Q&A with Apoorva Mehta, Founder & CEO, Instacart

by Y Combinator10/17/2018

We put together a list of the top YC companies by valuation as of October 2018. You can see that list at https://ycombinator.com/topcompanies.

Here’s a Q&A with Apoorva Mehta, founder of Instacart, one of the companies featured on the list.

What does Instacart make/do?
Instacart allows customers to order groceries from their favorite stores and have them delivered to their door within one hour.

Behind the scenes, Instacart works by bringing together four parties: customers, retailers, shoppers and advertisers. For retailers, we’ve built enterprise software that allows us to bring their inventory online, configure stores for efficient picking, and power their e-commerce experiences. For shoppers (people who pick/deliver groceries), we build the logistics systems that dispatch, route and batch orders together, the app used to pick and deliver groceries, and localized supply/demand matching models, among many other things. We also have several thousand brands advertising on Instacart, and for them, we build ad units and tools that allow them to promote their products and gain a deeper understanding of the ROI of their spend.

How many employees does Instacart have?

Instacart has 600 employees spread across our 20 offices in the U.S. and Canada. We are in the process of doubling our engineering and product teams in the company and, in all likelihood, we will double again after that. We just recently announced our new R&D center in Toronto, which will have over 300 people within the next several years.

How many founders?

I met my two co-founders – Max Mullen and Brandon Leonardo – while just wrapping up Y Combinator. They are both actively involved in the company today, from scaling culture to working on some of our most complex technical problems.

What is your most impressive recent product milestone?

Until very recently most people in North America did not have any way to order their groceries online, let alone get them delivered to their door within an hour. At Instacart, our team has solved logistical and operational challenges to efficiently deliver in markets as big as Manhattan and as small as Anchorage. As a result of this work, today, Instacart is accessible to over 70% of households in the U.S. and over 50% of households in Canada. This has made us the leader in grocery delivery in North America by sales and area covered.

What is the larger impact / societal impact of your product in the space you work within?

Every household needs to shop for groceries – generally more than once a week. Instacart is drastically changing the way people do that.

The U.S. grocery market alone is nearly $1 trillion; and the global grocery market is expected to reach $12 trillion by 2020. As an industry, it’s even bigger globally than transportation. As customer demand continues to grow, we want to make grocery shopping effortless so people can enjoy the moments that matter most.

What’s an interesting element of Instacart’s company culture?

All of our corporate employees are trained as in-store shoppers within their first week. It’s a great way to feel connected to our customers and for our engineers to learn the ins and outs of the product quickly.

Looking back, what motivated you to start Instacart?

Growing up in a small town near Toronto, Canada, I remember waiting at a bus stop carrying bags of groceries in the freezing cold. Fast forward to 2012, I realized that while a lot had changed in the world, grocery shopping was the same. I wanted to change that. I wanted to make grocery shopping effortless.

Is what you’re working on now the original idea or did you pivot?

I pivoted 20 times before coming up with the idea behind Instacart. After leaving my job as a logistics engineer at Amazon, I spent two years building about 20 “minimum viable products” focused on solving problems in the enterprise, consumer and advertising markets. While every single one of them eventually failed, I learned a lot through this journey, including things like rapid prototyping, business strategy, and managing my own psychology through the inevitable ups and downs of building a company. All of these lessons continue to help me as we navigate Instacart’s growth today.

Were there moments where you thought the company might die? Describe one of those and anything you learned from it.

While I’ve always believed in Instacart, I’m perpetually paranoid that something will get in the way of allowing us to achieve our full potential. I use this feeling to motivate myself to ask hard questions about our strategy and the way we are running the company.

What was a particularly important insight you had about your market that made your product work?

There are about 30K grocery stores in the U.S. that carry the inventory that local communities want. We decided to leverage those grocery stores and to crowdsource the delivery to bring grocery shopping online.

Our competitors, on the other hand, decided to build a parallel supply chain, which included heavy capital investments to source inventory, build warehouses and operate trucks. As a result of the choices we made, Instacart is able to have the largest selection of groceries (all of the items people like to shop vs. what’s in a single warehouse), to deliver faster (within 1hr vs. the next day), and to scale across North America (4,000 cities vs. just a handful of markets). In the very early days of Instacart, it wasn’t clear which model was better, but today Amazon, Walmart and Target are replicating our model.

What’s one piece of advice you’d share with a young founder?

Great founders are learning machines. The more you know about business, mental models, technology and other pertinent areas for your business, the better you can be at making decisions. Many of these decisions can meaningfully change the trajectory of the company. So, go out of your way to learn – from books, from people and from experiences.


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