What’s in Store
Instacart’s Quest for a Tech-Enabled Food System for All
When Fidji Simo joined Instacart in August of 2021, she saw much more than an online grocery delivery service. While its benefit as a major time-saver for customers was obvious, Simo saw a much larger role for the company to play in making the entire food ecosystem more efficient and accessible.
“I saw the trillion-dollar industry in the midst of massive digital transformation,” says Simo. “Grocery is the largest category of commerce, yet it is the least-penetrated online and the least digitally-enabled.”
Having been on Instacart’s board for six months prior to officially taking over as CEO, Simo had developed a clear vision: beyond serving as a convenience to everyday consumers, Instacart was positioned to build and provide the technology to power every aspect of the grocery transaction, effectively becoming the enabler – rather than the aggregator – for numerous stakeholders in the ecosystem including stores and brands.
Importantly, the changes would serve to lift up the entire ecosystem, says Simo, rather than trying engage in a zero-sum game of dominating the fledgling online grocery industry.
“I think it’s really important, especially in this macroeconomic context where everybody tends to focus on a scarcity mindset, ” says Simo. “If we have strategies that are anchored in making the entire ecosystem better, we can benefit as a result.”
This has played out in recent activities such as the launch of Instacart Health, an initiative designed to help individuals and families live healthier lives through Instacart’s products, partnership, and policy advocacy Launched in September 2022, Instacart Health provides an array of products and services that make healthy food more accessible and affordable, such as the technology to onboard retailers to EBT SNAP programs. Additionally, Instacart just today announced a new initiative tailored to small businesses.
Simo, who previously worked at Meta for more than a decade and oversaw the conceptualization, development, and release of many iconic products, is accustomed to taking bold bets on transformative technology. She spoke with me about identifying moments in time where new technology can find traction; what she learned from leaders and mentors throughout her career; her approach to leadership; and how she separates major disruptive events from secular trends in order to chart a sustainable business course forward.
You can watch or listen to the interview at the links below, and you can keep reading for the key takeaways from our conversation.
Room to Grow
Instacart was among a handful of companies that experienced explosive growth during the pandemic. The company was tasked with rapidly expanding to meet a huge spike in demand, followed by a readjustment period back to a normal growth pace as the pandemic wound down.
Figuring out how to prioritize resources and chart a path forward meant de-coupling Covid-induced growth from secular trends, Simo says. While businesses in other industries might have hit a ceiling during the pandemic, grocery’s relatively low online penetration meant there is still plenty of room to grow.
“Online penetration was only 3% prior to Covid, and now it’s 10%,” says Simo. “Yes, it’s not going to be 4X or 5X like we saw in 2020, but it’s still going to be steady growth that we need to continue fueling.”
Beyond online grocery delivery, Instacart sees a growth opportunity in building technology for their retail partners’ brick-and-mortar stores. The goal is to improve operational efficiency and increase personalization, all while expanding accessibility and affordability to consumers, Simo says.
Being Bullish on Opportunity
Simo came to Instacart with considerable experience in identifying where and when to lean into a technological transition – particularly moments where bringing the rest of the team on board with an idea required a lot of convincing. She spent the previous decade at Meta, first in product marketing and then in product management, ultimately serving as head of the entire Facebook app. Among Simo’s earliest projects were leading the launch of advertising inside the newsfeed – at a time when ads on the newsfeed were unheard of – and ramping up the company’s mobile strategy – at a time when nobody believed Facebook could monetize mobile.
“The thing that was really interesting at that moment was that I realized if you want a great career, you can’t always play it safe,” says Simo. “By making the non-obvious bets and making them work, that’s how you can really change the trajectory of your career and your life in general.”
That lesson carried Simo through to her next projects, such as leading Facebook’s video product including Live, News, and video games. At the time, video technology was taking off around the world, with YouTube leading the way, yet there were detractors to Facebook’s video strategy everywhere Simo looked, including within the company. While Facebook Live was an overnight success, Facebook Watch (the video destination within Facebook) took a long time to get right. Simo says it would have been impossible to get to the right product had it not been for her unshakeable belief that they were building something people wanted.
“I had to realize that as a leader, I had to be very stubborn on the destination, but flexible on the journey to get there,” says Simo. “We pivoted a lot of times to get to the right answer. But I was very determined that people wanted to consume video in a destination. The way in which they wanted to do it was something we iterated on a lot and until we got it right.”
Simo first brought that mindset to Instacart when she joined the board in January 2021. Initially, she had no plans to leave Meta. But while working with Instacart’s then-CEO Apoorva Mehta and discussing the possibilities for what the company could be, it became evident she had a much larger role to play.
“The thing that was really exciting for me was this idea of really transforming an entire industry, not just having a service that was great for consumers – that’s a given, that’s really important – but to do it in a way that can really transform an industry and lift all boats, especially an industry that is so critical to people’s health, to people’s lives,” says Simo.