Growing Zapier: Prime Example of the Importance of Teamwork
Zapier is a remote, global web app business integration service. Although today they’re one of the top-tier companies in their niche, their road to success hasn’t been a simple ’point A to point B’.
This is the story of Wade Foster and Bryan Helmig, the creators of Zapier - and how they got tired of doing the computers’ jobs and decided to do something about it!
Computers should do more work!
Wade and Bryan were just two regular guys from Missouri, Columbia, who quickly became friends over a shared passion for music. As students, they played in bands together and also worked their day jobs. But there was more to their mutual passion than music - they were both insane about web apps.
More precisely, Bryan was the ‘tech guy’, while Wade’s interests revolved around marketing, sales, and support. It’s pretty clear that when these two skill sets meet, a killer business plan is about to emerge.
The guys already had experience with freelancing, and they knew how terribly time-consuming it could be to constantly switch from one app to another, manually filling the necessary data, and repeating similar operations through various apps.
As mentioned in Wade’s interview for Indie Hackers podcast, on September 8, 2011, Bryan gave birth to an idea - to build an app that could communicate with other apps and free you from doing countless manual operations that shift your attention from what’s really important at work. In a text to Wade, he suggested a slogan: extend the functionality of the web.
Wade loved it at first sight - and that was the first milestone.
In case you were wondering why Zapier, you may have noticed how it rhymes with happier? Well, that’s not accidental, and you’re about to see why.
From Duo - to Trio!
The next thing to do was to call Bryan’s friend Mike Knoop to the team, who became Zapier’s third co-founder.
With a CEO (Wade), CTO (Bryan), and a CPO (Mike) onboard - Project Zapier was ready to take off.
The team quickly built a presentable demo version of the app - enough to apply at Startup Weekend Columbia, the first-ever Startup competition to take place in Missouri. Because of their different day-job schedules and university obligations, they had to manage their work remotely- no office jokes, no meetings, no after-work beers. Developing this app was a barely manageable side-gig, taking every single free moment of their time.
But sleepless nights and busy weekends paid off: the app was completed under the name ‘API Mixer’ - and won first prize at the competition!
This achievement brought a strong wind to their sails. They promptly changed the name of the project, as Zapier was no longer going to be a side hustle.
Winning first prize meant they were onto something big, so they started preparing to apply for Y Combinator’s startup seed accelerator. By 2012 they built a 25-app prototype, but unfortunately, it was rejected.
This minor draw-back didn’t stop them from nurturing their amazing idea. they worked more on the app, re-applied for the same fund, and had more luck the second time. Y Combinator accepted their application in June 2012, and Zapier was officially launched with 34 integrated applications!
Their project needed only one round of funding - the seeding round, accounting at $1.3 million. The project was funded by Bessemer Venture Partners, who recognized Zapier’s potential.
Next, the group moved into a shared flat in Mountain View, California and fully dedicated the next three months of their lives to Zapier’s development. Days, nights, weekends, Zapier was all they thought about. Wade did marketing and searched for customers, while Bryan and Mike were knee-deep in code. It was the only substantial period in their company’s history when all three of them were in the same city, working on the same project, at the same time.
By August, it was already time for Mike to go back to Missouri to be with his then-girlfriend (now wife). When October came knocking, Zapier was ready to start hiring!
Finding First Customers
During the creation of the first prototypes, Zapier wasn’t exactly ready to showcase, as the app wasn’t really user-friendly.
But Wade was already on his mission to find beta users, sending emails left-and-right, and reading various products’ user forums. He was trying to find people who sought integration services - with Dropbox, Salesforce, Mailchimp, WoFoo, etc. When he did find them, he would comment and send a link to a document with APIs, so they could integrate the apps themselves, but he also suggested that they contact him if they wanted to cooperate.
This kind of hyper-targeted outreach didn’t bring too many users, yet every link posted in a comment did drive some 10-30 visitors to Zapier’s website, out of which some 50% converted into paying customers. Not much, but it was enough!
Having the Y Combinators’ label was also helpful, as neither of the three founders had an impressive resume, nor was Zapier famous yet. Having the YC label got people to support them, as they thought they were supporting a promising company.
Entering the beta version Zapier charged between $5 and $100. Charging was necessary because Zapier didn’t just want someone to play around with the app occasionally - they wanted users who truly need it, plan to use it, and are patient and forgiving for those first bugs and slow fixes.
Their early customer support is what caught the attention of many - especially focusing on their thoroughness and dedication. Caring soon became the company’s main value: they were aware that they wouldn’t be the best on the market, but they wouldn’t be the cheapest either, so they were eager to become the ones who care the most.
This slow approach encouraged the Zapier staff to listen to people’s actual needs. Somebody would ask them why they don’t have integrations between two specific apps - and the guys would simply add that pair as well.
It took them about eight months before somebody asked how to get their app on Zapier. Another huge win.
It went slowly, but they seized the advantage of being small. They couldn’t invest millions in the advertisement, but could dedicate their time and energy to give every single user one-on-one attention. As a small company, they were simply fishing in smaller ponds - ponds left unchecked by large companies.
Another smart tactic to bring more customers and users to Zapier’s website was SEO leverage: as a platform that encompasses a variety of other companies’ products, they created a landing page for every app-to-app combination, so every time somebody googles Mailchimp and WoFoo together, Zapier should appear in the results!
And Away We Go!
The company’s first hires were from across the USA. Their first employee was (and still is) the head of support - Chicago-based Micah Bennett. By 2014, they had several employees from Missouri, Florida, Tennessee, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania. In August 2014, they became ‘truly’ remote, as they hired their first international employee, Matthew Guay - a writer based in Thailand, followed by a full-stack developer Rob Golding from the UK.
2014 was important for Zapier for one more reason - it was the first time that the company became profitable, and they’ve managed to keep that status ever since. From 2014 to 2018, they saw exponential revenue growth, as Zapier’s annual recurring revenue grew from $10 million in 2016 to $50 million in 2018. In 2019, their revenue slightly dipped to $48.7 million.
Zapier Today - Still Evolving!
After launching the beta version with only 34 apps, more customers came to Zapier.
To keep up with the needs of this fresh customer base, they launched the developer’s platform, so any service could be integrated with Zapier. Thanks to new requests from customers, they reached 1 million users and 650 integrated apps by 2016. Since 2014 they’ve been stable and profitable, with annual revenue estimated at $55 million.
The product evolved so much during these 9 years: after the first iteration of Zapier, they built automated workflows, independent of their one-on-one app integrations. Then, in early 2016 they added Multi-Step Zaps which enable users to chain more than two apps to build a workflow. For example, you can chain a bookkeeping app with CRM and marketing apps. They also released features such as dynamic searches and the Formatter app.
By 2020, Zapier has completed many more milestones and has more than 3 million users and 2000 integrated apps.
Let’s be clear - Zapier isn’t some kind of revolutionary discovery, as software integrations have been around for a long time. But to integrate two apps, you usually need a solid knowledge in coding.
That’s exactly what Wade, Bryan, and Mike changed. Their tool democratized integrations and made them available for non-tech users.
Marketers and online business people don’t have to search for all-in-one tools anymore. They can use the best possible tool there is for every single operation (emailing, CRM, marketing, bookkeeping), but they can use Zapier to tie them all together.