The Not So Cookie-Cutter Approach to Company Building — 8 Lessons from Zapier
Starting Up

The Not So Cookie-Cutter Approach to Company Building — 8 Lessons from Zapier

Wade Foster, founder and CEO of Zapier, shares his contrarian takes on building a billion-dollar company — from fundraising advice, go-to-market strategy, and hiring mistakes.

Wade Foster doesn’t do things the conventional way. As co-founder & CEO of Zapier, he’s built and scaled one of the most innovative platforms for no-code workflow automations. Famously, Zapier has only raised $1.3 million total — and has managed to springboard that into an astronomical $5 billion valuation. 

And while the company’s unconventional fundraising strategy is what’s typically snagged the headlines, there are plenty of other unorthodox moves when you look under Zapier’s hood. In fact, the company’s independent streak can be traced all the way back to its roots. Bucking the usual startup trend, Zapier’s was started in 2011 in Columbia, Missouri – far from the hotbed of high-growth startups. Early-stage companies have all sorts of challenges, from hiring the early team, finding product-market fit, and finely tuning the go-to-market strategy. Starting one in the Midwest might come with even more of a steep elevation to climb.

But what seemed like a disadvantage Foster actually credits with paving the way for Zapier’s outsized success. This physical distance from tech’s epicenter is what enabled Foster and his co-founders Bryan Helmig and Mike Knoop to sidestep the cookie-cutter advice for scaling a business (like ‘Raise as much as you can!’ or ‘Hire fast to pick up momentum!’).

I had skeptical ears when I would hear the Silicon Valley advice around, “Well, you can't build a company that way,” or “You'll never be an important company doing it that way.” 

Foster likens his approach with Zapier to playing poker. Sure, there’s a general set of guidelines and best practices to follow, but there’s no golden rule that applies to every single hand. “We tried to deeply understand the cards that we were dealt and if the advice applies in the particular situation that we've got,” he says. 

One example here? Zapier was remote-first way back in 2012, long before it was en vogue. “It certainly made it a lot easier for us as a young company with very little hiring experience to compete for talent. We realized that we're not going to try and go toe-to-toe with Google or Facebook or Netflix to hire Bay Area engineers. We're going to go compete for all of the great talent that doesn't live in the Bay Area — that gave us a really incredible advantage.”

In our conversation with Foster, he takes us through his approach to building and continuing to scale Zapier, emphasizing the need for questioning conventional wisdom and taking the path that makes the most sense for your company, even if it’s the road less traveled. We pluck out eight key lessons from Foster’s atypical approach, covering everything from his famed fundraising strategy, to building Zapier’s distribution engine before building the product, and what he got right (and wrong) about hiring.


If Foster were to boil down his philosophy on building startups, it would be simply: be a plus-one. “It stands for this idea of every day you show up, just make things one bit better. And that sentiment can easily get lost in the midst of grand strategies or visions,” he says. “But so much of company building is literally just showing up day after day and doing that for a really long period of time and just putting in the work.” 

Building startups is not a particularly glamorous thing in spite of how the media makes it look. A lot of it is just doing sales or doing customer support hundreds of thousands of times over and over again and being really committed to becoming exceptional at it.

With that framing in mind, he shares his plus-one approaches to some of the most common questions founders face — from raising money, hiring the early team, and building the product’s MVP. 

Wade Foster, co-founder and CEO of Zapier

Lesson 1: You don’t need to raise a boatload of money

After founding Zapier in Missouri, Foster had to look for ways to grow the company outside of drumming up truckloads of funding. “It's not like we had a ton of people in the Midwest knocking on our door to give us millions of dollars to start a software company,” he says.

One of his key reference points for getting off the ground was his former employer, Veterans United. Another Missouri-based company, Veterans United has completely innovated the VA home loan process – all without raising a dime. “They’re the entrepreneurial poster child in Columbia, Missouri,” says Foster. “I remember I joined there in early 2011 and was the 500th employee, and by the time I left 10 months later, there were 1,000.”

Traditional startup founders may be hesitant to plan on starting (and growing) a company without much backing. “But our reference point is an incredibly fast-growing company, one that is doing exceptionally well, has an actual business, making profits,” says Foster. “It forced us to ask: ‘Does that advice really apply to us?’ It didn’t, so we just said, ‘Well, that’s good advice, but for a different company.’” 

Eventually, Zapier would go on to raise a single, $1.3 million dollar round — which would be the last set of checks the company would cash from investors (for more details here, check out the full Review article on Zapier's one-and-done fundraising approach). 

Lesson 2: Think about distribution from day one

If you’re going to build a product, you want people to use it. But far too often, founders get drawn to the building and tinkering side of the business, forgoing the go-to-market piece until they’re actually ready to get out and sell.

That’s a mistake, says Foster. “I think one of the biggest things that founders – especially product-minded founders – overlook is they say, ‘Oh, I have some great ideas for product X, Y, Z in this category. The incumbent stinks for these reasons, and I think I can make a better version of it than, say, Salesforce.’ What they don’t realize is that the thing that actually helps Salesforce win is not necessarily that the product is amazing, it’s that they have an incredible distribution engine that is really difficult to compete against.”

When it came to architecting Zapier’s distribution strategy, Foster turned to an unlikely source of inspiration: Patrick’s McKenzie’s Bingo Card Creator. “He would spin up these landing pages for every type of bingo card he could think of: Physics bingo card, U.S. history bingo card, world history bingo card, etc. These landing pages would rank really well on Google. We saw that and thought that’s quite interesting,” he says. 

Bingo cards and integrations don’t seem to have all that much in common, but Zapier’s founders drew the parallels. “If you’re looking for integrations, there are all these different keyword results that you could conceivably rank for, but no one is trying to rank for this stuff. If we had a landing page that says you could connect Salesforce and Zendesk, or you could connect QuickBooks and PayPal, that would stand out,” says Foster. (A caveat here — he notes that this approach, while novel in 2011, wouldn’t work nearly as well today because there’s much more search competition.)

The team took the lean startup approach and spun up an app directory of all sorts of different integrations Zapier might eventually serve — without even having a single customer. “We just thought, ‘Hey, we’ll build this little app directory, build some landing pages, see if we can get people coming in through search and then go talk to them to see if we can build the integration for them. That was the style of product development we were doing at the time,” says Foster. 

Lesson 3: When the product solves a true problem, it can withstand some jankiness

The Zapier founders always envisioned that they were building a self-serve product (Foster notes that they were fans of Basecamp and Mailchimp, which both drove traffic to a landing page where it was easy to sign up and get started). But upon signing their very first customer, they quickly realized that this was far from the current reality. “We gave the customer access to Zapier and said, ‘Here, you can sign up and go try it out.’ And he couldn’t figure it out, so he emails me and says, ‘Wade, can we jump on Skype and you can show me how to do this?’”

Foster quickly fired up the video call, and watched the customer try to set up Zapier. “And he just clearly can’t get it done. It’s not even a beta at this point — it’s like an alpha of an alpha. There’s so much jankiness in the product that I was embarrassed.”

The customer was trying to get a contact form on his website (powered by Woofoo) and connect the folks who signed up to an AWeber email list. After an admittedly painful Skype setup process, the integration worked. “And the customer says, ‘Wade, this has kind of changed my life.’ And I remember thinking, this is what it actually feels like when you make something somebody cares about.” 

It was a marked difference from one of his very first experiences trying to sell software, as a marketing intern for a small edtech company. “I was brought in because the product wasn’t selling, and they wanted me to figure out how to get more people to use it. I was learning SEO and email marketing and business development — just trying everything to get this product to sell,” says Foster. 

Although he was just an intern at the time, it was a very formative experience for the future founder. “It was literally how most people describe starting a company, like pushing a boulder up a hill. Why won’t this thing work? The design was good, it was well-engineered and the product was slick. But it was ultimately the classic solution in search of a problem,” recalls Foster. 

Years later, fumbling through that painful first customer setup process, he was struck by how different the feeling was with Zapier. “This product is bad, the design is not great, and the guy needs hand-holding through Skype every step of the way. But when we actually get to the finish line and it solves a problem for him, he’s asking if he can give me money. We didn’t even have a way to take payments at that point in time,” he says. 

Instead of an invention problem, it became an iteration problem. And it’s much easier to iterate than it is to invent.  

There was still a mountain of work ahead, but the seed was planted — and it was a fruitful one. “How can we take this really crappy first draft and create something that someone could sign up for and get going in a self-serve way? So we repeated the process over and over again. A customer would come to the site, I’d jump on Skype and watch them try to use it. I’d take a bunch of notes on where the person would fall down, and then we’d do it again. And we just kept lather, rinse, repeating until more and more folks could get through the setup process with less help,” says Foster. 

Customers were willing to wade through some choppy set-up waters because they weren’t getting the problem solved anywhere else. “We knew there was demand for the product because we would go on all these community forums for products like Zendesk or QuickBooks and customers would be asking for integrations with other products. And a product manager would show up on those threads and say, ‘Hey, great idea, we love what you’re suggesting — we’ll go consider it.’ Which is PM speak for ‘probably never going to happen’ — it’s going to go on a backlog somewhere that nobody’s going to pay attention to,” says Foster. “So we knew there was clear demand for solving this integration problem.”

Lesson 4: Don’t hire until it hurts

Foster’s experience building Zapier’s internal team taught him to rely on yet another piece of atypical wisdom: don’t rush headcount.

“Lots of folks have said to us, ‘You’re growing, you could grow faster if you hired more people.’ I think a lot of companies and investors overpitch growth at all costs, but sometimes that causes a ‘more people more problems’ issue.” 

It should come as no surprise by now that Foster politely said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” to these well-meaning folks encouraging him to grow the team faster. And he credits this slow-and-steady approach to the founders leveling up.

“It meant we did every single job ourselves at the beginning, so we understood every piece of our business. When we did eventually hire somebody in a key role, that meant we knew exactly how they were going to be effective and what was going to help them win. We knew what good looked like and we knew what bad looked like because we had done it ourselves,” he says.

That’s not to say that Zapier didn’t grow at all, but it was a much more moderate curve than is typical. “We went from three founders in the first year, to seven employees in year two, then 16, then 35, and then 75. We were more or less doubling every year,” says Foster. 

He notes that hiring with intention doesn't mean being a slow-paced organization. “I rely on this quote from John Wooden: Be quick but don’t hurry.”

“You hear these stories of companies that go from 10 to 100 in a single year. They hired so many folks and their whole org grinds to a halt because they don't know what they're doing with these people. They're supposed to magically come in and make the business grow. But that's not really how companies work.”

As a first-time founder, if we had tried to grow from 10 to 100 in our first year, we would have ruined a lot of stuff inside the business.

His advice for other founders is to wait to make large hiring decisions until they find themselves stretched thin — and when it becomes clear where the bottlenecks are. Here’s an example from Zapier: “One of the first issues that emerged was customer support. We were waking up and spending until late in the afternoon on calls and emails talking to customers trying to get their apps working,” says Foster. “At a certain point, it was like, look, we can keep handholding these people along, or we can actually fix some of the underlying issues that are causing them to have to reach out to support in the first place. And so that felt like the right time to go hire someone to help us with customer support.” 

Lesson 5: But bring in experienced managers earlier

As an extension of this “don’t hire until it hurts” philosophy, Foster notes that Zapier was very hesitant in the early days to bring on anyone with management experience (even though the founding trio themselves didn’t have any). “Our first people managers were just me, my co-founders, and early employees that we promoted into those roles. We were all first-timers — some of us were better than others, but I would say most of us were not great.”

He estimates that Zapier was probably a team of 30-40 before they hired a single person who had been a manager before at a previous company. “Which, in hindsight, was far too long. We would have benefited from getting one or two well-rounded managers into a few functions,” says Foster. 

There’s never been a situation where I’ve regretted hiring somebody more senior.

While hiring fresh young talent and promoting from within tends to be the more glamorous way of doing things, don’t overlook the veterans. “We probably had some baggage from old gigs where we had managers who weren’t great. And we drew the wrong conclusions from that, which is that managers aren’t all that useful,” he says.

This is a very common early startup trap — bringing in a management layer is often associated with adding layers of process (and thus, sluggishness) when the goal is to move fast. This does come with a big asterisk. Founders shouldn’t shy away from hiring senior leaders early on, but they need to make sure that that person is still willing to roll up their sleeves

Zapier’s founders flipped the script on their no-manager mentality after hiring their first CFO. “There was no job that was too big for her, but most importantly, there was no job that was too little for her. At an early-stage company that is so killer, because you have so many jobs that are tiny,” says Foster. “I remember being a little embarrassed the first week she joined to ask the new CFO to help book a bunch of plane flights for an upcoming retreat. But she just said ‘I got it. No biggie.’ At the same time, she could think through all of our finances and present to the board — all the typical stuff that you need out of a CFO. That’s the magic. If you can find someone like that, run towards them as fast as you can.” 

Lesson 6: You don’t need to go enterprise to build a massive business 

Much like the typical calls to raise as much as possible at the outset, certain strains of startup wisdom tend to push founders down the path targeting large organizations as their ICP. Makes sense, right? Longer contracts, bigger checks, more opportunity… 

In Foster’s eyes, this one-size-fits-all thinking is outdated. 

“At Zapier, SMB is our bread and butter,” he says. While some might call this a missed opportunity, targeting small and medium-sized businesses is what Foster says makes the most sense for their product. “That’s who we solve for. We can see those types of customers using these products the most,” he says. 

Foster’s biggest piece of advice for finding the right target? Follow your nose. In other words, look at what kind of customers the product is serving, and focus in on what they’re asking for next instead of trying to dream up a grand new strategy. Maybe enterprise is where your product resonates most, but the bottom line is: it doesn’t have to be.

“We already had customers showing up on our doorstep. And what were our customers asking us for — were they asking for enterprise software integrations? Or were they asking for us to connect into yet another one of their B2B stack?” he says. 

If something’s working, really get it working. Don’t lose the momentum you’ve got humming just to chase the enterprise audience you think you should be targeting if that isn’t necessary.

“We knew how to work with SMBs, versus trying to dream up some different grand strategy for enterprise. Maybe we could have brought someone in who could have helped us figure that piece out, but we felt like the engine we had was the one that was working and that we wanted to scale at least for the foreseeable future,” says Foster. 

Lesson 7: Avoid getting caught in the roadmap rat race

When you’re in the early stages of trying to acquire customers, there can be a nagging feeling that you need to keep an extra close eye on the competition. Where might you need to catch up? 

But Foster cautions other founders and product folks from getting yanked too hard off their own path. “If alternatives were showing up and customers were telling us about them, that’s when we’d start to pay attention. ‘Tell us more about that? Why do you like that? What’s solving the problem for you?’” he says. “But we rarely would go out and say, ‘This product over here looks like us, but we've never heard a customer tell us that it’s useful. Let’s go start chasing and following the stuff they're doing.’ That’s a waste of time,” says Foster.

As he tells it, there’s a big difference between being inspired by a novel UX feature and going tit-for-tat against someone else’s roadmap. “You get into this tricky thing where you feel like you’ve got to keep up and match the roadmap 1-for-1. Because oftentimes you don’t actually know why it is that they’re building that feature. What’s going on behind the scenes? If they have a different set of customers that doesn’t match your own in some way, it’s going to lead you astray.” 

Instead, keep your north star tuned to what Foster calls the marginal customer. “This is the customer that could have picked you, but maybe didn’t for whatever reason. We really want to pay attention to that top of the funnel — that got 95% of our attention.” 

Lesson 8: Resist getting too high off your winning streak

Foster is a big fan of Annie Duke, who quite literally wrote the book on decision-making (we’re also admirers of Duke — see our article on her framework here).

What he finds most compelling from her work is the idea that good decisions can breed both good and bad outcomes. Similarly, because of the unpredictable nature of running a business, you can make a bad decision and have it lead to something either great or terrible. 

“Most people don’t think of it that way,” says Foster. “They think because they make a good decision, they’ll definitely get a good outcome. But that’s not the case, and I would take it even further than Duke by saying that a good decision could yield a good outcome, a bad one or a variety of outcomes.”

Given the mixed-bag nature of decision aftermath, Foster emphasizes the importance of keeping yourself honest about the wins. Startup leaders should ask themselves: Are we winning because we’re making good calls? Or are we doing well in spite of ourselves? 

The same goes for losing: Are the losses a result of bad choices? Or is it just going to take a little more time?

“As you go along, if your opinions get so hardened on the wrong conclusions, that's going to weaken the ultimate outcome of what your company can become,” he says. 

If you remain flexible – even in the places where you really do think you got it right – and give yourself the chance to be proven incorrect, you’re setting yourself and your company up for success.