Like so many great ideas, MenuAid was born out of the need to solve a personal problem. Toby Skilton and Elise Hilliam – the founders and CEOs of MenuAid, as well as life partners – both love to cook, but were too busy to put much effort into making dinner and found themselves making the same few recipes. They were stuck in a rut, and decided to turn to artificial intelligence for help.
“We tried meal kits, which provide a great service. But they’re expensive and they lack personalisation,” Skilton says. “There’s also the sustainability issue – they use lots and lots of plastic. We realised there was a huge opportunity to do something that was in the middle; something that helped out with meal planning but also had that element of personalisation.”
MenuAid, which launched in September 2021, is exactly as the name suggests: a tool to help busy people plan dinner for the week. When you sign up for MenuAid the platform begins to learn about how you cook and what’s important to you around food, such as dietary restrictions. Using AI, MenuAid will select five suitable recipes for you each week. You’ll also get a shopping list for the ingredients – and you can even choose to have your shopping delivered to your door.
“Through AI, we can collect personalised data points for each user’s preferences, from meal choices to favourite brands as well as their weekly staples. This means each user’s experience will be unique to their needs, budget, routine, cooking skill and brand preferences,” Skilton says.
“This personalisation is at the heart of our customer retention strategy.”
Good ideas and entrepreneurship are nothing new for Skilton as he’s had several successful ventures over the years. His first was a company called Scarfie Repairs, which Skilton founded while he was a student at the University of Otago.
“It was entirely a student-run business. The idea was that we would fix student flats for student rates. I had four or five people working for me, and it got to the stage where I was project managing renovations. That set Elise and I up to travel overseas.”
Between entrepreneurial adventures, Skilton was also having adventures of another kind: he has worked as a park ranger in South Africa on and off for the past eight years. “I get to help with world-first research and biodiversity projects involving lions, hyenas, cheetahs and many other African animals, which has been nothing short of incredible.”
The couple initially funded MenuAid themselves then raised capital through Sprout Agritech and had some angel investors join. This raised about $1 million, and allowed Skilton and Hilliam to grow their team from six to thirteen staff.
The challenge now is to make MenuAid as personalised as possible. “Food is really personal. Everyone has things they like and they don’t like. We’re a small but mighty team – but building a platform to cater for the needs of the masses is challenging. We currently have 500 recipes in our database, and we need 5,000 to make it truly personalised,” Skilton says.
The pair plan to raise more capital in February 2023 to help them get to their goal of making $1 million in annual revenue, and are hoping to bring in more investors.
“This will help us to build out our recommendation engine and really drive customer satisfaction,” Skilton says.
It’s not surprising that Skilton has plenty of encouragement for other would-be entrepreneurs with great ideas.
“The New Zealand startup ecosystem is very inclusive. We’re in a unique phase where anyone from any level of society can find support for their startup. Look for startup hubs wherever you are – they’ll help you map out your idea. There are also loads of free resources online. Most entrepreneurs with an idea work on it outside of their job, then they get to a tipping point where they have to decide between their job and their startup.
“When you get to that point, you should just go for it. What do you have to lose?”
Story by Anne-Marie Emerson. In partnership with Sprout.