Scaling Without Breaking with Zapier


In this episode, we perform a live audit on Jay’s workflow (it gets hairy) with Zapier’s Head of Certified Experts Program, Jesse Parker, and we’re joined by Zapier CEO and co-founder Wade Foster, who helps us uncover the one simple truth that can help solve a ton of problems encountered when scaling a brand.

You can get Exceptions on Apple PodcastsSoundCloudSpotifyStitcherGoogle Play Music or wherever you get your podcasts. Or listen to the full audio version below 👇

Like this episode? Be sure to leave a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ review and share the pod with your friends! You can connect on Twitter with @jayacunzo, @zapier, @wadefoster, @JessAfterHours, @Drift, @seekingwisdomio.

Subscribe & Tune In

Apple Podcasts Spotify SoundCloud

Full Transcript

Jay Acunzo: Hey, it’s Jay. Welcome back to Exceptions, the show about why B to B companies today are betting so heavily on brand. In a world of infinite noise and choice, brand is becoming the differentiating factor in B to B today. No longer can we afford to look at this like a dirty word, like it’s just for consumer companies. Get out of here, no way, no more. Today, we go inside Zapier. Zapier is a fully remote team in 15 different countries and they have a very special kind of product, which kind of exists in between other products. They help you integrate more apps than you realize exist, so you can improve your workflow. So for instance, I could set up what they call a Zap, and that Zap says when I publish a new blog post to my WordPress blog, automatically tweet the headline and the URL of that article. So they integrate a lot of apps you’ve heard of, Slack, Twitter, Gmail, Trello, Mailchimp, just to name a few of the obvious ones, and then there’s a lot that maybe you don’t know or haven’t used, Podio, Toggl, Freshdesk, MeisterTask, Cognito Forms, Smartsheet, AWeber, Streak, Copper, and many, many more.

Zapier’s product essentially lets all these apps communicate so you don’t have to get stuck completing the same tasks over, and over, and over again in road fashion. The company tagline is Zapier makes you happier, which is amazing, and they call their employees Zapiens, which is a little bit less so, but sure, it’s still pretty cool. I’d probably have gone with Homo Zapiens. Just saying.

Speaking of people, what underpins this company and their brand is the fact that they are customer centric. So naturally we need to start with the voice of an actual customer.

Hi, my name is Jay Acunzo, and I host podcasts, write books, and give speeches for a living. Yes, so today we’re trying something different. I will be playing the role of customer, and we’re gonna do this in a little experiment. I thought of this very last minute and I wanted to let you in on it. Today I’m throwing myself into something I don’t really love, automating some of my workflow with technology. See, I make stuff for a living. I make shows, a bunch of different shows every year, including my own and several podcasts and even a video documentary series for B to B clients. I make speeches. I give about 15 keynotes per year as a major source of my business, and I write books, blog posts and newsletters. So I mostly identify as a creator, and given all of that stuff and decades of making stuff, well I get precious. I don’t love the idea of another person taking away any of these stuff on my plate, and I really don’t love the idea of a tool automating that stuff because I’ve seen just how crude and awful the experience and be on the receiving end of automation, so I’ve sprinted in the opposite direction.

Today I stopped sprinting and I collapsed at the feet of Jesse Parker, from Zapier. Jesse and I are gonna do a kind of fix the workflow experiment with my podcast. Not this one, by the way, but my personal show called Unthinkable. I’m proud of the episodes, they’re really highly produced stories, but the process to get there is, well if you could see like a time lapse headshot of me going by over the years of making that show, you would notice some very Doctor Strange looking white streaks emerge on my temples, so that’s why I wanted to talk to Jesse, and although I though he’d have some really good ideas about how to use Zapier the tool, the conversation turned into something else entirely, which actually taught me something harder, yet incredibly important.

How long you’ve been at Zapier?

Jesse Parker: I’ve been at Zapier for a little over five years now, so I was actually the eighth employee to join the company.

Jay: Oh wow. What’s it like to experience the growth you guys have been through? I feel like that’s, it’s a rare opportunity to see that.

Jesse: It’s crazy. I mean, I’ve worked at startups before, usually things haven’t gone well, but it’s amazing to see all the right decisions that Zapier makes and how well we’ve been able to scale and keep our culture intact. I think that’s the thing I’m the most impressed with. A lot of other companies, once you start scaling, the focus quickly becomes off of the culture, and I think we do a really good job to keep that at Zapier.

Jay: Yeah. What kind of things you guys do? ‘Cause it’s a remote team, correct?

Jesse: Yes. Everybody works 100 percent remotely from home. So some of the things that we do to try to, I guess, keep culture. I mean, we have all of our little inside Slack jokes and things like that.

Jay: Sure.

Jesse: But we do hop on a weekly hangout which we run through Zoom and everybody’s on video. You can kinda see everybody get a chance to catch up. We do weekly pair calls. So we’re randomly paired with another person in the company. We can just hop on a like a 30 minute call with them and just find out what’s going on.

Jay: That’s once a week?

Jesse: Yeah, once a week.

Jay: Oh wow.

Jesse: Yeah.

Jay: Cool.

Jesse: Yeah. It’s hard to stay connected to everybody, so we try to be frequent, because I mean, there’s only how many weeks in a year and how many employees at Zapier. So even if you’re attending these calls once a week, there’s still a lot of people that you don’t even meet until, I guess out next thing which would be our two company retreats that we hold annually.

Jay: That’s awesome.

Jesse: That’s another great way to just kind of get to know people and break the ice and find out the direction that the company is heading in, and also give people the opportunity to talk about things that they want to talk about. Not everything is like super business oriented there. We have a lot of employee ran events to kind of spread everybody else’s culture and interests and things like that.

Jay: That’s awesome. So my wife is really proud of her organized chaos, to the point where I can’t. We have a rule if she asks me to get something from her bag, I just get her bag and give it to her, because she is so comfortable with that stuff and I’m so not. Then I actually started talking to you about all these different things that I do for the show, and I realized I kinda have my own version of my wife’s bag in terms of my own workflow makes sense in my head, and now that I’m starting to hire and grow the business, that obviously can’t last and things are starting to fall apart, and yeah. So I want to get better at like, if I can hand this bag sort to speak to somebody else that’s coming on board and they’re not afraid to actually open it, and they can find what they need, and I think that improves their sanity and mine as well. So yeah. So that’s kind of like, I just realized that this morning heading out the door ’cause she literally asked me like, “Can you get this in my bag?” And I was like, “Here. There you go.” Yeah, so I don’t even know where to begin quite frankly.

Jesse: I like your little bag analogy there and I guess something that I would say back to that is, you’re probably, you’re not sure what to do with this bag, but I think it’s important to understand why those items are in the bag and what purpose they serve, and then maybe you wouldn’t be so afraid to go in the bag, to again use your analogy.

Jay: Okay. So what’s in my digital bag so to speak? When I organize Unthinkable, what tools am I using? Well, before talking to Jesse, they asked that I get them all in order. So here it goes. First, there’s Trello. If you don’t know it, it’s kinda like a digital whiteboard with sticky notes. You organize your work into lists, this vertical columns, like maybe a list called to-dos, or a list called episode ideas, and then inside a list you can create cards. These are kind of like the sticky notes you’d put up on the list. I might have a to-do called interview Jesse, or a card under episode ideas called Zapier. Then there’s all sorts of features inside of a card, like you can leave a comment full of notes and links, or upload an attached asset for a project, or even communicate with teammates directly through the card by at mentioning them.

So that gives you a nice neat idea of Trello, but the Unthinkable Trello board was anything but nice and neat. It was an explosion of stuff. There were three different to do lists, mine, my producer Tallie’s, and my assistant Meg’s. There was a list of every client podcast or video series that I’m currently hosting or producing, so four of those in total, and by the way, if you’re wondering, two of them aren’t out yet, but one of them is this and the other one is Unthinkable. There were lists for entire show ideas, just cards in a list of what cool concepts I want to pursue with a client some day. Then there’s another list of brands I might want to work with as clients, and lastly a list of evergreen resources so I get more easily on board new hires or freelancers.

So that’s just Trello. Trello itself is a mess, but remember, my entire messy bag contains Trello and other apps, and those other apps include Zencastr to record my interviews, Dropbox to upload all the audio files grouped by episode, Google Docs to write scripts, and probably a bunch more stuff, but I don’t want to stress you out, and then crucially one more thing. I used a Google Spreadsheet, which Tallie and I would look at as the editorial calendar. It was a mess in and of itself too, but it was supposed to be my single go-to source of information, the source of truth that we need to start with, the one document off of which Jesse Parker and I could build my Zapier workflow, aka my Zaps.

So then I called up Jesse and it was time to get this messy digital bag of mine cleaned up.

Jesse: So these are like three things that I think help in making the Zap process go by faster and that will help you, I guess set up your Zaps in the most optimal way, and the first thing is data organization. So you’ve got to make sure that your data is organized. If you have things all over the place, and I think your sheet here is great. When we first visited this sheet there were kind of little sections all over the place, and while you can automate some things when it’s a little bit disorganized, you’re going to have a much easier time when things are laid out in a clear structure. When you come across apps like Google Sheets, where you gave more granular control over the data that you’re entering in there, you really want to make sure that it’s organized in a way that can be read by the Zap.

Jay: By the Zap and the Homo Zapiens behind it. Our editorial calendar was a list of dates, episode names and owners, sure, but then there were all these other colored sections to describe the types of episodes we might create to one side of the sheet, and off to the right, a list of random ideas for episodes, which really should’ve been in Trello, but somehow some of them were on this sheet for some reason, and oh boy. Save me Jesse Parker, you’re my only hope.

Jesse: One of the second things I think is important that’s not required but is really helpful, is to segment your data into different stages. So think about when something is changing its state. So maybe that’s marking a lead as a client, or in your case moving a card to a specific list in Trello. What are all of the things that need to be updated or created when that state change occurs? And I think the last important prerequisite here is to think now about what’s required later.

So a really good thing to do is to write out your process on paper, or on a flowchart tool, whatever you want, and think about all of the areas and the apps that it touches. You’ve already thought about the immediate actions that need to occur after you change the state of some of your data, but what a lot of people don’t think about in the beginning is that all of the things that are happening later on, and what are those things and can any of them happen sooner. So maybe, I guess you send an email later on in the process and the sending on that email might be associated with a different stage, but there’s an action that you can take now, such as creating a draft email as a placeholder, so this way when the time comes, when you hit that stage and you’re ready to send the email, there’s less work that you actually need to do to accomplish that task. So I just wanted to quickly go over those things.

Jay: That was awesome, thank you. So a question is, so when you explain it to me just now and also the first time we spoke, it made logical sense. It’s almost like in my head I was like, “Why wouldn’t everybody try to do stuff like this?” And I then recall myself before we spoke, and I would always look at anything that had the word automation in it as an excuse to lower the quality, ’cause I came out of marketing, and so in marketing a lot of marketing automation, it becomes inhuman and inauthentic, or people are trying to take what worked and ratchet it up to 11, and so that sort of spams people and becomes a volume thing, and the automation enables work that I think is unwelcome, or internally uncreative because it’s just like set it and forget it. But everything you’ve told me makes total sense. What do you think just as someone who’s clearly passionate about this stuff, I’m just curious to hear your take on what do you think is wrong with that initial perception that I had?

Jesse: Well I think that, I think automation like anything can be used in a good and a bad way. Like you mentioned, there’s certainly a lot of automations that are set up to just be inhuman and spam people, and it’s just like a one and done okay, you’re on my marketing list so you’re getting this, and that’s it, and I think the reason why that happens is because people actually aren’t paying enough attention to one of the prerequisites I was talking about, which is segmenting your data. So for example, if you just have a spreadsheet with names and email addresses, you could set up an automation to just email those people, and that would be considered kind of spammy. Like who are these people? I don’t know anything about them, I don’t know where they are in the process. I clearly don’t have the messaging right for what they need, but once you start organizing your data and you start segmenting it by different stages, you can understand the individual segments of data and figure out how one stage is affecting the other. So for example, again in a pipeline if you have a lead and you’re trying to get them to a client, you wouldn’t blast all the leads and clients with the same message. You would have particular messaging for where that person is in there, I guess in the timeline of their relationship with you.
Jesse: So if you do this segmentation and this organization early on, automation is going to be used as an enhancement for your workflow because you’re going to be able to better target your segmented data with the right message, at the right time.

Jay: At this point, it was time to set up my Zaps. Prior to the call, I cleaned up my editorial calendar, making it very clear what it was for, published dates, episode titles, owner of the episode, and status of the episode, i.e., the progress we were making on it. So that’s what I thought we’d use as the central source of truth, but then Jesse asked what should have been a simple question about that other tool, which was still a mess, my Trello board.

Jesse: Show me what you would do with a card when you decided it was worthy enough to be recorded in your Google Sheet? Would you move it to another list? Would you add a label to it? Would you make a comment? What would you do?

Jay: Yeah. So in Trello I have my to-dos, my teammate’s to-dos, I have then a list, so those are all lists, and then I have lists for each individual show that Unthinkable Media works on, and the most involved …

I basically blabbered on for a while before Jesse and I both realized, okay, we need to clean up Trello. So now, instead of a mess of multipurpose lists, each one is actually about the episode’s progress through time. As you move to the right in my Trello, the episodes move through the production process. So my second list is called episode ideas. When Tallie and I agree to make an episode reality, and we’ve managed to schedule the interviewee, we move the card to the right. It goes from episode idea, to schedule to record. Then it’s on to recorded, then scripting and editing, then it’s ready/launched. Finally, at long last, we have our single source of truth.

Jesse: Yeah no, that’s great. I think you’ve done a great job there.

I really needed to hear that, by the way, thank you.

Jay: As for that pesky Google Sheet, which was kind of redundant to Trello.

Jesse: So I guess maybe I want to hear more about why you’ve decided to take it out of Trello and put it in the Google Sheet possibly?

Jay: Let’s see. Because reasons. No, but pretty much. By the way, do you often do this with tools outside of Zapier? ‘Cause right now you’re coaching me through a different tool. Is that part of the job?

Jesse: It’s not part of the Zapier job, but this is what I like to do for fun.

Jay: Well, I guess like the first time we spoke, you’re not just a Zapier expert, you’re a productivity savant.

Jesse: Yeah. I mean, I’m really passionate about operational integrity because a lot of people think, “Oh, Zapier, automation. I’m gonna work better and faster immediately.” And while you might be able to take some time off of your plate, I think the real meat of things is in the data integrity itself and making sure that things are structured properly because I mean, once this stuff is done and then you layer automation on top of that, I mean, you’re pretty much unstoppable.

Jay: Now that my single source of truth had been decided upon, Trello, I told Jesse what normally happens next in my workflow. I take an episode of Unthinkable from the ideas list and discuss it with Tallie. So for example, this one here is the story of Sarah Cooper, a former product manager at Google who decided to quit her job and pursue her dream of becoming a comedian. She parodies the corporate world, and she went viral with the blog post 10 Tricks To Appear Smart In Meetings, which then lead to a book deal and a larger version of that post, the book 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings, and then she just wrote her second hilarious and very poignant book called How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings. So I figured because she’s promoting the book, now would be a great time to talk to her, and I proposed to Tallie a few reasons why this could be interesting to the listener, and Tallie and I kicked around that idea and we said, “Yes, let’s reach out to her and see if she’s game.” And as soon as she said yes, I moved that card from the ideas list to the schedule to record list.

Now, I still haven’t opened up Zapier at all with Jesse. I’m explaining all of this to him, but now finally he’s ready to bring me inside their product because we finally have an example of good workflow, and now we can automate and scale that to save time.

Jesse: So that is actually what our trigger is.

Jay: A trigger is the action you take manually that then sets off a chain reaction of automated workflow in Zapier.

Jesse: So if you scroll down now.

Jay: Okay.

Jesse: You should be able to save and continue and it’s gonna just let you know hey, we’re gonna use this account that you connected, so that’s fine. You can click continue on that, and then we want to set up some options. So you want to choose the Trello board that we were just on, so you can click the drop down and it should pull all of your Trello boards.

Jay: At this point I can see where this is going. I select one app that I use as my source of truth, okay, it’s Trello. Then I select the trigger action that kicks off my workflow, card moves lists, from this list, click, to that list, click, and then once that happens something else would unfold automatically in another app, and that’s what I’m about to set up in Zapier. We then add the next step in the workflow which is create a Google Doc file with the same name as the Trello card. Click, click, click, and then I tell it, “Add the Google Doc link that’s been created back into the Trello card that was moved.” Click, click, click, click, and now here’s another action in this recipe. Create a Dropbox folder with the same title as the Trello card for the episode files. Click, click, and add that link to the folder once create back in the original Trello card as well. Click, click, click, click, click, and like magic, I’ve done one very simple thing, and I create a cascade of productive actions.
Brilliant, okay. You are a master of the internets.

Jesse: Thank you.

Jay: As marketers, when we try to scale anything, our workflow, our team, our entire brand, Jesse just gets how to do it right, and without knowing it, he gets today’s big idea, scaling without breaking.

Across this series we’ve explored some seriously fast growing scaling companies. Gusto is worth over a billion dollars today. InVision has raised over 350 million dollars in VC funding and has a staff of more than 700 employees, which might be the largest fully remote team in the world. Zoom is one of the fastest growing tech companies period, and they’re about to go public with over 330 million dollars in revenue, and even about 8 million dollars in profits, so rare for a tech company going public. By the way, Zoom’s year on year revenue growth, speaking of scaling, was 118 percent. So yeah, this business world is obsesses with growth, but you can’t forget your roots. Growing too big, too fast, too soon can topple you over just as quickly as you shot upward.

So how can you scale without breaking? Well, there’s a number of things and a lot of tactics, but I think if you really distilled it down to a kernel of truth, it’s that you need a strong foundation. To me, that means alignment. An aligned team, aligned around the customer, the mission, the problems the company solves for that customer putting them at the center of it all, you need alignment, you need one firm foundation everybody understands.

When Jesse and I first spoke about my workflow, I thought it was about taking all the progress I’d made in building Unthinkable as a podcast, and accelerating what I can do with it. I’ve been running that show for three years, it’s going well, people like it, and I love making it, so I thought scaling it would mean enabling me to do more with less. I mean, isn’t that what the executives always bark about when they talk about scale? Isn’t that what some entrepreneurs [inaudible 00:22:33] about when they talk about rapid growth? It’s about hustle, working harder, going faster, doing more, and if you don’t gave growth tattooed across your forehead, well, get out. But that’s never been me. It’s never been who I am. I love the small business. The craft driven work of an artisan. Strong businesses, which yes can grow, but more importantly they can grow however they want, and why? Because they have a strong foundation. If they grow fast or slow or somewhere in the middle, they won’t break, and that’s where Jesse started me in that live audit. What is my single source of truth? How can I clean up my current workflow to enable me to grow the show. So want to scale without breaking? First make sure that you’re building on something sturdy. A strong brand is that foundation.

Few people understand this better than Zapier’s CEO and co-founder, Wade.

Wade Foster: Hey folks, I’m Wade Foster, I’m co-founder CEO at Zapier.

Jay: So how did this company start? Just I’d love to know if you and the earliest possible team members or co-founders have drinks some day way down the road and you’re reminiscing, what story is coming out from those early days when you were very small, no one knew, and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, remember that?”

Wade: Let’s see. So Bryan and I, I have three co-founders, well two I guess. Bryan, Mike and myself are the co-founders at Zapier, and I’ve known Bryan for a long time. We’ve done a fair amount of freelancing together, and we built some one-off integrations for a couple clients, and one day Bryan messaged me over iChat and said, suggested basically the core concept of Zapier. We’re gonna help people connect these tools that they were using. Things like Mailchimp, Basecamp, Zendesk were starting to come into their own around 2011, and people needed integrations to make them work better together. So Bryan was like, “We can build a hub and spoke for all of that.”

I remember thinking that was such a great idea. I was using the Marketo API at work and just struggling. I’m not a great engineer, and so to have a tool that could help me do that better, faster, easier to save me a ton of time and headache. So we ended up going to, it turned out not too long after that there was a Startup Weekend in Columbia, Missouri happening, and so Bryan and I went to that. We teamed up with Mike, and over that weekend we built, in 54 hours, the first prototype of Zapier. Then we ended up working, shoot, for the first five months it was like nights and weekends. We would go to our day jobs and then we would work from 6:00 PM til like 1:00 AM every night, trying to get the first version of this thing out and ready.

Jay: As you start to scale, I think from the cheap seats where I sit, I can understand the product and think, okay to grow, one way to grow the product is you just start adding more integrations, right? And that’s kind of not an infinite game, but it kind of feels like it’s just sort of a volume play. In some other company it might be like you sell marketing software and it’s sort of like add more capabilities and feature, just bloat the product. What else changed about the product as you guys grew? ‘Cause I imagine it was well beyond just the different technologies and companies that you integrate with.

Wade: Yeah. Adding new applications was a huge part of what we needed to do. You think about what Zapier provides, if we don’t support an app you use, you don’t use Zapier, simple as that. So having the applications and the right triggers and actions for the tools that you use was critical. A big part of that was launching our developer platform. Bryan, Mike and I built the first 50 integrations ourselves, and about that time we started hearing from other companies asking, “Hey, why isn’t our product on Zapier?” The reality was like well, we’re just three people, we’re doing this as fast as we can.

So we kinda felt like if we opened it up a little bit, give them the option to devote engineers to building this on their own, that might help us go faster, and turned out that was true. So we opened this developer platform, and now we have tons of people building on it externally. Companies like HubSpot, and Box, and Slack, all these companies started building their integrations on Zapier, and that opens our time now to think about okay, what needs to be better with this product? And there was two things that we really spent our time on. One was how do we just make it easier to set these things up? This is sort of a new concept to a lot of folks, we just need to make the software easier to use at its core.

So we spent a lot of time on just the design, the user experience, all that sort of thing, and then the second piece was where were there really critical feature gaps, and I remember one of the things, like from day one we had people saying, “It’s great that I can do a single action with Zapier, but I really need to do multiple actions. There’s other things I need to do out of this.” And we didn’t support that, and so it took us a while to actually launch this. It took us all the way to 2016 because we cared so much about making that easy to use and making it really simple for folks that it took us five years to get to that. When we launched multistep Zaps, that was a big deal because we saw just tons more adoption because it was clear that folks really wanted to build more sophisticated workflows but they didn’t want the product to be more sophisticated, they just wanted to be able to do more things and still be easy to use.

So that was like a huge selling point for us at that point in time because it made us really stand out in terms of the capabilities we have, why Zapier is really, truly better than other products or why it’s better than native integrations on things like that, is we just have this level of depth that nobody else could really match.

Jay: When building, well, anything, you have to start with that clear foundation and always revisit everything through that lens. Take this show for example. There’s a few foundations in place. For one, we start by telling the stories of people who are exceptions in their industries, and we do this by conducting interviews and then slicing those interviews into four or five discrete blocks every episode. Then there’s the bigger theme we’re exploring about the importance of brand in B to B that we tie to every interview. All those details together create a certain lens, a foundation that we can use to grow the show however we want and stay aligned while we do so. For Zapier users, having clean data or one source of truth in your workflow enables all other Zaps to function properly, otherwise the whole system breaks. For Zapier’s brand, it’s similar to this show and their product, having a strong foundation, one that’s both overt and constantly revisited, communicated, discussed, and shepherded by a leadership, that enables a brand to scale without breaking.

Wade: The best companies are built around things that stay the same. Amazon, they know that people always want low prices, so that’s a core tenet of the thing that they’re gonna do. At Zapier, we know people always want to be more productive at work. They always want more time back, they always want things to be, software to be easier for them to use. They want it to do more work for them, and so I think sort of keeping those tenets in mind helps you keep it straight. So if you’re ever like, “Ugh. We could do any one of these dozen projects could help us out.” You kinda go back to some of those core tenets and you think, alright, what is really gonna help us get there, and you sort of keep that as your guiding light, and if you have those things, if you kind of work to translate those into a set up strategic objectives, or OKRs, or whatever your company does to kind of help stay organized, it makes it easier. It’s not easy, but this type of work to sort of translate your core tenets into a strategy, a set of objectives, a set of tasks, it helps.

Jay: How many times have you tried to run too long and too fast with an idea? Whether you’re creating a business or a one-off project, we encounter this problem way too easily. We start with a concept, why we want to create the thing, the problem we’re gonna solve, and then we start to put it in motion, and slowly it starts to work, it starts to roll downhill and it starts to gain momentum and traction, but as it continues to go faster and faster, it.