Nearly a decade ago, when Robert Wang was 44 years old, he was laid off from his job. He'd dreamed of working in artificial intelligence, but this was the height of the financial crisis, and the world suddenly looked like a very different place.
He decided he needed to make a change. Wang turned his attention--and his PhD in computer science--toward the kitchen, which he reasoned was one of the last big markets that hadn't yet been completely disrupted by 21st-century technology.
He pulled together $350,000, recruited two other engineers, and spent a year and a half developing a new breed of kitchen appliance: one that would let harried home chefs slow cook, sauté, and pressure cook food--much faster than other options.
Sales weren't exactly gangbusters at first, and so with no marketing budget, he relaunched in 2013 with a new name: iPot. That name didn't last--trademark lawyers saw a showdown with Apple in his future--but a move he made around the same time did. He sent 200 free samples to "influential chefs, cooking instructors, and food bloggers," as a recent profile in The New York Times put it.
He came up with yet another name: Instant Pot. And it was almost an instant success.
Go on Amazon, Target, or Kohl's today, and you'll find Instant Pot near the top of the charts across all categories of products. It's consistently the top-selling kitchen and home appliance on Amazon. Arguably, it could very well be the most successful product on Amazon that isn't actually produced by Amazon itself.
Recently, the Times sent a reporter to Wang's company's headquarters in Ontario--a "sterile, gray office building on the outskirts of Ottawa, behind a door marked only by a small metal sign"--to figure out what made it work.
Here are the takeaways, and the inspiring lessons in case you'd happen to like to become a millionaire mogul too.
1. A great product
We should note that while the Times describes Wang as having been laid off in 2008, he doesn't appear to have been truly down and out. For one thing, he was in fact able to generate $350,000 to fund the early iteration of his company. And another account, on CNBC, suggests he actually was one of the co-founders of his previous company.
Regardless, necessity was literally the mother of invention, as Wang says he and his fellow engineers decided to build the pressure cooker they wished they had been able to buy, given their crazy work schedules and desire to eat more healthily. It seemed the state of the art in slow cooker technology--the rice cooker and the Crock-Pot for example--hadn't really changed in decades.
"Our parents and our grandmothers lived a very different life. Those legacy appliances haven't evolved that much to cater to the needs of our generation," Wang told CNBC.
What set his product apart? Several features, most notably "a group of sensors that keep the cooker from overheating or exploding under pressure," according to the Times. Also, Bluetooth functionality, so people can program and use their Instant Pots remotely.
"Have you seen the Big Bang Theory episode where they say everything is better with Bluetooth? It's true," Wang told Canada's CBC.
Doubtless, developing an enviable product was the hardest step of Wang's journey. But it's also inspiring: What kinds of opportunities might be hiding right in front of any of us, if we're only willing and able to develop and perfect a product that solves problems people didn't even realize they had?
2. Devoted fans
I've written before about the incredible rise of Instant Pot, and how Wang's still-tiny company built a kitchen appliance empire almost completely by word of mouth. His primary marketing strategy really has been social media.
Besides the 200 free Instant Pots he sent to food bloggers and influencers, however, the Instant Pot community has exploded. There are more than 850,000 members of a fan community Facebook group, for example.
Additionally, there are tens of thousands of positive reviews on Amazon, and in an interview with CNBC, Wang claimed to have read 39,000 of his company's reviews. He also said that critical reviews have served as a source of customer feedback that helps his company come up with new features and improvements.
"Those are the reviews that will point out the shortcomings of the product and give us insight to improve the products," he said. "Every 12 months to 18 months, we introduce the next generation of Instant Pot incorporating feedback from our real customers."
It's a huge accomplishment to develop this kind of fan base, of course--but it's also a reminder that it can be done by anyone else with an amazing product and at least a bit of marketing savvy.
3. A seamless sales channel
Great products and devoted fans don't do much for a business, however, if you can't actually distribute what you're offering to customers. And in that way, the success of Instant Pot is truly an Amazonian success story.
"Without Amazon, we wouldn't be here," Wang said.
Even though he now distributes through Target, Kohl's, Williams Sonoma, Best Buy, and others, it was joining the "Fulfillment by Amazon" program that allowed Instant Pot to achieve fast success.
"At one point, more than 90 percent of Instant Pot's sales came through Amazon," the Times reports. And while Wang won't disclose revenue, he does say that his company's revenue and volume sales have "been more than doubling year-over-year from 2011," according to CNBC.
By my estimate, on a single day during 2016--Amazon Prime Day--Instant Pot sold $14.8 million worth of products. That's a pretty incredible number--but it's also a reminder that the barriers to entry in terms of selling on Amazon are close to zero. If you can come up with a phenomenal product and a passionate fan base, there's no reason why you can't leverage it too.