Ilia Papas is the Founder and CTO of Blue Apron, fresh ingredients and great recipes delivered weekly to your home.
Our product is inherently social–not only are our customers generally cooking or eating with at least one other person, they are also very active on social media, so many of our customers have an idea of our benefits before they reach the site. We reduce potential friction by announcing recipes a week in advance and giving customers the ability to skip any week they choose, addressing any uncertainties the customer might have while signing up.
We have a pretty firm philosophy here of taking ownership of initiatives and running with them. This is intentional, but also happened somewhat organically due to the diverse set of skills our operation requires, spanning food, technology, marketing, operations—the list goes on. That diversity means we all have to trust each other’s decisions, but it also clears the way for people to take ownership of initiatives and push them forward without a lot of second-guessing and micromanagement, resulting in constant rapid progress.
When you’re shipping fresh food, quality customer service is everything. We generally do everything we can to accommodate our customers’ needs and often go above and beyond to make sure they’re receiving the best possible experience. For instance, a customer’s shipment was recently missing a container of tahini, and we called a local market in their neighborhood to deliver one to them free of charge.
When I first started telling people about the business, I was convinced that the convenience of having recipes and groceries delivered to your door would be our best selling point. However, as I used the product at home each week, I realized what really made Blue Apron special was the new ingredients and recipes that I would never discover on my own, much less every week. When I would pitch people, my genuine enthusiasm was evident, and I discovered that that enthusiasm can be contagious.
Our first delivery went out to 30 customers, which were comprised of our friends and family, and the product began to spread by word of mouth. Not surprisingly, word of mouth continues to be one of our most valuable sources of new customers. When people are constantly posting their dishes on Facebook and Instagram, word spreads fast.
Before starting Blue Apron, I had a stable job in Boston and a serious girlfriend (now fiancee). I had always wanted to start a company, and when my now-co-founder, Matt, asked me to help get a new venture off the ground in another city, I made the decision to leave my job and move to New York in the span of a couple of weeks. It felt incredibly risky at the time and confused my friends and family, but it ended up turning into a tremendous opportunity and I couldn’t be happier with how it’s turned out.
In addition to the obvious benefits of enabling your business to expand more quickly, raising capital can also be a powerful recruiting tool. Many of the best candidates want to be sure they’re joining a growing company that is going to have an impact, and while raising money does not guarantee success, it is an indicator that the business is moving at a rapid clip and investors believe the business has real potential.
When we were first getting started, we kept a very close eye on every customer that joined. When we recognized someone who had a massive social media following or members of press, we would take special care to make sure every ingredient in their box was absolutely perfect, and would sometimes even deliver their box in person.
When we were initially doing the research for Blue Apron, we went to the largest food distribution center in the world, Hunts Point Cooperative Market in the Bronx, which supplies 60 percent of the produce for New York City daily. We arrived at 4am (that’s when all the food comes in), and explored the miles (literally!) of produce and fish markets, introducing ourselves to vendors. It’s not safe to stand anywhere more than a few seconds, as there is a constant stream of motorized pallet jacks whizzing by with 2,000 pounds of pineapples, or a massive 10-foot crate containing a fresh-caught tuna—needless to say, the experience was surreal.
It’s OK to change course. Startups are always hard work, but if you’ve exhausted your options, and see that the potential you thought was there actually isn’t, it can be a blessing in disguise. Before starting Blue Apron, I was trying to get a children’s education startup off the ground in Boston, but it was slow going, and it was becoming clear that there were gaps in the business model. If the writing is on the wall, sometimes your best move is to take the experience you’ve gained and apply it where you believe there is true potential.