the business abroad as trends, values, beliefs, attitudes, politics, etc. in a country are ever-evolving.  Remember, quick growth is not always good growth.