The Upstarts

How Instant Pot became a kitchen appliance with a cult following and a best-seller on Amazon

Robert Wang just wants to be the Steve Jobs of kitchen appliances.

"My hero is Steve Jobs. … He's excellent on design. He's excellent in understanding the needs of his customers," Wang, founder and CEO of Instant Brands, tells CNBC Make It.

He very well may achieve that. Much like Jobs with the iPhone and other Apple products, Wang has created a product with great attention to detail that has inspired cult-like devotion: Instant Pot.

Millions of fervent foodies have purchased an Instant Pot multicooker, making it one of the top-selling products sold in Amazon's Prime Day sales events in July 2016, with 215,000 Instant Pot 7-in-1 Multi-Functional Pressure Cookers sold, in 2017, and in 2018, when Instant Pot broke its own Prime Day record with 300,000 units sold over 36 hours. The company expects to be among the best-selling products on Amazon during the already busy holiday sales season too.

More than 5.5 million people follow an Instant Pot-related account on Facebook — 1.5 million follow Instant Pot's official Facebook page alone — where they gush over the product and swap recipes (from pot roast to cheesecake and yogurt) as well as user tips.

And recently, in a pitch-perfect example of how Instant Pot has penetrated the zeitgeist, rising young political star and newly elected New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who's been dubbed the most relatable politician ever) has even started having Instagram Live conversations about politics with her 780,000 followers over an Instant Pot. Earlier this month she held court while making Instant Pot macaroni and cheese, and a few days later, she asked her 1.2 million Twitter followers to submit their favorite Instant Pot recipes for future chats.

If you're one of the few who has not yet used the gadget (as a rice cooker, yogurt maker, browning pan, steamer or warming pot, among its other functions), it's likely you've at least been on the receiving end of some Instant Pot proselytizing from one of its many devotees: a Bloomberg critic called it "a magical pot" and Slate compared the product's faithful following to a "religion."

This is all according to the master plan of Wang, 54, who tells CNBC Make It that, in addition to worshipping Jobs, he's also trying to follow the example of tech titan Bill Gates and "put Instant Pot in every kitchen" (a nod to Gates' famous promise to put a computer in every home in the early days of Microsoft).

"It was a very ambitious statement [and] kind of laughable at the time," says Wang, who made the proclamation in a 2013 mission statement when he had just four or five employees. "But now it looks very much attainable."

Instant Brands CEO Robert Wang poses with two Instant Pot products.
Source: Robert Wang
Instant Brands CEO Robert Wang poses with two Instant Pot products.

Instant Pot started when Wang lost his job

Today, Ottawa, Ontario-based Instant Brands (which changed its name from Double Insight in May 2018) has nearly 90 employees and there seems to be no end in sight to its record-setting sales.

But it all started after Wang lost his job in 2008.

Wang had been the chief scientist at a mobile messaging company he'd co-founded in 2000, but the company's CEO shut down Wang's division, putting Wang out of the job (the company, Airwide Solutions, was later sold off). Despite having spent 14 years working on telecommunications technology, Wang decided to turn his attention toward solving a personal problem he had been pondering.

Robert Wang working for Canadian telecom Nortel in 1997.
Source: Robert Wang
Robert Wang working for Canadian telecom Nortel in 1997.

Wang and his wife, Tracy, both worked full time in the tech industry (his wife at telecom Nortel Networks, where Robert also used to work), which left them with a very relatable problem: They had little time to cook fast, tasty and healthy meals for their two young children, who were then 4 and 8, he tells CNBC Make It.

"We did a lot of takeout, fast food. Kids really love fast food," Wang says. "But my wife and myself don't think that's the way to raise our kids. So, at that point, I was dreaming about an automated cooking machine, which will help me cook [a] healthy dinner after work."

What's more, Wang knew he was far from alone. "I believed that people share the same issue I have, which is putting dinner on the table after a busy day," he says.

As a jumping off point, Wang, who has a Ph.D. in computer science and a background in artificial intelligence, thought of the Crock-Pot, a slow cooker that had been popular with working parents in the second half of the 20th century as more and more women joined the workforce, since it offered the ability to cook a full meal during the day while the family is out of the house.

"But we all know that, when we leave for work in the morning it's hectic," Wang says. "You don't have much time, and also you're eating your breakfast, you're [not] thinking about your dinner."

That's where Wang saw an opportunity to make things even easier with an all-in-one cooking product.

Wang, who was born in Harbin, China, and moved to Canada in the mid-1990s, also thought of the electric pressure cookers that were popular in his native China, which had microprocessors and multiple sensors, and as pressure cookers, cook faster.

"Not many people are planners," he says. "A much better solution is, [with] Instant Pot, you can actually come home with your groceries in hand and still put the dinner on the table within 30 to 40 minutes. So that there is the key advantage of Instant Pot."

He used his own money and sold it on Amazon

It took Wang roughly 18 months to develop the first iteration of the Instant Pot, including finding a manufacturer, ironing out the kinks of design, and tweaking the firmware and algorithms before releasing the first product on Amazon in October 2010.

Wang sank roughly $300,000 of his personal savings into the project to get it to market, he tells CNBC Make It. He originally had two partners who had previously worked with him at Nortel, but he says, "They did not believe in the idea" and left after just five months (Wang declined to name the two partners). Wang carried on by himself for another six months, he says, before another group of partners joined the effort, including two former BlackBerry employees: Yi Qin, who is now Instant Brands' vice president of product management, and Dongjun Wang, who serves as vice president of quality assurance.

During those 18 months, Wang says he worked to identify "prominent pain points" for consumers who cook at home with electrical appliances so he could design a product that offered solutions.

One of those pain points was an overcrowded kitchen, so Wang created Instant Pot to combine the functions of multiple devices. (The first Instant Pot offered five functions — pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker, steamer and warmer — while some of the most recent iterations claim to offer as many as 10 functions, including cake maker, egg cooker and more.)

Another big frustration for home chefs? Burned food. "It's a very frustrating experience," Wang says. "So as one of the key objectives, we needed to design a certain burn protection mechanism."

Wang put his computer science background to use developing a microprocessor along with heat and pressure sensors housed at the bottom of the device to monitor cooking temperature. One of the Instant Pot's safety mechanisms is burn protection, which flashes a warning message and automatically suspends heating if the temperature exceeds a certain limit (284 degrees Fahrenheit on most cooking functions).

It took Wang's team months of experiments in their home kitchens with a long list of foods and recipes, from baked potatoes to beef chili, to get the burn protection function as close to perfect as possible.

"Today, I would say over 90 percent of [the time] that Instant Pot will not not burn your food," Wang says, adding that the one time out of 10 where that might not be the case is usually due to some sort of starch solidifying at the bottom of the machine and then overheating.

Before the prototype was ready to hit the market, Wang enlisted his daughter, Addie, to help him test it. Though she was only 10, he chose her because "she's meticulous, picky and articulated. Meeting her standards is a joy to me," he says.

Instant Brands CEO Robert Wang with his family in 2008.
Source: Robert Wang
Instant Brands CEO Robert Wang with his family in 2008.

Wang (who currently keeps three Instant Pots running at all times at his family's home in Ottawa, cooking anything from ribs to porridge and beans), cooked meals in the prototype for several months in 2009 and Addie would decide if the food was up to snuff. She especially loved eating a breakfast of soft-boiled eggs with runny yolks — an often difficult proposition to get just right, as the eggs need to be cooked for just the right amount of time at a precise level of heat.

"If you do it on your stovetop, you have to stand by with a clock in hand," Wang says. "But, with the Instant Pot it is pretty easy. I had to run a few experiments and, once I got the timing right, [I knew] Instant Pot can do it consistently."

Sales trickle in, at first

Instant Pot was finally ready to hit the market in the fall of 2010. Wang drove around Canada himself pitching samples of the first-generation device to small brick-and-mortar retailers at home goods conventions.

The initial reception was less than enthusiastic. Why should they take a risk on a new product no one had ever heard of?

An early design idea for the Instant Pot logo that was later abandoned.
Source: Robert Wang
An early design idea for the Instant Pot logo that was later abandoned.

So Wang turned to online sales, trying to sell the Instant Pot everywhere from Amazon to eBay and electronics retailer Newegg, as well as Instant Brands' own website.

"It turned out Amazon is the perfect marketplace for us, because we get reviews from customers and those reviews really help us to determine what we need to do in the next iteration of the product," Wang tells CNBC Make It.

Instant Pot made its first Amazon sale in November 2010 for $140. Wang says he still remembers how ecstatic he was to think that someone believed in his product enough to buy it on Amazon. "It brings tremendous joy," he says.

Sales on Amazon started to trickle in, with about one or two units moving per day at first, and then within three months that increased to roughly 30 sales per day. "And then we shift our attention to Amazon entirely," Wang says.

It was in 2011 that Wang started religiously reading every single customer review of the Instant Pot on Amazon. Last year, he told CNBC Make It that he'd read nearly 40,000 Amazon reviews for his products, and it's a practice he continues to this day, though Wang says now he's lost count of the total number of reviews he's read.

In one case, in 2012, Wang read a review from a user who suggested that Instant Pot add a yogurt-making feature. When Wang added that function to the popular Duo series Instant Pot, he made sure to track down the reviewer and send him a free model, "as a token of gratitude," he says. (The Duo is now the most popular Instant Pot model, Wang says, and "millions have been sold.")

"They are honest customers telling us what they like, what they hate and what they wish for," Wang says of the customer reviews. "Those are the three key parameters that we always take into account in designing the next iteration of Instant Pot."

In 2011, Wang introduced the second-generation Instant Pot, which included a saute function. That version also featured a remodeled interface, because some customers had been confused by the earlier generation's mysteriously blinking dashes when the Instant Pot was plugged in. Wang made sure that later models clearly displayed "On" or "Off" to let users know whether their Instant Pot is cooking or not.

It was that second-generation Instant Pot — the Lux 6-in-1 Multi-Use Programmable Pressure Cooker, which also sold for $140 — that made Wang's company profitable. The updated device became an Amazon best-seller in the multicooker category by the summer of 2012, selling 2,000 units per month, Wang says.

But there was much more to come.

In 2015, Instant Pot launched its Facebook page because Wang "realized we need additional engagement with our end users, getting feedback [and] understanding what they use Instant Pot for," he says, plus he chose to rely primarily on word-of-mouth promotion because he had such a limited budget and he wanted to spend the bulk of it on the product. He felt Instant Pot could have the potential to go viral, so he also sent a few hundred free devices to a list of food bloggers with large followings and celebrity chefs to help get some exposure. By the following summer, in 2016, the buzz around Instant Pot had grown to a fever pitch.

That led to Instant Pot's true breakthrough moment, when Amazon sold out all 215,000 of its Instant Pot inventory on Prime Day that July. Wang remembers the day well: Though he'd worked with Amazon for months to plan for the sale, it felt "unreal" and "very unnerving," he says.

Each subsequent Prime Day has also been a banner sales period for Instant Pot, as has the Black Friday through Cyber Monday sales period after Thanksgiving in the U.S., Wang says. However, he also notes that the revenue from those periods does not account for a lopsided amount of his company's total annual sales, suggesting that Instant Pot products sell relatively briskly year-round. (Amazon did not respond to requests to comment for this article.)

There are now roughly 10 versions of the Instant Pot for sale on Instant Brands' website, ranging in price from about $65 for a Lux Mini 6-in-1 three-quart model to nearly $180 for the Ultra 10-in-1 eight-quart model. (The products' prices can vary by retailer.)

In another nod to Wang's hero, Steve Jobs, the Instant Brands CEO tells CNBC Make It that his company follows a "pretty strict release schedule," introducing an updated version of the Instant Pot every 12 to 18 months. "[A]fter having Instant Pot for over 12 months, and the next shining Instant Pot is on the market, people do upgrade and the older one is either given away to family and friends or being used as the second unit at home," Wang says.

Instant Pots are now also sold by dozens of other retailers like Best Buy, Target, Walmart and Williams Sonoma (the latter of which even collaborated with Instant Pot on a line of meal-starter sauces and spices).

Not everything has been perfect of course. Instant Pot had a pair of product recalls: In 2015 it recalled more than 1,100 "Smart" model pressure cookers after receiving a handful of complaints about users getting an electric shock when the product was in use. Then in March, the company recalled more than 100,000 Gem 65 8-in-1 Multi-cookers due to reports of the product overheating causing a possible fire hazard.

Wang says the latter issue was a manufacturing defect and it did not have anything to do with the product's design, including its burn protection feature. "Safety is a primary concern to the company," Wang tells CNBC Make It, noting that it voluntarily recalled the product. "We have to be responsible to our users."

As a privately held company, Instant Brands does not release its revenue, but Wang says "several million" people have purchased Instant Pots and the company's sales have doubled every year since 2011.

Spreading the gospel

The eye-popping and record-breaking online sales of Instant Pot are largely fueled by the word-of-mouth marketing strategy that Wang has maintained since the beginning.

"It is very, very persuasive, because it's your friend, it's your family who's actually convincing you that you need an Instant Pot," Wang says. "It's a grassroots approach of marketing." He says many customers told him they have recommended Instant Pot to 10 to 15 other people.

Indeed, according to NPD Group home industry analyst Joe Derochowski, one of the keys to Instant Pot's success has been "an approach to engage and connect with their consumers" that's helped to foster an online community of super fans.

"Their approach was really to try to build a community and they were able to do that, where I think sometimes some manufacturers, when they created their Facebook page, it was more to sell the product," Derochowski tells CNBC Make It.

In fact, it's spawned a cottage industry of fandom. Various Instant Pot enthusiasts have amassed their own online followings with a seemingly never-ending thirst for Instant Pot recipes and tips. Facebook offers roughly 200 different groups dedicated to Instant Pot, Wang says, with one group even lovingly dubbing themselves "Potheads" in a reference to Wang's product.

Take Coco Morante, a food blogger who lives in Portland, Oregon, and received her first Instant Pot as a Christmas present from her husband in 2014. She started an Instant Pot Facebook page that "went pretty viral, pretty quickly." Some of her first posts, involving recipes for dishes like mac 'n' cheese and cheesecake, would receive as many as 10,000 views within an hour of her posting them.

Now her Facebook group called, simply, "Instant Pot Recipes," has nearly 440,000 followers. She's written two cookbooks in the past two years on the subject, "The Essential Instant Pot Cookbook" and "The Ultimate Instant Pot Cookbook," both published by an imprint of Penguin Random House.

A food blogger since 2011, Morante had already been thinking about writing a cookbook and the rabid interest in Instant made it clear to Morante that she should ride that wave of popularity. "When the [Facebook] page kind of blew up, and suddenly I had a platform and people who were really interested in having a cookbook for the Instant Pot, it just was a no-brainer," she says.

In fact, Wang estimates that more than 2,000 Instant Pot cookbooks have been written by amateurs and professionals alike, including numerous Amazon best-sellers on specialized cooking focuses ranging from vegan to ketogenic and paleo diets. It seems that no matter what your particular culinary or dietary preference, there is likely to be an Instant Pot chef, blogger or cookbook to suit your needs.

The Instant Pot, for example, has especially been embraced by Indian chefs, such as Chandra Ram, editor of the food magazine Plate. The Kentucky-born Ram, who is half-Indian, bought her first Instant Pot last year. She went to culinary school, but she still felt like she "didn't cook Indian as well as I wanted to, as often as I wanted to, but once I got the Instant Pot I was like, 'Oh, I can do these things,'" she tells CNBC Make It. Now her book, "The Complete Indian Instant Pot Cookbook," was released in October.

Of course, Wang is aware that followings can be fickle. But he is intent on keeping Instant Pot owners happy in order to avoid becoming the next kitchen fad. The majority of the company's profits are plunged back into areas like research and development and a "large portion" of Instant Pot's growing roster of employees work on the customer service team, according to Wang.

"What concerns me is always user experience," Wang tells CNBC Make It. "When reading customer reviews, some customer was saying that they are afraid of opening the Instant Pot. That worries me. So, market education [and] ensuring a good user experience are those important issues which are always on my mind." The company now produces its own YouTube videos with cooking tutorials using the Instant Pot, for instance.

Wang is confident he's succeeding. "I think we have got into the mainstream ... it is becoming part of people's daily life."

Competition is heating up

Instant Pot's popularity has helped invigorate the larger market for multicookers in the U.S.: It has grown by roughly 99 percent so far this year, after increasing by about 79 percent to more than $300 million in 2017, making multicookers one of the fastest-growing product categories in the retail sector in the past two years, NPD analyst Derochowski tells CNBC Make It.

Derochowski expects multicookers like Instant Pot to be among the top-selling products during the current holiday shopping season, with sales continuing to grow in 2019.

While Instant Pot enjoys a significant market share advantage according to Wang (it accounts for more than 80 percent of the market in 2018 up from around 73 percent in 2017, he says), rival products are actively trying to take a bite out of its lead.

You could argue that Crock-Pot, which sold millions of products several decades ago before enthusiasm died down, was the original Instant Pot in terms of its popularity as a time saver in the kitchen. Now Crock-Pot is looking to siphon off some of the buzz around Instant Pot with its own versions of an all-inclusive multicooker — a line it's calling the Crock-Pot Express Crock Multi-Cooker — that hit the market in September.

The new Crock-Pot products are a potential threat to Instant Pot, according to Derochowski, because of its "brand heritage and brand knowledge." He also points to other potential competitors like the Ninja Foodi multicooker, which recently added an air fryer (super popular among the healthy cooking set) to a list of functions that also includes pressure cooker and steamer.

Crock-Pot released its new line of Express Crock Multi-Cookers in September 2018.
Source: Newell Brands
Crock-Pot released its new line of Express Crock Multi-Cookers in September 2018.

But those products have not stolen Instant Pot's market share yet, Derochowski notes. "Instant Pot has done very well this year" and despite the competition continues to grow, Derochowski tells CNBC Make It . "How will that play in the future? I don't know, but I have a feeling they're still going to be a force."

And there's plenty more room to grow, as NPD's research has found that only about 11.5 percent of U.S. households currently have a multi-cooker.

Staying hungry

Instant Pot's success has not really changed life for Wang or his family, he says. "I still live in the same house, drive a slightly better SUV (because my previous car died) [and] work the same long hours as before." Wang upgraded from a Toyota Highlander to a Mercedes Benz GLE and still works 70 hours a week.

And while Wang is still regularly turning out new iterations of the popular Instant Pot, he's also unafraid to take a risk on new products.

In September, Instant Brands plunged into a completely new market category, releasing the Instant Pot Ace Blender, which is sold exclusively at Walmart. The "multi-use cooking and beverage blender" can make smoothies, almond milk and frozen desserts, but is also powerful enough to heat up liquids and make soups. At a price of $99, the Ace Blender could compete with high-end blenders, like the Vitamix, that perform similar functions but sell for hundreds of dollars more.

And Wang isn't ready to stop there. At the end of the day, he thinks that other kitchen appliance manufacturers have not been innovative enough in terms of meeting the needs of their customers. While Wang isn't willing to name the other types of kitchen appliances he'd like to tackle and improve down the road, it's safe to say he's ready to think outside of the box.

The best advice Wang has ever heard came from his role model, Steve Jobs. "Stay hungry. Stay foolish," Jobs said.

"I think I was foolish enough to believe that I can pull [Instant Pot] off in the early days," Wang says. "If I was too wise, I may [have given] up halfway through."

Even now that his company is successful, Wang still sees the importance of being both hungry and foolish. His ambition is for the Instant Pot to replace slow cookers in the 85 percent of American kitchens that currently have them. "I really believe that Instant Pot can play a role in over 85 percent of households in the American family."

"Cooking is not a solitary event," Wang says. "You cook for your family, you cook for your friends; if you create a wonderful dish, you'll brag about it.

"So that's how Instant Pot become viral. People used Instant Pot, loved it because it really solved their problems, and they want their friends and families solving the same problems, as well."

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