Season 1 Episode 3
November 16, 2021

Toy or Tech?

Joining Ingrid today is Madison Semarjian, CEO/Founder of The Mada App. Tune in to hear a thing or two from Madison about designing and launching products that people will love.

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This Episode Sponsored by:

Infinite Shelf - Chatdesk
Infinite Shelf - Givz
Infinite Shelf - Opinew

Joining Ingrid today is Madison Semarjian, CEO/Founder of The Mada App. Tune in to hear a thing or two from Madison about designing and launching products that people will love. 

Out with the old, in with the new.  

  • {00:03:28} “So I really wanted to figure out how we can use artificial intelligence and other technology to really build this meaningful connection with younger generations? So, yeah, that's kind of how it came about.” - Madison
  • {00:04:03} “So, you know, my age group is the first one to grow up with access to the world in their pocket with their iPhone. So we do have really high expectations, and we're very savvy, and we're used to having access to everything. So I think that really the first place to start is by delivering very relevant and meaningful experiences.” - Madison
  • {00:011:55} “We just have way too many choices, and it makes you feel like when everything is a choice, you don't have any choice because it's just this confusing wave of everything.” - Ingrid
  • {00:18:34} “And I think what you're seeing with this new rise of videos and what's trending is it's actually like you're bringing a lot more real life to it. You're not going to grow on Instagram anymore if you're providing this picture-perfect life. Like people want real conversations.” - Madison
  • {00:25:48} “And I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if, like the younger generation and the trendsetting generation isn't, you're not relevant with them, you're in a tough spot.” - Ingrid

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Ingrid: [00:00:01] Hello and welcome to Infinite Shelf, the human centric retail podcast. Today, we get to connect with one of the most impressive Gen Zers on the block, Madison Semarjian. She launched a tech startup, was written about in tons of press like Entrepreneur magazine, WWD, Business Insider, and was granted a US patent for her unique AI algorithm, all before she was able to legally drink. No, really. We couldn't serve her champagne to celebrate when it happened. And yes, I am on her advisory board, so I have been along for this wild journey since pretty close to day one. Stay tuned for more on how Madison continues to teach us all a thing or two about a thing or two when it comes to designing and launching products that people love. Madison has accomplished all of this because she was on a mission, not a mission to get all the press and huge brands and tech companies knocking on her door. Though, of course, that happened. She was on a mission to actually solve a problem. She saw technology as a means to get there. That's the lesson I've observed and want to share with you all in this episode. It's as simple as this: find the problem, solve the problem. If you're anything like me, we can find ourselves very excited about technology and features and just cool stuff that gets hyped up at conferences. But if it's not adequately solving a problem, then it's just tech for tech's sake. And you and I both know it's going to end up in a pile of failed investments and toys you've forgotten to play with in a while. With that, let's welcome Madison. I'm so happy that you're here.

Madison: [00:02:16] Thanks for having me.

Ingrid: [00:02:19] All right, so give us the story. How did you start Mada? What was the initial purpose? What were you trying to solve?

Madison: [00:02:25] Yeah. So I was in my dorm room freshman year, getting ready for a first date when I was having one of those typical like, I-have-nothing-to-wear days, even though I clearly had a closet full of clothes. Ask my credit card company. And I turned to my roommate and I was like, "Taylor, what do I wear?" And she was like, "Well, wear whatever makes you feel the most like you." And I was like, OK, well, I don't know what that is. And so I really wanted to build a platform that could help people discover who they were using personal style as like the first way to do so. And at the same time, I was really interested in the business of fashion and how brands were using AI to better reach Gen Z, like my age group. I'm at the older end. I'm twenty four. And I saw that a lot of brands were... They were trying things, but it was a little gimmicky. Like Smart Mirrors were really cool, but they didn't really serve any long term value that I thought would keep bringing me back as a customer. So I really wanted to figure out like, how can we use artificial intelligence and other technology to really build this meaningful connection with younger generations? So, yeah, that's kind of how it came about.

Ingrid: [00:03:40] I love that. So building a meaningful connection over gimmicky is definitely a theme of things that I truly, truly want to focus on. So tell me a little bit about how Gen Z expects for brands or, you know, products like The Mada App to be less gimmicky and actually forge those connections.

Madison: [00:04:03] So, you know, my age group is the first one to grow up with access to the world in their pocket with their iPhone. So we do have really high expectations, and we're very savvy, and we're used to having access to everything. So I think that really the first place to start is by delivering very relevant and meaningful experiences. I think a lot of people say that Gen Z is more fickle than past generations, which I think if statistically you look at it, that's true. But sometimes stats don't tell you the whole story. And I think it's really because brands are just trying to be faster and move quicker and do cooler tech things to try to win over my age group, whom we're like, "Hold on, wait, we actually want something more relevant to us." So a lot of the AI that you see on site, that's like, "Other things you'll love," which really puts the customer that's browsing and more of like a group and a segment of users rather than their own like personal interactions. And so we created a technology that's very dynamic and real time. Our algorithm is now patented. There's actually eight different algorithms in the experience.

Ingrid: [00:05:21] Congratulations, by the way. That was no small feat.

Madison: [00:05:24] Thank you. And so it learns from both your positive and negative feedback, which is also super rare. So we start off with like a few outfits that, you know, kind of try to figure out, like where your style lies. And then we have a really strong image similarity model that can do it's fun computer vision wizardry stuff. {laughter} And it can learn, like we actually say, when we recommend an outfit, sometimes we recommend ones that we know you're probably going to swipe no on and then we'll test you again, like a few weeks later to see where you're swiping. So it's really real time about the individual user and less so about the group that they fall into.

Ingrid: [00:06:07] Yeah, no I think that's that's so interesting because you're using this perfect example of using technology to be relevant to the individual rather than relevant to what the brand wants the individual to live within, if that makes sense.

Madison: [00:06:22] Exactly. And like we've learned, as we've been out there for the last year and a half, almost two years, not everyone wants to be on top of the trends. Not every shopper that walks through your door or opens up our app wants to be like ahead of the trend on things. That's one group of people, but there are also those that are like, "Ok, I know that skinny jeans might not be the hot thing anymore, but they look good on me and I want that."

Ingrid: [00:06:49] Yeah.

Madison: [00:06:49] So instead of just trying to like push these trends on people, we also like amplify like what they're looking for. And what we actually see that the more you use the app, the higher our engagement time is. Now we're to like an average of like nine minutes and thirty two seconds a session.

Ingrid: [00:07:06] Unbelievable.

Madison: [00:07:06] It's the more they come back, the more they learn about themselves. And I think really like the proof is in the pudding there. They're learning something more about themselves, and that's why they keep coming back.

Ingrid: [00:07:16] Yeah. And I mean, man, talk about a hot button topic right now in terms of like all of the changes that are happening with the cookie economy and just the attention of individuals and how we're able to market to people the fact that people are spending so much time within the app and you're getting that opportunity not only to just develop this really connective relationship with The Mada App and the individual using it, but you're also able to glean all of this consumer insight that, frankly, is just becoming more and more difficult to acquire as Apple iOS changes are happening in the war for policy. Sorry, the war for privacy is getting bigger and bigger. That first party data is just become so critical. So the fact that a) you've been able to capture that within that attention economy, that amount of time, like, man, I don't even... If you were to quantify that amount of time in how much a brand would pay for that amount of time, like we spend how much money on these six second fifteen second ads on Facebook when really people are spending nine minutes on The Mada App. I just think that you've tapped into something really special and it was all, in my view at least from my vantage point, it's because it was led through an actual problem that needed to be solved rather than, "Hey, technology is cool and we're having a moment and AI is a buzzword. Let's figure something out within that world." It's like, "Here's the actual real world problem. Let's use these incredible resources that we now have access to in terms of democratized technology and bring something out into the world that's really going to solve a problem." And hey, you know, becoming more like you in your 20s... Hey, even in your thirties and forties and fifties is a huge value proposition. So, yeah, I think that's very, very, very cool. What have you learned from your user data on The Mada App?

Madison: [00:09:18] So it's really interesting. So bringing back to that segmentation, like how most AI works, if you think about my sister and I, my sister and I like, we're a few years in age apart. Like on paper, we're pretty much the same person. She goes to BC, dark hair, same height. On paper, we look the exact same, but in our preferences, we're interacting differently. So where I find the most learnings like in our data right now is seeing on the individual level, what people are swapping out. So I can tell you, if Ingrid Milman prefers white sneakers over like these loafers where I might not. So it's really great, like at that very individual level to see the person and the actual product that they're choosing and they'll go through a bunch before they find like what they're actually looking for. We've also learned that people... There's something really energizing about discovering something new and having a platform to do that like and be, there's something unexpected about it, the process, which I think really serves us as well. And I've had so many customers like email and being like, "Oh, I didn't know I could wear this until I found it on Mada and styled and now I love it," or "I didn't know this brand existed." So finding ways to like help the customer discover something on their own has also been really helpful for us.

Ingrid: [00:11:43] The curation element of The Mada App is fascinating because right now I think truly the consumer problem is this choice. We just have way too many choices, and it makes you feel like when everything is a choice, you don't have any choice because it's just this like confusing wave of everything. And I think with just a few of these personalized questions that you get to learn from people in the upfront like quiz portion, but then also as you start learning even more when they're using the swiping left and right of the outfits, you start to really get to understand what their needs are and so quickly can zero in on what we can learn from them and then make those recommendations that really do feel like discovery, not just for discovery's sake, but discovery that is highly relevant because who needs any more discovery, right? We need relevant discovery.

Madison: [00:12:39] Exactly. Especially with Gen Z. There are so many marketplaces that have rose up over the last like 10 years and granted, we're a marketplace too, so, you know, I say this thoughtfully, but my age group, we don't need you to give us access to like every single thing, every single product. We don't want that. We already have access to it. It's like we want you to make it very relevant for us. And if we see a product, there are like 15 other sites that we can figure out how to get it on, even sometimes if it's a little sketchy. I don't know what some of my friends get their stuff, but like if they want something cheaper, faster, like whatever the reason, they can find it.

Ingrid: [00:13:21] Yeah. Super savvy.

Madison: [00:13:21] Yeah. You have to give your customer like a reason to actually check out with you. And I think that's where the building, the emotional relationship with the customer really comes in. And like when I set out to build Mada, I wanted a platform that like, you're in the back of an Uber board, you're swiping through. You're getting ready for a first date, you're swiping through. How can we be there in the small, everyday moments and also the big occasions? That's really how we're building that emotional connection too.

Ingrid: [00:13:50] Yeah, yeah, it's I think it's so much for like, it's fun, right? Like it's another thing to get to like, play with and just use a little bit mindlessly. But then as you're having that fun, we still are learning so much more about you and then creating these other relevant experiences for when you really are ready to pull the trigger on an outfit or a special occasion or a new wardrobe type of moment. I think that's very, very, very cool. So, you know, whether you like it or not, you're my sort of Gen Z person that I go to and like, "All right, tell grandma what the kids are doing these days. What's relevant? Where do you hang out online?" I know you and your sister, for example, you're both considered Gen Z, but you have some pretty distinctly different experiences online in the way that you use apps. Like tell me a little bit about what the, where the kids are hanging these days.

Madison: [00:14:42] So obviously, we're mainly on social media. It's so funny. My sister, they primarily use Snapchat DM to talk. Like instead of like, "What's your number?" It's like, "What's your Snap?"

Ingrid: [00:14:57] That's so wild.

Madison: [00:14:57] And to me, that's such a funny foreign concept, but like that's where a lot of her conversations live, in Snapchat DM. But I think like obviously we're on TikTok. We're on Instagram. All of my guy, friends in my age group are on Reddit for whatever reason they're on Reddit, I've yet to understand.

Ingrid: [00:15:15] Oh yeah.

Madison: [00:15:19] {laughter} But so, you know, as a company, we're transitioning into licensing our technology and letting companies send one on one personalized look books to their customers. And the way the clienteling works nowadays, it's mostly in your email inbox. And there are some people that will say email's dead. I don't believe the email is dead. I think the statistics are still showing it's driving sales and you need to do it.

Ingrid: [00:15:43] Totally.

Madison: [00:15:43] But I think for the next, like you're thinking like 10, 15 years setting up those customers of tomorrow, you have to be where the customer is and you're not going to find me in my email inbox more so than just work. I don't need all that extra stuff. Have this link on Instagram for me, be on Tik Tok, make that relevant. And so now we're figuring out like, ok, how can we have like brands send like one on one look books to their customers through social media? So we're actually, which I'm so excited to announce which we finally can, we're launching with Who What Wear in January officially. So that will be our first email out.

Ingrid: [00:16:21] Whoop whoop.

Madison: [00:16:22] Yes. And so they'll be having their editors send these personalized cookbooks. So that'll be a really great experiment to kind of see like, ok, what is the channel that Gen Z is spending their most time on and shopping on?

Ingrid: [00:17:44] Huge congratulations on that. The Who What Wear team was... And I was lucky enough to be on that presentation call with you and meet the team. They were so thoughtful in how this is going to work and how it's going to serve their followers and consumers. I just think that that's really a perfect, perfect match and they're going to gain a lot from the insights that they learned from The Mada App and also be able to serve this really great experience out to their followers. That's really amazing. So what else? What do you think about TikTok? Tell me what you think about TikTok?

Madison: [00:18:21] And I think that so... I'm a grandma. I'm like still learning TikTok. My team laughs at me. But I am on top of Gen Z shopping behaviors. I'm not a grandma there. And I think what you're seeing with this new rise of videos and what's trending is it's actually like you're bringing a lot more real life to it. You're not going to grow on Instagram anymore if you're providing this like picture perfect life. Like people want real conversations. And I think that was really, I think we saw that really rise during COVID, when all of a sudden we couldn't be with each other. And so, like social media was the way to have those like real conversations. And now I think brands are starting to realize that like they have to let their hair down and go a little loose, on social media platforms to really win over. I get... Like, ok, so the luxury brands... I was just having a talk with the social media company about this the other day. A lot of luxury brands are hesitant to do that because they want to keep their pretty, perfect image. And basically they were saying like, ok, fine, you can keep your perfect, pretty image, but then expect lower engagement. The things that are trending are like, "Here's me eating cereal and also here is this great bowl that I'm eating my cereal out of."

Ingrid: [00:19:41] Totally. Yeah, I think that's a really valid point because on one hand, you know, the great reconsideration of people's lives happened for better or worse in 2020 and people have just become more real. And I think the rise of TikTok is a symptom of that and a major cultural expression of how people are feeling at the individual level. And it's a bit of a rebellion out of the world that Instagram paints, which is this very polished and very perfect existence. However, you're in this tough place as a luxury brand because your entire existence from even way before social media was ever even a thing is this aspirational, quite frankly perfect life. And it does live so beautifully in the glossy pages of a Vogue magazine, for example. And I think they struggled in the beginning with Instagram even figuring out how to transition into Instagram, and then they finally sort of created the way that they can live on Instagram. I think Gucci in particular, has done a fantastic job of that. Balenciaga as well. But then you've got this whole other undercurrent and major major cultural player of TikTok, where people are just like making up dances in their pajamas and Gucci is like, "Nah, I'm good. Probably not for me." And frankly, I think that's actually a really smart move on their part. Not every single trend is for everybody. So, for example, like you just talked earlier, we were talking about how skinny jeans like that might be your thing. That's cool. Like, even if it's not the trendiest thing or what is walking down at Fashion Week, if that's your thing, that's cool. And there's something really, really beautiful to knowing who you are and what your place is. And I think that's true for brands as well. And it's like, No, don't play on TikTok if it doesn't meet your brand guidelines, but definitely know what's going on there and then keep doing what you're doing on Instagram. I think for the rest of us, though, it is this like reality pill that we have to take of just everyone's just really exhausted from having to keep up these appearances and stopping the ability to share how we're really feeling, share our vulnerabilities, share the things that actually make us human because at the end of the day, I think that's the people, regardless of what platform they're on, that's the brands, and that's the people who are actually able to forge those really sought after relevant and emotional connections with individuals. And I think that the need for that connection is completely far surpasses just what Gen Z expects from brands and services. I think that we all are aching for that. I think Gen Z has the most raw filter for it because they can kind of, they grew up like sort of smelling the BS and then also being excited by brands that are less bad or are less good at the BS. And so I think it's universal.

Madison: [00:22:46] Oh, one hundred percent. And like, I think that's why you're really seeing my age group craving this like one on one communication with brands. Even if you look at like Alistair with Hero, like they knew people were going to want to digitally talk to a sales associate. There's something about like actually communicating that makes you feel like closer with the brand, too. And so that's really what we're looking at as we move into this new phase of our company. Yeah, like we might not walk into Bergdorf's and have the dressing room all set up for us like they used to do, rumor has it, or they still need some of their clientele, but like, we still want some sort of that like clienteling, schmoozing whatever

Ingrid: [00:23:30] Yeah. Democratized clienteling. Can we not make it just for those Bergdorf people? Also shout out to Alistair Crane, the homie from Hero.

Madison: [00:23:40] But a note on luxury from what we are just talking about. Like, I actually have this conversation with Gucci a lot and they're like, "Ok we are a luxury company, but how can we stay aspirational while still making people feel like they can access us just enough?" And you're starting to see that a lot with luxury brands right now. I think about like La Mer skincare. Like, yes, not, you know, 20 something year old can't afford, like the four hundred dollar thing of La Mer. But now they're making like smaller versions. And you see people like going to buy the smaller versions get like a taste of the brand to set you up for the customer of tomorrow, granted that's physical product, but I think there is this like balance between like aspirational and accessible right now that I don't fully have my thoughts figured out on. But like, something's brewing.

Ingrid: [00:24:33] It's ultimately my observation is they're planting the seeds, like you were saying for these loyal customers. So even if you don't have the money to buy the full jar and use it every day, you can buy the smaller version and just have that taste like, "Oh, I'm getting ready for a big event," or "I have a date," or something that, like once a week allows you to just dip into that beautiful jar and just feel more like yourself.

Madison: [00:24:57] Yeah, I was having a conversation with like this luxury retailer that, like the majority of their sales, come from their million dollar clients. Quite literally like they spend a million dollars to sale with them. And it was so interesting because they're like, "We're trying to win over Gen Z." I was like, "But most of your money comes from your billionaire clientele. Why are you going for the twenty somethings?" They're like, "We want you to come splurge with us. You're looking to buy your first designer bag, start with us." Like, how can we get you to come like, get your splurge pieces so that like, yes, we can set you up for one day, you can drop a million bucks in a session, you'll come to us.

Ingrid: [00:25:36] Well, also, I think the reason why they're able to still get that million dollar transaction from that billionaire is because it's not a fuddy duddy old person brand. And I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if, like the younger generation and the trendsetting generation isn't, you're not relevant with them, you're in a tough spot. I'll tell you that much. Yeah, I think there's a lot of reasons why Gen Z is so appealing for brands, and I think the luxury example is a unique one, and there's a lot more layers to that. But I still like you as a Gen Z person, are you expecting to like, what would you think if you saw a Gucci video on TikTok with someone like in a very, you know, not perfect light?

Madison: [00:26:26] You know, I've been thinking about that with the Balenciaga Crocs collaboration. I'm like, a little too close to home. {laughter} Please. I think it's really interesting. And like, I mean, I think it's can either go really well or it can be a slippery slope. I think the issue with some luxury brands is that like if you become too accessible, all of a sudden your brand becomes like very diluted. So I think it's like a very fine balance between like being hip and relatable and young and also like keeping your position. It's like if my mom tells me some stuff I just don't need to know. "That's Ok, mom, please. I don't need to know that." Like she has to stay the parent more or less.

Ingrid: [00:27:15] Right. Right. TMI, ma. Let's like let's keep these boundaries. We're all really comfortable with the boundary. {laughter} Yeah, I love that. I love that. That's so true. Well, Madison, you are just a shining star, and I'm so lucky to have you on and just get to call you a friend and a colleague. And hopefully we'll get to have you on again soon.

Madison: [00:27:38] Yes. Thank you so much for having me. This was great.

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