In 2011, Wade Foster was working in Columbia, Missouri as an email marketer for a home loan company. His now-famous workflow automation tool, Zapier, was simply a weekend hobby for Foster and his co-founders. But, six years and almost 100 employees later, Zapier has transformed from an idea spawned at a startup event in central Missouri to a YC-backed company with over a million users.
How did Zapier scale their organization, as they grew from a small handful of tight-knit friends to almost 100 remote-only employees? As a founder, or aspiring founder, what can you learn from Zapier’s unique journey?
On the heels of Zapier’s announcement they would pay employees to de-locate from San Francisco, Wade sat down with Misha Chellam at Tradecraft to give his thoughts on dealing with the growing pains of organizational development in Silicon Valley.
Below are four highlights from the discussion, detailing Wade’s thoughts on recruiting, hiring, growing, and thriving:
1. Know when to switch from maker mode to manager mode.
Wade said he spent a lot of time precariously balancing between being a technical founder who builds a product and a manager who supports and grows a company. He wishes he would have made the transition between maker and manager more consciously and quickly, instead of lingering between the two roles.
What is the difference between roles in a founding team versus 100-plus employee company? “Huge!” Wade grins. In the early days, when the team consisted of under ten people, there’s not enough time to delegate and optimize. Everyone does everything. It’s constant fire fighting. The company’s sole focus is to build a product, and Wade’s role was primarily a maker.
Zapier now has almost 100 employees, and the individual influence of each contributor has waned. As a CEO, Wade says he’s fully in manager mode, as opposed to maker. Wade focuses his attention now on hiring best-fit, specialized talent, who implement sophisticated processes and systems, and achieve real exponential growth.
Somewhere in the middle, between the fire fighting and the sophistication and specialization, is a gray-zone of role definition for a founder. Being more self-aware to when that move from maker to manager is happening, and transitioning with purpose and forethought will benefit both you and the company.
2. Remote-only companies offer unique advantages over those that are co-located.
Zapier is one of the few mature startups out there that is entirely remote. There is no central office, and employees can live and work where they choose. For Zapier, the origins of this organizational style developed when early employees wanted to return to their families in Missouri after YC. Choosing your company’s office situation early can set the entire cultural tone. Know your values, and act accordingly.
Wade believes there are many valuable advantages to having a remote workforce. “We over-document,” he says. Since processes and changes cannot be easily shared by word of mouth as within co-located teams, Zapier teams must diligently work to document processes and systems clearly and frequently.
Additionally, Zapier has a global talent pool from which to hire. They are not bound to hiring only from one city, and employees don’t need to worry about re-location (unless they take Wade up on his generous re-location offer!). This ability to hire worldwide keeps diversity of thought processes and skill sets fresh.
All in all, a remote team must work hard at functioning as a team. The benefit here is that teams must cooperate and actively seek buy-in. You may think a remote-only team is a collection of self-sufficient individuals, however, it can also be uniquely cohesive. As a founder, it’s your job to make sure teams function holistically if you choose to go remote.
3. Systematic hiring practices create a meritocratic culture.
After Wade announced Zapier’s employee de-location program, the company’s remote-only mindset gained overnight publicity. Zapier received over 10,000 employment applications in a few short months. How did Zapier sift through the overload?
Zapier has created a system to make the hiring process streamlined, fair, and hopefully successful.
a) Work with hiring managers and teams to create a relevant skill set list. Use this list in the job ad.
b) Have all applicants fill out an application, no matter who they are. Even referrals! All applicants are given a number to make the process annonymous.
c) Map all applicants on a hiring rubric. Those that align well with required skills and experience will be short-listed for interviews.
d) Conduct interviews that emphasize culture fit, which for Zapier include customer-focus, self-sufficiency, and ability to learn and solve problems.
e) Don’t be afraid to recycle the process if no candidate emerges on top!
4. Know your company’s key differentiating factor and hire based with that factor in mind.
Many companies strive to differentiate themselves as being either the best on the market or the cheapest on the market. Zapier takes a different approach: they offer the best service on the market. As a self-service tool, Zapier receives a lot of inbound queries daily, and the company works hard to provide high-quality customer service.
Since this is their priority, Zapier focuses on hiring customer-focused, empathetic employees. All Zapier employees must spend at least 4 hours a week working in customer-facing roles, directly interacting with and listening to customers. Wade believes this benefits the company two-fold:
a) Employees must know the product in-and-out to be able to effectively and efficiently interact with customers.
b) Employees will gain a deeper understanding of how customers interact with the product and how it can be improved.
This knowledge creates a common language and understanding among all employees, and yields better team communication and product management.
As a founder, what issues have you encountered growing and organizing your workforce? What mantras or schools of thought have you subscribed to in order to guide your company? Let us know your thoughts in the comments. Give us some claps if you’re a Zapier fan or found this interview useful and interesting.
A huge thank you to Wade Foster for sharing his anecdotes and advice on scaling your high growth tech startup, and sharing Zapier’s unique approach to the problem. Additional props to Tradecraft for hosting this event. Snaps and claps to John A. Parks, Haomin Xu, and Misha Chellam for thoughtful edits.