This Christmas, as gifts are unwrapped everywhere, Robert Wang of Ottawa will take another big leap toward a once-absurd corporate goal: to put an Instant Pot in every kitchen.
Wang, a former Nortel team leader, is the inventor of Instant Pot, a multifunctional pressure cooker that ranks among Amazon's best-selling consumer goods for three consecutive years.
His Kanata-based company, Instant Brands Inc., now has four factories in China, producing the eighth generation of kitchen appliance.
In July this year, more than 300,000 Instant Pots were sold during a single 36-hour period on Amazon Prime Day, according to published accounts.
A whole culinary industry grew up around Instant Pot. She has generated more than 2,000 cooking books, launched the careers of dozens of culinary bloggers and generated all sorts of imitators and accessories: spatulas, vapors, egg racks, springform cookware. The Facebook Instant Pot page has over 1.6 million members.
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All of this makes Wang's initial mission – "putting an Instant Pot in every kitchen" – more like Bill Gates than Betamax.
"At the time, it was a little laughable. Now, if you look at our numbers today, it's very possible, "says Wang, a 54-year-old soft-spoken computer scientist.
However, the Instant Pot is just the beginning of the high-tech kitchen revolution that Wang imagines. His company has already launched a blender that cooks and more kitchen appliances are in development.
READ: Instant Pot Accelerates Your Kitchen Acquisition With A Blender That Can Cook
He may soon be coming to his toaster.
"We want to revolutionize small appliances because I know we have a winning formula on hand."
The corridors of Instant Brand's offices at Kanata North Technology Park have the rich and warm smell of fine cuisine, as the latest version of Instant Pot is being tested along with the company's new products, which remain hidden. The company now employs 90 people in Ottawa, with more in Vancouver, Toronto, Utah and London.
It is a startling achievement for Wang, a Shanghai-born entrepreneur who has worked at the forefront of artificial intelligence and mobile Internet services before attempting to solve the most basic problems of the family: putting a good meal on the table quickly.
Remarkably, none of this could have happened had it not been for a digital Casio calculator.
Born in Shanghai, Robert Wang suffered the kind of family displacement that became known during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
His parents, both engineers with university education, were sent to different corners of the country. Robert lived in the southern city of Guilin with his mother, while his father, a civil engineer specializing in cold weather foundations, worked in the northern city of Harbin.
Wang saw his father for only a week every year until they met in Harbin when he was nine years old.
A strong student, he did not know what he wanted to do with his life until his uncle sent him a set of books on mathematics, physics and chemistry – a rare luxury at the time – and a Casio calculator. It was 1977.
"I was really fascinated by this calculator, the inner workings of it, and decided that I wanted to get into computer science," says Wang.
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Fortunately for the 13-year-old, his newfound ambition coincided with the rise to power of communist leader Deng Xiaoping, who began to open up China to the world and modernize its economy.
Deng brought back the national entrance exam, restoring a system of university placement based on merit and not on party affiliation.
Wang earned a place in the country's top computer science program at Nanjing University and later won a much-sought scholarship to study abroad. In 1986, he entered the University of Essex, in the south-east of England, and embarked on the study of mathematics and computer science.
"I really believed that artificial intelligence was the future," he says. "But those were the first few days."
Specializing in artificial intelligence, he obtained his PhD in computer science and did postgraduate degree in an AI programming language known as Gödel. But in 1994, he was frustrated with the pace of progress in the field. He also realized that it would be difficult for him to advance in Britain and thus began to look for other places to apply his skills.
In May 1994, he immigrated to Canada, where a group of scientists from Bell Northern Research (after Nortel) used the Gödel language. Wang started working at Nortel in January 1995.
It was the first time in his 30 years that he worked outside the gym.
"At the gym, life is different: you think of blue sky ideas. You never think about the practicality of ideas, "he says. "At Nortel, I learned about business value, feasibility, and cost."
They would prove valuable lessons.
After four years, he left Nortel to join a subsidiary, Saraide Inc., which was quickly sold to InfoSpace for $ 356 million in stock. (High-tech stocks, including InfoSpace, went bankrupt before Wang could take out his shares.)
"That's how I got the bug from the entrepreneur," he says.
In 2000, he helped launch Taral Networks, a wireless messaging startup that later joined another company to form Airwide Solutions.
All the time, however, another idea was slowly boiling in the back of his mind.
Both Wang and his wife, Tracy, a systems designer at Nortel, worked long hours and had difficulty finding time to prepare healthy meals for their two young children. They used to rely on fast food or takeaway restaurants.
"I kept dreaming about an automated cooking machine," says Wang. "I did not know what it was at the time. But what I wanted to do: I wanted to put all the ingredients, push a button and that would be done in 30 minutes."
When Wang left his job at Airwide in 2008, he decided to leave the wireless space to concentrate – at least for a while – on his cooking machine.
"I was sure I was not the only one who needed it," he says now. "It was an issue we all face: lack of time."
His wife moved to a job under the government of the Canadian Revenue Agency to provide more stability to the family while Wang pursued his entrepreneurial dream. They agreed to give their idea five years to gain strength – after which Wang would have to find a steady job.
"I'm so grateful she was okay with it," he says.
Wang knew from personal experience that pressure cookers were popular in China and came to believe that by applying the latest technology to the appliance, it could create "an intelligent cooking machine."
He recruited two partners and invested more than $ 300,000 of his own money in product development, most of which was done in the study of his home in Kanata.
Wang added a series of sensors, microprocessors and programs to his test model, and found a manufacturer in China to build his machine, which could slow down cooking, pressure cooking and braising. It also included a burn protection mechanism – thanks to a heat sensor at the bottom of the pan – to prevent dishes from being ruined.
He tested recipes with his family and turned to computer science to create a name. After writing a program that combined synonyms for "fast" with synonyms for "stove", Wang arrived in Instant Pot. Fortunately, the domain name was still available.
The elegant cylindrical pot debuted in August 2010, but was not an instant success. As part of its initial sales plan, Wang bought his new device for specialty food stores and small appliances in an attempt to break into the market. He was betting that his product could pick up word of mouth if he focused on design and customer support.
"The result was not good," he says.
Wang remembers driving five units to Montreal and returning hours later, thinking, "This is not going to work: this is not the way to run a business."
Then came the Amazon.
It costs only $ 40 a month to start selling at the Internet's largest retailer, and soon after selling its first pot on the site, Wang realized that it was the perfect market for Instant Pot.
Amazon has provided a forum for the word-of-mouth marketing campaign he has always imagined. These evaluations not only boosted sales, but also provided the honest feedback that Wang needed to constantly improve his product.
As Wang and his co-founders were all technology-savvy, they set about launching a new generation of their products every 12 months, just like Apple or Intel.
Wang rummaged through Amazon's comments to understand what buyers liked, did not like and wanted. On his own he read more than 40,000 of them.
As a result, every new generation of Instant Pot has added new and improved features: Bluetooth connectivity, a yogurt maker, cake maker, vaporizer, sterilizer, sous vide. The latest Instant Pot comes with Wi-Fi that allows cooks to create custom programs for the device from their phones.
Wang's company made a profit for the first time in 2012-13 – the same year that Instant Pot became the best-selling pressure cooker on Amazon.com. The company's rapid growth caused storage and delivery problems that were resolved by deepening its relationship with Amazon; Instant Brands brands started shipping directly to the retail giant.
In 2015, Instant Pot achieved blockbuster status: that year Amazon sold its stock of Instant Pots – 215,000 units – in a few hours on Prime Day.
The company did not even have to buy advertising, as dedicated "potters" boosted sales by sharing their enthusiasm at dinners and online forums. It's always been Secret Pot's secret sauce, says Wang. "Word of mouth is very convincing: it's your friends, your family, your colleagues."
Earlier this year, the company innovated: It launched the Instant Pot Ace 60 Blender, which can, among other functions blender, cooking and vegetable puree. It quickly became Walmart's best-selling blender.
All of this convinced Wang that he can apply his proven formula to other kitchen appliances and combine the latest materials, sensors and heating technology with a push button control panel to create more useful and multifunctional appliances.
"We want to rethink what's already in your kitchen and produce something better," he says.
Each new success is celebrated with champagne at the offices of March Brands Inc. on March Road. It has become a common occurrence over the past eight years as the company's sales have surpassed one seemingly impossible mark after another. Sales have doubled every year since 2011.
More corks came after this year's Black Friday sales event, when Instant Pot was the best-selling product outside Amazon on the retailer's website. Walmart reported that Instant Pot was its best-selling item in 33 states.
A private company, Instant Brands, does not disclose official sales figures or revenue figures, but Wang says most of the profits are being invested back into R & D.
He insists that the success of Instant Pot has not changed much: he lives in the same house, works long hours, but drives a better car. It conforms to one of your corporate slogans: "Create value, but be frugal."
Wang even uses a simple and square Casio watch to remember the calculator that launched him into the world of science, innovation and entrepreneurship.
"I love tinkering with things and I'm happy to create something new, something useful."
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