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Who Needs an Office? How Wade Foster Built Zapier into a $50m/yr. Business

Wade Foster, Co-Founder and CEO, will share how he bootstrapped Zapier into a $50M/year business with a remote, global workforce of 300 employees.

Brad Wolverton: It’s my pleasure to introduce our next speaker, Wade Foster, who is the cofounder and CEO of Zapier and it is pronounced Zapier. I asked him, he said “Zapier makes you happier.” So, you’ll remember it more. Zapier is a workflow automation tool used by over 4 million people to connect the work apps they use every day. Prior to Zapier, Wade was customers’ development lead for the Idea Works in Missouri and he’s an alumnus of the Y Combinator and has degrees in industrial engineering and business administration from the University of Missouri at Columbia. Please welcome Wade Foster.

Wade Foster: All right folks, how’s Hustlecon doing today? We have a good day? All right. I think I get to close you all down so hopefully I don’t leave you disappointed. We’re going to talk a little bit today about who needs an office. If you don’t know Zapier, because of our software, you might know of us because we sort of famously don’t have offices. We have 300 different people spread out all over the globe and we operate the company without them. So, I’m going to share a little bit today how we make this work.

Before we do that, I want to talk a little bit about our story. Why did we choose to be remote in the first place? How did we get there? To put this all in context though, here’s a little bit about the scale of Zapier, I think this is useful because you might be at a different spot than we are, and so this advice may or may not be as relevant depending on where you’re at.

So, today we connect all your common business tools, things like Slack, MailChimp, Trello, GitHub, you name it, 1,500 different apps. We’re a hundred percent remote, over 270 employees spread across 26 countries, 34 US States, 4 million users. And the most important fact, if you go away remembering one thing, Zapier rhymes with happier. So, that’s a good one.

So, why did we decide to go a hundred percent remote here? You can actually see we’re not always remote. We do get the team together twice a year. But why did we start this way? I think a lot of times folks expect us to have a perfectly reasoned, rational, scientific approach to why remote is always better than being in an office. And that really wasn’t the case for us. I think many companies, when they’re very small, you have to play the cards that you’re dealt.

In our case, we were a side project. We were back in Columbia, Missouri. Side projects, it turns out, you can’t afford office space. We didn’t have a lot of spare change to go around to have a place to work out of. So, instead we worked out of our apartments, we worked out of coffee shops, we worked out of anywhere that had a good internet connection honestly. And so that’s where we started.

And then along the way we got accepted Y Combinator about six months in, and that summer, the three of us, my co founders and I, lived and worked in the same place. That was the first time in the company’s history and the only time in the company’s history where everyone has been in one location working consistently at the same time.

However, at the tail end of that, Mike, one of my cofounders, moved back to Missouri because his then girlfriend, now wife, was wrapping up law school. So back to being a distributed company. Around the same time we were starting to think, “Hey, we actually need more help hiring.” We were doing customer service about six, seven hours a day and we thought, “Hey, if we could get some help with this, we could probably be working to improve the product for other folks.”

Wade Foster: But I’m a first time founder. Before Zapier, I’d never hired anyone. Same with Brian and Mike, so what do we do? How do you hire people? It was a new skill for us. The advice we sought out and learned was why don’t you work with folks you’ve already worked with before? It will de-risk the hiring process and as a result it’ll just be less risky. And it turns out all the people we knew, they weren’t here in the Silicon Valley, they were all back in the Midwest. They’re back in Missouri and so we found that that advice sounded pretty good.

We found a former colleague of mine that happening to be living in Chicago to join us to run customer support. We found an engineer that was in Columbia, Missouri and there pretty quickly we were five people spread across three cities without an office. And one of the things we realized was we were making money, we were shipping product, customers were happy, the team was happy, and we were moving quickly. So, for all accounts, for all of our observations, we felt like we were being successful.

It didn’t feel like not having an office was something that was holding us back. And so we said, okay, if we’re not being held back by not having an office, why take on that expense? Why take on that burden? Let’s choose to go recruit from people all over the country and eventually all over the world. If we can work with the best and brightest no matter where they’re at, that’s going to be a big advantage for us that most companies don’t tap into.

And so ultimately that was how we got to this answer of why should we be a hundred percent remote, was based on some observations, some early experiences. And then eventually about a year, year and a half in, we said, “Let’s double down and let this be who we are.” Now from there, this turned out to be a pretty good choice because we recently ran a report with the Harris group and they surveyed a sort of proportion of folks across the United States of knowledge workers. And it turns out a lot of people want this.

Wade Foster: 74% of folks would be willing to quit their job to work remote. 31% would like to work remote, but their company doesn’t allow it. 26% of people have quit their job to work somewhere that does support remote working. And so this confirmed something that we’ve innately known for a long time. And so I do think that this trend is going to become more and more common over time.

Anyway, backing up. So, we’ve decided to go all in on remote. The next question we had for ourselves is how do we scale this up? How do we operate in this way? We’d had some early success, but that’s a far cry from building out a scaled out company that can be successful in this way. And one of the core things that we asked ourselves was, it would be really nice if we understood what the traits of successful remote workers look like. And so we stepped back, did a brainstorm session. And looked at all the people that had joined the company so far. This was around when we were 10 or 15 people and we said, of the people who are the most successful in this environment, what are the traits that make them stand out? What are the things that allow them to be successful where other folks sometimes tend to struggle?

And the answer to those questions became things that we wanted to put in our hiring process. They are things that we wanted to put in our performance reviews. But we felt so confident in these things we were like, “Let’s just bake these traits, these characteristics into our core values.” So we’ll just make the core values a guidebook for how to be successful with remote. And so I’m going to talk through a little bit about what these things are.

Wade Foster: So, the first one is default to action. This is really critical in distributed teams because you have folks that don’t have a boss sitting next to you. You don’t have teammates sitting next to you. And so as a result, you want to be working with folks who are naturally curious, who are self starters, who are going to identify problems and push them forward on their own.

You can’t, in a remote environment, be waiting for somebody to say, “Hey, what do you want to do next? What can you do next? Do you have enough work for you?” So you want to be working with folks who are going to take the bull by the horns and try to get things done. So, that default to action has been really important in a distributed company like Zapier.

Second: Now if you’re going to ask folks to take action, the second thing that’s a really important companion for us is default to transparency. Transparency allows folks to make decisions with the best information available. So, when we talk about default to transparency, we’re specifically talking about things like company financial data. We’re talking about user metrics, we’re talking about systems and processes, how we work. We make those tools available to anyone that joins the company internally so that when they are put in a situation where they need to default to action, where they have an important decision to make, they’re making that decision with the best information available.

Wade Foster: So, it was as if myself, my cofounders, any other manager, exec team, they have the same information that we do and so in theory they should be able to make just as good of a decision as we do. And so this default of transparency allows these two things to work really well in combination in a distributed org.

Growth through feedback. This one has been really critical as well in a distributed company because you don’t have the same informal feedback mechanisms that you do get in an office. A lot of times you can sort of get little hallway conversations, be by the water cooler, start to get little tips and tricks on how to do things. In a remote environment, you have to be more disciplined about how you approach these things and how you get feedback.

This was something that we figured out fairly early on. I remember getting on, at the time it was Skype calls, with our very first customers. Walking them through using the product. Our very first customer had reached out and said, “Hey wait, I need some help using this.” And I had gotten on a Skype call and he couldn’t use the product at all because the product wasn’t very good at that point in time. And I’d have to tell him, click this, do this next, click this, do this next. And it got to the very end, turned on his first zap and he goes, “Holy cow, this is going to change my business.”

And I thought back. I was like, “Wow. This was a really bad experience for him. But he still came away so excited about what’s Zapier could do for his business.” Imagine if we can improve the product enough to where he doesn’t need my help to set these things up. And that was our first forms of feedback. That was user feedback at the time. Now feedback continues to come from users, it comes from partners, but it also comes from the team. It comes from each other. It comes from managers, it comes from folks, your peers, comes from your direct reports. Anyone throughout the organization can provide feedback and we build a lot of formal mechanisms into this, which allows us to improve constantly as we grow.

Fourth, empathy no ego. So one of the most fun parts of being in a global team, is that we get to work with folks from all over the world. This means that many people on the team have grown up in different backgrounds than my own. Folks that have grown up outside the United States, many people don’t have English as their first language. And as a result, that creates a fun environment. But it can also create an environment where miscommunication can happen.

Wade Foster: Even if you do speak English as your first language, if you grew up in say Australia versus the UK versus the south in the United States or the east or Midwest, the words we use are sometimes different and they sometimes have different connotations. These differences can create miscommunications. And so it’s really important to build a company culture and company values where folks default to assuming the best intentions from each other and address those miscommunications, those misunderstandings, with empathy and seek to understand each other rather than to show up and say, “Hey, I’m the smartest. You don’t know what you’re talking about. And as a result, we should do what I say.” So, that empathy allows you to build a strong global team and allows us to use everyone’s differences to the benefit of all.

The last thing for us, last critical value is, don’t be a robot, build the robot. So, what you’ll have heard me talk about with the first four values is a certain intention that we go about this. Most folks I found, when they’re working in an office, is they assume that things like culture and values, comradery, all these things come along for free. But when you work in a distribute environment, you don’t get those things for free. And you have to work at them. You have to be intentional in how you approach these things. And for us, this is what building the robot looks like.

That is about looking at the problems we have in front of us and trying to figure out what is the best course of action, what are the right systems and processes we can use to scale? Where can we insert automation and how can we build a company that works at scale? And so this is a critical element. These five valleys act as a guidebook for everyone that joins the company that says, “If you’re working in a distributed environment like Zapier, you’re going to be more successful if you think of these characteristics, if you think of these ways of working rather than other ways of going about things.”

Wade Foster: Now there’s also other things that we do outside of our values that I think help us work and help us be successful. One is you need to create a culture of accountability. People often ask me, how do you manage a remote team? How do you know if people are getting things done? The answer to this is fairly simple. It’s how you would work in any environment. show up on Monday and say, “Hey, what’s important this week? What do you think we should get done this week?” And as a team you agree on those things and at the end of the week, on Friday, you check in and say, “Hey, how far did we get? Did we get what we thought we said we would get done? Did we actually get it done?” Big way that we do this is we have a culture of what we call Friday updates.

So, inside of Async, which is a tool we built for ourselves, folks do a Friday update and it often includes things like, “Here’s what I did this week, here’s what I’m thinking about doing next week.” And that builds a sense of accountability to each other where we do what we say we’ll do. So, that culture of accountability, really important, I think, in distributed companies.

Also really important is camaraderie. Another common question I get asked is how do you know your team? How do you get to know each other? I like being in an office because I get to see my coworkers, that makes things feel friendly. So, where do I get that when I’m in a remote team? It’s a really good question. It’s one that you have to work at. For us, we like to do a lot of fun things on Zoom.

So you can see here in this, this is a screenshot of one of our, we do a Thursday hangout where everyone joins and one of our teammates was teaching us how to do chair yoga. So, if you’re sitting in a chair too long in a day, you can learn how to stretch. I think it’s good for us people who work from computers a lot. And so little things like this allow us to get on a call, see each other every week and build a sense of community, sense of belongingness that I think is important in a remote team. If you don’t think about how to do this stuff, you miss out on it.

Wade Foster: I already mentioned the culture of feedback. This is something that we do quite well. We have it part of our core values, we bake it into small improvements. That’s the tool here where we try and share feedback regularly. Speaking of those water cooler moments, similar to what we do on Zoom, we also have a bot called donut.AI that you can hook up to your Slack instance and it will automatically pair people in the company together. So, we have these set up once a week where you get randomly paired with someone else and then you can jump on a quick Zoom call and you can talk about whatever. You can talk about your friends, you can talk about your family, you can talk about your hobbies, you can talk about your holiday plans or big vacations you have coming up in the summer.

It’s a good way to start building these informal bonds and connections across the company. This is, I think, really critical because one of the things that allows teams to be successful, allows teams to navigate hard times, is when you’ve already built relationships with each other. One of the leaders, the VP of GitHub, told me once you want to know your neighbor before your house is on fire. This is her version of that.

You don’t want to be knocking on their door for the first time when you have a problem. So these little water cooler moments, these ways to build camaraderie. The first time you start to have a real problem it’s really good when you already know your teammates really well. So, we work really hard to make this stuff happen.

And then of course we try to automate anything that can be automated. Zapier is a big part of this. We use other tools as well. This is really important because you have a distributed team and so you want to stay focused on the most important, the most impactful, things that you can be doing. And if your team spread over the world is constantly thinking about doing low impact work, thinking about the tedious tasks that they have going on on a day to day basis, you’ll end up making your team much bigger and it’s the bigger your team gets, the faster it gets, the harder it’s going to be run in scale.

So, if you can focus on automating things, it’ll allow you to grow and scale in a much more methodical way. The last question I commonly get asked is, “Okay, that sounds great, but what tools you get done to do this sort of stuff?” This is probably the least interesting question, but I thought I should spend time on it because I get asked about it a lot. The tools you use, I think, are less important than finding tools that work well for you. So there’s a lot of great best in breed tools out there these days. Find the problems that you need to solve and focus on those.

However, if you’re looking for some good tools that we find, I’ll talk a little bit about those. So for us Slack is really important. This is our, quote unquote, virtual office. We think of Slack as where the day to day nitty gritty details get done. So we have a bunch of internally public channels where folks are digging into whatever projects are going on. Slack works really great for that nitty gritty details. I would say every team probably needs some form of group chat tool, can probably help them be successful. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be Slack, but Slack works well for us.

Wade Foster: The second tool we use is Async a lot. This is one that we built for ourselves. It’s an internal tool. You could probably use something like Confluence or Google Docs or COTA or Wiki software to replace it, but I think you probably want a tool like this as a companion to Slack. The reason you want this is Slack is so fast paced, the nitty gritty, the daily work happens there. So the half life of a Slack message, maybe a day, maybe less than a day. So, it’s really easy for folks to lose information in Slack. They don’t see it as quickly.

So Async for us is a place where we share big company announcements, place where we talk about the strategy, the mission, what’s going on. It’s at a 30,000 foot view, whereas Slack is at the three foot view, and it allows everyone in the company to understand at a high level, where are we going? What are our goals, what are our objectives, how are we tracking against those things? If we need to change direction, where are we going? How do we change direction, that kind of stuff.

So, any sort of Wiki software could probably be a good replacement for Asyncs. But I feel like a tool like this, if your team gets big enough, you’re going to run into that constraint with Slack. And so it’s important to find something like that.

And the last tool for us that’s really critical is Zoom. Zoom is one of the best video conferencing tools that we’ve found using. It scales up to several hundred people without any sort of problems at once. And so I’d certainly recommend Zoom. There’s a lot of other great video conferencing tools that you can check out that work well too, but you’re going to want a great video conferencing tool.

Past that, there’s a lot of other great tools you can use to get your work done, but they’re probably more specialized for your company and your needs. Like I said, there’s tons of great best-in-breed software. Go find the things that are going to work for your company, for your individual workflows, your individual needs, and then find ways to get those tools to work together. Our playbook is probably not the playbook that is perfect for you, but some of these core philosophies I think are going to help you be successful.

And with that, hopefully you’ve learned a little bit about how to make distributed teams work, how you might get some work done without an office. And we’ll use the final, I think five minutes or so here, to do some Q and A. Is that right? All right.


Brad Wolverton: Stay there. All right. So, people have been asking questions and they’d been upvoting them. So, let’s start at the top. So how to develop and implement career plans for your employees while remote. How are you guys doing that?

Wade Foster: So, I think this comes back to having good management practices. So, we ask all of our managers to do one on ones with their employees every week. And part of those one on ones are spending time on what’s the actual work we’re trying to get done. So, here’s the project we have in place. Are we trending well? Are we not turning well?

But also part of those is to talk about their own career development and their own career aspirations. So, where do they see themselves a year from now? Where do they see themselves five years from now? And can we find ways to tilt their work where they can get experience on some of that? Is the intersection of Zapier’s needs and their own needs, is there a really good spot for where they can spend time on those things? And to try and work on helping them develop their career and help grow Zapier at the same time. So, that relationship with your manager, those one-on-ones become really important for helping people continue to grow. Yeah.

Brad Wolverton: Okay. So when we started our company, it was just me and I wanted to hire people just so I could be around other humans. That’s really the only reason why. When you’re remote, you don’t have that as much or at least that’s what people think.

So, the second to top, “How do you build emotional connection with your team while being remote? And you can also be honest, is it less than if you were in the same office?”

Wade Foster: Yeah. This is something you have to work hard on. It doesn’t come as easily. I think one of the things that we found the hardest is celebrating. How do you celebrate really cool stuff? You can’t high five each other. You can’t fist pump around each other and get really excited in a room. It’s just harder to celebrate in a remote organization. That said, there are ways that I think you can help build those emotional connections that make it easier. So, I mentioned things like the pair donuts. I mentioned things like the big Zoom calls, making sure that your managers are constantly doing one-on-ones. That helps build a sense of connection there.

We onboard people in groups, so every two weeks people start and when you start you just spend your first two weeks in a set of onboarding courses with the same people. And so that builds a sense of community amongst those folks. We also do things like, we have a bunch of off topic channels in Slack. These are all prefixed with fun. So there’s things like fun gardening, fun movies, fun sports, and so people can find each other based on their common set of interests. And that helps them get to know each other. And then the other thing is the big offsites we do. So twice a year we fly everyone to get together. Those end up feeling like big reunions. You’ve been working with these people all year and sort of getting to know them and it’s a bit of a celebration of what we’ve gotten to work on. So all those things make this easier. It doesn’t make perfect.

Brad Wolverton: And the second question, and I actually had a similar one: Equipment. How do people share equipment and are they using their personal computers? And one of the reasons why this is interesting is let’s say you have to let someone go, when you do have to let someone go. If they’re using your equipment, how do you get your equipment back from a disgruntled employee?

Wade Foster:  So we give a budget for folks to set up their home office when they start. And this includes things like a laptop, a monitor.

Brad Wolverton: How much is that?

Wade Foster: We do $7,000 to do a laptop, monitor, desk, chair, whatever sort of core needs. But those four are probably the most common things people purchase. And then all the software we use is cloud hosted. So, it’s all online. And then when people leave the company, we tend to let them take the equipment with them. But we just revoke access from all the tools so that they don’t have access to the sensitive information anymore.

Brad Wolverton: What do you use for that?

Wade Foster: To revoke access?

Brad Wolverton: Yeah.

Wade Foster: We just have a massive checklist right now that someone in HR goes through and de provisions. I think maybe someone from our Ops team wrote a script to do it.

Brad Wolverton: It was a business opportunity for someone.

Wade Foster:  I think that’s the whole idea of Okta. So we’ll probably be using Okta at some point in time.

Brad Wolverton: So, this is another great question and this has to do it serendipity, which is when you’re face to face with people, you can sense their energy, their body language and see if they’re feeling happy, stress, whatever. How are you doing that remotely?

Wade Foster: Again, this comes back to why management is so critical in a remote company. You need those one-on-ones to be happening regularly, to build that rapport, to build that shared understanding and to allow people to be vulnerable with their managers and say, “Hey, I’m just having a tough day today.” Or, “Hey, this is just not working for me.” Without good management, I feel like that’s one of the most critical things. In an office, you can sometimes get away with mediocre managers who can coast by on just domain expertise. But in a distributed team you really want to have strong managers who can help navigate some of these trickier problems.

Brad Wolverton: Well, let’s do one more question. Let’s actually answer the bottom one. Recruiters, I do know you’ve hired a ton, but does remote work impact your recruiting?

Wade Foster: Mostly for the positive. When we post a job online, we will get hundreds if not thousands of applicants for those jobs and when we tend to reach out to folks when we do outbound recruiting, folks tend to be excited about this and I think the survey results I showed from the research we did with the [inaudible 00:26:34], a lot of people want to work remotely. Now, not everyone. I think a good example is when we’ve gone to try and recruit executives.

That’s often a big question for them, is many of these executives have years, often decades of experience working in leading teams in a particular way and so they ask themselves, “Can I actually lead teams in this way?” And the ones we end up hiring often say, “I don’t know if I can, but I buy into the model. I buy into that this works and I buy in that the future is going to be this way. So, I’m willing to come to Zapier and try and figure this out and learn how to do this.”

We tend to not hire folks who are like, “The model doesn’t even work.” Because well, if you don’t think it works, we’re not changing for you. This is who we are.

Brad Wolverton: Perfect. Well thank you very much. This was awesome. And Wade will be here tomorrow as well.

Wade Foster:              I will. [inaudible 00:27:28].

Brad Wolverton: Thank you.