How Madison Semarjian combined her interests in tech and fashion to create Mada, the first highly personalized shopping app for women

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Madison Semarjian sits down with us to talk about the inspiration behind Mada, her app which combines AI and machine learning to recommend new outfits, and why she believes “slow and steady” wins the race.

Describe your business in a few words?

Often referred to as the ‘Tinder for Outfits’ the Mada app melds artificial intelligence with machine learning to power a highly personalized customer journey and inspirational shopping experience for rising generations.

What made you take the leap to start your own business?

The idea to build Mada came to me in my dorm while studying at Boston College, I was getting ready for a date and couldn’t figure out what to wear. When I looked to most of my favorite shopping sites at the time, the options were overwhelming! I realized no one in the industry was curating an e-commerce experience in a seamless manner; I began to seek out mentorship from entrepreneurs, building a team of data scientists/computer engineers, and cold-pitching fashion retail giants. A few months before I graduated college, my business really started to take off. It felt like everything aligned at the right moment, so I had to take the opportunity.

What was your background prior to starting your own business?

I studied English and Creative Writing, and all of my internships were in journalism…I had my eyes set on being a writer. The summer before my senior year, I interned at Entrepreneur and took a freelance gig with the magazine shortly after. While my background had nothing to do with technology, I was still deeply passionate about my tech company idea. Along the way, I picked up the hard skills needed, and I don’t think I would’ve been able to start Mada without learning how to harness the creativity I learned in school.

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

Yes! I grew up in an entrepreneurial family where we used to throw new business ideas around in the car. While I didn’t know it would happen so early in my life, I knew I eventually wanted to be an entrepreneur.

Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?

I’m very intentional about our growth, and I believe slow and steady is the way to longevity as a company. From the beginning, I wanted to rely on word-of-mouth to grow our customer base, because a recommendation from a friend is so much more meaningful than an Instagram ad. We were lucky that there was a lot of buzz around our launch in the press since we were a new platform that hadn’t really been seen before. Right when we launched, we did a nano influencer campaign to leverage our word-of-mouth approach. We partnered with girls that embodied the Mada brand, with only a few thousand followers on Instagram, and had them post about their experience. All of their followers were their friends, sorority sisters, or highly engaged followers, so that helped spread the word like wildfire. Plus, since they were around my age, it was great to test it out with a user base that would be a little more “forgiving” of the initial bugs we were working out. Similarly, I noticed that I was a unique asset to my own company. I was servicing a target market that I was part of and could relate to which made it much easier to understand the needs, communicate with our customers, and quickly address concerns and feedback.

We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?

For years, I sent thousands of cold emails pitching brands to convince them to come on board. When I got my first yes, I got so excited that I wanted to sign on every brand possible. So I began to sign on more and more quickly, and the accelerated growth can be a pretty addicting high. One of my advisors told me that we had plenty of brands on board, and since launch was right around the corner, we should just go live with our existing partners and put any new partnerships on hold. Me being naive, overambitious, and a bit stubborn ignored the advice. In what felt like overnight, we went from 0 product offerings to over four million. And our back-end platform crashed a few weeks before we were supposed to launch to the public! We had to completely rebuild to handle the number of brands and products we wanted to offer, but that ended up being a fail-forward. While we had to delay our launch a few months, our technology is now way stronger because of this, and we became very strategic about our brand partnerships to make sure we were really offering the best quality and to our customers.

What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?

Starting a company while in college! Beyond that, after I ventured into uncharted territory at a young age I was met with industry veterans launching competing businesses backed by huge investors proving that there was significant demand in the market for this streamlined service.

When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?

I always ask about the candidate’s dream career. If there were no limits, what does your most perfect, dream career look like? While past work experiences are important to me, knowing where someone dreams of going tells me so much more about the person. I’ve also learned that hiring is like dating. Someone can look perfect on paper and check off all the boxes and exceed your expectations, but if that little intuitive feeling isn’t there, and you don’t “click,” it’s not going to work. It’s nothing personal, but it won’t be a positive relationship for either of you if you force it.

How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

My advisor Victor told me that the company you start with won’t be the company you end up with, and when he first told me that, I didn’t think it was applicable to me. I naively thought, “my idea is great, why would I ever change it?!”  With COVID-19, brands started coming to Mada asking to license our technology, I was super hesitant in the beginning because this was nowhere in my business plan. Our brand partners needed our help, and we had the capabilities to do so — it seemed imperative to do so. I didn’t expect to partially pivot to a SAAS company, but it’s been a really exciting addition so far.

What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?

We are working to expand outside of just women’s fashion. Men’s, beauty, home…you name it, we are dreaming it up right now.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?

There’s no rush. Everything happens exactly on time.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?

Nothing moves at the pace you expect it to. Sometimes things go so slowly you don’t see anything changing, and sometimes things go so fast you don’t think you’re prepared to handle it. It’s really important to be flexible and pivot as needed.

How have you managed to stay grounded this year?

Meditation, meditation, meditation.

Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?

Honestly, balance is not my forte, but I’m working on it. I live in NYC where people wear their exhausting schedules as a badge of honor, but I’m not really a fan of that approach anymore. Yes, I work every day and have a hard time turning it off, but I do need an afternoon walk or some time wandering in the bookstore to recharge. I grew up a competitive figure skater so that intense mentality has been drilled into me from a young age. Realistically, I know that sometimes you need to do things a little out of “balance” and make sacrifices to get where you want to get. But I am a firm believer that when the pendulum swings one way, it’s going to swing the other. Health is the one thing I won’t sacrifice. Drink your green juice, get your sleep, do your yoga.  Whatever health looks like to you. You’ll be way more productive when you’re healthy. But don’t compare your balance to someone else, because we all need different things. 

What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?

  • Do creative work in the morning.
  • Take a walk, even if it’s just five minutes around the block. 
  • Block off space in your calendar to do your “big thinking.” As an entrepreneur, it’s really easy to get caught up in the day-to-day putting out fires, but if you want to move forward, you need to think forward.

What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?

To me, being an Entreprenista means using your gifts, talents, and time to create something that will hopefully create a better tomorrow.

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