Even during a pandemic, people still need food. On Instacart, orders have surged to an all-time high in recent weeks as its workforce of 350,000 “shoppers” ferry groceries between stores and American households. Each trip puts those workers at an increased risk of coming in contact with the new coronavirus; some grocery store employees have described their workplace as a “war zone.”
In March, Instacart workers staged a nationwide strike, demanding sick leave, hazard pay, and basic disinfection supplies, which have become a costly out-of-pocket expense for gig workers who have repeatedly complained about low pay. Instacart ignored those demands, except for one: On April 2, it agreed to fashion its shoppers with complimentary “health and safety kits,” each containing a reusable cloth face mask, a bottle of hand sanitizer, and a forehead thermometer. Workers are limited to one kit each.
But two weeks later, Instacart workers say the kits still haven’t come. WIRED spoke to more than a dozen workers, most of whom asked not to use their full names out of fear of having their accounts deactivated for speaking to the press. They describe a dizzying process just to request kits, with little communication from Instacart about how to place an order or when, if at all, the company would send the supplies.
The kits had to be ordered through carrotswag.com, Instacart’s online store. (The company logo is a carrot.) Workers say they struggled with the ordering process: At first, the kits were available for “pre-order,” but later said they were “out of stock,” with little indication of when they would be available for pre-order again. Some workers, desperate for protective gear, found themselves returning to carrotswag.com every day to try again to place an order.
Marsi Rackstraw, an Instacart shopper from Southern California, repeated this process unsuccessfully for over a week until her pre-order finally appeared to go through on Thursday. She’s still waiting for a separate order, for a six-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer, which Instacart had already agreed to provide its workforce for free on March 29.
“I really want to believe they are looking out for us but I can’t help but feel like the safety kits—if they do exist—are a PR thing or for optics,” Rackstraw says.
A spokesperson for Instacart says that the kits do exist, and that the company began shipping thousands of them out this week. The spokesperson also says that Instacart was prepared to send supplies to all 350,000 workers.
But the company wasn’t prepared to process orders from the entire workforce at once. Instacart confirmed to WIRED that it had capped the number of orders that can be placed each day at an unspecified number of thousands. Once that day’s “inventory” is gone, the kits get listed as out of stock until the company opens up more. There’s no waiting list workers can get on—they have to keep checking carrotswag.com to see if pre-orders are open again. The spokesperson says Instacart needed to slow the pace of orders coming in so that each one could be validated as coming from a real Instacart shopper, and so that duplicate orders could be deleted. The spokesperson said the company has an entire team dedicated to this process, but did not specify how many people are working on this issue.
None of this was clear to the Instacart workers who spoke to WIRED. Instead they described their confusion and frustration over how to request the kits when they were almost always “out of stock.” Absent official communication, workers say they relied on word of mouth and social media to know when they could try again to place an order. “The company never sent out any kind of alert that they were available,” says one Instacart worker in Los Angeles. “I only knew to grab one because someone posted in the [Instacart Shopper subreddit] that the kits were up.” He says he placed the order last Wednesday morning, “at 10:49 a.m. Los Angeles time,” and the kits were again “out of stock by 11:01.” As of this Thursday, he still had not received any of the items.
It’s me again, from self-isolation. The only way I know that it’s Friday is that this newsletter goes out and my weekly food delivery arrives. The difference is that with the newsletter, there’s no note that some of the items aren’t available at this time.
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The Plain View
A few “esteemed executives, economists, scholars, and industry leaders” were startled this week to find that the president had publicly announced their participation in one of several “Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups,” intended to help kickstart the economy. Apparently for some of these individuals, the While House was not meticulous about providing advance notice, let alone an opportunity to decline.
There’s nothing wrong with seeking advice from business leaders, though committees like this are usually opt-in. But is this group really the one that will yield the best or most innovative responses? Let’s examine the list of conscripts, which is divided up by industry sector.
The first leader cited, in the agriculture category, is a lobbyist from Georgia named Zippy Duvall. I know that it’s childish to make fun of someone’s name, but starting off with a guy named Zippy isn’t exactly a confidence builder. Looking over the other categories, most include the CEOs of large companies, but there are some wild cards. The food section, for instance, includes lots of fast-food executives, but also celebrity chefs like Thomas Keller, Wolfgang Puck, and Jean-George Vongerichten. (I love it that those culinary icons will be on the same call as the head of Waffle House.)
The 15 people listed in the technology category include the usual CEO suspects—Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, Satya Nadella, Larry Ellison, and so on. Other tech figures are parceled into different industries: Amazon head Jeff Bezos in the retail sector, Elon Musk among the manufacturers, and Uber’s Dara Khosrowshahi in transportation.
It’s a formidable lineup, but perhaps CEOs of public companies are not the best sources of innovative ideas. If you are going for innovation, why not bypass the executive suite and go straight to the most creative people in those companies? Also, those CEOs may be constrained in their comments by the knowledge that they are speaking to a self-styled authoritarian who metes out retribution to those who contradict him. So, just in case this newsletter hits the West Wing, here’s an alternative list of people who might, as the White House suggests, “chart the path forward toward a future of unparalleled American prosperity.”
Late one January afternoon, British pharmacologist Peter Richardson ran out of his home office and told his wife, “Got it!” She asked what he was talking about and offered a cup of tea. Richardson explained that he had identified a drug that might help people infected with a new virus spreading in China.
Richardson’s dash was prompted by a finding from artificial intelligence software developed by his employer, BenevolentAI, a London startup where he is vice president of pharmacology. The company has created a kind of search engine on steroids that combines drug industry data with nuggets gleaned from scientific research papers. Using the software, Richardson had identified a rheumatoid arthritis drug that might dampen some of the most severe effects of the new virus, an illness now known as Covid-19.
The virus, and that idea, have advanced rapidly in the weeks since. In February, Richardson and others at BenevolentAI published two research papers laying out their hypothesis and supporting evidence. They caught the attention of Eli Lilly, which markets the arthritis drug, known as baricitinib, under the brand name Olumiant.
This week, Lilly announced it is working with the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on a large clinical trial of the drug in hospitalized Covid-19 patients. Patrik Jonsson, president of Lilly’s biomedicines division, says his group hadn’t previously thought of baricitinib as an infectious disease treatment. “I think Covid-19 in many ways will change the way we’re getting work done,” he says.
The clinical trial should begin in the US this month and could expand to include patients in Europe and Asia. Results are expected as soon as late June. Jonsson says it usually takes years to design, organize, and launch a trial.
The rapid progression from initial idea to clinical trial shows how widely researchers and drug companies are looking as they scramble to stem the coronavirus pandemic. “I can’t guarantee that baricitinib will work out OK, but there’s huge unmet need,” Jonsson says. “We don’t know how to treat these patients.”
The tale also highlights the potential for computing and artificial intelligence to help that effort. Since the 1950s, the time and cost of developing new drugs have increased exponentially, partly because of higher safety standards. Some investors and pharmaceutical companies believe computing power and algorithms can shorten the development cycle in some cases.
Lilly and fellow drug giant Pfizer have partnerships with Silicon Valley startup Atomwise, which uses machine-learning technology to find novel compounds that target particular biological molecules. Last year Atomwise helped Stanford researchers find a way to target an enzyme that they had discovered accumulates in the cells of patients with Parkinson’s Disease.
BenevolentAI has similar technology and its own Big Pharma partnerships, with Novartis on cancer and AstraZeneca on kidney disease.
When Richardson and others at BenevolentAI decided to take on the new coronavirus, they hoped to find an existing drug that could be repurposed, in order to reduce safety and regulatory hurdles. But they didn’t know much about the enemy. The virus was—and in many ways still is—too new to have been fully characterized.
Richardson began his explorations in BenevolentAI’s system by seeking ways to interfere with the mechanism by which related and better-known coronaviruses, such as SARS, invade a person’s cells. BenevolentAI’s software can offer interactive visualizations of the connections among diseases, symptoms, and biological processes, sourced from databases and machine-learning algorithms that process text in scientific papers. The colorful web of proteins and genes that Richardson conjured up presented some promising targets.
“Hanging off the bottom of the graph was a pale blue section that leapt out of the page,” Richardson says. It was a clump of genes that regulate the cellular machinery a coronavirus exploits to enter and infect a cell. Gumming up that machinery by targeting those genes with a drug might slow the virus.
Richardson’s “Got it!” moment came after he searched for approved drugs that would specifically target two of the most crucial genes in that clump and might be effective with a small dose. “One just floated right to the top,” Richardson says: baricitinib.
BenevolentAI’s hypothesis was published in a letter to the prominent medical journal The Lancet early in February. A more detailed follow-up cited further results from the company’s knowledge base suggesting that the anti-inflammatory mechanisms that make baricitinib effective against rheumatoid arthritis might help quell the out-of-control immune response dubbed a cytokine storm that can damage the lungs and other organs of people with severe cases of Covid-19. Baricitinib is effective for rheumatoid arthritis because it inhibits a protein involved in the over-the-top immune response that causes the disease’s characteristic joint pain. The same protein is involved in cytokine storms like those seen in Covid-19.
Jonsson says the unexpected suggestion from BenevolentAI prompted Lilly to examine its data on baricitinib. The company also talked with outside researchers who did new lab tests on the drug. Lilly’s experts concluded that BenevolentAI’s hypotheses had merit, particularly the notion that the drug might dampen Covid-19’s dangerous cytokine storms. The company found corroborating evidence in results from early tests of baricitinib in severe Covid-19 cases by doctors in Italy inspired by BenevolentAI’s work. That’s when it opened talks with the government’s infectious disease institute about a trial to test the drug’s effect on Covid-19 patients.
The first signs of distress came not with panic, but positivity. “Hope you all are feeling safe and at peace hunkered down with your family,” one influencer wrote, paired with a selfie featuring her adorable children in pajamas. Another posted a photo of her “mini oasis,” a selection of well-kempt houseplants, along with the caption #stayhome. The new coronavirus provided an opportunity to reflect, to reset, to use code RACHEL for 30 percent off on home fitness classes. The influencers carried on in loungewear, sipping whipped coffee, modeling a sense of ease in the face of calamity.
Privately, though, some influencers have watched with a growing sense of dread as the world collapses, taking their earning potential with it. Brand deals have dried up; sponsored posts have been delayed. The great reckoning is unlikely to topple the influencer industry—by now, it’s already too big—but the business of influence is going to change. “If you think about the way an economic recession works, some companies survive and some companies don’t,” says Angela Seits, senior director of consumer insights and engagement strategy at the digital agency PMG. “I think that could be the same thing that happens in the influencer industry.”
For years, the influencer economy has operated in boom times. Flush marketing budgets funded closets full of expensive clothes and paid vacations to exotic locales. With more Americans taking cues from social media about where and what to buy, brands had started to go all in; a survey by Mediakix, an influencer marketing agency, found that 17 percent of companies spent over half their marketing budget on influencers in 2019. As recently as six weeks ago, one report estimated that influencer marketing would grow to $9.7 billion in 2020.
It’s not all mega-influencers, either. Micro-influencers, who have targeted followings under 100,000, make up the backbone of the industry. Even people with just a few thousand followers can earn hundreds of dollars for a single sponsored post. It’s not hard to earn an income this way. Eight-year-olds can do it, provided some adult supervision.
As the new coronavirus sends the world hurtling toward a recession, though, more glamorous trappings of the influencer lifestyle have come to a halt. Paid trips have no place amid lockdowns, nor do street-style photoshoots to model #sponsored clothes. And it’s not clear that those opportunities will reappear in the future—at least, not for everyone. “The pandemic is having a major impact on the overall influence industry, and it’ll likely have lasting effects,” says Seits.
For one thing, there’s just less money to go around. As of March, the market research firm eMarketer found that about a third of influencers were already seeing fewer collaborations. Some of those may return as the economy rebounds, but other brands will sever ties with influencers who haven’t shown they can drive sales. Even before the pandemic, “brands were already starting to prioritize longer-term collaborations with influencers versus one-off partnerships,” says Jasmine Enberg, a senior analyst at eMarketer. Now, Enberg expects that trend to accelerate.
Besides the shrinking budgets, it’s also an awkward time to advertise. “In the first few weeks of quarantine, we saw a decline in sponsored posts,” says Seits, whose agency brokers deals for brands like Sephora and Beats By Dre. There’s an unsavoriness in hawking a product while a record number of people are unemployed or facing life-threatening illness, and brands don’t want to risk the wrong messaging.
“I had a lot of brand campaigns that were set to go live in March and even early April, and those have all been postponed,” says Lauren Elyce, a micro-influencer with 32,000 Instagram followers. One of them, for a beer company, decided against a sponsored post for fear of alienating viewers. “My income has definitely gone down.”
Elyce is still able to make some money. Like many influencers, she tags her clothes and beauty products on LikeToKnowIt, a platform that connects her followers to the online retailers where they can shop her lifestyle. Each time one of her followers buys a product linked there, Elyce earns a small commission. Lately, the revenue has remained steady. “I haven’t changed the cadence of tagging and linking, and I haven’t seen a drop,” she says. “I’ve also done little pushes for workout clothes and workout equipment. Tailoring that strategy to what people are looking for has been useful.”
Affiliate commissions give influencers like Elyce a way to suggest products more organically than, say, writing #sponsored captions for something they wouldn’t actually use. (WIRED also earns affiliate commission from retail links; read about our policy here.) It seems to be driving sales, at least for now. On LikeToKnowIt, shopping sessions were up 75 percent in March according to the company—surpassing the traffic from November, when shopping is normally at its peak. That stands in stark contrast to the overall shopping landscape: On Wednesday, the Commerce Department announced that total retail sales for March fell by 8.7 percent from the previous month.
LikeToKnowIt and other online retailers have fared better, but that might not last, especially if unemployment in the US continues to grow and people tighten their discretionary spending. Categories like fashion, beauty, and luxury will likely suffer first and hardest. Influencers feel the uncertainty, too. “I’m not trying to push buy-buy-buy,” says Elyce. “A lot of my audience is in the same position that I am: We don’t know what the next few months are going to be like.”
If a recession brings shopping to a halt, marketers are unlikely to return to the type of broad branding campaign that’s come to define the influencer world. Seits believes that brands will demand more evidence that their marketing dollars are being put to good use, and that influencers give them sales, not just exposure. “Brands are going to be a lot more cautious about how they approach their marketing spend and their collaborations with influencers,” she says. “Now, we’re seeing more of an emphasis on performance.”
We are in the idea phase of combating this crisis. Great new businesses will be born, existing companies will offer new products and services — others will pivot and reposition themselves entirely.
With so many ideas and possibilities, being stress and feeling overwhelmed is very common for entrepreneurs. What is helpful is a clear first step for your new venture, and that is where naming comes in.
While not the first thing you might think about during a crisis, spending the time to generate a compelling name can mean the difference between an idea that confuses customers and an idea that grabs their attention and builds momentum. Ready to get started?
Join us as our expert Brad Flowers, co-founder of Bullhorn an agency that builds confident brands with language and design, provides best practices on naming your business.