Street Culture: Humility and Good Conversations at Instacart

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Instacart office

Instacart entered 2015 with about 95 employees. It’s on track to end 2015 with around 400 employees.

Instacart just opened a new office in Minneapolis in September, making the Twin Cities the 18th location where the company’s grocery shopping and delivery services are offered. Order volume has been increasing three to four percent week-over-week for about the last year and the company hopes some current projects will stimulate that growth even more.

Mathew Caldwell, vice president of people at Instacart, said one of the things that made him most excited to be joining the company about one year ago was how its values were reflected in the culture.

“I interviewed last summer, and during the interview I found out they had already defined founding core values,” Caldwell said. “There were maybe 60 employees at the time. Having defined core values, values they want to foster, at that stage is unique. It’s because they are so passionate about making sure culture is one of most important aspects of our success.”

Instacart has eight core values, and Caldwell didn’t even bother listing six of them — he said it’s the first two that really matter. For potential new hires, passing the test on the first two core values can make or break their job candidacy.

“The first one is customer focus,” he said. “Everything everybody does is focused on the customer. It’s so important to us that we named our last retreat after our number-one non-corporate customer. We want to make sure we understand our customer and that we reflect that in our culture. Employees really have to demonstrate that everything they do is focused on the customer.”

The second core value that Instacart promotes is humility. “I don’t have to define that,” Caldwell said. “One policy we’ve implemented at Instacart is that every employee, from the engineers up to our CEO, goes out shopping once a quarter to get an understanding of being a shopper and how our service affects the customer. Everybody here does it, I do it. And it’s not just one customer. You’ll work a two- or three-hour shift.”

Nobody is allowed to skirt the “shopper shift” policy, he stressed. Only so much information can be gleaned from data on orders and app use, and employees value participating in the processes that are making the company so successful.

“Recently, I’m sure people didn’t realize they had orders delivered to them by our CEO and founder, Caldwell said. “That’s the unique thing about the company. We’re so committed to our customer, and the employees love it. A lot of really good conversations come out of it.”

Good conversations are a valued commodity at Instacart, and they happen all over the place: in meetings, via instant messaging tools to connect the different remote offices, and at midday picnics for random groups of employees. The “random people picnics” help employees get to know each other, which Caldwell said makes decisions happen faster and improves efficiency.

“It happens at all different levels,” he said. “I have to partner with the head of engineering and our CFO on some business decisions for things we’re doing. Having worked with this engineer before, I know there are certain things that he’ll have questions on. I come prepared. I don’t have time to go to the meeting, hear his questions, go back and get answers, and then go back to him. Because I know him well, I come to those meetings with those answers ready. We don’t have time to be slow.”

The teams are passionate about getting things done quickly, solving problems, growing fast, and not lowering the bar. Kelsey Glass, administrative assistant, went on a picnic recently, and said they did talk about work a lot, but for a good reason: People are genuinely excited about the company and about their jobs.

“I always find it really interesting to hear stories of how the company has progressed over the years from some of our more senior team members,” Glass said. “We have really come a long way in three years.”

Training is currently on the priority list as the company works to inspire its employees and cultivate good leaders. The initiative is planned to transition into ongoing learning sessions where managers are continually given tools and information to help them be better people leaders.

“We’re disrupting a $1.7 trillion industry,” Caldwell said. “People go to grocery store usually once a week and it takes two to three hours. They want that time back. We recognize this is a huge opportunity to make customers happy.”

April Nowicki is a contributor at Street Fight.