The innovation behind grocery delivery startup Instacart

Instacart founder Apoorva Mehta believes he can build an empire of Amazon-scale by helping people shop for groceries from their homes.

While this may sound like a stretch, it mirrors Amazon in the 90s; books were Amazon’s starting point, on which a behemoth was built. Likewise, Instacart has big plans.

Yes, countless companies have tried to revolutionize traditional grocery shopping. Back in the late 90’s and early 00’s, the poster-child was Webvan. Now, years later, heaps of companies are gaining ground in the US by offering next-day deliveries, including FreshDirect, Peapod and Relay Foods.

On-demand expansion

Unlike the above companies, however, Instacart falls into the on-demand category of startups. It sits alongside services like Uber, Postmates and WunWun. Instacart’s difference from the aforementioned companies is simple: it offers approximately hour-long wait times for grocery deliveries.

Currently, Instacart is only available in The Bay Area and Chicago, but Mehta’s vision is to take over every city in the US. These are ambitious plans, but Mehta’s goals aren’t puff — he’s set to launch Instacart “in 10 major cities by the end of next year.”

For Mehta, this quick expansion plan is modest — he’d move faster, but Webvan’s tale of rapid expansion keeps him cautious.

Behind the app

If you asked Mehta about Instacart, he’d say it’s “a website and an app where you order your groceries from your favorite stores.” This is all the average consumer needs to know, but there’s much more happening behind the scenes.

Instacart’s on-demand orders are instantly scheduled. The orders, which tend to range from two items to 60, are delivered by crowdsourced labor from various stores, each of which have specific hours and varying inventory.

“How do you create an Amazon-like experience” with all this complexity, Mehta asks. It turns out even, Amazon is trying to answer that question, with its small-scale launch of Amazon Fresh.

Mehta insists that there’s a lot of innovation actually happening under the radar. For Instacart, Mehta relies on machine learning to map individual stores, to track how long shoppers take picking and driving, and to predict delivery times. All of this happens while considering the weather, traffic patterns, location and other factors like sporting events. Mehta says these calculations are accurate down to the minute.

For Instacart users,  the service gives them back 1 to 3 hours of their day every time they order — this is particularly helpful if you must haul kids to and from the store.

Instacart’s next steps, no doubt, will reinforce this idea of changing the way people shop. Beyond this, discovery and new verticals may be in the cards. Until then, the service is available to The Bay Area and Chicago residents. Take a look at it here.

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Reading: Separating Gold from Streams

Buy John McPhee’s book, Coming into the Country, here

Wyman Fritsch, a conventional placer miner, has a nugget larger than his thumb. He found it in the Discover Fork of American Creek, some ten miles out of Eagle, and he says it is by no means the largest one he has taken from that stream. He has been mining there for fifty years. He was a boy when he came into the county. He is currently known as The Man with the Big Nugget. He showed it to me the other day, so that I could hold it in my hand and rub the genius of the gold. It was lumpy, pitted, pocked, rough, ugly—an apparent filling from the tooth of Sasquatch. The marvel of it—as the earth’s elements go—is that when Fritsch came to it with his mining equipment, scraping up the deep gravels of American Creek, it was there as nearly pure metal. Gold is not merely rare. It can be said to love itself. In the idiom of science, it is, with platinum, the noblest of the noble metals—those which resist combination with other elements. It wants to be free. In cool crust rock, it generally is free. At very high temperatures, however, it will go into compounds; and the gold that is among the magmatic fluids of interior earth may be combined, for example, with chlorine. Gold chloride is “modestly” soluble, and will dissolve in water that comes down and circulates in the magma. The water picks up many other elements, too: potassium, sodium, silicon. Heated, the solution rises into fissures in hard crust rock, where the cooling gold breaks away from the chlorine and—in sizes ranging from specks to the eggs of geese—falls out of the water as metal. Silicon precipitates, too, filling up the fissures and enveloping the gold with veins of silicon dioxide, which is quartz.

Gold can be taken from such veins with dynamite blasts, pneumatic drills. But that requires the funds and the efforts of a large corporation. The deepest mine in the Western Hemisphere—the Homestake gold mine, in Lead, South Dakota—goes down into the earth more than a mile and a half. Its capital cost to date has been upward of a billion dollars. Alaskan lone miners—people who have, or who have had, names like Pete the Pig, Pistolgrip Jim, Groundsluice Bill, Coolgardie Smith, Codfish Tom, Doc La Booze, the Evaporated Kid, Fisty McDonald, John the Baptist, Cheeseham Sam, The Man with the Big Nugget—prefer to wait for God to break open the rock, to lift up and expose something like the Sierra Nevada and with epochal weathers blast it and spall it and tear it apart until the gold rolls out into the rubble of the streams. Placer mining—separating gold from stream gravels—is difficult work, but beside any other method it is comparatively easy. “Placer,” in Spanish, mean “pleasure.”

Photo credit: Karl/Flickr

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Podcast: For WeWork’s Ben Kessler, ‘Our Product Is Community’

“When we talk about community,” says Ben Kessler, director of marketing for WeWork, “I always try to push the idea that our product is community. It is those connections. It is the fact that while it makes sense financially to start your company out of your apartment or out of a coffee shop, you’re missing out on a lot of opportunities by not being in a shared space.”

In a recent podcast published by TechnologyAdvice, Kessler talked with new media strategist Clark Buckner about the value of co-working spaces: how they spark creativity and offer on-the-spot resources for growing a business.

“A great example might be someone that’s a lawyer, who’s really looking to build out an app or build out their website or something like that,” says Kessler. “They can head out of their office or just pick their head up and look around to find someone that’s a web development shop, or a Rails developer, or something that’s going to help them. They can find a graphic designer. They can find someone to help them with their startup accounting.”

Kessler also talked about the importance of constantly sharing information, working in small groups for planning sessions, and getting the entire team together so that different departments can work together more effectively.

Listen to the entire podcast below. You can also subscribe to the TA Expert Interview Series in order to get alerts about new episodes.

Photo credit: Lauren Kallen

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The Generosity of Water

Long ago pilgrims would travel great distances to visit a holy spring, or to drink from a sacred well. But we don’t give much thought to springs nowadays. Water runs from our taps, or else we drink bottled ‘spring’ water’ available in shops. Our hands have forgotten how it feels to dip into clear sweet-tasting water. How often do we kneel on mossy banks to gaze at our reflection mirrored on the surface of a glistening pool of water? Not often.

Recently I accompanied a small group of meditation teachers from various traditions on a pilgrimage to Kyushu island in Japan. Kyushu still has wild parts. Looking out from the window of the mini van one could easily fantasize the form of a lone samurai emerging from the misty pine groves we passed or indigo-clad farmers working in the rice fields along the road. Water dripped off the cliffs. Escaping through rocks, it flowed and rushed down woodsy ravines to the roads that followed the curves and shapes of the landscape. Here, it was easy to accept that nature had been revered by the ancient Shinto tradition of Japan for more than three thousand years.

One of our stops was to be a sacred fountainhead, a hidden spring in the forest, off a main street of a small Japanese village. Before our group arrived at the spring we had become accustomed to beauty. We had paid homage at a Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine. We had seen farmsteads, look out points, walked a forest trail, delighted in a cave of thousands of tiny balanced rock cairns. We had stood at the edge of the famous Takachiho gorge, looking down upon a luminous river of liquid aquamarine meandering between rugged cliff-sides. None of these experiences, however, prepared us for the moment we knelt along the soft green bank of the Shirakawa water spring.

Nestled in a pine grove this bewitching pond was difficult to see at first as it reflected the pine trees around it. Like looking into a polished mirror, it confused our eyes. The trees around the pool stood as guardians with a loving protective gaze lest we intruders did not recognize the sanctity of what we were being shown. This was a nature temple and it was holy. The water was alive and the fragrant herbs and moss knew they were blessed to drink from this secret wonder.

The spring was not very deep and as one focused carefully looking closer one could see the tiny bubbles of water escaping the earth’s core through the sandy bottom. Under the smooth surface emerald like plants swayed in this crystal bath. Experienced travelers, none of our group had ever seen such clear water. Like children, we stood hushed, with eyes wide, as though we had seen a unicorn step through the trees.

The spring produces 60 tons of water per minute, the source of the Shirakawa river that that eventually makes its way to Kumamoto city. I wondered if the urban-dwellers realized they were drinking from an ancient oracle, that if we could hear it, would answer us with long-forgotten wisdom. It might say, “Drink and quench your thirst. It is a gift freely given. I ask nothing in return.”

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How Can a Wine Tasting Seem Cool? Make it a Massive Carnival

At first all Tyler Balliet wanted was to learn a little bit about wine. Now his interest has inspired him to create a platform that has, so far, reached thousands of his fellow wine enthusiasts.

Five years ago, the WeWork Hollywood member came up with the idea for Second Glass, a platform for people who were already interested in or wanted to learn more about wine. It started out as a magazine, and then grew into an app, podcast, and a gathering of wine sellers and drinkers at an event called Wine Riot.

“It’s a huge, massive wine carnival for four hours,” says Balliet.

Since 2010, Wine Riot—which takes place throughout the year in cities like Boston, New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles—has attracted 85,000 attendees, half of which were in 2014 and 2015 alone.

At the event, attendees can log onto the Second Glass app and mark the 16 wines they tasted that day out of the 250 to 400 types available. According to Balliet, about 35 percent of attendees utilize the app, posting 275,000 reviews of wine.

Along with the actual wine drinking experience, Wine Riot events feature 20-minute seminars and experts at every booth explaining the products they’re selling.

“The app is really useful at Wine Riot,” he says. “The wine industry is very complicated.”

wineWith Second Glass and Wine Riot, Balliet aspires to educate people, mostly millennials, about wine. When he worked part-time at a wine shop in Boston, he saw that people his age were coming into his store and buying a lot of wine that they knew nothing about.

“I was trying to learn about wine then,” he says. “My only options were a 10-week college level class or a 900-page book, which I did end up reading. People are interested in wine, but they don’t want to make the effort.”

Aside from his first-hand experience with millennials, Balliet says millennials are buying more wine than the previous generations.

“It comes down to availability more than anything else,” he says. “Our grandparents drank cocktails because that’s what their parents drank during prohibition. When I went to college, wine was everywhere.”

Since many millennials haven’t turned 21 yet, Balliet wants to focus on this emerging market. In the future, he plans to go into retail stores and change the way that people shop for wine.

“Wine shops haven’t changed their look in 100 years,” he says. I would love to go in and update them for a new generation.”

Photo credit: Lauren Kallen

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