Welcome to the second edition of Learnings of a CEO. You can read the first edition here.
Zapier was founded in 2012 by Wade Foster, Bryan Helmig, and Mike Knoop. The founders went through YC’s Summer 2012 batch and S18 Growth Program, and today, Zapier automates work by connecting with over 5,000 apps. The company has been profitable since 2014 and is valued at $5B – with 700 employees working remotely. Wade, Zapier CEO, shared his learnings growing into the role of a growth-stage CEO.
How has your job as a CEO changed from leading a 3-person company in 2012 to a 700-person organization today?
In the early days, you’re in the trenches with your co-founders and early employees splitting up tasks and touching nearly every part of the business. Often you’re writing code, selling products, recruiting, and helping with HR and finance functions. Today, Zapier is almost a team of 700 – and as we’ve grown, people have taken more and more duties from me to help the company grow and scale.
Now, one place I feel I am most needed is the vague concept of setting the vision and communicating that vision — and then ensuring everyone understands what we are doing, why it’s important, and their role in getting that done. This came naturally to me when we were small and I was in the trenches with everyone and communicating constantly. But as we hired more folks, I realized leaders were interpreting the vision to their team somewhat differently. I learned that if you are not communicating the vision well, you’ll have teams that seem to be working on random projects. In isolation this isn’t bad, but as a collective set of tasks, you discover their work doesn’t fit into the vision.
We now repeat the vision over and over again in many formats. We put the vision in writing and it’s constantly referenced; it’s communicated at our all-hands; we bring in customers to talk about Zapier’s impact; we show data, so charts and figures can help tell the story; we have a company podcast.
When people inside the company start to turn the vision into a meme or Slack emoji, I know they really get the vision. Diagnostic tools, like employee engagement surveys, also help me understand how well employees understand why their role is important. It’s also evident when reviewing roadmaps. If a team’s tasks are tight and cohesive, I can tell they’ve been making tough decisions to align to the vision; if there are a bunch of random tasks, I can tell the vision hasn’t been communicated clearly. As a CEO, you have to ask, “Tell me how this is aligned,” and force those conversations to occur. Over time, people will get more comfortable with these types of assertive exercises.
As you’ve grown, what changes have you had to make to keep everyone at your company aligned?
We host weekly all hands, bring customers in to talk at those all hands, are transparent with metrics, and make sure those metrics are reflective of the good and the bad. Ultra transparency with metrics has served us well, as they are motivating and help people get aligned. People start to ask, “How do we get these bad metrics to the good category?” and then work towards change.
Being candid has also served us well. Whether at all hands, on a podcast, or solely talking with one of our leaders, we have candid conversations about why we didn’t hit a goal, why we were off schedule, why a deal didn’t close – and then immediately dive into what we think needs to happen next. The goal is to give awareness to the organization, so that in various meetings and forums people can try to figure out how to improve those areas.
What’s your advice to other founders on how to hire executives?
Hiring executives is one of the hardest things you’ll do as a CEO. It’s hard to determine when to start hiring executives, exactly what you’re looking for in an executive, and then find that person.
The best way to figure out when to start hiring executives is to meet with people who are unquestionably good executives at companies a stage or two further along. With no intention to hire them, meet with the VP of Engineering, VP of Marketing, and VP of People and ask, “What are the things you do? What makes you great at this job? What do people in your job disagree on?”. Get as smart as you can on this topic and then compare and contrast what that set of leaders is telling you with how your company operates. If these executives wouldn’t bring anything new to the table, you may not be ready for that type of leader. This starts to help you answer the when part of the equation – and also the what, because you start to see what these folks are capable of and what they are not.
Part of determining what you should look for in an executive is understanding your own strengths and weaknesses. This requires honesty with yourself and internalizing feedback you have received. (I encourage folks to work with executive coaches and get 360 performance reviews.) Figuring this out helps you start to realize, “Okay, within my executive team, I need people who will compliment me in these ways.” Otherwise, you risk hiring a team that is quite capable and competent at their function, but actually may not work well with each other or with you.
What is Zapier’s culture? What do you do to cultivate it as a remote company?
We have a strong set of values that we align around. One is default to action. We hire folks who are action-oriented – and we have to as a distributed company; folks aren’t in situations where they notice someone next to them is stuck on something. So, they need to be curious, self-starters, and (figuratively) scratch and itch when they see something that doesn’t satisfy their innate drive.
Next, we value defaulting to transparency because folks who are action-oriented should be equipped with a ton of context. The mission, strategy, metrics, goals, systems and processes – all of it – is well documented and organized so people can find them and take action.
We also have a feedback-oriented culture. I teach a course on feedback to all the new folks to ensure they understand how to ensure they understand how to give and receive feedback effectively because it helps us grow.
The rest of our values are outlined here, but these are some of the things that drive Zapier’s culture – and as you scale, it’s crucial to create different forums to communicate these values. We have an internal tool we named Async, which is email meets Reddit. The platform is public by default, anyone can post, and information can be targeted at different groups or people. We find this is great for long-form substantive topics that have a longer shelf life (1-2 weeks) versus Slack channels (1-2 days). We also hold all hands and have a company podcast, where we capture evergreen content. For example, when we have key moments in the company history, we’ll break it down: Why we did this thing, what led to that decision, the outcomes, why it is an important moment, etc. We have found podcasts to be helpful when onboarding new folks.
Why did you decide to not raise any additional funding since your seed round?
The only funding we took in the history of the company was a $1.3M seed round in 2012. This was partially philosophical and partially about the business.
The three of us co-founders had worked at a fast-growing, bootstrapped company owned 50/50 by two brothers. When we came out to the Valley (we were from Missouri), we started to hear this line of thinking, “No great company has ever done X.” Some of these statements would center around the impact of venture funding, and I was dismissive in part because I had this counterexample from my time in Missouri. So, when we raised the seed round, we decided to treat it like the last round we’d ever raise.
Our second reason for not raising multiple rounds: Across the founding team, we had all the skill sets to do every job inside the company. That meant we didn’t have to hire to make progress in the early days. We even had rules in place around hiring like, “Don’t hire until it hurts.”
Then there was the third, rational component: We were able to grow quickly without external funding because of Zapier’s network effect on our developer platform side. We’re able to have low customer acquisition costs (mostly through organic channels), and this is intrinsic to how Zapier works.
Along the way, some of the philosophical thinking fell by the wayside by observing other companies and realizing fundraising is a tool like anything else. There are moments when it can help you, and there are moments when it can hinder you. You should strive to understand when external funding is a good tool to use versus when it is not – and then apply it if it makes sense for you.