FRANCISCO — The gig: Apoorva Mehta, 30, is the founder
and chief executive of San Francisco grocery delivery
startup Instacart. Over the last four years, he has
grown the company to more than 300 full-time employees
and tens of thousands of part-time grocery shoppers. The
startup offers on-demand and same-day grocery delivery
in hundreds of cities in 20 states.
engineering: Growing up in Canada, Mehta had an avid
curiosity in how technology worked. "Everything
from atoms, all the way to what you see on a computer
when you go to Google.com," Mehta said. "I
wanted to learn everything in between." Not knowing
what he wanted to do after college, he enrolled in an
electrical engineering course at the University of
at Amazon: Mehta spent his post-college years working
for technology companies such as Qualcomm and BlackBerry,
and even did a stint at a steel factory. His goal was to
try a bit of everything to help figure out what he
really wanted to do. He eventually moved to Seattle to
be a supply chain engineer at Amazon.com, where he
developed fulfillment systems to get packages from
Amazon’s warehouses to customers’ doors.
those years, he learned two things: He liked to build
software, and he wanted to be challenged. After two
years at Amazon, he felt that he was no longer being
challenged. With no other role lined up, he quit his
companies: He spent the next two years putting his
learnings into practice. Between leaving Amazon and
founding Instacart, Mehta estimates he started 20
companies. He tried building an ad network for social
gaming companies. He spent a whole year developing a
social network specifically for lawyers. "I knew
nothing about these topics, but I liked putting myself
in a position where I had to learn about an industry and
try to solve problems they may or may not have
had," he said. None of the companies worked out.
going through all these failures, releasing feature
after feature, I realized it wasn’t that I couldn’t
find a product that worked, I just didn’t care about
the product," Mehta said of the social network for
lawyers. "When I went home, I wouldn’t think
about it because I didn’t care about lawyers. I didn’t
think of what lawyers did day to day."
led him to lesson No. 3: solve a real problem you
actually care about.
With 20 failed startup ideas under this belt, Mehta put
some thought into the problems he experienced day to
day. He lived in San Francisco. He didn’t own a car.
He loved to cook, but he couldn’t get the groceries he
wanted in his neighborhood.
was 2012, people were ordering everything online,
meeting people online, watching movies online, yet the
one thing everyone has to do every single week —
buying groceries — we still do in an archaic
way," he said. As soon as he came up with the idea
for an on-demand grocery delivery platform, he couldn’t
stop thinking about it. In less than a month, he’d
coded himself a crude version of an app that could be
used by people who needed groceries, and a version for
those who were shopping in-store for customers. On its
first test-run, because Mehta hadn’t hired any
shoppers yet, he ordered through the app, went to the
store and delivered the groceries to himself.
The idea of ordering groceries online and having them
delivered to your home wasn’t new. Webvan, a company
founded on that very premise, famously went under during
the dotcom bust. But this didn’t faze Mehta, who
believed that the success of a company rests not only on
the quality of the idea but also on timing. "It was
very clear to me that the idea was a good one and the
time was now for the same reason why Uber and Lyft were
finding success," he said.
had become ubiquitous, people were comfortable
performing transactions over their phones, and the idea
of using an app to hire someone to perform a task was
fast becoming the norm. "As a result of smartphones,
the equation had changed," he said.
troubles: Although Mehta landed on a hot idea and was
able to partner with stores such as Whole Foods, Target
and Safeway, the expansion of Instacart wasn’t without
problems. The company was slapped with a class-action
lawsuit in 2015, alleging that the workers who shopped
for and delivered groceries were misclassified as
independent contractors. Instacart eventually made its
shoppers part-time employees, with some qualifying for
benefits such as health insurance. "We went from
having zero part-time employees to having people at
thousands of individual store locations," he said,
"We had to figure out scheduling and what kinds of
training had to be provided. We needed to figure out a
lot of things."
Most startups fail, and those who start a company for
the sake of starting a company are even more likely to
fail, Mehta said. "The reason to start a company is
to bring a change that you strongly believe in to this
world," he said. "You really have to want to
Mehta lives in San Francisco. He’s an avid reader and
enjoys biking in the city.