At a nondescript office in a Kanata North business park, Robert Wang is revolutionizing the way North Americans solve the nightly dilemma of what’s for dinner.
And if his invention, the electric pressure-cooking phenomenon known as the Instant Pot, happens to save a few marriages while it helps time-starved families prepare meals, so much the better.
“We create value to people’s life,” says Wang, noting that some of the Instant Pot’s devoted fans – known as “Potheads” – really have suggested that the device has kept married couples together by alleviating the daily stress of figuring out what to eat. “Those are life-changing benefits to people.”
Wang, a software engineer by training, is on a mission to put an Instant Pot in every home. He’s not there yet, although it might seem like it based on the tens of thousands of glowing reviews the cooker has received online and the millions of followers it has attracted on social media.
“The Instant Pot Has Seriously Changed My Life,” reads a typical rave on Amazon, echoing Wang’s words. The Instant Pot’s official Facebook page, meanwhile, now has more than 1.5 million members, who swap recipes, offer cooking tips and help guide newcomers through the device’s eccentricities.
A perfectionist who’s constantly looking for ways to improve his invention, Wang keeps regular tabs on the Facebook page and says he reads just about every customer review on Amazon in his effort to collect customer feedback on the device, both good and bad.
“I focus more on the negative ones,” he says with a chuckle.
In the process, he’s turned the home-cooking appliance industry on its head.
The Instant Pot is the runaway leader in the electric multicooker category south of the border, ranking among Amazon and Target’s top five best-selling items on Black Friday in 2017. It’s been the No. 1 item on the Amazon Prime Day sales chart for three years running, moving 300,000 units on the e-commerce site in a span of just 19 hours earlier this year.
“There are other players in this space, but really it’s Instant Pot that’s leading the way,” says Dave Adamchick, an analyst at the Canadian office of global market research firm NPD Group. “They have some of that first-mover’s advantage, and because they sort of got there first to mass retail, they sort of captured the mindshare.”
More than 90 per cent of all Instant Pot sales are in the United States, where NPD says the market for electric multicookers grew 79 per cent last year to more than $300 million. The appliance is also rapidly gaining in popularity in Europe and South Africa, says Wang, adding that its parent company, Instant Brands, is working on a “global expansion plan.”
Its creator foresees no lack of future customers.
“The problem that we are trying to solve is really to help people put dinner on the table. It’s a pretty common problem to everybody on Earth.”
“The problem that we are trying to solve is really to help people put dinner on the table,” Wang says. “It’s a pretty common problem to everybody on Earth.”
A native of Harbin, China, Wang earned a PhD in computer science and initially planned on a career in artificial intelligence. After moving to Ottawa in 1994 to work for Bell-Northern Research and later Nortel, he spent more than a decade in telecom and tech before being laid off in 2008 when the global financial crisis hit.
He then attempted to launch his own tech startup, but his role in the venture ended after less than a year. That’s when he realized there was a massive consumer problem crying out for a solution right in his own kitchen.
'You have to prove yourself'
For years, Wang and his wife had been trying to balance busy careers in tech with the demands of raising two young children. Meal times were a constant struggle.
“It was very challenging to fix a dinner – especially a healthy dinner,” Wang says during an interview with OBJ at Instant Brands’ new headquarters on March Road. “Kids love to go to McDonald’s, to Burger King. But as parents, we didn’t think that that’s the way to bring up the kids. I was thinking it would be wonderful if I could have a cooking appliance to automate the process of making dinner.”
He spent the next 18 months developing a device that used cutting-edge technology to combine the functions of a pressure cooker and a slow cooker, working with a couple of other engineers and pouring $350,000 of his own savings into the effort.
Wang initially tried to get the product into brick-and-mortar stores, where his invention received a decidedly lukewarm response.
“It didn’t work because it was a brand new concept,” he explains. “You have to prove yourself.”
The Instant Pot made its debut on Amazon in late 2010, quickly catching the attention of food writers. In a savvy marketing move, the company began cultivating relationships with cookbook writers and food bloggers, sending test models to hundreds of influential chefs. Their rave reviews generated a buzz around the product, which soon became an Amazon favourite.
“I find them really interesting because they don’t have a traditional marketing structure,” Los Angeles-based food blogger Laurel Randolph, the author of two bestselling cookbooks devoted to Instant Pot recipes, says of the Kanata-based company.
“Especially when they were getting started, they didn’t advertise really at all. People just found it, I guess, and spread the word. Social media helped a lot. They kind of became something that people were talking about.”
Wang also brought a “high-tech release approach” to the cooking appliance business, unveiling a new model every 12 to 18 months and incorporating user feedback and suggestions into each new version of the Instant Pot. Each new release has spawned a new wave of cookbooks – thousands have now been written – and adoring Facebook groups.
Once it became an online sensation, the Instant Pot – which is manufactured in China – had no trouble finding a home on traditional retailers’ shelves. While Amazon is still its biggest platform, the product is now a staple at major department store and houseware chains across North America.
As a privately held company, Instant Brands doesn’t reveal sales figures, but Wang says the firm has been doubling in size every year since it was founded. Despite growing competition from major brands such as Black & Decker, Breville and Cuisinart that have introduced their own multicookers in an effort to capitalize on Instant Pot’s success, it remains the “dominant” force in the category, Adamchick says.
The company recently unveiled its latest model, the Instant Pot Max. In October, it’s set to launch what Wang calls a “cooking blender” that will make soup at the push of the button. (It will initially debut at Walmarts south of the border, with a Canadian rollout later on.)
Fresh off its second office move in just 18 months, Double Insight is now at about 60 employees and plans to hire up to 20 more in the near future as it expands its worldwide reach, Wang says. After years of putting marketing on the back burner while it focused on product development and customer support, the company is now looking for brand managers and experts in “market education” to convince consumers who are still wary of pressure cookers to take the plunge.
But brand management expertise is hard to come by in Ottawa, Wang laments, noting he’s had to look beyond the city’s borders to Toronto and Vancouver for new recruits.
“It’s difficult to find people with consumer product, packaged product experience in Ottawa,” he says. “We really need to have local talent to join us and help us to stay ahead with innovation. We have so many ideas.”
Electric multicookers are still found in fewer than 15 per cent of U.S. households, Wang notes, while traditional slow cookers have a market penetration of more than 30 per cent. That gap, while shrinking, provides a constant source of motivation for the tech guru-turned-pressure cooker king.
“My plan is to build a brand which will last more than 50-plus years. Why? Because Crock-Pot has been around for 47 years,” Wang says, referring to the world’s No. 1 brand of slow cookers. “We’ve got to be able to do better because we solved the problem much better than they did.”