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.
"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."
Succeeding a founder-CEO can be awkward, but Simo’s close relationship with Mehta and Instacart’s co-founders Max Mullen and Brandon Leonardo (both of whom are still at the company) allowed for a smooth transition. Simo advises any leaders who make similar moves to spend significant time with founders to understand the DNA of the company, and identify how the new CEO’s vision works in accordance within the existing culture and operating principles.
“Instead of coming in and being like, ‘Ok, this is how I want to get it done,’ I really spent time validating my vision with the leaders internally, and understanding how we could unleash the existing culture towards this kind of bolder, more ambitious vision,” says Simo.
Tapping Teammates’ Superpowers
As all business leaders know, achieving a bold vision isn’t possible without top-tier talent. Throughout her time both at Meta and Instacart, Simo has always thought of talent recruitment as twofold.
“Attracting talent can be like the analogy of a magnet, but it should also be the analogy of a bouncer. Sometimes we are so focused on trying to attract talent that we skip that step,” says Simo.
As many hiring managers can relate, an exceptional resume and skill set can cause a lapse in judgment to the point where sufficient screening isn’t carried out. In Simo’s experience, the biggest mis-hires are often people who look phenomenal on paper, but who ultimately weren’t a good fit due to harder-to-quantify reasons.
“I would be thinking I was so lucky just to land them, and then you realize you didn’t do your due diligence enough on figuring out if they are going to be a great fit with the culture, if they are complementary with the team, if they are really taking this challenge for the right reasons,” says Simo.
To weed out candidates who might end up being the wrong hire down the line, Simo spends ample time during the hiring journey where she tells them all the reasons not to join the company.
“People are a little bit surprised by that, but trust me, if they join after that, you know you have a keeper,” says Simo. “You need people who have grit, and want to be there, and are going to ride the ups and downs.”
Getting the right person in the right role is just the first step. Inspiring people to continue evolving and pushing for excellence is a critical part of a CEO’s responsibility, says Simo. It comes down to first recognizing the unique strengths of employees.
“The thing I care enormously about is really understanding people’s magic and unleashing it as part of a leadership team,” says Simo.
Simo hosts regular leadership dinners where she talks about that magic she sees in individuals, then invites them to explain how they perform a certain function in their respective department. Whether that leader is head of communications or engineering or sales doesn’t matter, says Simo. For example, a person’s unique skill at getting consistency or productivity from a team is applicable across the entire company, as is communicating clearly with ample context that enables teams to make the best decisions.
Beyond talking about the issues of work at hand, Simo says a big focus is on the craft of how they work together, and allowing moments for people to be vulnerable.
“These are leaders and we’re partners in making the business better together, so I’m really trying to get all of these execs to apply their superpowers outside of just their function,” says Simo. “This pushes them to work better together and spend more time on company-wide problems instead of just having the heart of their function, and it creates a lot more resiliency in the business.”
As far as spotting those superpowers in the first place, Simo says it’s important to set people up for moments where they can grow. For example, putting someone whom you believe has potential into an interim manager position, which can create excitement that really pushes a person to deliver.
"The best culture you can create in your company is betting on your talent and giving them an opportunity to stretch into it."
“These can be unforeseen opportunities for someone to really shine, and that’s kind of the best culture you can create in your company: betting on your talent and giving them opportunities to stretch into them,” says Simo.
Balancing Good Business with Social Good
It’s becoming increasingly common for businesses of all sizes to get involved (and even speak publicly) about political and social issues. However, many companies still experience an inherent tension between doing what’s good for shareholders and what’s good for humanity writ large.
Simo doesn’t believe the tension needs to exist. Rather, if a company’s core business is ultimately aimed at having good outcomes in the world, that will naturally be in alignment with how the company makes money.
“If you have these corporate social responsibility initiatives on the side for PR reasons, you are never going to invest as much to solve that problem as you would if it was your core business,” says Simo.
That strategy is especially evident with the launch of Instacart Health, the company’s undertaking to improve access to healthy food through partnerships, product innovation, research, and policy advocacy.
“I believe that America’s biggest health problems are actually food problems, and if we solve them, it’s a massive social good that also turns out to be massively impactful for all businesses,” says Simo. “I never want to be on the extremes of thinking these things as decoupled. It should be that your core business needs to have a positive impact on the world. Otherwise, why are we building all these companies?”