In 2012, Zapier's ranks totaled three. Three co-founders who found success working nights and weekends on an idea to help people automate the boring and tedious parts of their jobs. Today, Zapier is 170+ strong, with a workforce that spans 15+ countries and 13 different timezones. After hiring their first remote worker years ago, they haven't looked back.
So how do you foster culture, communication and collaboration when there are no set core hours, no daily in-person cues, no physical compound? Mike Knoop, Co-founder and CPO at Zapier, joins us to talk about the top two remote challenges, four pillars of communication and how everything at Zapier—from hiring to onboarding, communication channels, retreats and more—is intentional by design.
Looking for more insights on leadership strategies and high-performing teams? Join us at Design Leadership Camp Santa Fe.
Carl Smith: Hey, everybody and welcome back to The Bureau Briefing. It's Carl and with me today, I have one of the co-founders of Zapier, Mr. Mike Knoop. How are you, Mike?
Mike Knoop: I'm great. Thanks for inviting me on, Carl.
Carl Smith: I appreciate you being here. We got to meet at Design Leadership Camp in Koloa earlier this year. I had always been a fan of Zapier. I knew one of your co-founders, Bryan Helmig, so I kind of was paying attention early. I just want to start off by saying congratulations, man. It feels like you guys have a tiger by the tail.
Mike Knoop: Yeah. Zapier, very fortunate position where we're at today with Zapier. Over 170 people strong in over 20 states in the U.S., 13 different timezones across the world. It's definitely a unique and exciting opportunity. I'm really excited to be at Zapier and working on it.
Carl Smith: I know Zapier was founded in 2011, which was roughly when you were coming out of school, right?
Mike Knoop: Yes. Bryan, Wade and I originally met up at a Startup Weekend in Columbia, Missouri, a small college town where the three of us all went to college together that we didn't know each other at the time. Yeah. Zapier in the early days was a nights and weekends project for us. We all had day jobs. I was still a full-time student at the time, so the only time we really had to work on Zapier was after those obligations were wrapped up. A lot of that in the early days we working on it remotely from our homes. Just jumping on instant messenger working on software. We were able to work that way pretty effectively in the early days.
Carl Smith: That's great. It was founded a while ago, but when do you feel like it really took off or it really launched?
Mike Knoop: We worked on Zapier maybe six months or so through nights and weekends, and we applied twice to Y Combinator. The first time we got the flat out rejection email, which definitely motivated us. The second time we applied in spring 2012 we got accepted. That really moved us out to the Bay Area. That was kind of the defining moment that got all three of us full-time. Shortly after, about May 2012 is when we officially launched Zapier public. We had paid accounts on the site. That was really the month we launched.
Carl Smith: When you launched, how many people were working full-time at Zapier?
Mike Knoop: Just three. It was just Bryan, Wade and I at that time.
Carl Smith: Just the three of you.
Mike Knoop: Yeah. Very quickly one of the things that we found was support was a really important part of scaling Zapier. We've always been very customer centric and trying to get really good support. Due to the nature of the product, we found ourselves basically waking up everyday that summer in 2012 and all three of us were doing support until like near one o'clock and then we could actually start working on the product again.
Carl Smith: Right.
Mike Knoop: Our very first hire, we wanted to try and find somebody that could help us out with that. Wade had a roommate in college that he thought would be a really good fit for the role. His name is Mike. He lived in Chicago at the time. That was kind of the defining moment where we were at like, "All right. Are we willing to try and make this remote thing ... Give it a try?" Because we knew we wouldn't be able to ... We didn't really have a network of folks built up in the Bay Area where we were living at the time and the people that we knew and like thought we could work effectively with were across the country.
We knew we've done remote fairly successfully before we moved over to the Bay Area, so we kind of decided let's give this a go and start trying to hire this way.
Carl Smith: This is really interesting because I know you've mentioned it a few times and when we were talking before both in Koloa and earlier, I was like the way that you have managed to get a distributed team of 170 still functioning is amazing to me. What I love is that the three of you moved to the Bay Area, which I know is one of the biggest talent pools and biggest talent fights that there is, right?
Mike Knoop: Yup.
Carl Smith: Then from the Bay Area, you go out and find people and I love that you found the right person and then said, "Okay. Let's try to make this work." When you did that, knowing the amount that I do, I can only imagine there was some level of planning or putting out some sort of ... I hate the word roadmap, unless it's an authentic roadmap I can pivot on, but how did you decide to move forward once you had the one distributed employee?
Mike Knoop: Yeah. You know, it was definitely an experiment at that point. This was not common wisdom to hire folks remotely, though I do think that you have started to see that tone and kind of mentality shift quite rapidly over the last couple of years in the Bay Area, especially with how expensive it is to live here.
Carl Smith: Right.
Mike Knoop: Yeah. Back in 2012, it was a bit of a like kind of unknown thing. There were a handful of companies we looked up to for inspiration. Automattic was one. 37signals was another. Folks who'd written about how to run remote teams before and we thought, "Yeah. We've done this before. Let's give this a try." It took us probably until maybe employee seven or eight where we felt like yeah, this is going to work. In fact, not only is it going to work, it's actually better. We found a lot of benefits from working remotely, especially building a software product.
I can't say that remote will scale to every type of organization, but especially if you're building software, we're in like a client services style model, remote actually gives you some advantages. The number one advantage, of course, is you get to hire the best people anywhere they're at. Like you said, there's a big talent pool in the Bay Area, however, there's a big talent pool across the world that can't move to the Bay Area. It's an untapped talent pool. Those folks tend to be some of our best highest performing, highest retained teammates.
This is like the best engineer in like Ohio, right, is probably working for Zapier. That's just somebody that we would never have been able to convince to move to the Bay Area. It gives us access to talent pools around the world.
Carl Smith: I think that one of the amazing things about allowing employees to live where they decided to live is they're happy there, right?
Mike Knoop: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yup.
Carl Smith: Now if you are distributed company and you hire somebody and they say, "Is it okay if I move," then you're allowing them to go somewhere where they will be happy. For us, I remember our first distributed employee lived in Seattle and they said, "Am I going to have to move to Jacksonville?" I was like, "No. You're like really great at what you do and you're motivated and you're in Seattle. I'm not going to uproot you and move you across the country." That makes sense.
Mike Knoop: When we're making offers, it doesn't even factor in. If we're at the end of a hiring process with two folks and one can move, the other can't, that doesn't even enter the calculus. We can just make the offer to the best candidate and not have to worry about the logistics of trying to get ... Whether they can move across the country.
Carl Smith: Now when you are looking at candidates, are there certain characteristics you look for that you think would make a better distributed employee?
Mike Knoop: Yeah, absolutely. Our number one value in the organization is default to action. Remote really embodies trust and autonomy. We like and want to work with people who respect that and thrive with it. The folks in the company that are the most successful are folks who don't wait for a permission. They're able to generate ideas and then default to action by finding people in the organization to work with and start making that thing happen. I think this is definitely something that Bryan and Wade and I all brought to the organization.
This value kind of springs from that, but it also is really important I think just in general for a remote company, you don't have that manager who's like looking over your shoulder all day long. There's no management by making sure your butt is in the seat day in and day out. I actually think this is a better style of management, which is to manage through the output, manage through your expectations. Yeah. That certainly is something we screen for and look for is folks who are going to thrive in that environment versus startle.
Carl Smith: Right. When you went through and say you got up to that seventh, eighth, tenth employee, at what point did you realize certain things that you needed to start doing differently in the way that you were going to run the company?
Mike Knoop: One of the interesting things about remote is ... I get asked this a lot, which is like oh, what are all the unique interesting things in how you have to run your company? The candid answer is most of the things we do as a remote company are just good things for any company to be doing. Like we have to write down our work. We have to be transparent with each other. We want to have an inclusive decision-making process. Some of the things that we do I think would make any company better.
Now we've had to solve some of those problems I think earlier on our company history, whereas you might be able to get away with not introducing formal written communication and a lot of internal communication sharing until maybe you get to 50, 100 people, whereas this was something that was important to us at employer number 10 or 20. I think remote has encouraged and forced us to get better at scaling and building a company earlier in our life cycle than we would have otherwise. We would not have been able to fallback on that in person fallback basically.
Carl Smith: Yeah. At what sizes did you see like there was ... I know in digital services there's this under 20 your systems and stuff seem to work. Between 20 and 50, everything gets kind of crazy. Then after 50, it feels like it's a different company. It's got new systems, new structure, all of that. Did you find anything like that as you were growing?
Mike Knoop: Everything you just said resonated. We had that exact same kind of scaling bottleneck around 20 where we had to start actually hiring managers into the organization or bringing another management layer in. Around 40 or 50, we started having to introduce our second layer.
Mike Knoop: ... around 40 or 50, we started having introduced our second layer of management, which introduces a new communication challenge in the organization. Around 60 and 70 there, we started putting together ... had to do a little bit more formal job of structuring the individual teams in the company and how those teams worked as peers with each other. As we got up through 100, we had to start being more intentional about aligning our work across the entire organization. So not everyone could ... Like in the early days when we could just jump on a Thursday all-hands hangout and say, "Here's what we're going to do," and everyone did it. These days, you have to be a little bit more formal around, "Here's what we're trying to accomplish as a company. Here's how we're going to measure our success," to try and align the organization [crosstalk 00:11:44].
Carl Smith: I just had this vision of super tiny squares on a Zoom with 170 [crosstalk 00:11:51] trying to figure it out.
Mike Knoop: Zoom is awesome. We've tried every video conferencing software. It's one of the few that actually lets you get everyone's head inside the same meeting. Recently, we did break it. We went over 100, so we're going to have to find ... There's constant scaling challenges ahead us, I feel like, to make that keep working.
Carl Smith: Now, how would it work, even if you could get 100 or more than 100 people in there? So you have an all company call that you do?
Mike Knoop: That's right. Every Thursday morning, we have a all-hands meeting. The best way to describe it is, it's kind of like a talk show. Usually, it's narrated by either Wade our CEO, or someone else on the executive team. We do announce and introduce new teammates. We go over the important announcements from the week. And then there's usually like a main segment of information where someone in the company is presenting on something that they'd worked on recently or something important to the direction or something that's shipping. And then every week we also do an AMA event with some of the folks on the exec team that gives folks a chance to ask questions and be a little bit more transparent with how we're thinking about some of the problems we're working on.
Carl Smith: I see this is where it starts to feel, for me, where distributed companies are so on purpose about making people feel connected, where located team sometimes ... And it's not their fault. They just take it for granted because they walk by a desk that somebody understands. So this is amazing that weekly you have this talk show oriented all hands on deck. I think it's got to be great for you and for Wade and Brian as well because you can't know 170 people. So to get to see that introduction of the new people, as well as somebody highlighting something they're work on, how does that feel to you when you're logged in?
Mike Knoop: Yeah. These days, I actually have a few Zaps set up, some automation set up that actually notify me whenever a new person joins the organization and gives me like just kind of a dossier on who they are, the team that are going to be joining, just so that I can reach out and kind of stay connected to everyone who's joining the company. It's funny you mentioned the [inaudible 00:14:17] ... I chat with a lot of other founders and execs of other growth stage companies, most of which are not remote. One of the things that comes up over and over in all these calls is the seating chart, who's sitting next to who is this huge question in in-person co-located organizations. What I found, is a lot of co-located companies, they proxy process with seating charts. Instead of being explicit about the actual process that they want to run or what the outcome they want, they just sit the people next to each other and hope kind of a good thing happens.
Carl Smith: That's right. [crosstalk 00:14:55] departments, right? You set them up in departments so they're sitting next to each ... I never thought about that.
Mike Knoop: Yeah. Like if one of your designers and an engineer aren't quite in sync and it's like you're not getting what you want, well, all right, let's go put them in a room together for, you know, have them sit next to each other for next month and hope something good will happen.
Carl Smith: But they don't always turn out that way.
Mike Knoop: No. [inaudible 00:15:21] pretty interesting, because yeah, we spent a lot of time designing the processes of the organization to make sure that they scale for us and that they're getting outcomes that we want from our ... whether it's product development from all-hands support to how we communicate inside the organization, we're really intentional about designing those processes.
Carl Smith: So to take it from the employee's perspective, I think you said you're in 20 states. How many times zones are you across?
Mike Knoop: I think we're over 13 time zones now at this point across the world.
Carl Smith: Yeah. That's insane. For somebody who works at Zapier, they wake up, they log in. What is the beginning of their day like?
Mike Knoop: Yeah. One of the interesting things about Zapier is we don't have any core set of hours in the company. If you looked at the time zone weight, I think it's weighted in the Eastern U.S. However, we don't have any core standard hours. The advice that I usually give to new teammates that are joining Zapier is, "As long as you can find two or three hours of overlap with the teammates that you're working the closest with in the company, we'll be okay. We'll be able to make it work. You don't need to have time zone coverage with all 170 other people. You're just not working with them on a daily basis." As long as our product teams can find time to unblock each other, things generally work out.
Sometimes, actually, it actually works better. We've found some optimizations here. If it really works, you can kind of get this handoff cadence going, where you've got one engineer who's working during their core set of hours and then handing off to the next engineer who just picks it up and runs with the baton a little bit once they get into the office. That doesn't always happen quite that way, but when it has to happen, it kind of does show like, "Hey, there's some cool efficiencies we can get from something that I think most people would see as a total problem to solve around time zone overlap."
Carl Smith: The one thing I'm wondering ... And I know that developers, programmers generally introverted, but what about from a chemistry and a culture and a belonging perspective of being with a piece of machinery all day instead of being with people?
Mike Knoop: This is super important. Coming back to being intentional. We do quite a few things to try and build the culture, rapport, and relationships inside the organization. Because it's super important to have trust in your teammates, especially as growing as fast as we are. We want folks to have in-person time. Even though we're 100% remote, we still do dedicate certain things to in-person, which I'll talk about here. The reason that we do in-person events is ... One of the biggest reasons I've found to do it, is it kind of helps you hear the other person's voice a bit. It really helps to build the empathy with teammates in the organization. Most of Zapier is done through writing, whether it's in Slack or in our internal blog or one of our other project management tools. A lot of those tools, it's easy to kind of default to being a little bit too curt or maybe using the wrong word here or there. There's good intentions all around, but it can easily be misinterpreted if you don't have that trust with the teammate.
This is what our in-person events really help with, is building that trust. So you're going to acknowledge and understand and assume best intent when you see other teammates working through written communication. The few things that we do, we do two all-hand company retreats per year. We're actually going to be in Chattanooga, Tennessee later this month. We're going to get all 170 people. We fly them all in for a week where we do kind of a hackathon and a bunch of in-person kind of team days.
And then the other thing we do is we do dedicated in-person onboarding. Every once a month, we have a full week that's dedicated to onboarding. We call it kind of like Airbnb onboarding, where we'll have everyone new who just joined the company usually plus maybe a manager or a peer fly out to the Bay Area. It's an opportunity to work for a week in-person with Wade, Brian, and I, their peers or manager, and kind of helps establish that early cultural tones of how we work and how we operate in that empathy muscle, so that when they do go back and they're working remotely, they've got a really good foundation that kind of sets them up for success in the company.
Carl Smith: Now, where does that take place?
Mike Knoop: Yeah. It's usually somewhere around Mountain View. Brian, Wade, and I all live in the Bay Area. We usually rent a handful of Airbnbs that people kind of stay in, have their own space. These are getting big enough where we have to rent usually some kind of coworking space or somewhere [crosstalk 00:20:08] get all the people in one place together.
Carl Smith: This is interesting. You're at 170. How big is the executive team right now?
Mike Knoop: The executive team is probably around ... Depends how you count ... it's around eight people or so, eight or nine folks.
Carl Smith: Okay. You were saying when we were talking before the show, that you're recruiting for that executive level now.
Mike Knoop: That's right. We're going through definitely our growth phase as an organization, where we're trying to bring in some senior leadership to help us scale the organization as we go from 170 to 300 and beyond. We're currently working on recruiting and hiring a CMO, a VP of support, VP of engineering. Quite a few roles to bring in and help us scale for that next phase of growth for us.
Carl Smith: Now, as you're looking at that, I would imagine a lot of the people you're looking to bring in, because you are part of a very successful and quickly growing company, you're looking for people with lot of experience. I could be totally wrong here, but I would imagine most of those people have not had a remote working environment before.
Mike Knoop: Yeah. That's very true. Most of the talent pool that we're looking at recruiting out of definitely ... Some folks have done some remote work, but it's usually never in a company that's 100% remote. We've had a handful of folks on our exec team as well as just broader Zapier, you know, when they're coming into the organization, haven't worked remotely before. They're excited about it, but they have some kind of questions or concerns. In every case ... It's happened over and over ... after people get into the organization and they work, they have an opportunity to work remotely for a couple months. They've ...
Mike Knoop: ... for a couple months. They understand, and get to see, and take advantage of all the benefits. Like the time flexibility, not having to commute, being able to spend more time with family, being able to unplug, and quickly see the value of it. It's certainly been something that we've had folks who were coming into the organization with concerns about, but almost universally, folks get really comfortable with it very quickly.
Carl Smith: That's great. Everything we've been talking about has been pretty positive. There have to be some challenges.
Mike Knoop: Yep.
Carl Smith: Is it around legal? Is it around healthcare? When you have people in all these different locations, and from what I know about you, you are very much a treating people fairly, treating people equally kind of person. I'm sure that the other co-founders are as well. Is that where you find most of your challenges?
Mike Knoop: You know, there's really two big areas of challenges. One on the operate ... and they're both basically both on the operational front. The number one big challenge you have to solve as you scale a remote company is communication. Now, this isn't like, you could remove the word remote from that sentence, I just hadn't. The number one challenge in scaling any company is communication. We've had to solve it sooner and faster and get better at it, and I think other companies have had too. I think this actually sets up for a lot of success as we grow through this kind of growth phase. We're really intentional about the channels we use for communication. We have a lot of cultural expectations built in to the organization for how to communicate with each other. I look at their communication [inaudible 00:23:48]. I see there's like four big pillars of bandwidth that you can get when you're communicating with a colleague or a team.
The first on the low end is you're not talking at all, so there's no communication. A step up from that is like text only. This might be chat, or email, or project management tools, something like that. Moving up the bandwidth scale then to a video call or a phone call, right? I can use my verbal cues, and communicate emotion and tone, and then on the top end, in person, where I can use my full range of communication abilities. Body language, gestures, the whole nine yards. Now, as you move up that that communication chain, what happens is your interruption also increases still. You see this in co-located teams where the tap on the shoulder, I can quickly go from zero to the highest amount of communication bandwidth, but I've completely distracted you away from whatever you were working on before. Whereas on the other end of the spectrum, right, no communication, you're not distracted at all.
The thing I've observed is in co-located teams, everyone defaults to the highest version of communication bandwidth, but also the one that is the highest interruption. In remote, this is completely flipped on its head, where the default is nobody communicates. You have to be intentional about moving up that bandwidth chain. In fact, I'd spent a lot of time coaching new teammates on when to move up that bandwidth chain. What are the signals to know that you should move up, and also just being over communicative in public channels. Not feeling awkward and weird. That like, "Hey, I feel like I might be talking to no one, and this slack channel is giving a status update." But it's really important because a coworker is going to be able to come along in six hours and pick up that context without haven't asked you about it. It unblocks them, and it allows them to default to action. So yeah, getting this communication stuff right has definitely been one of our early challenges, though I do think we've got a really good sound strong foundation here that'll take us into the future.
Carl Smith: What was the second challenge? You said they were two and they were both operational.
Mike Knoop: Yes. The second one. The communication one is harder. The other one was a little easier, though certainly was a challenge. When we started hiring, we've got teammates all of these states in the US, and there's a lot of compliance and law, and legal stuff for, whether you have Nexus, is in different states, and how to do payroll taxes and all that. Fortunately, there are a handful of companies. We use TriNet, that are almost, I don't think they're quite targeted at this market, but they're perfectly suited for working with remote companies because they handle the compliance and legal across all the states in the US. I think they do Canada as well, and they're basically able to negotiate really good healthcare rates because of the size of the company that they have, as well as deal with and handle all making sure we've got entities set up where we need to. That was an early thing we had to get right.
Carl Smith: Yeah. Once you find TriNet, and I know that there are some other ones. I think they're called EOSs? Employment something.
Mike Knoop: That's sounds about right.
Carl Smith: That, without a doubt, is you just relax, you go aah.
Mike Knoop: Yes.
Carl Smith: Because, just the nastiness to what you were saying of each state and the way they do it. Now, how do you handle, if you're in 13 time zones, you're obviously in other countries as well?
Mike Knoop: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
Carl Smith: So how does that play in?
Mike Knoop: Yeah. One of the things, everyone who's outside the US is on paper, a 1099 contractor, except for places where we're just establishing in these. The thing that we like to share with new employees who joining Zapier is, the only time you'll feel like a contractor is when you're invoicing us. Otherwise everyone at Zapier is on the same level playing field. Like everyone comes to the retreat, everyone's involved in all the meetings. There's not two tiers that exist inside the company. Everyone's a Zapier teammate first and foremost. There's a handful of companies that are a little bigger than us, that you basically, kind of the mental model is wait until you have a bit of a critical nexus inside the company and then establish a legal entity there. We're just getting big enough where we're starting to think about needing to do this in a few places. But up until that point, we've been able just to hire everyone as contractors.
Carl Smith: Well, Mike, thank you so much for stopping by today and sharing this. In a final word of wisdom, or advice, for people who are either starting a new company or have a current company that's located, but they're thinking about going distributed, anything you'd recommend just that they keep in mind as they get started?
Mike Knoop: I will say this. It is so much easier to scale a remote company from scratch than it is to transition from a in person co-located company into a remote company. The transition, while not impossible, I've heard of folks doing it successfully, certainly introduces a whole nother layer of complexity and logistics that we have not had to solve. Just get taken care of for us with everyone being on equal footing in their own homes. So, the earlier, if you're interested in remote and you're thinking about trying it, the earlier you do it in the company life cycle the better, because you get those cultural muscles ingrained for how to work in a remote company. How to work with remote coworkers that will scale with you. So, if you're interested in trying it, the earlier can do it the better.
Carl Smith: I couldn't agree more. Thank you again for being on the show today, Mike, and your continued success. What do you think you'll be at a year from now? Like when you look at it, how big, how many people do you think you can add?
Mike Knoop: We actually don't forecast headcount like that.
Carl Smith: Smart.
Mike Knoop: We do have some planning in place. The way that we approach hiring is we look for where our needs are and then design around that. Just anticipating needs. We've gotten a little bit better at doing that. I anticipate we'll probably be somewhere around 300, but there's no head count target that we're trying to hire to hit right now.
Carl Smith: Well, I'm going to keep an eye on you and when I start to see those numbers climb, I might reach back out and say, "How's distributed working for you?"
Mike Knoop: That happened, and I'm going to come back on and share what we've learned and how it's going.
Carl Smith: All right. Well, everybody listening, thank you so much. We'll be back next week and we'll talk to you then.