Memo: ButcherBox’s Arbitrage with Instacart

This is a story about a pioneering direct-to-consumer leader with a capable team and the humility to take a 2PM insight, collaborate on a strategy, and achieve a positive outcome. This partnership will influence the CPG industry.

I’ve never viewed 2PM’s work as pure journalism. I am not trained as a master of the art. Rather, the essays published here is operator-driven, steeped in practical experience. I am tasked with taking overarching perspectives and condensing them into useful insights that can direct top leaders in their decision-making processes. Rather than outsider observations, many of the essays are published from an insider’s perspective. In some cases, the successes and failures in commerce or media are deeply personal. The 2PM process is a cycle of sorts: study concepts and news, produce content, implement ideas in operational environments, assess the impact, and then use it to develop more insights for the larger public. It’s a virtuous cycle.

The theory is that the more operationally-driven the content, the more useful it is to our industry of peers and competitors. One way that I fortify the content production process is through operational partnerships with enterprise level brands, software companies, and logistics firms. ButcherBox is a combination of the three, 2PM served as a long-time Growth Partner.

With over 160 employees, a broadcast television advertising budget, and revenues estimated to be in the hundreds of millions, the six-year-old direct-to-consumer butcher company has accomplished what few others have. Led by founder and CEO Mike Salguero, the company achieved a “unicorn” trajectory solely through direct channels, and they did so without a dime of institutional capital. A rarity, Salguero and his organization achieved enterprise scale by bootstrapping the business to sustained profits.

In a previous 2PM essay on early-stage influencer marketing, I explained how his early influencer arbitrage opportunity helped the company grow from $0 to $20 million in annual revenue in under two years. With any arbitrage, the key is to get there as close to first as possible. By using influential fitness and nutrition professionals, Salguero identified an inexpensive and low-risk method of capturing demand.

In 2015, Instagram wasn’t a core sales driver, with limited link sharing. Instead, partnerships with bloggers who had large lists of email subscribers became the strategy that led to early growth. As Salguero learned, many of these influential health bloggers wrote often in support of grass-fed beef, but they lacked a call to action – there was no place online for readers to then stock up. ButcherBox filled the void. [1]

Though this particular channel has since been saturated, the spirit of arbitrage-seeking remains at ButcherBox. At the company’s current scale, this format no longer achieves the desired outcome. In this way, there comes a point when the size of the company begins to work against it. The pressure is always on to find a better way to drive demand. In 2021, the data analyzed by 2PM suggested that growth slowed thanks to a combination of factors: the reopening of the physical economy, meat alternatives taking center stage (Beyond, Nuggs, Impossible), supply chain concerns, and the difficulty of maintaining a lightning pace without third-party marketplace distribution of their goods. Salguero, his Chief of Staff Reba Hatcher, and 2PM leaned on Linear Commerce principles to find the solution. The question:

Where is a large and engaged audience for ButcherBox? And can we sell to them?

This announcement is the result of answering the above questions, as well as a tremendous amount of work by Chief of Staff Reba Hatcher. 2PM is announcing the marketplace partnership between Instacart and ButcherBox. Founded in 2015 by Mike Salguero, ButcherBox is the leading digitally-native meat company in America. Founded in 2012, Instacart is riding a new wave of interest and an impending IPO after successfully navigating the pandemic.

On the heels of a mid-2021 initial public offering, Instacart has instituted a novel concept for digitally-native brands. ButcherBox will be the second digitally-native brand to be integrated into Instacart’s nascent marketplace of third-party goods. Instacart shoppers can now order ButcherBox directly from the app and the order will be delivered one to four days later through FedEx, UPS, or a regional carrier. Chris Rogers, Vice President of Retail at Instacart: 

Instacart is committed to offering customers a wide selection of items and more ways to get exactly what they need from the retailers they know and love. With the addition of ButcherBox to the Instacart marketplace, we’re making their curated, high-quality proteins even more accessible to customers nationwide. 

ButcherBox identified an audience arbitrage; Instacart identified a way to sell in-demand products without the costs associated with logistics. A mutually-beneficial partnership was born.

Early 2021: The Proposed Concept

Over the trailing 12 months, ButcherBox’s advertising load increased 431% while website traffic dropped over the same period. While this isn’t surprising, it was an indication of negative market forces working against it. The reality is that few retailers can continue growing at such a pace with an operation that consists, exclusively, of first-party direct commerce.

The months-long growth partnership between 2PM and ButcherBox was maturing around the January week that I proposed the solution that could begin to address the DTC brand’s three objectives. To Salguero’s credit, he was willing to listen. One of the hallmarks of our growth partnership is that he recognized the time and intensity of my study in this space. Salguero trusted my executable ideas. At this point, neither of us knew for sure that Instacart was experimenting with becoming a third-party marketplace.

What we did know is that Instacart successfully navigated the pandemic to breathe air into a business that was deflating prior to 2020, thanks to Amazon Prime’s commandeering of Whole Foods’ delivery business. We both believed that the partnership could be fruitful. We were right. Instacart will serve as a marketing and distribution partner as ButcherBox’s distribution continues to grow into physical retail spaces. Eventually, same day delivery will be introduced once the brand is carried in retailers like Walmart or Target. Until then, Instacart’s partnership is mostly marketing-driven.

Mid 2021: The Executed Concept

For non-perishable foods and consumer packaged goods (think Siete Foods or Olipop), the timelines for wholesale partnerships are relatively short. But for perishable foods, it can require 18-24 months to land on store shelves. With this type of partnership, ButcherBox may accelerate the timeline by demonstrating its anticipated sales volume. The microsite hosted on launched today:

The Instacart x ButcherBox strategy was the result of a need to expand audience and improve sales distribution. In participating in this marketplace strategy, ButcherBox established a new top funnel marketing format for CPG brands.

This outcome is a testament to a Salguero and Hatcher’s ability to think outside of the box, accept new ideas, and execute on the ones that have promise. Growth is often unpredictable and arbitrage opportunities are rarely found in obvious places. Sometimes, it’s as simple as taking a generalist view of adjacent industries, assessing how they can positively interact, and suggesting a path to partnership.

I was thinking through the concept of Linear Commerce when the idea of marketplace amplification came about. That same idea developed into a strategy employed by Reba Hatcher and ButcherBox’s team. The strategy was approved and implemented by Instacart, an inventive partnership that will be lucrative for both partners. But most importantly, ButcherBox laid the groundwork for like-minded brands to build through Instacart’s channels. And Instacart has a new way to grow revenues without the associated costs of logistics.

Arbitrage opportunities are often win-win outcomes disguised as outlandish ideas – but only outlandish at first. As with arbitrage, we will likely see dozens of digitally-native, perishable food companies – from Daily Harvest to Primal Kitchen – take advantage of an opportunity that was a long shot idea just six months prior.

By Web Smith | Editor: Hilary Milnes | Art: Alex Remy 

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