Over the last half-dozen years, Zapier has found success by upending how businesses integrate connected apps and services. Now offering pre-built integrations with more than 900 apps, Zapier has evolved from a tool for building one-off connections or "Zaps," into a powerful workflow automation platform capable of supporting complex logic between multiple intertwined business processes.
The startup rolled out its Teams product a few months back to support the growing number of Fortune 500 companies taking advantage of the service, and plans to double down on its enteprise capabilities going forward. PCMag sat down with Zapier CEO Wade Foster to talk about that enterprise automation push, the usage trends the company has observed through its wealth of app integration data, and how Zapier does things differently than other Silicon Valley startups.
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PCMag: Because Zapier integrates with 900-plus consumer and business apps, you have a unique perspective on the app landscape through all the usage data you collect. What trends have you observed on the rise and fall of different tools or business app categories?
Wade Foster (WF): We've seen the continuous diversification or fragmentation of apps. Oftentimes what you're seeing now are these best-in-breed apps. When I think about that, I think of an app like Eventbrite as a classic example of "We're going to do events and ticketing. We're not going to move into CRM or email marketing because we would compete and not do it as well." That's why the app count keeps growing. One, because things like Amazon Web Services make it really easy for someone to build an application, and because there are more problems to solve and you see this narrow focus on specific tooling. The big players will try to consolidate, but I think you'll always see a better alternative as a siloed app out there.
We continue to see a lot of bring-your-own-apps to the workplace as well, so a lot of isolated apps getting pulled in maybe without the consent of IT. An example of this might be something like Airtable, which we're seeing grow very popular. It's kind of a new take on spreadsheets. You'd think that Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets kind of own the playing field, but Airtable came in with a new take on how to approach it and has been successful.
Another area we're seeing continued innovation in is ad platforms. I think about this with Facebook's Lead Ads product, and LinkedIn has a Lead Gen Forms product. These change up the idea of what an ad means by putting a form directly on the platform. You see both Facebook and LinkedIn trying to keep the ad experience on their side rather than redirecting to someone else's platform. So you go into Facebook, see something of interest to you, click over, fill out the form right on the site, and the vendor gets in contact. The vendor doesn't even need a web property. This is a continuation of the way these social platforms are moving. They want to keep you on their site, invite more value to that ad spot, and increase conversions as a result.
PCMag: That kind of social ad workflow in Zapier would have to trigger some pretty complex automated logic. Zapier rolled out the Teams platform not too long ago around this, but how are you dealing with these more advanced kinds of business workflows?
WF: For us, a big inflection point was last year in February 2016 when we launched multi-step Zaps. Instead of Zapier supporting one trigger and one action, you can now do multiple actions. That was a big change because it does allow for the more complex workflows that you see in business.
So you can say, when someone fills out this lead ad form on Facebook, we can run them through something like Clearbit to fetch extra data, and then add them to Salesforce as a lead and create a corresponding opportunity, make sure they're logged in the appropriate MailChimp list, and then send out a follow-up text message saying we got your request and we'll be in touch soon. Stuff like that can all now be powered through Zapier.
We've also worked pretty heavily to build internal apps to augment the data you're pulling in. So you see things like formatters, filters, approvals, delays, and things like that to help the user orchestrate the workflows. These features don't necessairly come built into the apps they're using. I think of it like an Excel macro built into Zapier.
PCMag: So it's basically a drag-and-drop workflow automation environment, like a low-code development tool? Except in this case for complex integrations that would otherwise be done at an application programming interface (API) level.
WF: That's exactly right. So you can say, "Okay, let's take Facebook and run a filter on it so we only include this ad group, then we'll take MailChimp and make sure they go to this list, click a button, and turn it on. Five minutes start to finish to set this stuff up, compared to days, weeks, or months.
Zapier started as an extension of the work [co-founder and CTO] Bryan [Helmig] and I were doing freelancing. We'd get asked to build these one-off things, like "Get these PayPal sales into QuickBooks or this list of leads into Salesforce." So what you saw with Zapier in 2012 was this simple one-to-one connector. But as we've been able to get more adoption from users, they've helped point us to the types of problems we should solve to provide more value. The Zapier that exists today is way more powerful than what it was even a year ago.
PCMag: I want to briefly touch on the similarities and differences between Zapier and IFTTT. The services get lumped together a lot, so how would you describe what Zapier does in relation to how the IFTTT platform functions?
WF: If you went back to 2012, we'd be a lot more similar than we are today. Zapier focuses on the [business-to-business] B2B use case. So of the over 900 apps you'll find on Zapier, it's proliferated with [Software-as-a-Service] SaaS apps and tool you would use in the workplace. Contrast that to IFTTT, and their focus is on consumer home automation, so a lot of the Internet of Things devices being popularized on that side of the market.
We're serving two very different market segments. As a result, the products have changed quite a bit. Zapier has more power under the hood. We're building things like our built-in code steps, formatting steps, filter steps, delay steps, and digest steps. These are workflow tools that are required for the needs of businesses, but that you don't see all that much in consumer use cases. These are pre-built methods that we abstract away so people don't even know there's code running.
The other area of difference is reliability. We've invested heavily to make sure Zapier has strong uptime. We've also invested a lot in our auditing and logging tools. So when outages happen, we have built-in replay functionality to help you recover from those issues, which is really important to businesses. Those are the kinds of things that separate us from IFTTT. B2B businesses just look different than consumer businesses.
From left: Zapier CPO Mike Knoop, CTO Bryan Helmig, and CEO Wade Foster
PCMag: On that note about IoT, is Zapier or the community actively developing capabilities on that front? What do you think the future is there?
WF: We haven't seen a ton done in B2B IoT yet. A lot of what we've started to see is experimentation happening, mostly revolving around buttons and sensors. Those are the two canonical IoT [user interface] UI design inputs. Most of our users tend to be average knowledge workers, so that hasn't been a focus for us historically. The buttons and sensors do have an effect, though, in triggering off a set of conditions to maybe pull up a form on your phone or something. Sensors could be paying attention to alerts or trigger a GPS notification if someone walks by; stuff like that. There's no restrictions on what users could do around IoT with Zapier, but we haven't focused on it as a go-to-market strategy.
PCMag: What are the biggest product and technology milestones coming up for the platform?
WF: We launched our Teams product in May, and the next version of that is what we're working on. We'll have more news on that later in the year, but the main thing you'll see is better collaboration features and better login features that are needed in enterprise settings.
We've managed to pull in users across all size organizations, from the smallest SMBs—which has really been our sweet spot—to a large segment of Fortune 500 companies. However, using Zapier in Fortune 500 companies has been more of a struggle because we hadn't built the peripheral features that help larger organizations to adopt apps. We're trying to better accommodate the needs of enterprises that are unique to them, and don't exist for SMBs.
PCMag: That's an interesting evolution of the product. Think about startups like Slack that began the same way and then had to roll out products like Slack Enterprise Grid to support enterprises using the platform in ways they hadn't expected.
WF: Exactly. It's an exciting opportunity because there are very few companies that bridge and can solve the full suite of problems from SMB to enterprise. There are startups like Slack and Dropbox, and past that you're either SMB-focused or you're enterprise-focused. It's kind of a no man's land in the middle, and it's exciting to see Zapier potentially be in that category.
PCMag: Zapier has also become one of the poster children of late for telecommuting and remote work. You guys offered $10k in moving costs for employees to ditch the San Francisco Bay Area. Can you explain the impetus for that decision, and how it has affected the business over the past few months?
WF: The de-location kind of came out of this observation we had in interviews with folks based in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. People would say, I'm interested in Zapier because you do allow me to go somewhere else. A lot of my opportunities have been here in San Francisco and I feel like I need to be here for my job, but I really would prefer to be somewhere else." Whether it's for family, or friends, or whatever else. There are a lot of reasons people want to be where they want to be.
We actually hired two people who almost immediately upon accepting the job, moved elsewhere. One went to Florida, the other to Pittsburgh. One of our engineers had this idea that maybe there are more folks like this who would want this as an option. For us, we just put our stamp on it and said you can live your best life and you don't have to be constrained to these metropolitan areas. And so we flipped relocation on its head.
All these tech companies offer relocation packages paying about $10,000 to move within a 30-mile radius of where their headquarters are. We just flipped that and said go wherever you want. Zapier at the beginning of the year employed 65 people, and today it's 100. The number of applications we've had since announcing that has increased by 30 or 40 percent. For a single role on the site we're now getting anywhere between 200 and 2,000 applicants. So from a recruiting standpoint, our biggest challenge is just sorting through all the talented people we have access to.
PCMag: So coming back to the core of what Zapier does, are you worried companies will start creating these organic connections themselves and cut out the middleman?
WF: That's a fair question. I don't think that's going to happen, and the reason being it's very difficult for these companies to build these platform ecosystems with enough integrations. So think about the lifetime of a company. When you're young, you start to say what integrations should I build to expand my user base and accommodate my existing customers? So a small startup might say I'm going to build an integration with Salesforce, Slack, and maybe Google Apps. Each of those will take a month-plus to build depending on the complexity you'll need.
Then as that company gets a little bigger, the next incremental integration they can build is moving down that ladder of how much value you'll get out of it. So the mindset starts to shift. Then you start to think about becoming a platform yourself and offering an API and make it easy for folks to build into us. But if you don't get to that escape velocity where you become Slack or Salesforce or MailChimp, there's very little interest from these companies to actually build that integration, because you're not big enough and there aren't enough users to tap into.
So there are hundreds and hundreds of apps that really struggle to get these integrations built by themselves, which are herculean engineering tasks to accommodate. Or you have to become really popular, which if it was that easy, everyone would do it. That's not a simple task. Zapier has become one of those tools that these small companies when they're getting started turn to for covering all their integration bases so they can focus on the core functionality that'll make their users excited to use that platform.
PCMag: There's also the question of more complex integrations beyond all the pre-built zaps. For things like enterprise resource planning (ERP), enterprises may not want to use tools like Zapier or IFTTT to manage heavy or repetitious workloads because if anything in that integration fails, the whole ERP system falls apart. What are you doing on that front to address these deeper enterprise concerns?
WF: This is exactly where our task history and logging features come in. All of that stuff exists in your dashboard, but the key feature for us is auto-replay. So when something does fail, we keep replaying it until it's successful. So we'll retry after a minute, five minutes, an hour, six hours, 24 hours, and generally whatever system went down will recover within 60 seconds, so that first replay will catch it.
But if it is an extended issue like the S3 outage we saw with Amazon a few months ago, Zapier will catch that for you. This is our business. We know when the downtime is happening because we have this vantage point of having millions of users. So we know that if S3 is down, we can make the decision to recover instantly. We have contacts at all these companies to make sure they know what's happening, and we can get this resolved faster than an isolated individual person trying to maintain one of these monolithic systems.
So we had a large partner of ours that shipped some bad code. Somehow their tests didn't run and fail code was shipped on their site. We actually noticed before their team did, and had an email into them less than a minute after we started noticing the error and the company was able to quickly roll it back.