Wade Foster (from left), Mike Knoop, Bryan Helmig and Daniel Nill formed the team that won the first Startup Weekend Columbia. | Photo courtesy of Zapier

5 years since Columbia Startup Weekend win, Zapier making most of remote model



Since winning the inaugural Columbia Startup Weekend in 2011, Zapier has checked several startup milestones off its list.

The company, which makes software that connects web applications and automates the flow of data between them, was accepted into an accelerator, raised a round of funding, reached profitability not long after, and has grown from a founding team of three into a company of 55.

One thing Zapier’s story lacks, though, is a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The company has no central workspace. It relies on a remote team that features employees from across the country and around the world, including India, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand.

“The upside is you get to work with anyone,” said Zapier co-founder and CEO Wade Foster, who works out of Mountain View, Calif. “You can hire people from all over the world. It doesn’t matter where they’re at.”

Columbia Startup Weekend

After winning Startup Weekend, Foster and his co-founders, Bryan Helmig and Mike Knoop, initially pursued Zapier as a side project, mainly working on it during nights and weekends.

The co-founders eventually went full-time with the project, and they moved from Columbia to California when Zapier was accepted into famed Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator in 2012. Later, when Knoop expressed a desire to move back to Missouri, Foster didn’t think it would affect the way the business worked.

“It’s what we grew up knowing how to do,” Foster said. “It felt like a natural transition for us.”

Zapier has managed to navigate some of the toughest challenges remote teams face, including communication across time zones.

“The biggest problem that I’ve seen in working with remote workers has been the feeling of disconnect between the home office and those who are working remotely, whether … they’re in the state or they’re overseas,” said Jasmine Powers, a consultant who works with remote businesses. “Because of modern communication, it’s happening at different hours, it makes it really important to have check ins even if the time is inconvenient.”

When Foster is sleeping, Zapier employees overseas are just starting their day. Effective communication is key to making sure everyone is on the same page and the right work gets done.

Zapier has taken steps to replicate the social interaction of a traditional workplace. The company uses Slack, the office chat application, and includes channels for non-work topics like sports and TV. Zapier also facilitates weekly pair chats, in which two employees are matched together for a video chat on how their personal and professional lives are going.

The company has saved money in rent and office space with its business model, which helps it foot the bill for semi-annual retreats. Zapier flies all its employees to the same location — most recently, the team gathered in Whistler, British Columbia — and picks up the tab for food and lodging. The goal is to get everyone under the same roof so they can become better acquainted and develop camaraderie.

Foster credits software companies like Basecamp and WordPress for providing a blueprint that companies like his can follow. He actually wrote a book about Zapier’s remote model and how the company has found success with it.

Powers has been consulting remote teams for nine years and has seen the number of companies that rely on remote models grow significantly. She doesn’t see that slowing down anytime soon.

“I think that the way to work now is leveraging remote workers … is more cost effective,” she said. “I think there will be more companies that adopt this model.”

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