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Zapier CEO Wade Foster on scaling a remote team up to 300 employees

‘We started as a side project… and side projects can’t afford offices’


When Zapier was founded in 2011, it was a side project for three friends from Missouri who wanted to make it easier to connect any one web app to another. Nine years, millions of users and around 300 employees later, it’s one of the most highly valued companies to ever go through Y Combinator — and they did it all with a team that is entirely remote.

I chatted with Zapier co-founder and CEO Wade Foster to find out why they decided to go remote from the start, and how the company addresses the challenges of scaling up a distributed team. Here’s our chat, lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

TechCrunch: Why remote?

Wade Foster: I’ll give you a little of the origin story.

We started as a side project… and side projects can’t afford offices. So we’re kind of working via coffee shops, our apartments, wherever we could get the job done. 

We moved out to the Bay Area from Columbia, Missouri for [Y Combinator]. That summer, we were all three in the same apartment — the only time in the company’s life cycle where the whole company was together. At the tail end of that, Mike, one of my co-founders, moved back to Missouri to be with his then-girlfriend/now-wife as she was wrapping law school. So we were remote by necessity there.

We started to think about hiring on staff to help with some things. We’d never hired before, and the advice we got was “work with former colleagues. You already have trust, it’ll make it a little less risky.” All the people we know? They’re back in the Midwest. So we hired a former colleague of mine that was in Chicago and another in Columbia. At five people, we’re across three cities, still no office.

What we noticed was that product was getting shipped, customers seemed to be happy, more customers were coming in, revenue was coming in and the team was happy. All the things you kind of look for, to say “yeah, this is good…” none of it seemed to be hindered. So we looked at that and said, “you know what? I think this remote thing… we should just do it.”

We could hire people wherever we want to. We don’t have to deal with getting an office space, or compete in the Bay Area. There were just all sorts of reasons why it was good — and if it wasn’t hindering the core work that was being done, we should just not have that constraint to running the business. That’s how it went from being this ephemeral thing we were doing to being how we operate.

How big is Zapier now?

We’re 300 people today.

Where is everyone?

We’re all over the globe. Two-thirds are in the U.S., one-third international. We are in… I want to say 27 countries and maybe 35 different states?

You mention some of the advantages of being remote; having a bigger applicant pool, etc. What are some of the disadvantages?

I think there’s a few things. The one thing we still have not solved, and it’s a very specific thing… how do you celebrate very specific milestones? You ship a really great feature, or you hit a specific number… and like, you throw a GIF party? Or on Zoom you go “Hurrah!” 

It’s still not quite the same as high-fiving someone in the hallway. It’s like 80% as good, or 90% as good… but there’s just a little bit that’s missed. We sort of augment it by doing team off-sites, where twice a year we get everyone together. Those are like a big celebration — a big get-together. That’s how we augment that downside.

Something else… you can decide if this is a downside or not: It requires more discipline. You have to make sure that you’re documenting your work, you have to commit to writing things down. And a lot of humans are just a little lazy about that stuff. We like being able to informally tap someone on the shoulder, we like the casualness of it — so in an environment like Zapier, there are certain things… you just have to write this down, you have to document that, you have to share this out. And you have to commit to that discipline, otherwise it doesn’t work.

Here’s the kicker: As a company gets to a certain size, you have to do this anyway, even if you’re not remote. So it forces you to have good habits early on that normally you would have to develop once you get to 100, 200 people or something like that anyway. Remote just forces you to do it early. So… downside? Upside? You’re kind of trading off a little bit of work up front for some bigger gains down the line.

Have you found it just doesn’t work for some people?

Yes, but it’s fewer than you’d expect.

There are many folks that’ve joined Zapier that were maybe a little nervous about the remote aspect. They love the mission, the company, the people. The remote thing, they’re like, “I’m not sure it’s for me, but I’m gonna take a chance on it.”

Most of the time it works! It works fine; people feel connected to their [colleagues], they have a sense of camaraderie. But there is a select set of folks… I would say in the life cycle of the company, less than 10 people have opted out in part because remote wasn’t working for them.

It tends to be folks who are younger, single, don’t have families; the office becomes a sense of where they get friendship — you meet friends and hang out with them on the weekends. It tends to be more that way, but not always! But that’s probably the most common archetype that might struggle with it.

You mentioned using Slack, and I know you use Zoom we’re doing a Zoom call right now — any other tools you use to make all this work?

Slack and Zoom are big, and we built an internal tool for ourselves called Async that we use a lot.

If you think of Slack, the half-life of a Slack message is like, what, an hour? Maybe a couple hours?

Zapier’s bulletin board-style Async platform for slower-paced internal comms

Async is kind of the opposite. The half life of an Async post is maybe a week, or a half week. What goes into Async is more like company comms, announcements, strategy — stuff that’s important this week, or this month, for a lot of people in the company to understand. It’s longer-form writing, a little slower. Deeper thinking is happening in Async, whereas Slack is just like nitty-gritty details, in-the-moment type stuff.

I guess Zapier is a bit unique in that most people at the company… when they need something, they can probably just build it themselves. They can build a Zap for it. Are there any gaps out there, any tools you wish existed for remote teams that just don’t?

Most of the things that I think are gaps most remote workers wouldn’t cite. It comes down to a lot of compliance and regulatory stuff. Just like … hiring, paying and taxes for hiring globally is just a massive pain in the neck. There’s a lot of grey area, too, where you’re trying to do your best to operate within the letter of the law but, like, it’s a new thing! So the governments aren’t super-well-organized around this stuff.

So I think there’s probably a really big company around handling global payroll type stuff [for remote teams] and being able to do that really well. That’d be a billion-dollar company, easily. I get pitched on some ideas from time to time that I just don’t know the solution for. 

I’ll give you an example: Silicon Valley-style perks. “We pay for your gym membership! We pay for your food!” All this stuff that’s very Silicon Valley-esque… you can’t really do that, remote. If you wanted to even pay for someone’s gym membership, how would you even go about doing that? If you could… like, it would require everyone to have the same gym in the cities they live in, and that’s not a given. 

Small things like that are tricky to do, so you end up just not doing that stuff. You look for other types of perks and bonuses. 

I think what we’re finding, over time, is that a remote culture becomes distinctly in and of itself. We’re not trying to be like in-office cultures. We’re not trying to have perks like in-office culture perks. We’re trying to do things that are distinctly distributed — to build this culture that’s based around, “hey, you don’t commute to work every day. You do have the flexibility to pick your kids up from school, or take them to school in the morning. You do have the flexibility to run a quick errand in the middle of the day.”

You’re trying to find things that are like… don’t compare us to this [office job]. Compare us to other remote companies, compare us to other types of distributed work — because it’s a totally distinct experience! It’s just different. It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison.

But there’s something in there. I don’t know what the product or the company would be, but there is something in there that’ll probably emerge over time as distributed work becomes more and more popular.

At 300 people… do you find new challenges as you scale up? Have there been surprises at 50, 100 people? Do things change?

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Here’s the kicker though: It’s not about remote work, typically. It’s just typically that when companies get bigger, you have new problems. 

When we were younger, there were a lot of remote companies that were about the same size as us. Those were the people I’d go get advice from. Over time, we just started being one of the bigger remote companies. There’s not that many that operate at the scale we’re at today; there’s Automattic, and GitLab, and Invision… and then you kind of start to run out.  

So I started spending more time with other founders, other execs at companies that have grown big, whether they’re remote or not, and asking, “What are the big problems you have?” And they were the same as ours! Like “teams aren’t aligned,” or “this product launch got delayed for x/y/z reason,” or “we have people who are struggling scaling in their roles because the challenges are new or unique…” like, it feels like there are a set of problems that any company that’s growing fast has. 

Besides the retreats, how do you make it feel like one team? How do you make everyone feel unified?

We do a bunch of stuff to build… I would say there’s camaraderie, and there’s the culture around things. They’re a little bit different, but somewhat similar. On the culture side, we have a very distinct set of values that we hire for. It’s part of our interview process, it’s part of performance reviews. As a result, people feel very… bought into this stuff.

Traditionally “values” are like cute posters you put on the wall that make you feel good but don’t really mean anything, like “Be Excellent!” or “Have Integrity!,” and it’s like, well, yeah, of course. Ours are more instructive, like “default to action” or “default to transparency.” They tell you “this is how you behave in this environment…” and they’re a little opinionated. You could equally take the opposite opinion of those and probably be successful…

Can you tell me what those mean? What’s “default to action?”

Default to action is… maybe another way of saying it is, “don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness.” We feel like it’s worth the risk, a little bit, to just go for a thing you believe in rather than having to go through chains and chains of approval to get a thing done.

So a company that might do the opposite of this would be something like Apple. Apple is very locked down; they are very quality-driven, perfection-oriented, and so they’ll delay stuff until they’re 100% ready. Versus maybe a company like Amazon which really empowers people at the edges of the work to go get it done — particularly in a division like AWS. So we’re probably more like an AWS than we would be like an Apple.

So [these values] are opinionated! They say, “this is how we work.” It’s okay to work the other way, but you’re probably not going to be successful inside of Zapier if you prefer that other way. So we hire for that, and do performance reviews with that in mind. That builds a shared mindset around those things.

Then on the camaraderie side of things, there’s a bunch of stuff we do. We have a bot inside of Slack called Donut.ai that automatically pairs you up with a random person in the company, so you can just have an informal chat every week — 30 minutes or so. We have a bunch of off-topic, non-work channels that are all prefixed with “#fun,” things like “#fun-movies,” “#fun-sports,” “#fun-gardening.” And they get pretty esoteric! Like, there’s a “#fun-ham-radio.”

People, whatever they’re into, they can just get in there and it acts like a mini-subreddit. I think in some companies they’d be like, “Shut that down! No non-work conversations!,” but at a remote company, you need a little bit of that watercooler. You need places where people can blow off a little steam and chat about that stuff. I think it makes us stronger as a company, because this is how you build relationships with people who aren’t on your team, and you build relationships with others who are outside the company. Then all of a sudden when you have a project with this person you’re like, “oh! I know you because we both like baseball,” or knitting, or whatever the thing is.”

Things go faster because you already have a relationship. And then obviously we do the big team get togethers, which help with that too. There’s a bunch of like… little cultural rituals that help people get to know each other. Video is always on in calls, so you’re looking at the person you’re talking to. As a result you’ll see pets walk by, and kids walk by — you get this glimpse into peoples’ lives that I don’t think you get in an office setting; it brings some humanity to the job.

Have you reached a point where you’ve had to hire people just to focus on the remote side of things?

[Laughs] This is a contentious topic right now! Should we hire a person who does all this stuff for us? By and large, managers sort of take ownership of it. It’s an extension of myself, my co-founders, how we sort of believe the company should operate. That’s mostly worked for us up to 300 [employees].

There are some spots where things are breaking, and some folks think a way to solve it would be to hire a dedicated person to handle all this stuff. Another set of folks are like “no, it should remain decentralized in its approach.” So… TBD?

When you say things are breaking, can you elaborate?

A common refrain we hear is, “hey, there’s just a lot of information. I don’t know what to pay attention to, and what not to pay attention to.”

This happens in other companies too that are not remote. But in remote it’s magnified by the fact that everything is written down, and it’s all shared in Slack, or Async, or Google Docs, or Quip. We have these docs and they’re shared in different places and they’re like “I don’t know where to find it! What do I do about that?”

We gotta figure out… like, one, should we solve that problem? If so, two, how do we solve that problem?

Along those lines — what about new employees? If you have docs on docs on docs… how do you bring new employees up to speed?

We have a pretty rigorous onboarding. People start every two weeks; we onboard everybody in cohorts. This week is an onboarding week, where there’s a set of about 10 people that started. They go through a mix of self-directed onboarding and classroom-style learning concepts; they all jump on Zoom and there’s maybe a short lecture with an interactive piece. It sort of teaches people the culture, the tools, how to find things… all of the nitty-gritty of how you work inside of Zapier. 

It’s our equivalent of like… if you got onboarded into an [office] company, you’d learn where the cafeteria is, where the bathroom is, how to request time off. It’s the remote equivalent of those things. We don’t have to tell you where the bathroom is because it’s probably in your house. You already know that.

Do people get lonely between retreats?

Loneliness does come up. Coming back to why people leave Zapier for the remote reason… that’s probably the No. 1 thing when it does happen — it’s related to loneliness. Folks with families, folks with activities outside of work, tend to not have this problem as much; they’ve sort of built their lives not around work, so it just doesn’t come up as often. 

There’s enough interaction points throughout the day at Zapier — we’re jumping on Zoom, we’re talking on chat… For most people, that works pretty well. But for some folks, it’s tough. We actually have it as part of our onboarding experience… just, generally, how to care for yourself in a remote environment. How not to get lonely. How to make sure you stay… I guess, mentally healthy, for lack of a better word around this type of topic.

What are some of those tips?

We give people a bit of a budget to go out, grab coffee or something like that [with others]. In a lot of cities, now, they have co-workers there. So we’re like, “if you all go out for lunch once a month, we’ll pay for that.” Or if you go out with a partner, or with a customer, something like that, we’ll cover those. We give a bit of spending money to facilitate in-person interactions.

A lot of it is just educational. It’s telling folks, “hey — take time to go do something outside of work.” Volunteer for something, or have a church activity or have a sports activity… It doesn’t really matter what it is, just something where you’re involved in a thing that’s outside of work, that’s involved in your community in some way. 

You mention having some cities where there are multiple employees. Is that something you factor into hiring? Or, bigger picture, do you factor time zone into hiring?

Yeah. Cities, less so. There are certainly places where we’ve hired people before in this city, so it’s easy for us to keep hiring there (coming back to that compliance problem). If we have a tie to break, it might weigh in to breaking the tie… but we’re going to hire the best candidate for the job at the end of the day.

For time zones, it depends on the role. What we’ve found is that some types of roles benefit a lot from [hiring across time zones]. Like our support org; 24/7 support is amazing, like our customers love that. Being able to hire a global team means no one is working a night shift for support and our customers get 24/7 support.

Same thing for infrastructure teams. No one gets a 3 a.m. pager duty call that the site is broken; instead there’s just someone always awake who can tend to it.

[But with] like, a product unit — an engineer, a designer, a PM, five or six people that work together on a very specific part of the site, or build out a new feature — it tends to help to have plus-or-minus four hours of overlap. Just so they can fit in some real-time chats, and debates and collaboration on designs, or product implementations, stuff like that.

Early on… we were perhaps overly optimistic. We had a team that was spread across like three continents — America, Europe and Asia. It was the first time where it was very clear that this time zone diversity thing, for this kind of work, just slowed us down. So we started to take it into account as we built out these little pods.

So sometimes you want time zone diversity, sometimes you want more overlap — it all depends on the work.

A few years back, you had this “de-location package” where you were offering employees $10,000 to relocate outside of San Francisco if they were interested. How’d that go?

Amazing. We had a huge influx in applications after that — something like a 50% increase in applications. Since then, I think it’s something like half the people we hire in the Bay Area de-locate.

Where are they going?

[Laughs] Not the Bay Area, that’s the crux of it. We’ve had people move to like SoCal, San Diego. [He turns to Zapier’s Senior Comms specialist, Carly Moulton] — where have they moved, Carly?

Carly Moulton: San Diego, Palm Springs, some of them moved to Europe… one person is moving to Austin.

Wade: We’ve got someone who’s considering doing van life; driving around, living in a van for a year.

Does that count as de-location?

Yeah, that’s part of it. That’s perhaps like the most niche-y thing that we’ve had happening at Zapier. I think we have three people, two or three, that live in vans. They have these decked-out vans, they look pretty cool. They sort of travel, go visit friends and family all over the U.S., and build this big ol’ roadtrip.

Usually the way they set it up is that they plan to do it for a year, and then they come back to the place they like the most — where they settle down for the long haul. It’s like this year-long journey.

Have you found that investor outlook on remote companies has changed much?

Oh yeah. Total one-eighty. [In] 2012, investors were like, “no big company has ever been remote! No one would want to buy a remote company! There’s no way this would work!” Total skepticism.

Today I get non-stop emails from investors that say “can you talk to my portfolio company? They’re trying to do remote, they feel like it’s a strategic win. How do you do it? Come to this dinner, teach my partners or portfolio companies how to do it.” 

It’s just a total one-eighty.

We’re pretty much out of time here… but any advice for founders looking to start a remote company?

One: Don’t talk yourself out of it. Just try it. It’s not that hard to try this stuff. Give it a go and see what happens. You might be surprised that it actually is not so hard.

Two: At the first sign of problems, when something isn’t working out… don’t use remote as the scapegoat. It’s so easy to say, “our company’s not working because we chose this remote thing.” 

It’s a very easy thing to point your finger at. However, I’d bet money that there’s something else that’s the problem — like your business model is wrong, or your management structure is wrong… there’s something else that is likely more problematic, and simply going from remote to in-office isn’t going to solve that. Look at those problems with honest eyes and be real about what’s not working.

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