20VC Instacart CEO Fidji Simo on Why You Need Sponsors Not Mentors, Where Management Skills Align with Good Parenting & The First 100 Days as CEO at Instacart; The Challenges, The Surprises and The Next Chapter

Summary Notes


In an insightful conversation on 20 BC with Harry Stebings, Fiji Simo, the CEO of Instacart, reflects on her remarkable journey from the daughter of a fisherman in France to leading a major tech company. She discusses her relentless work ethic, instilled by her family, which has been pivotal in her rise through the ranks at Facebook and in co-founding Metrodora, dedicated to advancing women's health. Simo emphasizes the importance of hiring for curiosity and grit over experience, the value of sponsorships over mentorships, and the significance of creating a work environment where team members can take ambitious bets without fear of failure. She also shares her vision for Instacart's future, focusing on innovating the food industry through technology and strong partnerships with retailers.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Fiji Simo and Instacart

  • Fiji Simo is the CEO of Instacart, a service for ordering from local stores and delivering to your door.
  • She joined the Instacart board ten months prior and became CEO three months ago.
  • Fiji has a background at Facebook, where she spent ten years and held positions such as head of Facebook app and vice president of games, video, and monetization.
  • She co-founded Metrodora, an integrated medical ecosystem focused on advancing women's health.
  • Acknowledgements were given to Julia Cordonier, Mike Moritz, Jeff Jordan, and Dan Rose for their help with the episode.

"I'm so thrilled to welcome Fiji Simo, CEO at Instacart." "Fiji joined the Instacart board ten months ago and joined three months ago as full-time CEO." "Fiji also earlier this year announced her cofounding of Metrodora, an integrated medical ecosystem with the vision of advancing women's health."

The quotes confirm Fiji Simo's current position at Instacart and her recent endeavors, including the founding of Metrodora.

Fiji Simo's Background and Upbringing

  • Fiji is originally from Sète in France, coming from a family of fishermen.
  • She decided to find a different career path after experiencing seasickness.
  • Her upbringing in a French Sicilian family centered around food and deep family values.
  • Fiji sees her work at Instacart as coming full circle with her food-oriented upbringing.

"My father took me out at sea when I was pretty young and I was so horribly seasick that I realized that I would need to find another line of business." "So grew up with deep family values, and it kind of feels a little bit like going full circle to work at Instacart and work on something food related."

The quotes illustrate the influence of Fiji's early life on her career path and her connection to Instacart's focus on food.

Work Ethic and Influence of Family

  • Fiji's family instilled a strong work ethic from a young age.
  • Her father and grandfather were fishermen with demanding schedules, which shaped her own dedication to hard work.
  • The belief that hard work opens doors was a fundamental lesson from her family.

"My grandfather would always say, you can have pretty much any flaws, and I will still love you, but you cannot be lazy." "They made me feel like everything was possible and that it was in my hands."

The quotes emphasize the importance of hard work and the belief in limitless potential taught by Fiji's family.

Balancing Work and Parenthood

  • Fiji admits to working hard and often but chooses jobs she is passionate about to avoid burnout.
  • Becoming a mother created a healthy pressure to balance work with being present for her daughter.

"I have always picked jobs that I loved, and I think if I was working that hard on something that I was less passionate about, I would burn out." "Since I became a mom, I also really want to make sure that the way in which I work is compatible with being very present for my daughter."

The quotes address how passion for work and motherhood has influenced Fiji's approach to balancing professional and personal life.

Management Style and Parenthood

  • Fiji believes in finding and highlighting the unique qualities in people, both in management and parenting.
  • She applies many of her management tools to parenting, focusing on nurturing her daughter's unique talents.

"I really focus on what makes each individual in my team, just magical and unique." "I see that with my daughter. I just look at her, and the way I see education is fundamentally helping her find what's magical about her and making sure it shines as bright as possible."

These quotes draw parallels between Fiji's management style and her approach to parenting, emphasizing individual strengths.

Career Progression at Facebook

  • Fiji's rise at Facebook was described as meteoric.
  • She started at Facebook in a marketing communications role, despite lacking traditional qualifications.
  • Demonstrated initiative by creating a project over Thanksgiving weekend to showcase her capabilities, leading to her hiring.

"I didn't have the skill set on paper to even apply for the job I applied to... so I spent my entire Thanksgiving weekend inventing a new product called Facebook Stores... and I just sent that to the hiring manager saying, like, hey, you may not be convinced that I can do the job on paper, but I put in all this work, so please consider me."

The quote highlights Fiji's proactive approach to overcoming perceived skill gaps and her determination to secure a position at Facebook.

Beginning of Journey at Facebook

  • Fiji Simo started at Facebook in marketing communications.
  • She learned from product managers and did part of their job in her spare time.
  • Product managers suggested she should move to product management.
  • Despite lacking formal experience, she demonstrated her capability to do the job.

So that was kind of the beginning of my journey at Facebook.

This quote marks the start of Fiji Simo's career at Facebook, emphasizing her proactive approach to learning and career development.

Transition to Product Management

  • Fiji transitioned to product management without the traditional skill set.
  • She was tasked with monetizing mobile post-IPO, a time when it was doubted that Facebook could monetize mobile.
  • Her success in this role, with the help of her team, accelerated her career trajectory.

I moved into product. And then, you know, I was put in charge of monetizing mobile kind of right after the IPO.

The quote explains Fiji's transition to product management and her significant role in a pivotal project for Facebook, highlighting her career progression.

Inflection Moments at Facebook

  • Monetizing mobile was a significant moment for Fiji and Facebook.
  • She was instrumental in setting up video and entertainment initiatives.
  • Fiji's career growth was fueled by making successful bets on projects like Facebook Live and Facebook Watch.
  • She is grateful to Mark Zuckerberg for supporting her in these ventures.

I think figuring out how to monetize mobile and really having that takeoff was a very big moment because it was critical for the company to figure that out.

This quote reflects on a crucial turning point in Fiji's career and Facebook's history, underscoring the importance of her contributions.

Creating an Environment of Safety for Ambitious Bets

  • Fiji acknowledges the importance of creating a safe environment for teams to take ambitious bets.
  • She learned the importance of being at her best as a leader to inspire her team.
  • Fiji focuses on creating conditions for her team to thrive, showing support and taking on pressure.

Fundamentally, you are not going to crack a hard problem on a series of bad days.

This quote captures the realization that leadership is about enabling the team to perform optimally, especially when facing challenging problems.

Decision-Making and Problem-Solving Approach

  • Fiji believes in being inflexible on goals but flexible on methods.
  • She emphasizes the importance of understanding user needs and being willing to iterate products.
  • Fiji simplifies complex issues into components to identify where breakdowns occur.

I think you need to be inflexible on the destination and the goal and the user need you're trying to achieve and very flexible on how to get there.

The quote conveys Fiji's philosophy on goal-setting and problem-solving, focusing on the end goal while being adaptable in approach.

Leadership and Organizational Strategy

  • Leading large organizations involves different challenges than being involved in every product detail.
  • Fiji's strategy includes hiring trustworthy people and communicating a clear framework.
  • She believes that needing to get involved in details indicates a breakdown in strategy communication or personnel.

I think it's just a different set of challenges.

This quote summarizes the transition from hands-on product involvement to strategic leadership, highlighting the need for trust and clear communication.

Hiring Philosophy

  • Fiji advocates for hiring based on talent and ambition rather than just experience.
  • Her own career benefited from others taking chances on her despite her lack of experience.
  • She encourages flexibility and the willingness to take a chance on promising individuals.

So my strong bias is the latter. But you understand why, right?

This quote reveals Fiji's personal bias towards hiring for potential over experience, influenced by her own career path.

Curiosity and Grit in Hiring

  • Curiosity and hunger for learning are critical traits for overcoming lack of experience.
  • Experience is less important than the propensity to learn and the presence of grit in many roles.
  • The importance of these traits varies depending on the specificity of the job, such as physics or AI roles.

"But I think I find that people who are curious and who are hungry can figure pretty much anything out."

This quote emphasizes the value of curiosity and the drive to learn as key attributes that can substitute for direct experience in many fields.

"So you want to check that they have this propensity to constantly learn."

This quote underscores the importance of assessing a candidate's continuous desire to learn as a critical factor in the hiring process.

Evaluating Problem-Solving Skills

  • Assessing problem-solving skills is essential when considering candidates for roles like chief of staff.
  • A candidate's approach to problem-solving can be evaluated by asking them how they would solve a problem.
  • Insight into a candidate's mindset can be gained by observing whether they focus on issues or on finding solutions.

"And so the way I looked for that is just by asking her a lot of questions on how she would solve a problem."

This quote explains the method used to evaluate a candidate's problem-solving abilities, which involves asking them to navigate hypothetical problems.

"And you want the latter people."

The quote distinguishes between two types of problem solvers: those who focus on issues and those who focus on figuring things out and reaching solutions.

Preparation and Research for Interviews

  • Candidates who thoroughly prepare for interviews by researching the interviewer and the company often make a strong impression.
  • Demonstrated knowledge about the interviewer and the company can be more convincing than extensive experience.

"My chief of staff had come to the interview having read everything about me already, adding a point of view on the thing that I needed to change the types of challenges I would, you know, that totally convinced me."

This quote illustrates the impact of a candidate's meticulous preparation and research on the interviewer, which can be more persuasive than a long resume.

The Importance of Sponsorship Over Mentorship

  • Sponsorship is considered more valuable than mentorship in career advancement.
  • Sponsors actively advocate and open doors for individuals, whereas mentors primarily provide advice.
  • Women, in particular, are encouraged to seek advocates rather than just mentors.

"I don't think mentors are that critical. I think sponsors are, and there's a very big difference there."

The quote draws a distinction between mentors and sponsors, highlighting the latter's more active role in advancing someone's career.

"I really need to build advocates around you and people who are going to be opening doors, not just giving you advice."

This quote emphasizes the need to cultivate relationships with individuals who will actively support and facilitate career opportunities.

Mutual Investment in Manager-Employee Relationships

  • Building win-win relationships with managers is essential for mutual success.
  • Employees should feel invested in their manager's success and provide feedback to support their advancement.
  • Hierarchical structures are less important than the concept of serving one's team.

"And so the relationship we had was that one where he was making me successful, for sure, but I was also really invested in making him successful."

This quote describes a symbiotic relationship between a manager and employee that benefits both parties' careers.

"I fundamentally don't believe in hierarchy."

The speaker rejects the traditional view of hierarchy, favoring a collaborative approach to team dynamics and management.

Choosing Instacart for Its Mission and Complexity

  • The speaker was drawn to Instacart's complex marketplace and mission-driven approach.
  • The mission of Instacart resonated with the speaker's values and background.
  • The decision to join Instacart was influenced by the company's potential impact on the future of food and nutrition.

"And the mission of Instacart is just to help people get access to food and spend more time enjoying it with the people they love."

The quote explains the speaker's alignment with Instacart's mission, which was a pivotal factor in their decision to join the company as CEO.

Emotions and Challenges in Career Transitions

  • Career changes can be emotionally challenging, especially when leaving a company where personal and professional lives are intertwined.
  • The decision to move to Instacart was difficult due to emotional ties and loyalty to the speaker's previous company.

"And so a lot of what I was debating was not just leaving a mission that I cared deeply about, leaving a career I cared deeply about, but it was also leaving a set of people that I had invested so much in and had so much loyalty to."

This quote captures the emotional complexity involved in making a significant career change, including leaving behind close relationships and a meaningful mission.

Priorities and Surprises in the First 30 Days as CEO

  • Establishing relationships with the team and retail partners was a priority for the first 30 days as CEO.
  • The speaker was pleasantly surprised by the dedication of Instacart employees and the depth of relationships with retail partners.
  • The role of CEO at Instacart is more externally focused compared to the speaker's previous role.

"I think I thought about the fact that my number one priority, again, was building relationships."

The quote highlights the importance of relationship-building as a foundational step for a new CEO in a company.

"And the relationships that we have with our retail partners are just also very deep."

This quote reflects the speaker's realization of the established and significant relationships that Instacart maintains with its retail partners, which was a positive discovery in the new role.

Role of a Public Market CEO

  • CEOs must maintain long-term focus and not be swayed by short-term market pressures.
  • Decision-making should not change drastically when a company goes from private to public.
  • Public companies require increased rigor, but core decision-making should remain consistent.
  • Having a role model like Mark Zuckerberg helped Fiji Simo to understand the importance of maintaining focus on serving people and the mission, regardless of the company's public status.

"Well, I hope it doesn't change much, because fundamentally, I think the decisions that I'm making now are decisions that I'm making so that we set the company up well for the next decade." "I really want to continue anchoring this long term focus and build this business to be a long term epic." "It was really all about how do we sell people best and how do we sell our mission best."

The quotes emphasize the importance of long-term planning and decision-making for CEOs, regardless of whether their company is public or private. Fiji Simo draws on her experience at Facebook during its IPO and Mark Zuckerberg's leadership to highlight the need for consistency in serving the company's mission.

Personal Interests and Inspirations

  • Fiji Simo has a passion for fantasy and circuses, which influenced her board position at Cirque du Soleil.
  • Creativity is a central value for her, and she believes it should be at the heart of every business.
  • Personal interests can provide valuable insights and inspiration for professional life.

"The night circus from Erin Morgensen. Because I love fantasy and circuses." "You always need to put creativity at the center of everything you do."

Fiji Simo's love for fantasy and circuses reflects her personal interests and how they intersect with her professional values, like prioritizing creativity in business practices.

Personal Preferences and Social Media Engagement

  • Fiji Simo enjoys Nutella and shares this preference openly on social media.
  • Her public mention of Nutella on social media led to a positive engagement from the brand.
  • Personal anecdotes can resonate with audiences and lead to unexpected brand interactions.

"I might eat several jars a week. Nutella, I would say, like best on bread every morning." "Nutella reached out to me, telling me that they wanted to send me a surprise, and they sent me this ginormous box of Nutella."

The quotes show Fiji Simo's personal preference for Nutella and how sharing this detail on social media led to a positive interaction with the brand, demonstrating the power of social media engagement.

Advice and Self-Reflection

  • The importance of taking time to recharge is recognized, but it can be challenging to follow this advice.
  • Engaging in creative activities like painting and sculpting can be recharging.
  • Self-awareness about personal strengths and embracing individuality is crucial for confidence and effective work.

"Take time to recharge." "I paint and I sculpt in my spare time, so I spend a lot of time on my weekends with my daughter, sculpting magic ones, and that's a way for me to recharge."

Fiji Simo advises the need to take breaks and recharge to improve decision-making but acknowledges the difficulty in doing so. She uses creative activities as a form of relaxation and recharging.

Embracing Individuality

  • Recognizing and celebrating one's unique traits can be advantageous in the workplace.
  • There can be pressure to conform to norms, but authenticity is key to confidence and performance.
  • Individual differences should be seen as strengths rather than obstacles.

"Your difference and your uniqueness is something to be celebrated and might be an advantage instead of trying to conform to the norm."

This quote captures the essence of embracing one's individuality and the realization that personal differences can be advantageous in a professional setting.

Vision for Women's Health and Advocacy

  • Women's health, particularly outside of reproductive issues, is an area that requires more attention and research funding.
  • Advocacy for health issues can be a personal passion and drive meaningful action.
  • Raising awareness through influential platforms can lead to change and support for underrepresented health concerns.

"3 million women in the US are suffering from neuroimmune diseases, and no one seems to care. Time to fund research and time to find a cure."

Fiji Simo uses her platform to advocate for women's health issues, specifically neuroimmune diseases, emphasizing the need for research and a cure.

Future of Instacart and Food Industry

  • Instacart aims to inspire people with their food choices and improve health through personalized diets.
  • The company's goal is to create a platform that enables new food products to reach their audience.
  • Instacart plans to support retail partners in competing with Amazon by providing technology tools that strengthen local communities.

"I want to invent the future of food alongside our retail partners." "I think it means that we will have helped our retail partners really compete against Amazon, and we will have given them all of the technology tools so that they remain at the center of local communities and allow local communities to thrive."

Fiji Simo outlines her vision for Instacart's future, focusing on innovation in the food industry, personalized health, and empowering local retail partners through technology.

Building Full Stack Banking for Startups

  • Mercury offers FDIC insured bank accounts, debit cards, wires, and integrations with various startup tools.
  • Mercury provides unique features like API access and team management.
  • The company supports startups with Mercury Raise, connecting them to top investors.

"Mercury is building full stack banking for startups."

This quote summarizes the services offered by Mercury, aimed at providing comprehensive banking solutions for startups.

Scaling Engineering Teams

  • Terminal helps tech companies scale their engineering teams by providing pre-vetted global remote talent.
  • The platform handles administrative, legal, and HR support to mitigate operational risks for companies.
  • Terminal has facilitated hiring developers for several high-growth tech companies.

"Terminal helps fast growing tech companies rapidly scale engineering teams."

The quote highlights Terminal's role in assisting tech companies in scaling their engineering teams by providing access to a global talent pool and managing backend support.

Investment Management with AngelList

  • AngelList offers a fund administration platform for managing investments.
  • The platform simplifies back-office operations for fund managers.
  • AngelList enables investments into startups through a unified online system.

"I just love using Angelist fund admin platform to manage my investments."

This quote reflects the ease and convenience provided by AngelList's platform for investment management, allowing fund managers to focus on working with founders.

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