Chaos Leads to Efficiency, and Other Lessons Learned at Zapier
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I don't work at Zapier anymore, but I firmly believe that every company should be more like them. I learned quite a few lessons during the 13 months I worked there, and today I'd like to share them. Here's why:
Zapier is among the most efficient and productive companies I have ever seen. From the outside, it may seem that some of their processes are chaotic. But there is a lot of logic behind that chaos.
Zapier is a fully remote American company that provides Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) allowing users to integrate web-based applications. Zapier is a high-profile and innovative company, which I think is why I still get asked so many questions about my time there. They use a complex hiring process that is designed to prevent any kind of nepotism. Cultural fit is paramount. It's not easy to get a job there.
(How I ended up working there is a funny story – it all started with a broken link and a cold tweet. Check out How I Landed My First Remote Job for the whole story.)
Here are the key lessons I learned working at Zapier for 13 months:
The value of a culture like no other
At Zapier, we like to say that we don't hire assholes. Everyone who works there is so kind and empathetic. It is really like a family, and you look forward to working with them every day. When you go to retreats, which happen two to three times a year, you get to meet everyone in person. The vibe is the same – it's amazing how genuinely nice everyone is.
Finding the right cultural fit is very important at Zapier, and it plays a big role in the hiring process. When you apply for a job at Zapier, the first phase of the process is determining cultural fit. I don't remember the questions they ask, but they will get a feel for you as an individual. It's sort-of a bullshit meter. Are you empathetic, or are you an asshole? If you don't fit the criteria will not get through to the second phase of skill tests. It's a pretty rigorous process; less than one percent of applicants event get to a first interview.
One interesting thing about applying to and working at Zapier is that they don't necessarily expect you to be able to do 100 percent of the job at hiring. They really want to hire people who are independent and willing to learn. If you can learn independently and quickly, you are more likely to be able to take on more responsibility over time. For me, my skills only fit half of the initial job description when I applied. I got the job anyway. You should always apply. You have nothing to lose.
Chaos can be good
One of my favorite examples of beneficial chaos at Zapier is Friday Updates.
Once a week, every person in the company writes their own post to the internal message blog. This report has three main elements: 1) a bulleted list of what you've done for the week 2) what you plan to do next week and 3) some personal stuff. This can be non-work or personal stuff that's happened or coming up. Since it's a remote company you don't have all those small side conversations you would have in the office. The personal updates are nice because then when you meet in person have something talk to about.
With more than 100 people writing these updates, and all of the comments and responses that happen the whole thing can get pretty chaotic. But there is a lot of opportunity for new collaborations here. For example, people in engineering may see a post from someone in marketing and say, "I can help with that project you're working on. Let's partner up and do this."
Within that chaos opportunity to be more productive and efficient because you're connecting with others across different departments. Your team is not a silo, you get to see the entire company in action. See where the products are going in advance and have the ability to help where you can. I learned a lot this way. Every week I would read all the C-Level posts, along with the post from my direct manager and all my teammates. I would also sometimes read the engineering department's posts and the heads of each department. I saw they were talking about a certain project I was interested in, I could then reach out and get involved.
Another place you'll find productive chaos at Zapier is on the Slack channels. Zapier has a practice of pushing all communication to public channels. If you send a DM that's OK, but it has to be summarized and shared to a public channel afterward.
Yes, it can get a little crazy with all of these different conversations going on. But the value is that it provides the opportunity for others to chime in. Again, when you are working with remote teams sometimes the person you need to talk to is not available. If you post a question for them publicly, you might get an answer from someone else. That just lets you move faster and continue moving forward.
Having all this information on the public Slack channel also makes it easier to find things historically. And when someone new joins the team, everything is on a public channel and they can easily search for historical context, and get up to speed quickly. Zapier recognizes this creates chaos, but the value outweighs the cost.
Transparency boosts morale & productivity
At Zapier, all employees get to see regular financial reports from the CFO. There is also a live internal dashboard where you can see how much money the company is making in monthly and annual recurring revenue. You actually get to see the breakdown of what we make, what we spent on operations, on salary, on travel, etc. It's high-level but you get to see where the money is going, how much money is left in the bank and projections for how much biz they have how long the company sustain. This is really not common for most companies, but it helps you to understand how the company is growing.
Startups can be a demanding place to work, and the stress is made worse if you don't have financial transparency. I have worked with enough startups that I know to do my research and find out where the funding is coming from. A lot of times the companies I work with are not transparent about financials either because they have too much debt, or they are just not making money or as I found out just recently it could be they are involved in money laundering (investigations are still on-going, so I'll give you the full story on this once the dust settles). You want to make sure the company is making money, and not just relying on investors to pay the bills.
At Zapier, I learned that this level of transparency puts employees' minds at ease. When you know your company is in good financial standing, you don't need to worry about your income or benefits. This level of transparency also lets employees see how their contributions can help the company make more money. It's very important to help make sure everyone is doing the right things and focusing on the right things.
How to default to action
Being able to default to action is a key part of Zapier's work, but I think it is important for any employee anywhere.
Defaulting to action essentially means the ability to work and make decisions independently. When you are working remotely for a global company, your boss and/or teammates may be on opposite sides of the world from you. This means that you may need to do something or make a decision when they are fast asleep. At Zapier, I learned how to make those split-second decisions. If you feel in your gut it is the right move to make, you should make that decision on your own.
Sometimes things go wrong and that's totally fine. That's how we learn. In a way you learn faster by making those split-second decisions. Defaulting to action means you move fast. And the faster you make mistakes the faster you learn.
Stay tuned, I will probably write a whole blog post just about this concept.
So why did I leave?
As much as I enjoyed my time at Zapier, it wasn't right for my career trajectory beyond that first year. I felt like I was stuck in one industry and getting tired. The work I was doing there wasn't challenging at the end, and it was getting too easy for me. I wanted to grow, and I knew that I needed to tap into other markets. When I started working as a freelance SEO consultant, I quickly broadened my scope and capabilities. I found myself working with FinTech companies, real estate, travel, jobs (again), coworking spaces, and e-commerce. Each industry requires a different approach and it just keeps me sharp in terms of my growth as an SEO practitioner. Freelancing also allows me to pick and choose my clients. This way I can work with the clients I believe in, or I can end the relationship if I feel like it's not a good fit.
All in all, my time at Zapier was incredibly valuable to me. The lessons I learned there have served me well as an independent consultant. I hope to see more companies adopt their policies and run more efficiently.
Interested in connecting with me? Drop me a line.