Wade Foster of Zapier – The Best Way to Start with AI, Going Fully Distributed and Horizontal

Listen to the Podcast

In this episode Wade talks about the stack for a horizontal solution and:

  • How to minimize the risk of applying AI to customer service
  • Going fully distributed and transparent
  • A stack without a sales team
  • Everyone’s favorite Zaps

Read the Transcript

John Wall: Hello and welcome to Stack & Flow. I’m John Wall.

Sean Zinsmeister: And I’m Sean Zinsmeister.

John: And today our guest is Wade Foster, the co-founder and CEO of Zapier. Wade, thanks for joining us today.

Wade Foster: Yeah, thanks for having me, John, Sean. I’m happy to be here.

John: Yes and Sean Zinsmeister with us. You had a piece on artificial intelligence and chat bots. Tell us a bit what’s going on over there.

Sean: I always keep up with some of the latest things that are happening there and where we see AI start to enter the go to market teams. I got a chance to participate in a piece from the folks over at GetApp Labs. They do a bunch of software review sites and they’re interviewing a lot of folks who are doing great work over on the chat bot side. It’s still … I mean, again, this is something that you have to sort of look at … Always be starting small when it comes to where you want to think about adding AI. I think that the chat bot stuff in particular … We’ve talked about this on past shows. Seeing it as a front line, a way that you can shorten the distance between customer, question, and answer, a way that you can route different questions to the right humans I think is already what we’re starting to see. I think that what we’ll also start to see more of is this idea of snippets as well, where there is the ability to use natural language processing where if you’re sitting there chatting with one of these AI bots it can recognize and pick up on different language patterns and have a database of FAQ that it can provide you with. So it’s just a way … It’s almost going to be like an advanced search function as well.

We talked about that with Jon Dick and how those guys at HubSpot are thinking about the GrowthBot. A way to ask questions and fetch things from your data. Wade, I’m curious in terms of where you’re seeing AI and reading about things in go to market strategies and things like that, but even in particular about chat bots. Anything piquing your curiosity on that front?

Wade: I think the place that we’re … We’re actually experimenting most heavily with this inside of Zapier in our customer support team. A really simple implementation that we’ve done recently that was built off Scikit’s machine learning toolkit is filtering out junk from our customer support inbox. We actually found that something like 40% of the emails we get into our customer support inbox don’t require a reply. So they’re just clogging up our inbox. We took a stab at just running the algorithm and it was like 99% accurate against it, just filtering out all that junk. I think a next step for us is to experiment with … Can we do suggested replies or things like that? We’d be pretty hesitant out the gate to actually automate it end to end. I’ve had to interact with a few chat bots and it still seems like the tech there is pretty na├»ve. I would hate to put that in front of customers unfiltered and see what happens.

John: That’s great. I never would have thought of starting with the junk for some reason. Everything has been like closing deals and interacting with customers, but pointing it at the garbage which can’t be mislead or confused … That’s just the perfect application.

Wade: It’s really starting with the lowest value stuff. We don’t care about any of this stuff, so if it makes a mistake here, it doesn’t matter too much. Where as if it made a mistake with one of our big customers that would really embarrass us.

Sean: Wade, when you think about … I always like asking people about the sort of balance of AI and human capital. I mean just the use case that you’re laying out right there. It’s like … You’re definitely going to improve the overall customer experience and obviously make your current customer support and success representatives a lot more successful but does the thought ever go into, “Well, I can actually maybe hold off on hiring that additional CS person and I can scale in this way”? Do you ever do that cost-benefit analysis or have you started to think like that?

Wade: Our team from the very beginning has always thought, “How can we make our team more efficient?” Zapier’s an automation company. We’re always trying to automate little bits here and there. Our support team has a full dedicated support engineering group that has three engineers on it that are working to build tools for our support team to make them work faster, quicker, more effective. Get the information they need in front of them. We’ve always viewed automation as a bit like J.A.R.V.I.S. from Iron Man. It’s like this assistant technology. It’s not there to replace the human. It’s there to amplify it.

John: That’s great. We had another article. We had some stats on the stat watch, e-marketer reporting on basically which countries are looking at different types of strategies for their marketing plans. So you’ve got predictive, internet of things, virtual reality, broken out across five different countries. Australia, France, Germany, UK, and the US. Sean, what on the list made this newsworthy for you? What got your attention?

Sean: I’m obviously excited especially in my position to see that predictive is still on peoples’ minds and still growing in popularity. I think that what I felt was the most interesting was that the US was most heavily weighted in that survey to that particular technology, while it was just sort of kicking tires on the rest. Wade, I’m sort of curious, because I’m sure you guys have businesses all over the world that are employing the use of Zapier’s technology. Anything that you’ve found in your experience, just like cultural nuances, in terms of new technology adoption or sensitivity or anything that’s different versus what you might find in the US?

Wade: That’s a good question. I can’t speak to any qualitative differences between any of my interactions with our customers across the world in terms of how they’re approaching automation. I think that’s probably biased towards the fact that Zapier is automation so anyone that comes to us has already like raised their hand and said, “I want to do this.” Maybe I just have less of an insight into those who are not, the flip side of that. So it seems to me, as far as I can judge … It’s an interesting topic to people all over the world.

Sean: And for those who don’t know Zapier, Wade, I’d love to … Tell us a little bit about how you guys got started and what your mission is. Give us the whole pitch.

Wade: Sure. I think I’ve mentioned a couple times. Zapier is a full automation tool. It really started when Brian, one of my co-founders, and I were doing a lot of freelancing and we would build these simple point-to-point integrations. Someone would say, “Hey, can you get our PayPal sales into QuickBooks for us?” Or, “Can you get this list of leads uploaded into Salesforce for us?” It’s not particularly glamorous work. It’s stuff that engineers don’t really love, writing code against clunky APIs and things like that. But it’s valuable. You can automate these pieces. It takes time for a human to do this so if you can put a computer behind it then that’s perfect, right? So Brian just messaged me on chat one day and said, “Hey, I think we can build something that automates this so that you don’t need an engineer to build this. Instead the end customer can set this stuff up.” And I basically just found myself nodding my head saying, “Yeah, that makes a ton of sense. This is something that we can scratch a lot of itches with.” And so that was really the beginnings of Zapier. Let’s build the thing that does that.

Sean: The greatest story of innovation is always born out of your own problems that you’re seeing yourself, right? You guys recognized that there was a gap in the market. How did you guys go about finding your first customers? How did you get the word out there and start to spread this thing around?

Wade: It was pretty easy for us. Integration was something that a lot of people were already asking for. So if you would go to forums for these products … I remember being on the Highrise forum which is a small business CRM. And there was a thread in there that was several years old, maybe three or four years old, saying, “Hey, is High Rise ever going to add a Google Contacts integration?” And this thread had hundreds of comments on it where people were saying, “Yeah, I want this. Yeah, I want this.” Every month you would see another dozen comments of people saying they wanted this thing. Then we would rinse, wash, and repeat that across different apps and different integrations. People would just be talking about it in these forums. So we would just go to the forums, see whose name was there, and either post a comment to the forum or email the person if we could find their contact information directly, and say, “Hey, we’re working on a project that might help you out here. Would you be interested in it?” A good chunk of them said, “Yeah, I’d love to check it out. This is exactly what I’m looking for.”

Sean: How about … Has that continued, too, as you’ve gone on? Are you still able to just pick on point tools? Or are you do anything now focusing on verticals? You see like, “Oh we get a whole bunch of Salesforce automation stuff,” or God knows what else. You must have stuff all across the board. Have any verticals popped up or are you still just sticking with the pick a tool at a time?

Wade: Our approach for Zapier has been to make it horizontal. We want to make it as applicable to anyone as possible. But over time there certainly has been groups of people that tend to adopt it. Marketers have really adopted this because I think marketers are typically a piece in the org that doesn’t get a lot of engineering resources. And they’re really comfortable with new technology, so they’re always looking for new things that can help them get that extra edge and generate more leads, move them fast through the pipeline, things like that. So we do see adoption in different verticals as we’ve built out Zapier.

Sean: Clearly from the genesis story you’ve laid out you guys are definitely a product-centric company. And I know that user experience, ease of use, has to be at the core of what you guys do. We use Zapier on the Infer side and have a whole bunch of recipes or workflows set up. There are ones that are set up by some of our sales managers and some of the folks who maybe aren’t as technical as somebody else. How did you guys go about thinking about the user experience and who is that ideal user to you guys?

Wade: For us it was non-engineers first. We had to focus on the folks who were not programmers, because we knew that programmers would just look at this and say, “Well, why would I need this? I can just write a script and solve this myself?” So we were always focused on this nontechnical user, this person who was adopting a lot of SaaS technology in their company. They may be a bit of a power user of it, but they still didn’t know how to work with an API or anything like that. We just knew that the user experience was going to be really important out the gate. It was going to be critical to put it in front of them and say, “Do you understand what you’re even doing here? Do you understand how this is working under the hood?” Otherwise, we were going to have no market on that side and then on the engineering side we were just going to be in a competition with people who said, “I can build this myself.”

Sean: That’s something I wanted to ask you. You use the word, and I think that you’re right to use it. What you guys are really doing is talking about true automation, the intelligent weaving together of if this than that conditional logic. When you think about the future of automation and what these stacks look like, are you guys seeing a world that first of all continues with this open architecture? Where … Your ability and your distribution play is actually based upon the fact that you guys can connect to so many things. Are you really seeing that redefinition of automation that maybe was hijacked by some of the marketing automation companies that never quite came to fruition?

Wade: Yeah, I think one of the big things we’ve noticed just as we’ve been building Zapier is that a lot of folks are just interested in snippets of functionality. They are interested in being able to send an email when this event occurs, or being able to send a text message to a friend or to a client when this happens, or being able to log a record in a database somewhere. It’s not like having a full suite of tools is helping them any more than just these little bits of functionality. So that’s been an interesting observation for us and I think that’s been a big reason why we’ve seen solutions that focus on being best of breed in one category have really thrived, whereas these all-in-one suites tend to not have as many customers and tend to be much higher price points because they have a tougher time getting that distribution because they’re just a little more clunky to use.

John: Okay so let’s dive a bit into the stack. Up until now it sounds like the business is just falling onto you but obviously you guys have got sales and marketing staff. What’s the flow of inbound and what kind of infrastructure do you have built up to support that?

Wade: Sure. Zapier’s a freemium product so we have a marketing team but we don’t employ anyone in sales. We heavily staff in customer support though. Our kind of stack is we’re using Python Django for our CMS. As leads come in they get pushed into our email system which is kind of home brewed, but we send all our emails through Mailgun. We use Help Scout to power all of our customer support interactions. The irony is we keep it pretty lean on the tech side in terms of what our interactions with customers are.

Sean: I think that I’m finding more of that as well. It’s like the leaner stacks tend to be the more high-performing. The way that you’re thinking about your company it almost sounds like there’s a little bit of influence from the Atlassian side, Wade, where going really really heavy into product … Was there any influence or did you look to any of those types of models as you guys continued to build things out?

Wade: Yeah, I think Atlassian is a fantastic company. Companies like Atlassian, Automatic, Basecamp, MailChimp, these companies that have gone about their business without raising huge tons of money and instead focusing really tightly on who their customers are, how to get distribution to them, and then how to build a company sustainably. Which means having prices that warrant the growth you’re trying to achieve.

Sean: In terms of … You gave some insight into the team layout, but are you guys all centralized, or is it a distributed team?

Wade: That’s one interesting thing of Zapier is we’re actually 70 people entirely distributed. There’s no central office anywhere. The city that has the most people in it is maybe five, five people in one city. Most are just a single person here or there though.

Sean: The natural question that I have is that … There’s always the project management question that always fascinates me. What do you guys employ, whether it’s a methodology or maybe there’s technology that you guys use as well, to keep everybody on the same page? How do you keep everybody connected and collaborating and offering transparency and all that good stuff.

Wade: I think we’re probably Agile-esque in philosophy, though we’re not super dogmatic about it. We use Trello a lot to help guide projects along. As we’re going through the process we’ll have a Trello board that has the current in-progress projects that link out to a Quip doc that documents the projects, what’s going on, how things are moving through. There’ll be little check boxes to … You can assign out to different people and say, “Work on this.” And then there’s a corresponding Slack channel that goes with each project. So if you want to stay in tune on it you can pop in and out of those Slack channels to see what progress is getting made. A big thing though because we’re so distributed is that we try and make sure all of the work on the project is transparent so that no matter where in the world you are you can pop in to the project and contribute as it moves along. It removes those roadblocks that would be there if you were not being as transparent about how the projects were going.

Sean: This is something that I’m really passionate about especially because I think that there’s something to the future of teams, the future of companies in this distributed model especially as the technology to keep us connected gets better and better. And also, being somebody who’s in the middle of Silicon Valley right now. It’s certainly not an area that’s getting cheaper and cheaper to be able to attract good talent. Is this something that you’re thinking about a lot where this is sort of a future model that’s obviously been very high performing for you guys? But just sort of a … that model as you see more businesses perhaps taking on?

Wade: Absolutely! To me it just makes all the sense in the world. We have teammates at Zapier that are honestly world-class at what they do, and there would be no way that we would be working with them if we weren’t set up in a distributed model. That’s the only way that we can conceivably even have a chance to work alongside them. To me the access to talent piece is so critical. When you constrain yourself to only hiring within a 30-mile radius you really limit what access you have to people.

John: So how about as far as revenue models in the way your customers scale up. Is it literally just a linear thing of like you start using it and the more you use it the more you pay? Or do you have price rates and is there any kind of enterprise sales, where a customer gets to a certain point and they get an account manager or there’s more stuff you do? Or is it literally that clean and straightforward?

Wade: It is based on usage and there’s price breaks but it’s tiered. So you go to this usage and you pay twenty bucks. You go up a little bit more and you pay fifty bucks a month, right? As you move up, you can get into price points that are a little bit higher. We don’t have any sort of pure enterprise sales, but you can get better access to customer support the more you pay. We tend to prioritize our higher paying customers in terms of support and things like that as well.

Sean: Wade, what about from a product management standpoint? There’s something I’m really interested in. You guys are so flexible in terms of all the different integrations you offer. How do you guys go about prioritizing the product road map for what kind of integrations you’re going to build next? Do you guys have a voting system that the CS team tracks? How are you guys getting that feedback and turning it into the product roadmap?

Wade: One of the beauties of Zapier is that we have a developer platform that allows third parties to build integrations and apps onto Zapier. So we’ve had this in place since 2012, and since then we’ve gone from about sixty apps on Zapier to about 750 plus apps on Zapier, most of which have been built by vendors themselves. So you look at companies like HubSpot which built their integration on Zapier, Slack which built their integration on Zapier. So we really don’t have to focus too much on adding of new apps to Zapier. That said, we do have tooling in place for our CS team to track those feature requests, the new apps, the improvements to existing apps, which we can either decide to take action on ourselves or we can pass along to the app provider who’s maintaining their integration on Zapier. And say like, “Hey, here’s some suggestions, some things that your customers would really like to see, and would probably make them happier if it existed.” So in that way we’re able to expand the universe of people that can help improve the product.

John: So how about then as far as your favorite Zaps? Anything that delivered incredible value or ones that blew your mind because they were totally out from left field?

Wade: Oh goodness. Let’s see. Let me pull up my account. I have so much stuff going on I’m … Trying to figure out what my favorite one is. We have a Zap right now that powers our hiring process that’s pretty sophisticated. It takes applicants, pushes them into the job boards, does some basic filtering and sends replies out to them. Here’s one that I really enjoy. I run a weekly meeting with our leadership team. Actually, a monthly meeting with our leadership team. As part of it, I like to have them prepare some stuff ahead of time. So I’ve got a Zap that triggers monthly that whenever it hits the first of the month, it creates a Google Doc, a template that sets up each section, and then it posts a private Slack message to each of the people in that meeting suggesting, “Hey you need to go ahead and fill out these sections of the docs.” And then it also sets up a Google Calendar invite to invite all of them when it’s supposed to happen. And then it sets up the Zoom link as well for where we host our meeting. At the beginning of the month all the prep work that it would take to prep for this meeting basically happens automatically. Instead, everyone just fills out their section and shows up on time, and that meeting runs pretty smoothly.

So I love Zaps like that that take these little frustrating bits of your day and just automates out of them.

John: The J.A.R.V.I.S. Zap right there.

Wade: It really is, right? I have so many Zaps that are like this, that just … Little bits of stuff that I have to do. I can basically get rid of all this little prep work and instead I just have to show up.

Sean: I have to come in there with my favorite Zap as well because we have a bunch that we use here on the Infer side as well. And I think that we’re starting to see more and more of our customers also use them. First of all, what I really love about the Zap philosophy, Wade, is the idea that you’re envisioning automation and almost like … It’s the best to start small, right? What things can I look at that I’m like, “Ugh, we’re doing this. It’s so laborious every single day. Can I just automate this? Can I make it easier? How do I cut five steps down to two? Ten steps down to six?” And that type of thing, and do it in a way that’s going to be nice and clean. One of the things that we’ve seen, especially from improving sales workflows and using things like Slack and Salesforce and Indy Infer is when lead quality is something that we’ve seen a lot of use of where customers are essentially … As leads come in then they’re round-robined as in it’ll send an alert to the right rep, so they know that “Hey I need to get on top of them even faster which improves the engagement of when they’re jumping on those high quality leads, which I think is really interesting.

But I really do like this idea of finding these little points, especially in sales and marketing workflows, that you can start to improve. Wade, I’m curious. We did talk a little bit about verticals, but in terms of … Obviously sales and marketing has to be one of the main use cases in figuring out things there. Project management definitely from what you said feels like another. Is there any sort of focus that you guys, in looking down the road, and say, “Hey this is something that we’d like to see more use cases out of”? What does that sort of future look like?

Wade: Good question. I think for us, one of the big areas that we’re working on is trying to make Zapier a better experience using the product inside of a team. We have all these A to B tools on Zapier but still when you use Zapier you have to have a single login. So either when you’re collaborating a team you share a login or one person owns the account and you dictate to that person how to do it. That’s really not an ideal set up when you’re looking at a business use case. We’re looking at trying to find better ways to make Zapier more collaborative, easy to set up these kind of automations and maybe even share these automations across teammates and across the org so that the rest of the org can benefit from a lot of the integrations you’re setting up yourself.

Sean: From the flow side, when it comes to data and data strategy, maybe both looking at your business but also what you’re seeing from customer usage, how much is data quality and how is Zapier looking at that issue that continues to plague issues and how that can help determine the quality of some of the workflows that people are triggering with your platform?

Wade: Great question. I think one of the challenges with what we do is that the way that people set up their integrations or their APIs rather is different. So they have different schema models. The way one company defines a contact is different than a way a different company defines a contact. That causes misalignment with how data flows through one app to another. Someone says, “Here I have a full name field.” And another has a first and last name field. If you’re pushing from full name into a first and last name field you have to split them somehow.

A big thing that we’ve also tried to do as we’ve grown is just provide better data processing tools so that people can manipulate the data, almost like you might manipulate data with an Excel function or a Google Sheets function or a macro or whatever, to allow people to munge the data into their desired end output formats. It can more easily go from one app to another.

John: That sounds good. I had totally forgotten but I need to throw in my favorite recipe there, too. I actually use a Wave notebook and it allows me to do drawings and diagrams and have them dump right into the right Slack boards or file formats that I need and that’s a huge time saver for me. And then the other part is that there’s so many recipes between Salesforce and other tools that make all kinds of headaches go away. It’s so funny, Sean and I have just been chattering away like crazy on the back channel because there’s so much cool stuff we wanted to talk to you about, and we barely had enough time even for flow. Tell us more about how to learn more about what you guys are doing and where to get in touch? And with that to, before we kicked off you had a mnemonic for the proper pronunciation, if you could throw that out for everybody.

Wade: Yeah, yeah, Zapier makes you happier is the trick to getting the name right. We had to throw that in there because we couldn’t afford the first p when we started the company. We also liked having API in the name since Zapier is built on APIs. We can’t have everything. Can’t have your cake and eat it too, I guess.

How to get in touch with us? Zapier.com, Z-A-P-I-E-R, just one P, dot com. You can get ahold of me directly. I am @WadeFoster on Twitter. I’m pretty active. I have open DMs so you can send me a message there anytime.

John: Sounds good. Sean, how about stuff going on for you and what’s the latest you’ve got rolling out?

Sean: Just focusing on 2017 right now. Everything that you can find that we’re going on is … Just Google “Sean Zinsmeister” and you can find all my latest stuff, as well as Infer.com. And of course I’m always active on Twitter, @SZinsmeister is a great way to get in touch.

John: All right that sounds good. Just to clarify for Sean, their quarter just flipped so it’s not that you’re doing your December work in February here. This is how your fiscal calendar is laid out. You’re on top of it.

Sean: Exactly. Exactly.

John: That’ll do it for this week. I’m John Wall. You can find out more from me at MarketingOverCofee.com. But until then, thanks for listening and we’ll see you in the stacks. If you swing on over to iTunes, please give us a review over there for Stack and Flow.


John Wall

John Wall

John J. Wall speaks, writes and practices at the intersection of marketing, sales, and technology. He is the producer of Marketing Over Coffee, a weekly audio program that discusses marketing and technology with his co-host Christopher S. Penn, and has been featured on iTunes.

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