During Madison Semarjian’s senior year spring break, when the rest of her college classmates were headed to the beach, the hyper-driven entrepreneur opted to go to a retail industry conference instead.
“I had signed my first retail partner. My friends went to Punta Cana, but I decided to stay back and tag along to Shoptalk with an advisor of mine,” said Semarjian, founder and CEO of the outfit curation app Mada. After spending years sending cold emails trying to convince clothing brands to join her app, she knew she’d be able to win them over if she could just get in front of them.
In six months, Semarjian had brought on 3,000 brands. By June of 2019, her business advisor told her that she had more than enough brands for launch. In fact, he recommended the company hold off signing on any more brands until they were confident the platform could support large volumes of product data, advice Semarjian admits she was too eager – and a tad bit too stubborn – to follow.
Learning Business Lessons the Hard Way
“I like to move at a million miles per minute. Sometimes that works really well for me and sometimes it can go really wrong,” said Semarjian who decided to leave the door open for more brands to join. Before they knew it, Mada had millions of product listings that its technology couldn’t support.
“The backend of the app crashed right around when we were supposed to launch. Luckily, we were able to increase our bandwidth to be able to autoscale and handle as many products as we want.”
She says it turned out to be a “fail forward” moment for the company. They hit pause on the launch, slowed down their processes and began putting quality over quantity.
“Sure, having as many products as we did sounded cool on paper, but does that offer the most value to the customer?” Semarjian says her team became very strategic with the brands they chose to include at launch. “Now the customer can know we stand behind the quality of all the products we recommend.”
Building a Sustainable Technology Platform
Semarjian says the Mada app is designed to be a dynamic platform that is continuously evolving and learning.
“Retailers are drowning in data. There’s so much data and no one is sure how best to use it. That’s why we try to keep it as simple as possible, despite the complexity of our algorithm,” said Semarjian, “We didn’t build up Mada to be a one-time stop. The more you return the better the experience gets.”
The CEO wants to offer an alternative to static ecommerce experiences that offer limited personalization for the consumer.
“Yes, data is beneficial to the companies collecting it. Still, in my opinion, it’s even more advantageous to the people giving it, because the experience will be more personalized and enriching the next time around.”
Semarjian doesn’t see herself as the usual CEO. Customer service, design, marketing, strategy, data analyst, stylist – you name it, she’s done it.
“I have a whole team, but at this stage of the game, I like to be involved in a little bit of everything so I know where we have the most potential for growth and where we’re lacking,” said Semarjian, “So some days it’s investor meetings and other days it’s rolling up my sleeves, gluing myself to my laptop, working alongside our interns.”
An Entrepreneur at Heart
During college, Semarjian was focused on a career in journalism, but when she finally landed her big writing opportunity, she quickly realized she wanted something different.
“I grew up in an entrepreneurial family, so the idea that I would start a company was always in the back of my mind.” She says her dad always told her and her siblings to study the people they thought were most successful -- to find the movers and shakers of the world and figure out how they got to where they were.
After spending time interviewing entrepreneurs and writing their stories -- learning all the ways they were making it happen -- she knew journalism wasn’t what she wanted to do long-term.
“I didn’t want to write about it. I wanted to do what they were doing. I wanted to live it.”
Semarjian has taken a unique approach to technology, pulling inspiration from the poetry classes she took in college.
“It’s a jump, I know, but I swear they aren’t that different,” says Semarjian about poetry and technology, “Studying poetry in college, we were first taught the rules of writing, then we were challenged to break them to craft a more striking poem than before. In my opinion, all the great poets and artists brought something new and surprising to the page.”
With Mada, Semarjian is taking the very same approach to the online retail experience.
“My credit card company could tell you I’m already pretty well-versed in online shopping, so I knew the different ways the top brands were utilizing tech. I saw what worked and what didn’t. Some brands were doing some fun things with AI, but it all seemed gimmicky at the end of the day. Nothing served any real value.”
She says it’s like when you read a poem that sounds good, but has no substance – as a consumer, she didn’t feel retail brands truly understood her.
“Gen Z, my generation, are the customers that brands are trying to win. I could tell they [retailers] were struggling, so I figured I might as well build a platform that’s already set up to be Gen Z-optimized.”
Making It All Work One Meeting at a Time
It took four years for Mada to go from concept to launch. Now Semarjian spends most of her time in meetings – either with her own team, taking interviews, meeting with investors or talking to advisors.
“Pre-COVID-19, I used to head to The Wing where my team set up shop until we could find a space to call home,” said Semarjian, “I like to work with my creative team first thing because that’s when I think the most clearly. When not social-distancing, I’m typically bouncing around the city to different meetings.”
When asked what advice she has for women working in technology, she goes back to what her father told her. To look to the people you admire and pick and choose what it is about them that appeals to you, then do what they did – only better.
“That’s what I recommend, except take it even a step further. Reach out to those people you admire, because you never know the opportunities that will come from it,” said Semarjian, “I never saw red tape because that’s how I was raised. I think many people are afraid to reach out and ask a role model to get coffee or advice. The worst thing they can say is no.”