Wade Foster on Zapier’s unusual beta program, getting new users and building a successful remote team.
Software integrations have been around for a very long time.
But for most of that time, the ability to link two products together was exclusive to those with development skills; people who knew how to get under the hood and rewire things to make them work.
A few years ago, Zapier changed all of that.
The company democratized integrations in a way that made them accessible to just about anyone.
The marketer who wants to connect his email marketing software to his analytics app?
The CEO who needs to track her Trello to-do’s in three other apps?
The tour guide who could save time by having bookings go straight from a booking form into his calendar?
They can all accomplish those things with Zapier, without having to write a single line of code.
It’s been a game changer for many; over 600,000 people, to be a bit more exact.
But, like every other successful business, Zapier started from nothing.
They weren’t in a tech hub, the founders had, in their words, completely unimpressive resumes, and their first application to Y Combinator was promptly rejected.
We talked to Zapier’s CEO, Wade Foster, about how the company went from an idea hatched over two days turned into a thriving business that’s on track to hit one million users very, very soon.
How Wade Foster and the Zapier Team Went From Zero to 600,000+ Users in Three Years
Starting Up in a Weekend
Despite its status as a favorite tool of the startup community, Zapier’s roots didn’t sprout from Silicon Valley.
Not even close.
Encouraged by the feedback that they got, the three decided to pursue their idea further.
They applied to Y Combinator, and were promptly rejected (more on that later).
So unlike the standard TechCrunch narrative where the team quits their jobs, throws caution to the wind and sets out to make a name for themselves, the Zapier crew’s approach had to be much more methodical.
We wanted to make a go of it and turn it into a business, but we were in Columbia, Missouri.
It’s not a place where there’s a lot of funding. Businesses are bootstrapped businesses, and so it had to be a side project. We had to keep our day jobs and approach it from that angle, and so that’s where we started.
The week after startup weekend, that Monday night, we hunkered down and thought about how we could make this work. And for the next few months, it was nights and weekends spent just trying to get the initial prototype out and find beta users.
While his co-founders were skilled developers, Wade’s background is in marketing, so his job was to do what marketers do: get customers.
But with a bare-bones, buggy prototype, it wasn’t easy.
Finding Zapier’s First Users
Zapier wasn’t exactly ready for prime time, but that didn’t stop Wade from knocking on people’s doors (or, more accurately, their email inboxes).
We had a functioning prototype. It wasn’t great, and it definitely wasn’t something a customer could go into and actually set up an integration with on their own.
But while it wasn’t ready for them to use, I could set it up for them on my end, so that’s what I did.
I’d get on Skype calls with people and ask them what products they wanted to integrate, and I’d do it for them.
The end result was you would get a functioning integration, which is what people cared about.
To find prospects, Wade scoured product support forums for users who wanted integrations.
I would go to forums where people were posting and asking for integrations.
Evernote, Salesforce, Dropbox… these products all have user forums.
People would post things like “I love Evernote, it would be great if it worked nicely with Dropbox,” or “I love MailChimp, it would be awesome if you had a Wufoo integration.”
And I would just comment in those forums and say “hey, here’s how you can do it… here are the API docs to these two services, and if you know how to code, here’s how you can make it work. OR, I’m working on a project that will make an integration for this and if you want to find out more, go to this link and let me know.”
And so those forum links, while they wouldn’t send a ton of traffic, we’d get 10, 15, 20 visitors from each one, but of those visitors, around 50% would convert and say “yes, I really want this.”
When you’re very early stage, that’s super important because you don’t need a thousand customers, you just need 1 customer or 10 customers and we were able to go from nothing to something just through this very targeted outreach.
And it wasn’t just the forum customers that took notice. Wade got interest from the companies hosting the forums, too.
Through this, we got to know the staff at some of these companies early on, because they were like, “hey, that looks like a cool product, can we do anything together?” And that was the beginning of partnerships for Zapier.
Those early Skype calls are also where Zapier’s culture of customer support began to take shape.
The earliest versions broke all the time.
It’s important to attract people who understand what a beta actually is and are forgiving of all the bugginess that it comes with, but I also spent a lot of time fixing issues.
When something didn’t work, of course I felt awful, but it was a learning experience and I was sitting there on the call with them, so they knew that the issue was getting attention
If we found problems we’d fix them as quickly as we could and go right back to that customer and say, “hey that problem we had on the Skype call? It’s not a problem anymore.”
That level of service for early customers surprised a lot of people.
Kevin Hale who’s the founder of Wufoo, told me that there are three types of businesses you can build.
You can build a business that sells the highest quality product. Companies like Apple that build things that are best in class and have the price tag to match.
You can build a business that offers the cheapest deals like Walmart or Amazon.
The thing about the best and cheapest is that it’s hard to be either one of those for a new company. You’re probably not going to be the best, because your product is brand new. And being cheap is really hard because you can’t take advantage of economies of scale.
The third type of business you can build too is the one with the best customer service.
I really took that to heart, because we can’t be the best and we can’t be the cheapest, but we can definitely care the most, and so from day one, we thought “let’s get on Skype calls, let’s do things that might not scale right now, just so that we can make people really happy and really want to work with us.”
That’s something that any startup can do… anyone can provide awesome customer service. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to just be nice and be helpful.
How Zapier Got Its Earliest Users to Pay for a Product That Didn’t Work That Well (Yet)
Zapier’s unorthodox approach to finding users wasn’t the only thing unorthodox about their beta.
They didn’t just get people to give their unfinished product a try. They got people to pay for the privilege.
For a tech beta, most companies just say “sign up, it’s free, all you have to do is give us advice… we’ll take anyone’s advice.”
They just beg for customers.
We made people pay a one-time fee to get into our beta.
For the first few people, we charged $100 for access to the beta for as long as the beta lasts.
And that number moved around; we charged as little as $1, and eventually it settled in around $5 or $10 to get into the beta towards the end.
It’s not that we wanted to make money off of the beta, it’s that we wanted people who really thought this was important enough to pay for and spend some time with us for. The last thing we wanted was a bunch of tire kickers who are just trying it out for fun but had no plans to use it on an ongoing basis.
So that little hurdle of just paying a little bit of money got us some really high quality early users who went above and beyond in terms of providing feedback to us on the things that mattered.
Getting Rejected From (And Accepted Into) Y Combinator
After conceiving the idea at Startup Weekend, Zapier’s co-founders decided to apply to Y Combinator.
They got turned down.
None of us have impressive resumes. We’re not Stanford engineering students who worked at these awesome startups in the Valley. We’ve never been funded before. Our resumes included things like industrial engineering degree and working in a mortgage company. We weren’t a good fit.
We thought, “that sucks, but let’s just keep doing what we were going to be doing anyway,” and so we worked on the prototype, we worked on getting users in the door, we worked on distribution strategies.
A year later, the team re-applied, this time with a different result.
And so when we applied the next time, we had a working functional beta that a thousand people had paid to get access to, and we had another 10,000 people waiting on a launch list. We had about 25 integrations that were on the platform, so we’d gone from three nobodies who had a pie-in-the-sky idea to three people who still don’t have a great resume, but who showed that they could actually get something done and build something.
That’s the biggest thing that changed, and that’s probably what got us in the second time around.
So what did the team get from being in YC?
Surprisingly, their biggest benefit wasn’t one of the usual ones that member companies cite like funding, networking or education.
The number one benefit that doesn’t get talked about enough about YC is the focus.
For three months we lived and worked in this tiny apartment and basically had no social lives, and there was nothing we did that wasn’t writing code, building our product, or working with our users.
Now, that sort of lifestyle is not sustainable you could not do that for decades, but for 3 months, most people could definitely do that, and the progress we made was huge.
It also gave us a little tech street cred. Since we’re trying to do integrations with all of these popular SaaS companies, that was really helpful.
When we were young, nobody knew who we were, but the fact that we had the YC label got people thinking that we might be a promising company, and they’d be more willing to support us and work with us.
How Zapier Leveraged SEO to Catch New Users
Building a platform consisting of products from other companies, the Zapier team found a clever way to harness the power of search results to bring in traffic.
We set up landing pages for every combination of app-to-app that you could possible connect.
So if you’re searching for Groove and JIRA, ideally Zapier is in the results.
So people who are looking for this stuff are finding us, so we’re harvesting that demand.
Leading the Way in Partner Co-Marketing
As Zapier’s network of partners grew, it became one of the biggest sources of traffic for Zapier, and a huge source of value for their partners’ customers, too.
But while partners would often help out by sharing their Zapier integration, more could be done.
And with hundreds of integration partnerships under their belt, Zapier knew how to help their partners execute more successful co-marketing campaigns.
At first, we were just like “hey, promote stuff!”
We told our partners to Tweet, share on Facebook, whatever.
But we realized that that’s just not effective; it doesn’t get great results on either side of the table, and so we started trying different things with different partners.
We kind of paid attention to what worked and as we figured out what worked really well, we began to take the lead on marketing when a new integration happened.
People would look to us, because at this point we’d done this several hundred times now, and their expectation is that we’re the ones with the playbook.
So we come to our partners and we can now say “alright, here are the things that if we both do them, this is going to be successful.” 99% of the time, people are like “thank goodness, let’s do this.”
Adding Content Marketing to the Mix
While Zapier was young, SEO and co-marketing were enough to turn the startup into a real business.
But around two years ago, the company began to put a lot more effort into their content marketing.
And it’s paid off huge, as Zapier’s blog now boasts nearly 250,000 monthly readers.
We felt like we needed to raise the bar. Our partnerships were going well, the SEO strategy was working well, but Zapier was still kind of unknown. If you didn’t have a need for us, there was no reason to know we existed.
I felt like we didn’t have the awareness of the company and what we were doing that we should have had, and so we decided to put our resources behind content marketing and getting people to know who we were so that when they did need our product, it was an easy choice.
We looked at what the best people in the space were doing, and thought about how we could mimic their styles, but do it in our own voice and do it around the topics that we think are going to be most interesting to our customers.
And so our blog took shape around apps and tools and productivity and stuff like that.
It’s a lot of effort and it takes time, but it compounds.
Those first six months were tough. The next six months were a little bit better. And the last six months have been great.
It’s a lot like your personal savings. You have to keep making little deposits. If you only make one deposit, you’re not going to get very good returns, but if you keep making deposits on a consistent basis over the course of time, you’re going to get compound interest, and ultimately, much bigger rewards.
On Building a Remote Team
Zapier’s team has been distributed since its early days.
Y Combinator was the only time we worked at the same place at the same time.
After YC, Mike’s girlfriend (now wife) was in school in Missouri, and so he said “I’m going to move back there.”
And we thought, he’s a key part of this company, we’re not going to kick him out because of that, so we’ll just figure out how to make it work, and he moved back to Missouri.
Micah, who was our first support hire, was in Chicago, so decided that we could do the remote thing. Other companies seemed to be making it work, so we thought we’d give it a shot.
Over time, it’s really become a key part of the culture and who we are as a company, and it works great for us. It’s certainly hard but I think we reap a lot of benefits from it.
To build a culture that people would want to work in, Zapier prioritized bringing people together on a regular basis.
A lot of companies that that think about remote as “the cheap option” don’t really think about this, but if you’re in one place, rent would be part of your cost.
So instead of having rent as a line item, you really need to have travel as a big line item to be thinking about, because you are going to want to meet in person and I think there’s some bonding that happens in person that just can’t be done remotely.
Now, with that said, there are things you can do remotely to kind of build a good culture.
We’ve always things hired people who care about the same things as us. We wanted people who cared a lot about doing really good work, and who cared about building high quality stuff rather than having ping pong tables or massages at work.
Having folks who cared about the same stuff as we did made it a lot easier to gel as a team.
I also think you need to hire slowly and purposefully. If you try and scale up really fast where you’re doubling every couple of quarters, doing that remotely feels like it would be impossible.
The other thing that’s absolutely critical is communication, regardless of what tools you use.
Another important part of building a strong culture is setting an example for the rest of the team that work/life balance is important to the CEO, too.
I don’t do 12 hour days.
I work a pretty standard schedule, and when my wife gets home from work, I go home, I have dinner with her and we hang out. I go to bed early and then I wake up the next day and do it all again.
I never work on Saturdays, and Sundays I maybe play around a little with Zapier stuff, but it’s more of an experimental day. You don’t want to burn out. The biggest disservice I could do to the company is try and be a superhero and work 16 hour days and then 18 months later, realize that I just can’t do it anymore.
The Job at Zapier That Every Single Employee Has
There’s one thing that everyone who works at Zapier, from developers to marketers, has to do: customer support.
Everyone at Zapier spends time doing customer support. You don’t get hired and not talk with customers, that’s not a thing. If you don’t want to do customer service, go work somewhere else.
The way we do it is everyone has a shift.
Our engineers do all of our technical tickets, and they do it on a rotating basis, so today we have around 10 engineers, and so one week out of ten, they’re spending the whole week just doing customer support.
That helps in so many ways, because now the engineers see what the problems are with the product, and they see what customers are getting frustrated with.
There’s no misinterpretation between support and the other people who are building the product about what’s important in the users’ minds, because everyone knows.
Others—people in marketing and other roles—spend a four hour shift each week doing support, and it just puts them in the mind of the customer and really makes them care about the customer a lot more.
That’s something that we’ve done since day one, and it goes a long way toward building a company focused on customer service.
This presents a unique challenge when it comes to hiring: not only does every Zapier job candidate have to be good at the job they’re being hired for, they have to be good at support, too.
In interviews we’re looking for personable people; if an engineer comes off as a great engineer but is a little bit prickly, we’re probably not gonna hire them because they’re just not going to be a good fit.
We also look at the emails they write to us. Are they being friendly, or do they come off a little short or callous?
We just want people that are going to come off as being really friendly via email to our customers, so it’s something we’re paying attention to along the way.
We’ll also ask questions, like “when was a time you got great customer support?”
One fantastic question is to have someone deliver bad news to you in an interview. For example, “say you and I are dating right now and you need to break up with me on this call… how would you do it?”
Sometimes in support you deliver bad news, but you still have to do it with empathy and do it in a way that makes the customer happy.
Wade’s Required Reading (And Doing)
A lot of people fall into the habit of reading and not doing. I think people probably read a little too much and do a little too little.
I think the most important thing is to jump in, try a few things, see what’s working and go back to the drawing board. Don’t just read business books for reading’s sake, use reading as an inspiration for what you’re actually going do in real life.
Your Turn: Ask Wade Anything
Wade has (very) generously agreed to answer your questions in the comments of this interview. We’re going to be watching closely and trying to learn as much as we can ourselves, so don’t be shy.
Post your questions for Wade in the comments below.