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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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When His Watch Stopped Ticking, This Entrepreneur Designed His Own

Jimmy Pinto wasn’t even thinking about starting his own business when his second watch in six months stopped ticking.

I basically came up with the idea for the company because another one of my watches broke on me,” says Pinto, founder of Broome & Mercer. “I said ‘Screw this, I’m going to create my own timepiece.’”

The name came from where he was when the idea hit him: a restaurant at the corner of Broome Street and Mercer Street in the middle of New York City’s bustling SoHo neighborhood.

But it was more than an address: it was a manifesto of SoHo sensibility, guiding him to create watches that, like the neighborhood, effortlessly blend a cool bohemian sensibility with the upscale sheen of luxury retail. He decided to focus on a design that was more timeless than trendy.

“That’s what I was trying to accomplish,” Pinto says. “I wanted to create a timepiece that was like SoHo, representing both the downtown and uptown scenes.”

That was back at the end of 2013, which Pinto admits “seems like a long time ago.” At the time he was doing marketing for a lighting firm, and wasn’t looking to give up his day job. But the idea for Broome & Mercer seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up. So he left and “never looked back.

WatchThe next few months flew by, with Pinto designing prototypes for his watches. He kept pushing for an extremely thin profile, while the manufacturers insisting that the dimensions weren’t possible. He eventually compromised, but by less than two millimeters.

“This was definitely something that I’d want to wear,” he says. It’s a really minimalist design. So many things today are overdesigned. I thought the simpler it is, the better.

But if the design is inspired by downtown New York, the craftsmanship is all Boston, where each watch is made by hand. That’s where the unique straps are manufactured as well. Each item sells for well under $300, and is designed in the elegantly unadorned style that recalls a mid-20th century industrial sensibility.

In December 2014, the company opened its first pop-up store. Six months later, Pinto continues to operate solo out of his office in WeWork’s office in SoHo. It’s just a few blocks from where he got his idea for the company.

Pinto says he enjoyed designing the watches and being his own boss, but it’s finding ways to get out the word about his company that he likes the most.

“I really love marketing,” Pinto says. “I have a background in marketing, but I didn’t use it that much in my last job. I have tons of ideas, and can’t wait to try them out.”

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The First 4 Questions Every Founder Needs to Ask

I get your profile. You’re in your twenties or maybe early thirties, starting your first business, and have a short runway before it either takes off or crashes and burns.

You’re convinced that your initial focus should be on attracting the best people to build out your team, landing the first anchor customers to grow revenue, and forming partnerships to spread the word. Or, maybe you’re still focused on sharpening your positioning and tweaking the product so that you can secure that round of funding.

These are all necessary steps in launching your company. But you’re getting ahead of yourself if you think these are the building blocks of startup success. Instead, your most important first moves are not transactional, but rather psychological—not about rational decision making, but more about making relationships and experimenting.

Listen up if being an entrepreneur is part of your DNA. Or if going to work for “the man” is a nightmare. Or if the sweet smell of success gives you swagger, and the fear of failure keeps you up at night.

While I hardly have all the answers, as the late country star Waylon Jennings sang, “I got a couple more years on you, baby. That’s all.” So after almost 20 years of working with hundreds of entrepreneurs, and in that time starting a few companies of my own, here’s my list of four questions for you as you embark on your new venture.

1. What’s your attitude when it comes to long-term commitment? I’m not talking about being positive, passionate, or even having a winning personality that attracts business. It’s hard to always feel that way after one of those long and disappointing days in trying to get a new company off the ground. Instead, I’m talking about the insane amount of persistence that you will need to stick it out as an entrepreneur.Many years ago, a guy named Daniel came to my office for some advice. He struck me as highly intelligent, creative, and idealistic, but a bit naïve and all over the place.   I lost touch and until recently didn’t realize that it was this Daniel who is the mastermind behind one of my favorite brands. Yes, after struggling for over 15 years, full of doubts, triumphs and setbacks—Daniel Lubetzky founded KIND bars and has grown it into one of the most popular food products. He wrote about the kind of grit that kept him going in his new book, Do the KIND Thing.

2. Do you know what lane you’re in? Some people have a magic touch for certain types of businesses. My good friend Dave Schwartz, the founder of Rent-A-Wreck, is a genius when it comes to cars, real estate, and the storage business—talking about the offline category he helped invent. And he’s humble about what he doesn’t know and is a fanatic about staying in his “lane.” He warns about people who achieve some success and then think they’re “bulletproof and know everything about anything.”While your lane might be wide, stick to fields and skill sets that come naturally to you. Focus on what you do best, rather than trying to reposition yourself to be a better fit with the latest category.

3. Do you really know which people you need to hire first? Forget about the first employee. Sometimes even before you find your co-founder, you’ll need a great accountant, lawyer, and insurance guy. These outside professional advisors are key to laying a solid foundation for a sustainable business.

When my long-time accountant, Steve Frushtick, unexpectedly died while exercising earlier this year, I was devastated, as were countless of his other clients. Sure he helped us file our taxes, but that was the least of it, as we didn’t make a move without him—from constructing compensation packages for employees to negotiating business deals. It prompted fellow clients to rightly describe Steve as our “financial rabbi.” So who’s yours?

4. Is your significant other truly supportive of your entrepreneurial spirit? There’s one person who’s the most important of all, and ironically, you don’t usually even work with her or him. I’m talking about your husband, wife, partner, girlfriend, boyfriend, etc. I have a new friend who’s delaying meeting someone until his business really takes off. Wrong, I told him. Finding that special person will help drive your success and put your life in balance, provided he or she is supportive and helps empower your dream to be an entrepreneur rather than have you play it safe as some suit.

While usually not as risk-tolerant as you, your significant other knows how to ride the roller coaster and make you appreciate how far you’ve come, while reminding you that you and your startup are not the center of the universe. Sometimes, when all else fails, your partner might encourage you to put things on hold and just get a job that pays the bills. But both they and you can never lose faith in your ability to do your own thing.

If you forget most of this advice, let this one word be your takeaway: Alps, as in the mountain range. Being a founder is an uphill climb, but once you get traction and look how far you’ve come, it’s the most exhilarating journey on earth.

Photo credit: Apps for Europe/Flickr

 

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4 Ways to Turn a Floundering Business into a Thriving One

My business nearly tanked in 2012.

When I launched Transcription Outsourcing in 2010, our primary focus was providing transcription services to medical practices and hospitals. My business started out on a strong growth track for the first couple of years, then profits began to trail off. As many businesses in the medical industry moved to voice recognition systems, new leads began to shrivel and our projections sank.

I realized we had to make some serious changes to avoid going under, and began a complete overhaul of the services that we offered. We also diversified our client base, and today only half of our business is in the medical industry. The rest is legal and law enforcement clients, along with a good number of small businesses.

The good news? I was able to save the company by following a few simple rules and my gut instincts. Even better news? These particular rules are applicable to any business in any industry:

1. Admit that failure is an option. One of the hardest things for a CEO to admit is that the product or innovation that launched the company may not be the one that sustains it long-term. It is hard to give up on the idea that launched 1,000 ships, but sometimes that idea can’t keep the ships afloat. Admitting that your business could go under if changes aren’t made is often a very difficult thing to do. But once you admit to yourself that the company is floundering, you have opened the line of thinking that is needed to eventually save your company.

2. Sometimes trial and error is necessary. Once you realize that your business needs to adapt to a changing market, you can begin to look for ways to save it. Though a scary proposition, sometimes trial and error is the only way to make any headway. If your tried-and-true radio advertising campaign suddenly isn’t bringing in new business, maybe it is time to try social media. If your current personnel aren’t bringing innovative products to the table, maybe it is time to bring in some new blood. When I realized it was time to make changes to my business, I tried various new methods of marketing, advertising, and hiring personnel. Some changes worked, others did not, but through the process I was able to streamline my business and utilize fresh techniques to get my company out of the red.

3. Realize that nothing will go as planned. Many times a CEO’s vision of growth and a profitable future can become the company’s Achilles heel. There are so many factors affecting various markets that are out of your control. That said, you have to be prepared to scrap visions and start fresh. When my company began to lose revenue, I had to figure out other sources of income aside from my medical clients. I focused on my bottom line. If you can’t pay your bills, you won’t be open for long. For every dollar or client lost, I looked for a creative solution to replace streams of revenue.

4. Listen to experts. If your company’s profits begin to head south, it is time to start listening. Focus on clients and what they are telling you, either verbally or with their wallets. Listen to media, other influencers in your market, and other businesses that share relationships with your clients. Find out where needs have shifted. Focus on communicating with your employees as best as possible. Often times your “feet on the ground” will have a better understanding of the pulse of the industry. Start asking questions and keep your ears open.

All businesses will reach a point where they need to diversify and adapt—or else face the possibility of failure. This rule applies to both the tiniest corner shop, as well as behemoths such as Apple and Google. Often, the simple acts of listening, observing, and trying new things can save a business from failure.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

 

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A Spider Weaves His Way Through the Art World

A Spider’s Heart is “a kid’s art book for adults. And vice versa.” In the words of creators, “it is about choosing a path that is right for oneself and not giving up. It is also about creativity and how it can help anyone solve any problem.”

If that weren’t enough to make me fall in love, the protagonist, Little Pablo (named after his grandfather, Little) is a vegetarian spider artist. His story begs the following questions: What happens when a spider refuses to kill other bugs? Will he starve to death? What about his urge to web, and how will art save him?

Written by Alon Seifert and illustrated by Eitan Cohen, the story is as beautiful and brilliant as the illustrations are.

Little Pablo webs art so major he lands himself a solo show at Bugosian Gallery and honestly, just thinking about him makes my heart swell.

The fact that we actually get a chance to meet Little Pablo in real life is like the chance to meet Kanye West before he turned into Yeezus. In other words: a once in a lifetime opportunity.

On June 2, Little Pablo will be making an appearance and signing autographs (or webbing them) at WeWork’s SoHo West space at 175 Varick Street from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Seifert and Cohen will be creating Little Pablo’s art works in thread, creating a spiderweb-like 3D pieces on two large-size canvases. They will also project their animated film as well as the entire book, so people can flip through it.

I believe it is entirely possible that as Kanye has said of himself, this also applies to Little Pablo. “I am Warhol. I am the number one most impactful artist of our generation. I am Shakespeare in the flesh.”

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