An interview with Wade Foster, Co-Founder & CEO of Zapier
Original interview published on Ways We Work: http://wayswework.io/interviews/wade-foster-co-founder-and-ceo-of-zapier
Wade Foster is the CEO and co-founder of Zapier, working and living in the Bay Area he leads a team of over 45 people, entirely remote. Wade and his two other co-founders started Zapier as a side project and grew it into a product used by thousands of teams and individuals today. The team at Zapier has been a sponsor of Ways We Work for the past six months, they’re a fascinating team for so many reasons and I was excited to talk to Wade to learn what some of the biggest challenges are. He shares how he divides up his time to address the most important tasks, the best part about his role as CEO and how he does it all remotely.
Tell me a little about your role and what that encompasses?
I’m a co-founder and CEO at Zapier, I have two other co-founders, Bryan and Mike, they’re the CTO and CPO respectively. As the CEO my responsibility is to oversee the leadership team and anything else that is most important in the company at the given time. That can change depending on what’s happening. To give you an example, we launched Multi-Step Zaps in February and prior to launching that I was helping coordinate the launch and playing goalie to make sure that no tasks slipped through.
The launch went really great and we realized, “Oh crap, we’re short staffed on support now.” We didn’t think it was going to go that well, we thought it would go well, but we didn’t think it would go as amazing as it did. So for the next month and a half, I did a lot of support to help out the team, while I was doing a lot of recruiting, hiring and training to get new people in the door to help out. I see my role as helping out where I’m the most needed at any given time.
How did the original idea for Zapier come about?
My co-founder Bryan and I were doing a lot of freelancing for small business in Columbia, Missouri and even though we were in Columbia our clients were located all over the place. We’d set up Wordpress sites, create forms and little lead gen things for them, and we’d often get asked to do a lot of API grunt work. A customer would ask, “can you get our PayPal sales into Quick Books for us, or get our leads coming from this Wordpress site into our CRM or mailing list for us?” So we’d write a little API code, set it up and it would work fine. The customers liked it and they’d pay us our rates. It was boring work but it paid the bills.
Bryan came to me and said, “I think we can build a tool that productizes this API work we’re doing so that the end user could set this up themselves and wouldn’t have to come to a person like us.” That seemed like a no-brainer to me, it was clearly something that was valuable. So we teamed up with Mike and for the first year of Zapier it was this side project we were doing on top of our day jobs. Mike was actually still in school at the time. We just worked as often as we could to get the app launched and off the ground, trying to get people using it and to a place where we could finally go full-time on it.
“We have a team of 45 or so people and the biggest challenges are keeping everyone on the same page, making sure the biggest problems are addressed and that we’re not shying away from hard problems.”
I have a two part question. What were the biggest challenges turning Zapier into a business when you first started? And how does that compare to what your biggest challenges are now?
When we first started, we were still working day jobs. We were investing huge amounts of time outside of work, probably 40–50 hours a week on top of our full-time jobs. I remember being up till 2am sometimes on weekends just trying to get something happening. I’m married and so my wife was dealing with me not being around a whole lot, same with Bryan and Mike — we just didn’t sleep much. It was clear that wasn’t sustainable but we felt like if we could get it to a place where it could launch then it would all be worth it. We could transition and make it our day jobs instead of a side gig.
There was just a lot of work that went into that, and the fact that all three of us stayed committed and never really wavered, that was kind of miraculous to me. Neither of us ever said, “Uh, I’m just going to take a break and go back to my day job for awhile.” I think the biggest challenge at the beginning was staying dedicated, and continuing to put effort into something even though it wasn’t 100% clear it was going to work.
Nowadays it’s totally different. We have a team of 45 or so people and the biggest challenges are keeping everyone on the same page, making sure the biggest problems are addressed and that we’re not shying away from hard problems. Also making sure the culture stays intact as we grow, making sure the user base grows and that we’re fostering a profitable business. All of the things that go into that are different types of challenges, they’re equally hard but in different ways.
On any given day or week, there’s probably a million different things that you’re touching or are a part of. Are there any specific routines or process that you use that helps you accomplish all of those things?
I try to front load my week with meetings and one on one’s with my core team of people. I spend a lot of time in one on one’s with the leadership team at the beginning of the week to make sure they have what they need from me and that we agree on what the core tasks are. That way they’re set up well for the rest of the week to go and execute on that stuff. Bryan, our CTO is the really technical one and Mike is the product guy, and I spend a lot of my time on the marketing and customer service side of Zapier. So I spend a lot of time with our customer service team and our marketing team to make sure that things are going really well on both those teams.
All of those check-ins happen at the beginning of the week and then Wednesday and Thursday I try to keep a bit more open for my own individual work, the things that I just need to get done. Those differ from day to day, it could be stuff like doing an interview like this or writing and communicating that Zapier is a neat and interesting place to work. Wednesday and Thursday’s are when I can get in the groove and focus on doing something big and hard.
On top of that, everyone at Zapier does a little bit of customer service each week, so I end my week doing my support shift on Friday afternoons. I like to make sure that every single customer has heard from us that week. We use Help Scout for support and I like to see it at zero at the end of the day on Friday. That means everyone is taken care of for the week and we’ve done right by our customers. That’s what I try and wrap up my week with.
“I think the key thing is that we’re 100% remote, all in, there is no central office and even people who live in the same cities communicate the same way as the rest of team.”
How do you manage your time between communications and connecting with the team versus the other types of work that you have to get done?
Splitting things by days is really my main trick. Monday’s and Tuesday’s are about meetings and making sure I’m doing right by those. One trick I use for meetings is that I make sure to schedule some time in between them. I like to have 10–15 minutes between meetings to reflect and make notes on what was discussed and what issues need to be addressed. Reflecting on the meeting right away and making notes on the key action items means I know exactly what my focus needs to be for the rest of the week. Also, I need 10 or 15 minutes between meetings because my dog needs to go to the bathroom [laughs]. He lets me know about it.
With a product like Zapier it seems like there is an endless amount of features or integrations or updates that you could be doing. How do you focus and prioritize what is next?
That’s a good question. That is both one of the most fun things about Zapier and the hardest things about Zapier. We do have a mile long list of features that the user base is interested in. Whether it’s a new app or new triggers or actions or missing fields here or there or the UX intricacies between services that could be improved. One of the big things we’ve done is we built out a robust developer platform, most of the apps now on Zapier are supported by the vendor themselves. Companies like Slack, Hubspot, Podio, Gravity Forms and Typeform, you name it, they’ve all built apps on Zapier and they mostly maintain those apps. We provide suggestions back to them when we hear from our user base on what should be improved. Sometimes they’ll implement those suggestions, sometimes we’ll do it if it’s important enough, but that way we jointly share the burden with our partners rather than us having to do every last feature request. That really helps to fill in the gaps.
From there, a lot of what our road map ends up looking like is what the key things are that will have an impact on all the users on Zapier. Instead of working on one specific little app, we ask ourselves how we can improve something that everyone on Zapier is going to experience. For example, our editor, what improvements can we make there? We also focus on how we can tweak the platform that people are building apps on that’s something that affects all of our partners and users.
Thinking that way helps us siphon things off into core pillars that we focus most of our efforts on. “What’s going to improve retention of users? What’s going to improve upgrades to get more paying users on the platform so we can keep financing the user base?” We use that as our lamp post.
“As someone who’s getting to run it, I can say, “Hey, work-life balance should matter, you should be able to live and work wherever you want to work.””
What have been some of the core things that you think have made having a remote team work so well?
I think the key thing is that we’re 100% remote, all in, there is no central office and even people who live in the same cities communicate the same way as the rest of team. We communicate over Slack, video calls, whatever it may be. We don’t get in the same room and hash things out in person, we do it the same way as everybody else. There is an even playing field amongst every single person in the company. It’s not like half of the people are in the office and get to do the hallways chats, and half of the people are these spokes trying to glue into the central hub. That even playing field matters a lot and we did that from the very beginning, it was built into the DNA of the company. It wasn’t something that we tried to change up later and then had all of this stuff to unlearn. We’re very rooted in that.
The fact that working remotely is in the DNA of the company forced us to think about the way the overall company should work as we scaled. Things like documentation, internal tools, and transparency got baked into how we do things which helps a lot. When new people join there’s all these great materials and documentation about how Zapier works and where you can find things. That’s huge when you don’t have a person sitting next to you to answer those questions. I think the fact that we’ve done that has actually helped us be a little more mature in how we operate as a company than even a lot of our bigger co-located teams, because in a way they can be lazy about that stuff because they have the benefit of being able to tap someone on the shoulder and say “Hey, where is this thing?” or, “How does this work?” It’s forced us to be mature and take a disciplined approach into how we build these things out.
We do a lot of other smaller things too that I think are equally important. For example, we have this concept of pair buddies where every week you randomly get paired up with someone else on the team. It’s almost like a coffee date; you hop on a call, ask them how life is and learn about what they’re working on. That’s really helpful for new people to get introduced to folks, to chat with someone who’s maybe across the ocean and doesn’t work on a function that you do all the time. We also do our retreats where the entire company gets together twice a year. We all come to the same place to hang out in person — that really reinforces that you work with these real human beings.
One other thing that our designer Stephanie came up with is called ‘Airbnboarding’. So when people start at Zapier we fly them out here to the Bay Area and rent them an Airbnb to stay in for the week. Us three founders live out here in the Bay Area, so we can go and hang out with them, get to know them as a person and what their role is. That way you can get a deep dive into Zapier history and culture, it’s a great introduction and first week on the team.
“For me, when working for other companies, they did some things that I liked and some things that I didn’t like, but when you get to do it yourself you get to be the scientist, you get to figure out what works best.”
What are the main tools that you’re using right now that make up your workflow?
Google Docs — I spend a lot of time on Google Docs. If I’m sharing meeting notes with someone, it’s often just in a Google Doc. When we’re on a call we’ll have a Google Doc pulled up and we’ll both be taking notes in it, commenting etc.
Simplenote — If it’s a call with someone externally I actually have something like Simplenote pulled up and I’ll take notes in there. If I’m doing interviews for candidates that could potentially join Zapier, I’ll have a string of notes, one for each candidate. I spend a lot of time in note taking apps.
Slack — When I’m talking to the team, I use Slack a lot to just for day-to-day banter, and making sure things are going well.
Async — We also have an internal tool that we built called Async, it’s like an internal blog meets Reddit. Slack is this firehose of information that you don’t want everyone to try and drink everything from, it’s just too much. Async gives you a higher level overview of what’s happening on a function or on a project so that people outside of those can stay informed on what’s going on and how it relates to the work they’re doing.
Do you ever experience burnout? How does that manifest for you and as like a CEO how do you manage that?
I think burnout happens when you’re doing things that are frustrating; when you’re working on things that you don’t want to be working on and it’s not going well. It doesn’t happen often, mostly things are going well but there are definitely days where certain people issues might come up, or you’re dealing with an external vendor who’s being difficult or not doing things you think they should do. If I’m in a string of meetings like that all day, I’ll definitely be exhausted by the end of it, you can feel like you don’t want to to talk to or see another person. That can be tiresome.
One thing I do is I play a lot of racquetball, I go and hit the ball as hard as I can for an hour and that does the trick [laughs]. Then I’ll come home, go to sleep, wake up and I’m re-energized and ready to go again. I haven’t really had systemic burnout when I feel like I just never want to do something again. I’m mostly happy and excited to be working on Zapier a lot of the time.
What would you say is a major aspect of your role as CEO that you don’t think a lot of people would know or realize?
In general, the role of CEO gets a lot of probably undue credit for a lot of things. When product launches happen and there’s big news about a company, a lot of people talk about the CEO and how awesome it is that he or she built this awesome thing. However, it’s always really interesting because being on the inside I see who actually should get credit for the work. I mentioned earlier that we launched Multi-Step Zaps in February and that was actually a project that I didn’t have a ton to do with. I understood the problem space and could maybe make suggestions but it was mostly Mike and our product team and our engineering team that spent months and months in the weeds figuring it out, doing user testing and reiterating over designs. Then at the end of the day, I get this undue credit just because I happen to have the title.
I think that’s one thing that happens a lot is that once a company gets to a certain size, a lot of times it’s these core team members that are actually doing the bulk of the work for specific projects or specific initiatives. Sometimes the best thing the CEO did was say, “That’s a good idea to work on, we should invest resources.” [laughs] That was the sole decision that was made but the rest of the credit deservedly should go to other people.
Why do you do what you do? What makes it so meaningful to you?
One of the special things about being an entrepreneur is that you really own it. It’s crazy hard and things are incredibly challenging but at the end of the day, more so than any other role, you own it. It’s something that you have an impact on and for me, I really like that feeling of knowing that I contributed a meaningful amount to a project, that I had this broader impact on something. That’s a big piece of it for me.
Another big piece is that you get to set things up in a way that fits the style of what you think is best. For me, when working for other companies, they did some things that I liked and some things that I didn’t like, but when you get to do it yourself you get to be the scientist, you get to figure out what works best. We’re running a remote team which is crazy weird for most people and totally different and we’re doing it at a scale that most remote teams aren’t at yet. We’re almost 50 people and I think it’s really cool to be on the forefront of that and get to try these types of things.
As someone who’s getting to run it, I can say, “Hey, work-life balance should matter, you should be able to live and work wherever you want to work.” I think these things are important and I think that the internet enables us to do it so let’s try and make it work. It’s cool that as CEO or a founder of a company you get a disproportionate amount of influence on what your company gets to try and attempt to do with these types of things. That’s fun for me.
Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?
I’d like to see Kevin Hale, he’s the founder of Wufoo and now he’s a partner at Y Combinator. He’s the type of person that forms his own opinions on things, he doesn’t necessarily see what the crowd thinks and just jumps on the bandwagon, he tends to like to figure things out on his own and make a decision himself. When I get a chance to chat with him, I always make sure to listen because he has insightful stuff to say.
Originally published at wayswework.io.