After working together as product managers, Lizzy Brockhoff and Elizabeth Shaffer decided to start their own business. They started MASSE, a shopping platform providing peer-to-peer recommendations. Read on for the story behind how Lizzy and Elizabeth made the transition from startup team members to founders at the very same time as they became new moms.
Tell us more about your backgrounds before founding MASSE.
Lizzy: I relocated from Australia to New York with my boyfriend (now husband) about 7 years ago. I’m a dual Australian/US citizen so the opportunity of working and living in the US was something I didn’t want to miss out on. Since living in the US I’ve been working in product management across two amazing startups, Moda Operandi and Jet.com where I was fortunate to join as the second product manager. Most recently I was working at Walmart after the Jet.com acquisition where I was focused in their in-store digital experience.
Elizabeth: Growing up with expat parents, I also had an international upbringing. We moved all over the world, including Moscow, London, Aberdeen and Libya. I ended up attending a boarding school in England, and stayed for university, so I consider the UK my adopted home. I moved to New York in 2008 and became very interested in the tech space, but I remember feeling like there was no clear path in. I eventually found my way to Moda Operandi where I worked in digital marketing before making the transition to product management. After Moda Operandi, I was fortunate enough to be put in touch with Marc Lore when Jet.com was still in stealth mode and joined the team as the first product manager.
What led you into tech and product management?
Lizzy: I had a pretty atypical pathway into product management and tech in general. My undergraduate degree was Veterinary Science!
Growing up I was an avid horse rider and my childhood dream was to become a vet. This dream became a reality when I got good scores at school and was admitted straight into the course. Yet in hindsight, choosing a profession at such a young age was challenging and ultimately as I progressed through the course and grew as a person I found myself a little disillusioned. I did finish the course and practiced for a very short period of time as an equine vet but pushed myself to explore other options. As part of this process I transitioned out of being a vet into a business role at Vanguard Australia. A couple of years into my tenure at Vanguard they sent me to the Vanguard US head office, it was my experiences in New York and exposure to the consumer tech industry that first peaked my interest in product management. I don’t think I even knew such a role existed when I left Australia!
Elizabeth: I became fascinated with the tech space and how it was impacting consumer retail starting around 2008. I was part of the first generation of Facebook users in college, so I think that played a role, but I also remember avidly watching companies like Gilt Groupe and Net a Porter change the retail game. As soon as I became aware of the role a product manager fulfills, I knew I wanted to be one, but getting my foot in the door was a challenge. I found my way into a digital marketing role at Moda Operandi. Eventually they supported my transition into product management, which I will be forever grateful for. I was lucky to have some good mentors along the way.
When did you get the itch to start your own company?
Lizzy: I definitely got the itch to start my own company at Jet.com. Jet was an amazing training ground as it was essentially a startup in acceleration (acquired in 2 years!). One thing was certain to me: if I was going to work that hard again it would be to pursue my own idea. Becoming a mother was definitely the ‘scratch’ so to speak. Motherhood really makes us think hard about where we are going to spend our time. The opportunity cost is very high if we are going to be away from our children. I suppose that was a strong driver behind the decision to pursue something that I felt passionate about.
Elizabeth: I’m not sure exactly when it’s started, but I’ve had it for a long time. I think as long as I can remember! I’ve always been a builder and am pretty comfortable taking on a lot of risk, so it always felt like a natural end goal. However, it was always important to me to get experience with other startups before venturing out on my own. The learning opportunities I had at Moda Operandi and particularly Jet.com were invaluable.
How did the idea for MASSE come about?
Lizzy: Again becoming a mother one of the key catalysts behind MASSE. Elizabeth and I had observed how overwhelmed consumers where with all the content online and a rising skepticism around the sources of guidance but becoming a parent meant that we experienced it firsthand. We had to go through the process of building our baby registries and found the whole process time consuming and overwhelming. Ultimately, we ended up reaching out to our friends for advice. We received multiple huge excel spreadsheets. We thought to ourselves “there must be a better way!”.
Elizabeth: Lizzy and I were aware that consumers were increasingly overwhelmed with the amount of choice available online from our role as product managers in e-commerce. However, this became very real for us when we became mothers and had to put together our baby registries. This was around the same time that we decided we wanted to work on something together. It was such an obvious problem statement that wasn’t being solved anywhere else.
What were the first steps you took after you had the idea?
Lizzy: We worked on MASSE in our spare time during maternity leave and as a side project upon returning to full time work. The key things we did to help us progress MASSE from an idea into reality where first to set goals and milestones we wanted to reach before we were ready to embark on the journey full time. To reach these goals we got advice and feedback from various mentors in our network and real users in order to hone the concept.
Elizabeth: The first steps were really to hone the concept and validate our hypothesis with real users. We produced a lot of sketches and rough prototypes in the beginning, which we would share with users to get feedback. Once we felt like the concept was really solid, we started approaching investors and mentors and lining up the administrative work to launch a company (not to be taken lightly).
Did your original concept change as you began building the MASSE app?
Lizzy: The major change is that we were able to evolve and solidify the long term vision behind MASSE, that is, to become the fastest way to find the right product—by providing the most credible and trusted source of product recommendations.
Elizabeth: To Lizzy’s point, the vision has become a lot bigger and bolder since we started. We started thinking about a very specific use case, for a very specific market, but quickly realized just how applicable the core idea is to so many users.
How did you collect user feedback pre-launch?
Lizzy: We had a 4 week beta period where we recruited users our own networks and online mom communities across SF and New York. Once we had engaged users we also held a series of focus groups at The Wing in New York to get in person feedback and to meet more amazing ladies! We also use a great digital tool called usertesting.com, a worthwhile investment for any digital business.
What were your biggest fears as you took the leap into starting your own company? How did you push through them?
Lizzy: Taking the plunge to work on a MASSE full time was hard. So many thoughts, fears and reservations arise at the prospect of leaving the security of a full time job. During this period we focused on validating the concept with industry professionals, real users and friends. Each piece of advice and each point of feedback helped us solidify the concept to a point that we felt confident enough to take the step and to not look back.
Elizabeth: The fear is so general and all-encompassing that it’s hard to name a specific source. The overall feeling is like you jumped out of an airplane at 10,000 feet and are in free fall. But then people hand you small parachutes along the way, and you learn to enjoy the ride. It can be exhilarating or terrifying, it’s just a matter of perspective.
What are your key learnings thus far?
- Choosing a cofounder before starting the business was important for me
- To stay nimble you have to make decisions with 70% of the information you may want and you have to be ok with this.
- Many learnings from the fundraising process
- Definitely choosing a good co-founder and having no secrets. It’s a very close relationship. You have to be entirely open with each other.
- You need a lot of good luck, but you can do things to create it. If you keep your head down and focus on creating opportunities, things will happen.
You’re both relatively new moms. What was it like to found a company as a new mom? Any tips for mamas and mamas-to-be with an idea brewing?
Lizzy: I think having a daughter helps keeps things in perspective. This perspective helps me maintain a little calm when things get stressful. My advice to mamas and mamas-to-be with an idea brewing would be to work on the idea a side project, get feedback and hone it until you feel like you have a clear path forward.
Elizabeth: It is definitely all encompassing, and there is very little downtime for yourself. It’s important to love what you do and have a clear idea of why you’re doing it. You have to go easy on yourself because not everything (read: nothing) will go according to plan. One thing I try to do is be completely present when I’m with my daughter and completely present when I’m at work. That has been something I’ve had to train myself to do. I am not a great multi-tasker.
We always close with a bit of motherhood wisdom. What’s your best advice for your fellow mamas in business?
Lizzy: Lean on each other’s expertise, guaranteed someone in your network has solved the same problem and can help you!
Elizabeth: Ask for help, then take it. Go easy on yourself. Laugh when things go haywire.