This Company Hosts Virtual Dance Parties to Help Its 170 Remote Employees Feel Connected
Zapier uses its own technology, among other strategies, to build tools and traditions in the name of collaboration.
Editor’s Note: In this series, The Way We Work, Entrepreneur Associate Editor Lydia Belanger examines how people foster productivity, focus, collaboration, creativity and culture in the workplace.
Although his company is seven years old and employs 170 people, Wade Foster has never felt the need to establish a headquarters for his team.
Zapier's product is an enterprise tool that helps teams connect the apps they use by making different software programs talk to each other. So, Zapier is all about collaboration. Its co-founders established their company in Missouri in 2011, but they later moved to Silicon Valley to participate in the Y Combinator accelerator program. Still, they didn’t want their employees to feel like they had to be in the same room, let alone country.
Last spring, Zapier garnered attention when it announced a “de-location” package for new hires: San Francisco-based applicants who are willing to move away can claim $10,000 for moving expenses toward leaving the high-rent 49-square-mile city. Several people have taken Zapier up on the offer, which still stands, Foster told Entrepreneur.
“We think great talent exists anywhere,” Foster said. “So we’re happy to accept anyone who is hardworking, ambitious and eager to solve some tough problems.”
The company reports that it brings in $35 million in annual recurring revenue, and its tool has connected more than 1,300 apps. Uber and Slack used Zapier in their early days to build their software. Many Zapier-built integrations serve the purpose of automating time-consuming tasks to make work more efficient. For example, machine learning audio transcription service Trint has automated the process of sending completed transcripts to a Google Docs folder, as well as set up a Dropbox folder that automatically sends added audio files to Trint.
Zapier’s co-founders formed their business after working on one-off freelance projects cut from the same cloth. Clients would ask Foster to build, say, a integration between PayPal and Quickbooks. Soon, he realized, “It would be a lot easier for folks to have a UI where they could set this stuff up really easily.”
Foster says that software companies understand that they have to play nice with each other, or people won’t use their products. The number of potential integrations is among the top five aspects companies consider when deciding whether to adopt a new piece of software, he explained. “I can only think of one or two times where we had to present a really strong case,” Foster said. “Most everyone just gets it.”
And what kind of software integration company would Zapier be if it weren’t using its own tool to build hacks for its far-flung team and customer base to streamline workflows? Foster shared some examples of the ways the company’s gotten creative with its own tool to boost productivity and bridge geographic gaps, outlined below.
Slack, email and more
Like many tech companies, Zapier uses Slack internally for messaging. Foster has created an integration, or “zap,” between his email and Slack so that, if he sees a Slack message that he needs to follow up on, he’s able to star it in Slack, so he doesn’t lose track of it. Doing so creates a message in his email drafts folder, which he composes later.
“I use that zap every single day,” Foster said. “Folks want to be able to set up these seamless workflows, and once they’re set up, they just want them to work and run behind the scenes.”
Zapier has also observed its users building all sorts of Slackbots to better deliver information among teams. Some have automated Slack notifications pushed from other apps such as Stripe, MailChimp or Zendesk, when there’s work to tend to in one of those apps.
Additionally, Zapier and some of its users alike leverage a zap called “Meeting Ticker.” It looks at every team member in a Slack channel, takes into account what time zones they’re in and calculates an optimal meeting time.
“These tools are taking normal, repetitive tasks that folks have to do on a day-to-day basis and making it so they don’t have to think about them,” Foster said.
As far as integrations that were difficult to set up, Foster pinpointed an integration built by Zapier’s user research team. That team spends a lot of time talking to Zapier customers to learn what’s working for them and what not. But that requires quite a bit of meeting scheduling. They use Calendly links that shows each party’s common availability, based on a digital calendar integration.
“When the customer selects a time to meet inside of Calendly, there’s a zap that schedules it on Google Calendar, for our user research team and the customer,” Foster said. “It also sends a message into Slack and says, ‘We have a new meeting scheduled with a customer at this upcoming date.’ Then, it logs details about the customer in an AirTable [form].”
From there, a day before the event, it sends a reminder email to those who will be meeting, with a link to the meeting interface, and finally, 15 minutes before the meeting, it sends a reminder message to the Zapier employees. “It’s about a 13- or 14-step zap,” Foster said.
Zapier is about more than just streamlining work across the miles. While Zapier’s team is spread out among dozens of states and countries, the company holds semi-annual retreats where it flies out everyone to one location to work for a week.
“It ends up being a big reunion, a bit of a celebration of what we’ve achieved over the last six months, a bit of planning for the next six months and a little bit of just working together in person, which helps build some tight bonds,” Foster said.
On the remote day-to-day, Slackbots also help the Zapier team build and maintain relationships. One bot pairs up two random people each week to do a call, so employees across the organization can get to know one other.
“This week, I was paired up with one of our engineers,” Foster said. “We jumped on a Zoom call, and he happened to be fairly new to the company, so we learned a little bit about each other’s hobbies and what we do for fun.”
Then, Foster said, there are also internal initiatives designed to “recreate the watercooler” at Zapier, given the absence of a common area to spark spontaneous conversations.
Inside Slack, Zapier has various themed channels that aren’t work related, and they all begin with the prefix “Fun-”. There’s Fun-Gardening, Fun-World Cup (when it was going on), Fun-Home Ownership, Fun-Movies and more.
“These are of places where folks can banter about what’s going on with their hobbies or what’s going on across the world,” Foster said. “We want our team to get to know each other and build those relationships and bonds before they go in and tackle a really hairy problem together.”
Zapier is always encouraging its employees to come up with new ways to connect. On one recent Friday -- the start of a holiday weekend -- Zapier’s customer support team had a bit of a slow day. To pass the time, one support rep suggested a “Remote Dance Party.”
They picked a popular song off Spotify, asked everyone in the company who was online to pull up Apple’s Photo Booth app and take a five-second video of themselves dancing, then upload it to Giphy and create a GIF of it. Then, they created a montage and posted it in the company-wide Slack channel.
“I never would’ve thought to do anything like that,” Foster said. “But now, it’s become a bit of a routine. About once a month, on Friday afternoon when things get a little slow, we have a dance party to close out the week.”