When building a
Wade Foster, Bryan Helmig, and Mike Knoop started building workflow automation site, Zapier, in 2011 as a side hustle. They weren’t really thinking about creating a thriving, distributed, open company culture. They just wanted to build a tool to connect web apps and automate workflows.
Zapier (rhymes with happier) now has around 160 remote employees, and Foster is constantly looking for ways to improve camaraderie and teamwork.
As part of our ongoing Culture Changers series, we sat down with Foster to learn how the founders built a transparent and action-oriented culture within a 100% distributed workforce. Foster told us how the side hustle grew into a thriving business and talked about some of the practices Zapier uses to create community across time zones and space.
How would you describe the company culture at Zapier?
I just was talking to one of our new engineers earlier this week, and he mentioned how often the phrase “happy to help” comes up around here. We’re a very helpful company.
One of our core values is “default to action.” We really want to hire folks who can identify problems, break them into pieces, and solve them. But if you want to default to action, you need a strong culture of transparency, because people need the right information to make informed decisions.
So, all chat rooms are open to everybody. It’s not uncommon to see support diving into engineering rooms or marketing diving into support, and folks are generally happy to help.
What did you do to foster this kind of culture (no pun intended)?
We built an internal blog where we encourage people to post what they’re working on. Everyone gives a Friday update, and there’s an unplugged section where people post about their personal lives. That’s important, especially at a distributed company. You have to have these little rituals to get to know your team at a deeper level.
We also keep the work we do open, using tools like Jira. Folks can chime in on various threads or tickets and provide their opinion as work is developed.
Related Story: Atlassian – How we’re opening work up for software teams
How do you manage all that information and keep it from becoming overwhelming?
That’s a problem we’re just running into now. The firehose is so big it’s easy for a new person to drown in the information flow. We started coaching folks in the onboarding process—showing people where they should look and what they can ignore.
The internal blog has different feeds people can subscribe to and create something that’s relevant to them.
We still have ways you can break outside that. We have a feature that allows hot topics to emerge and key things to sneak into people’s tunnel vision.
So, when did you start thinking about culture building?
We were probably about ten folks or so. We were starting to hire more, and we wanted them to be successful. So we sat down and wrote the four or five characteristics of people who work well here, and we created rubrics around those characteristics. Based on the rubrics, we developed a series of interview questions to help us suss out the best fits.
Because this process was working so well for hiring, we decided to build it out for the whole company, and it became our values. We baked those values into our hiring process and performance reviews, and it really became something the team lives out.
I don’t have to be the one who guides folks. A teammate will say, “Do you think I should do this?” and the other teammate will say, “Hashtag DTA, default to action, go for it.”
Do you think you had to go through that process to achieve the kind of culture you wanted?
You have a culture whether you write it down or not. I think writing it down helped us scale it out. We doubled down on the good traits and built an organization that really lives out those values.
Zapier has always been remote, what does culture building look like in a remote context?
I don’t think it’s too different than a place-based company. Culture is not ping-pong tables and office snacks. Culture is how you go about your day.
Developing camaraderie within remote teams—now that’s definitely different than an office environment.
We have various rituals to help promote camaraderie. We do a weekly random pair-buddy session and just talk through whatever comes to mind. People talk about projects and life stuff. It’s a really good way to get to know folks.
We also have a bunch of off-topic rooms in our chat. It’s a massive list of people’s interests. There’s a room on amateur radio, cooking, and science fiction. There’s a room called “adulting,” where people post life hacks and tips for finding the best contractor. Some companies would shut that down because it’s not work-related, but in a remote company, people need a place to blow off steam.
On a slow day a while back, someone suggested we have a gif dance party. So we picked a song and everyone recorded themselves dancing and made gifs. Now we have this great library of silly dance gifs.
You get together in person sometimes too, right?
We do retreats twice a year and small team retreats fairly regularly.
We also do this thing called “Air-B and onboarding.” We fly new recruits out to the Bay Area with their manager. All the founders are there. We put them up in an Airbnb, and we all co-work together. We go out to dinner every night and play games. Folks get a lot of one-on-one time with the founders. I think that’s pretty rare.
Last year you announced a plan to pay people $10,000 to move away from the Bay Area, how’s that working? What’s been the effect on your company culture?
Well, in the year leading up to that announcement we had 6,000 people apply for jobs at Zapier. Last year we had 20,000 applicants. But in terms of company culture, I don’t think it changed anything.
Since the announcement, we’ve hired three people from the Bay and one moved. Where people live doesn’t really matter to me. People move all the time here, and unless they say something, I’d never know. We get to work with great people, that’s all that matters.
How do you keep your company culture healthy, happy, and open?
The number one thing is being willing to measure and improve over time. All these little rituals and practices came from the feedback we got. We are always running surveys and collecting feedback to make sure what we’re doing is useful and working.
You need to be willing to ask the team on some recurring basis, “How’s it going? Does this make you more productive? Less productive?” Listening to your people is key.
For us, surveys are a good launching off point. You get the high-level gist of what folks are feeling, and you can dig in from there. We’ve even started to see people putting surveys in chat rooms after a meeting to make sure meetings are productive. Soliciting feedback is part of our culture.
Related Story: 5 pro tips and tricks for the Stride power user
How did you decide to build a distributed company?
When we started hiring, Mike had already moved back to Missouri, so we were already split up. The advice is to hire old buddies you trust, and we didn’t have big networks in the Bay, so we brought on people from all over.
We soon realized there was a lot of big benefits for us. We didn’t sit down with a pros and cons checklist and decide being a distributed company was the right choice. Our situations led us down this path, and once we were on it, we got good at it.