There’s a Zap For That: An Interview with Zapier Co-founder and CTO Bryan Helmig

Episode 96

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Bryan Helmig (LinkedIn) co-founded Zapier with a couple of friends back in 2010 and since then, they’ve been dominating the world of automation. As CTO, Bryan is responsible for all the technology behind Zapier and making sure that all your Zaps are working the way they need to so that you and your company can be as efficient as possible. 

On this episode of IT Visionaries, Bryan discusses how he does all that, plus, he touches on the pros and cons of having a completely distributed team, and what the future of automation looks like. 

Best Advice: “Spend a disproportionate amount of time with customers and build the simplest thing you can to impress them.”

Key Takeaways:

Bryan’s start in Tech — (1:45)

By his own admission, Bryan has always been a bit of a nerd. Along with his deep interest and passion for music, Bryan was taken with computers and connecting the dots between how tech is linked with business. 

The idea for Zapier — (3:45)

In 2010 all the founders were working on a mortgage company but they were doing side gigs building sites for other people. The general tasks and work building those sites were the same for each customer, there were just slight variations in applications or other integrations. Rather than working in so many different systems to do the same thing, they thought there should be a hub for all those tasks. That led to Zapier, although that’s not what they were originally planning to call the company. (They also thought of using the name “Snapier.”) 

Fast forward, and the three co-founders put something together to exhibit at the first-ever Startup Weekend. The product was an automation platform that helps you build and grow automation that runs your business, and it was a hit. The different automations are called “Zaps” and people have been able to do so much with them that has helped create an easy and automatic workflow. In fact, Zapier was basically so successful at the start, that the company has been able to grow without ever really having to pivot or find new product-market fit. 

“We found ourselves kind of doing the same stuff, but just slightly different.  It seemed like that in and of itself could be something. Like, there’s got to be a way to make like a hub that does this in a way for you.”

“You can kind of build these, you know, Rube Goldberg machines where it’s like dropping a bit of data into this app and then pulling out of that app, and then sending a message on Slack or an email, and you can kind of build these automations and workflows. We have a lot them that are off the shelf. So you can kind of pick and choose common ones that are really popular or you can kind of string together your own.” 

“I think the trope is, ‘you pivot, you pivot until you get product-market fit.’ We were really fortunate that in the very beginning what we kind of set out to do was, is what we’re doing today.”

Who were the initial people Zapier worked with? — (9:00)

Zapier was originally sold to small and medium-sized businesses, which were having problems with efficiency. The customer pool has grown since to include organizations of all sizes. The reason is that Zapier has solutions for every type of person or department, regardless of industry, company size, or any other outside factors. In fact, many Zapier customers work as teams within larger organizations, and no matter what other tools everyone is using throughout the company, Zapier can integrate and work within those systems. 

“Being able to consolidate multiple stacks with a tool like Zapier is super useful.” 

“It doesn’t matter which CRM, it doesn’t matter which project management thing or which form tool — we can help you connect all of those. And, in fact, we can make them all work together even better so you can use all of them for what they’re best for. And that’s something we see that’s more and more common. And it’s something that we see specifically IT leaders really like a product like this is, it lets them say yes, uh, to their customer and say to their teams rather than kind of, no, you have to kind of use this thing or that thing.”

Bryan’s role as CTO and what the employee experience looks like— (20:00)

Bryan is both a co-founder and the CTO of Zapier, which makes his job a bit more complicated because he has many responsibilities outside the realm of technology. But, as CTO, a lot of the responsibility he takes on is around the actual technology that powers Zapier products. He is also working with the engineers who develop and maintain that technology. But Bryan is careful to not dictate how his employees work and what tools they can use. Instead, he uses a laissez-faire approach to managing the team. Everyone inside of Zapier can use whatever tools and software they want to use, but the company has built internal tools with which they can share updates and vote on things. Bryan calls it a way to have a central hub that everyone is familiar with.

“My role is less about dictating software or anything like that — we’re certainly pretty open. It’s more about what software are we building for customers? What problems are we solving  through technology.”

The benefits of a remote team — (27:20)

Zapier has a 100% distributed team, and Bryan says there are obvious pros and cons to that setup. For instance, you don’t have as much serendipity as you would get in an office, so you have to be more explicit about how you work together. Plus, there is a social aspect to being in an office that gives your brain a certain hit of dopamine. You have to make sure that you are taking care of yourself and not isolating yourself as a remote worker. But being remote is hard, so it’s important to have a community or people around you to lean on. It’s easy to get stuck at the computer, day in and day out. But some of the pros are that you have the flexibility to work wherever and however you like. And for Zapier, they can hire the best people from everywhere in the world. 

Zapier does have off-sites and team-specific retreats, during which the people can get together in person. Those are always good for bonding and re-energizing the team.

“Earlier in Zapier, we had to be a little bit more explicit about how we work together, how we communicated, what the norms are around that.”

“You can hire from anywhere in the world. We’re big believers that talent is evenly distributed. You might find an amazing engineer in a small town in America, and you can hire them, right? Like that’s an incredible opportunity and they don’t have to move to someplace like the Bay Area that has an insane cost of living.” 

The future of automation — (36:20)

Bryan and the rest of the team at Zapier think that automation is probably going to be one of the defining issues of our time. Automation has the ability to change people’s lives, and it will start with businesses. What’s most exciting is having a toolkit that is accessible for anyone to hop in and use. The idea of automating is not relegated only to big companies with a war chest and the resources to pour into automation. Zapier is about the democratization of automation and that adds tons of value to every business, big or small. Plus it makes employees more autonomous. 

“We think of how automation will change society, but also how it will be dispersed throughout society.”

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Bryan Helmig, a co-founder and CTO of Zapier, joins IT Visionaries to discuss all things automation and remote work.

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