Pando

One reason Blue Apron just may outlast the rest: Working mom guilt

By Sarah Lacy , written on May 10, 2017

From The Disruption Desk

When I saw the news earlier this week that famous New York chef David Chang’s food delivery company, Maple, had ceased operations I wasn’t surprised.

For one thing, I’ve been arguing for more than a year that most of this category has been simply untenable. While some 40% of folks still wonder what they are having for dinner by 4 pm everyday, most of these services are simply too restrictive, limited in options, or have to be planned and ordered weeks in advance.

And even with those limitations, companies have struggled to make orders profitable and combat issues like food waste and spoilage.

A lot of these concepts are great in a pinch or on demand. But even a Blue Apron-- which is on far more solid footing than nearly anyone in the category-- would do well to sell to a Whole Foods. (Particularly given Whole Foods partnership with Instacart.)

Just yesterday, I saw a Tweet about Blue Apron’s new Nashville style hot catfish, and my mouth watered. If that kit was available at Whole Foods, I would have had it for dinner that night. But I can’t get anything from Blue Apron on demand. It’s really the king of the “non-demand” food providers. And nothing looks delicious enough for me to return to the hell of subscribing, getting boxes of food delivered every week that I don’t have time to cook and simply go bad, and then the hell of trying to unsubscribe again.

As for David Chang’s involvement in Maple, these logistically difficult companies need a celebrity chef about as much as Kim Kardashian could save ShoeDazzle or Justin Timberlake could save Beachmint. (Which is to say, not at all.)

That would have been my “See! Told you so!” hot take on Maple’s closure, before a recent conversation with CRV investor Saar Gur. We were talking about the increase of working moms, and the need for more software and services to empower them. Gur made a point that had-- astoundingly-- never occurred to me before: The distinction between a SpoonRocket or even a Munchery and a Blue Apron goes beyond the on demand/non demand distinction. It has to do with who it’s aimed at.

There are the class of companies who are started by and/or for single dudes who still wish their moms took care of them, and the class of companies that are aimed at families, in particular, working parents who still want to feel like they are nurturing their kids with a home cooked meal. Maple, for one, was specifically aimed at office lunches, sidestepping the home completely.

While it feels in a Trump America like the women’s movement has been a disappointment, the rise of women working has been one of the largest changes in the last 50 years. In 1950 some 33% of women were in the labor force, and today 57% are. What’s more:Some 40% of American households have female primary or sole breadwinners.

Gur argues that there are huge post-World War II industries that were built entirely based on the premise that women did not work and could run errands and do housework during the day. This is still reality for the moms who do stay home. Studies have shown that the difference between  the amount of quality time stay-at-home moms spend with their kids and the amount of quality time that working moms spend with their kids is about 15%.

That’s it.

Working moms tend to make up for lost time on the weekends, and once kids are school aged, they spend a lot of the work day in class. This is not to say stay home moms don’t work incredibly hard during those hours-- they do. But most of it is spent doing chores, errands and housework, not engaging in quality time with their kids. (Unless of course the kids are homeschooled.)  

“Look at the industries that have fucked-up hours for a household with two working parents, which is most households today,” Gur says, listing drycleaners, banks, department stores, the post office, which largely close in the evenings and/or weekends. Even school hours operate on the premise of only one parent working full-time. “Public kindergarten gets out at 1 pm,” he says. And don’t get any working mom started on eight-plus weeks of summer vacation.

“From a venture perspective, this insight-- WOMEN NOW WORK!- can drive investments across a wide range of consumer categories that need to be disrupted and offer a more convenient offering to working families,” he says. That could be one reason Blue Apron is out-performing the already-made category that was mostly tailored to single dudes. Gur adds, “Granted, I don’t like many of them as venture investments, because it isn’t clear how defensible they are, but they are clear business opportunities.”

True enough, if you look at the ads, Blue Apron shows a family cooking together, and sponsors shows like “America’s Test Kitchen.” They want the people who want to cook, they just want some of the steps taken out for them.

Given this insight, it’s not a shock that Gur is in the minority of VCs at major firms who both has kids and an ambitious, entrepreneurial wife. A lot of VCs haven’t “gotten” this distinction in quite the same way for the same reason they didn’t get Snapchat early on: With the bulk of them having housewives, they aren’t the demographic.

Gur adds to this the psychological element of this increase in working moms, which is particularly relevant when it comes to something like Blue Apron. Guilt.

Working women are made to feel like if they aren’t 100% available to their bosses, they are bad employees, and if they aren’t 100% available to their children, they are bad mothers. Male employees are hardly held to that first bar, and shit-loads of research has disproven the second. But it doesn’t matter. We live in a country where 40% of people believe it is “bad” for society if women work. Even “woke” anti-Trump liberals in Silicon Valley will tell you they just didn’t want strangers raising their kids.

I spoke to a friend this week-- a very successful, educated woman in the tech industry-- who just returned to work in recent weeks after half a year of leave. I asked how it was going and expected tales of exhaustion and workplace bias, and all the woes of moms returning to work. It’s a big transition going back to work. “Fantastic!” she replied, marveling that she can’t believe she almost considered never going back.

Why? Because for her family it was an option financially, and even many liberal, feminist, career successful and well-educated white women in a place like San Francisco still do not feel like they have the right to have a life outside of their children.

For a dude, Gur put his finger on it: “The ‘working mom’ sets an impossible bar for herself of being super mom from the 1950s and being a professional,” he says. “[This] while dealing with a bunch of other stuff, such as not being wasteful and recycling clothing, eating organic, working out.” And this is before we get into mommy wars: Those threads online where stay-at-home moms and working moms divide into tribes, and the debates end with the most brutal thing you can say to any mother: You are a bad mother.

There is a reason working mothers do more housework, and it’s the same reason that mothers who make even a dollar more than their husbands overcompensate in doing even more extra housework. Guilt. Guilt at not being “a good mother” and guilt at emasculating their husbands.

So, yeah, Blue fucking Apron might actually be the one who makes it, because they have wisely honed in on the core advertising message of: This is how you easily, organically, and nutritiously cook meals for your family even if you don’t get home until 6 pm.

“Smart entrepreneurs have a deep understanding of this complexity and can help solve needs that are higher on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” Gur continues. “Bottom of the pyramid is help the mom get food for her kids, higher is making mom feel like she is ‘winning’ by making them dinner that is healthy and not McDonald’s.”  

As a working mom, I can’t believe this insight had not occurred to me before. It could be because I tried Blue Apron and my four and five year olds would never eat pan-roasted Salmon once a week. I think they’ve nailed the marketing better than the actual product. A better twist on what Gur is talking about-- for moms like me who pick their battles-- might be a kid friendly twist on the adult friendly meal. Organic fish sticks paired with that pan-roasted salmon, for instance.

As more women -- oh so slowly-- get general partner jobs -- finally!-- at some of the largest Valley firms like Sequoia and Benchmark, it will be interesting to see if this becomes more of an explicit investment trend.

It will also be interesting to see where a company like Rinse or Handy figures into this. Laundry is the single biggest thing I grapple with as a working mom, and I rely heavily on Rinse to keep my kids in clean socks and underwear. But both have had competitors go belly up. Are they in that single dude category of a SpoonRocket or a working mom’s secret weapon category like Blue Apron? As carnage continues to roll through the overfunded, unprofitable, shit-being-done-for-you startup world, it might be worth re-jiggering the marketing.