Knook #45: MenuAid
I’m sure most of us have been in a similar situation.
You know you’re running low on ingredients and need to fit in a supermarket shop, but you also need to summon the motivation to pick a list of meals for the next week or so. Instagram and TikTok aren’t providing inspiration. Googling ‘yum meals with chicken’ isn’t cutting it either. So you default to the same few recipes you’ve been cooking for the last six months.
This scenario inspired Toby Skilton and his fiancé Elise to found MenuAid, a smart meal plan platform making planning, shopping and cooking as easy as ordering takeaways. “We learn about who our user is, suggest meals that they’d enjoy, help them build a shopping list and integrate with online shopping so all that’s left to do is make your meal.”
I ask Toby how MenuAid got started.
“MenuAid really came about because we had a selfish problem to solve!” says Toby. “We lead busy lives, and Elise and I realised our home cooking menu had the same meals on rotation and that was getting pretty old.
“We tried a few meal kit solutions but there was lots of plastic, and we’d often get sent things we already had in the pantry.
“We asked ourselves, what are we really looking for? We were looking for inspiration combined with convenience - even with meal kits, we still had to go to the supermarket. So we looked to build a platform that could help users enjoy cooking while leaving the logistics and delivery side of ingredients to the supermarkets.
“We could optimise recipes for cost and individualise the experience for users. Mealkits necessarily manipulate demand for the supply of ingredients they’ve pre-purchased - we can let users only purchase the things they need and choose their own variations on our recipes based on what they want.
“MenuAid allows users to choose from our recipe library, integrate with their online shopping list, choose anything extra they need - such as breakfast ingredients or toilet paper - and then have everything delivered to their home via their supermarket provider.
“In terms of getting started, we started where most consumer-focused companies do - we asked friends and family about their typical meal planning habits and what they thought about an integrated solution. Friends and family validation is the sort of feedback you should get, but not something you build a business on, so we then progressed our market research and asked 500 people how we should build MenuAid, getting feedback on UX frameworks, pain points etcetera and then built our MVP.
“On launch, we received a fair bit of media, and we had 2000 signups in the first week. Our MVP certainly didn’t have all the bells and whistles but it was enough to get started and give us some strong validation. After six to twelve months we knew we had strong foundations but there was lots of room for optimisation.
“Our subscription fee was $4 a week on the basis that we were saving users an hour and a half a week. But as cost of living has started to bite, we realised we were essentially competing with Google - you didn’t necessarily need MenuAid for recipe inspiration. We’ve since changed our business model to being free with a premium option if users choose.
“To enable our freemium model, we started thinking about how we could partner with brands without advertising. A lot of FMCG brands are a step away from their customers - they don’t sell directly to consumers and so have difficulty getting fast and regular feedback on how their products are being used at home. So we are now building a food intelligence platform to sit on the back end of MenuAid, to help consumer brands truly understand who their customers are and how consumer trends are changing. In addition to driving revenue, it also enables us to discover the brands that are right for our customers - it’s a win-win scenario.”
What about key factors to MenuAid’s success so far?
Says Toby, “There’s two parts of our business we are relentless on.
“First, speaking to our customers. We now have over 14,000 users and we want to know: what’s important to them? How can we improve our offering going forward?
“Second, letting data do the talking. We have a weekly reporting structure where we can map the customer journey on our website - we need to continually provide what users want and meet their expectations with how they interact with our platform.
Toby previously built the marketplace platform Mutu (see Knook #19 here). I asked him what he learnt from his previous experience that helped build MenuAid.
“I think the key to success is that whatever business you’re building needs to be solving a problem. Your solution can be pretty mediocre and still draw people to it if the problem is big enough, as opposed to a shiny platform for inconvenient but workable issues - that doesn’t retain customers.
“A key reflection from Mutu is that it didn’t fix a problem on the same level that MenuAid does. Mutu was an awesome concept but as a marketplace for individuals it was a bit inconvenient: the process of listing and renting out your gear, then needing to arrange a collection to get it back, concerns that your item might get damaged or broken etcetera. Mutu as a business has since pivoted to fix a bigger problem but the consumer marketplace aspect has wound down. I believe what we’re building at MenuAid has much more stickiness for consumers because it’s solving a bigger problem for a wider group of people.”
I ask Toby what unexpected challenges they’ve faced building MenuAid.
“I think the toughest challenge so far has been the rapid increase in cost of living,” Toby says. “Our $4 a week subscription fee was a step too far for some and we ended up in this challenging cycle of people signing up and grabbing some recipe inspo and then cancelling, or subscribing and cancelling every couple of weeks depending on what was happening for them on any given week.
“So we’ve decided MenuAid needs to be free, have pivoted to reflect that and we place more focus on thinking about ways we can help our customers save money.”
I ask Toby what would he do differently if he built MenuAid today. “When we first got started, we focused really heavily on the recipe side - trying to be inspirational and introduce customers to something new. However, we’ve since realised that one of the most comforting things about cooking the same things is that you don’t have to think and that’s quite therapeutic for busy lives. New menus every week made it overwhelming for customers.
“There’s a clear need to stay focused on the mission too. There’s so many areas we could be working on but it’s a common saying that ‘startups don’t die from starvation, they die of gluttony’. There are so many opportunities to chase after but we need to be relentless on our goal to make meal planning, shopping and cooking seamless, and stay focused on the solution that works for the biggest group of people.”
I ask Toby what advice he’d give to someone looking to build their own startup.
Says Toby, “As a wee anecdote, I have a mate who was always interested in what I do, and he would ask detailed in-depth questions about how I’ve built businesses and what’s my process for getting started. I asked him why he was so interested - he said he wanted to start something himself but was under the impression it was too hard.
“The reality is that you can build a business on a shoestring with almost no outlay - especially these days with all the online tools available. Getting started helps you validate an idea and make an informed decision about next steps. So give it a go. At least you can rest easy having given it a nudge!”
And what’s next for MenuAid?
“A big focus for the next season is raising capital for the business. That enables the next phase of our growth, ramping up operations, and launching into Australia to help even more people with their meal planning, shopping and cooking.”
For more info, visit https://menuaid.co.nz/.