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Zapier's CEO on the low-code/no-code future of the internet

Wade Foster talks automation, AI, game design and how Zapier uses Zapier.

Zapier became a $5 billion company by finding ways to improve and integrate the rest of the trillion-dollar software industry. The service works with a plenitude of apps from Salesforce to Teams to Gmail to Zendesk to Stripe to Webflow to QuickBooks and hundreds of others, building bridges between them to make it easier to move data and automate workflows.

In the process, Zapier has also become one of the standard bearers of the low-code/no-code movement, one of a teeming new industry of companies offering tools to build apps and workflows without needing so much as a <body> tag. "I think there was a huge amount of power in tools like Zapier," CEO Wade Foster said, "taking things only a single-digit percentage of people could do, and giving that leverage to regular business users."

Foster joined the Source Code podcast to talk about Zapier's rise, the shift toward integration and unification taking over the SaaS world, what he likes and dislikes about the low-code/no-code industry and what AI and voice assistants might mean for the future of software. He also offers a few wild tips on how to make the most of Zapier.

You can hear our full conversation on the latest episode of the Source Code podcast, or by clicking on the player above. Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Like so many things in tech, when we talk about "low-code" and "no-code," everybody kind of means different things and this all gets very complicated. So, do you feel like Zapier is a no-code/low-code tool in the way that a lot of people talk about it?

Yes, Zapier certainly is a low-code/no-code tool in the way that folks talk about it. That said, I have a bit of an odd relationship with the term. No-code didn't exist when we founded the company. We just felt like, hey, we're going to help people integrate and automate their work through a really easy-to-use piece of software. It helps you do things that, previously, the only way you could do it was to understand how to, like, script APIs and things like that. So Zapier, in that sense, became one of the key tools that folks use as part of sort of a quote-unquote "no code stack."

I think there's a huge amount of power in tools like Zapier, taking things that only a single-digit percentage of people ever really could do and giving that leverage to regular business users. That is a massively important trend that I think is going on right now. And you can see it reflected in the funding environment, and the price and all that stuff.

The thing that I find odd is, like any boom-and-hype cycle, that label gets affixed to a whole host of things. All of a sudden things that are just like, "Oh, this is a no-code email marketing platform." You mean like MailChimp? Not sure why the no-code label was important here.

Suddenly, anywhere you can embed a YouTube video is a no-code platform.

That's what I mean! "This is no-code Twitter." Well, I thought Twitter was no-code … always.

So it starts to just be like, hey, people are into this, so if we put the term on it we'll get attention for it. The hype, though, does not dismiss the very real, awesome things that are happening in the space. Zapier, of course, being one of those tools, but I think we are just one of quite a few folks that are doing pretty incredible things, making stuff more accessible to your regular business user.

As you've gotten bigger, you now integrate hundreds of things, and tons of people use you for these really complicated things. I would think it would be a really tricky line to walk without someday realizing, whoops, we just built a full-code platform! We un-solved the problem, by trying to give people more to do.

For sure. This is a very challenging design problem. Part of the beauty of platforms like Zapier is the ease of use, the ability to come in and go, "Oh, I want this and this to work better together." And in five minutes, you're like, "Great, that was awesome. What else can I do?" You can't ever lose that ability to walk in and figure out a thing. That is the magic moment.

One of the things we look to a lot is game design. It's sort of a pattern for doing this. Think of how games work: When you're learning how to play Mario, the first thing you learn is how to go forward, how to jump. But then as the game goes on to this next level, you need to learn how to pick up an item, or you need to learn how to sprint. You're introducing these concepts just when it's ready for you to take on that next level.

Now, obviously, games have the advantage of chopping up their experience in discrete levels. Whereas business software, you come in and it's like, "I'm trying to solve a particular problem" and you don't ever necessarily know if that's a level one problem or a level 50 problem. But I do think that's the mindset you want to apply: to understand this person is just coming in, and even if they might have the capability or interest level to do a more sophisticated thing, they still need to learn the basics of what you're trying to do. And so you always want to make sure that first experience exposes folks to just the core fundamentals, the walking and jumping of your software.

Give me an example. In Zapier's case, what are level one, two and three skills?

We have a few concepts. There's this concept of a trigger, which is when something happens, Zapier will do something for you. So you have a trigger, and an action, and then the thing that it does is a task. So when someone joins Zapier, the first thing we're trying to do is match them with a use case and get that turned on. When you save a message in Slack, have that added to your to-do list. Great! Let's get something like that set up for you in 10 minutes. And once you do that, you start to go, OK, that was pretty cool, now I've got my to-do list over here, what else could I apply that to?

And eventually, you might work your way into something like, I've got this form on my website, I can have leads fill out this form, I can run them through Clearbit to do some scoring against these folks. For folks that are scoring super high, I'm going to route them directly to our sales team, maybe have it ping them in Slack and say, "Hey, take this call right away." Or, this person is maybe not quite ready, so we're gonna wrap this into our nurture flows. And then, this group of folks is just not like the right group, so we're going to ignore them.

So you can start to see how a person goes from "OK, I'm gonna do this basic thing around to-do lists in Slack," and then gets exposed to a much bigger set of business workflows as they start to realize, "Oh, I've got this new way of looking at the world here, through the lens of automation.

Over the last couple of years all of these big platforms have come to the understanding that they're better off if they work together. Suddenly the cool new thing to be is the unifier of all systems. Why hasn't any of them killed you yet?

I like to think it's because we're pretty good at what we do … but that doesn't always necessarily prevent someone from killing you. I think there's a few things that we have going for us. One is, we care a lot more about helping the customer be successful than about selling more of our software. And I think this is a challenge for incumbent players: They have software that they're trying to sell, they have a CRM or they have a project management software, where if you're trying to build a partnership ecosystem around that, it can be really tricky. Salesforce can be pure of heart and say "we want to have a really open ecosystem, we want to play nice with everyone," and can be true about those intentions. But even still, if you are another CRM player, you're just going to be skeptical.

Plus, all incentives are for them to put their thumb on the scale.

But even if they're not doing that, they can be 100% pure in their intentions, it's just a question mark in every other CRM player's mind. Am I really getting a fair shake here or not? I think that just creates enough pressure for an independent player to be a bit of a broker between all these different tools. So I think that's probably a really big piece of it.

How has your conception of who your people are changed over the last 18 months or so? The pandemic made everyone realize what sucks about the way that they do work. I'm guessing that drove a lot of people to tools like Zapier but also drove a new kind of person to tools like Zapier, who may not have gone out of their way to seek something like that in the past. Is that what's happening?

100%. And one of the fascinating things was, we expected to see new usage patterns emerge. We're like, oh, the world's changed, of course people are going to use our software differently. What we expected was, we'll have a new type of customer using the software and a new type of way to use it.

What happened instead was, our existing customer base found new ways to use the software. And our new customers were adopting the old way that our customers were using. And so it looked like a technology adoption curve, where your early adopters kept pushing the envelope and trying new things and going new places, and you have this next wave of folks coming in and adopting a set of best practices around automation that had been created by that early adopter wave. And so that was one area that was a little counterintuitive to us.

It also seems like we are heading into a big reinvention of how the internet works. A lot of these tools, like we talked about, are getting more interconnected. Everybody's talking about blockchain. It's possible that the internet of 10 years from now looks and operates totally differently than it does right now. Is that something you're planning for? Is that something you even can plan for? Do you have a vision in your head of Zapier in 2030?

I think the thing that we are constantly pushing for is: How do we make creating automation easier for more sets of folks. And so some of that means taking things that we've built already, and we know are working, and making that stuff just better. There are just known ways that these things have to improve. Our customers run into XYZ thing thousands of times a day. And that's horrible for them. Let's fix it. I would say, you know, we spend probably 70 to 80 percent of our time thinking about those problems.

Then we also have teams and individuals in the company that were thinking about five to 10 years in the future, what might look different. We pay attention to what is going on with GPT-3 and AI, we pay attention to what's going on with voice interfaces and machine learning. We're messing around with prototypes, and 99 out of 100 times like that stuff gets thrown away, because it's too soon. It just doesn't work as well as it could. But there's enough compelling tech in there that you just want to be familiar with it and understand it, because at some point in time, that's going to have a really big impact on what the future looks like.

GPT-3 seems like one I'm guessing you've spent some real time with. You take the idea that you can create code out of text, and then plug that into something like Zapier, and you've just increased by an order of magnitude the number of things that you're able to do without writing a line of code.

Those are the types of things we are absolutely paying attention to. They're paradigm shifts in how we interact with technology. Before, it was very logical — buttons and clicking — and then in theory it's more just like, give me a thing that looks like X, and some magic happens.

Before I let you go, give me some of the How Zapier Uses Zapier flavor. You're a remote company, lots of people are trying to figure out how to be remote, give me some pro tips.

That Slack thing that we talked about is a big use case inside of Zapier. As a person who wants to get alerted around key events that are happening, tons of us internally create alerts for ourselves based on the most important events that matter to us. My events might be different than your events, but we still are doing things like that.

Second thing is, there's a set of global events that matter to a group of folks. And so you'll find in Slack, a bunch of feed channels — feed/whatever category — and when you join the company, we say, hey, if you want to pay attention to customers that look like this, there'll be a feed of them going in here. If you care about outages that are of this flavor, it gets dumped into here. If you care about tickets that come in from these things, there's a feed over here.

There's tons of stuff around customer feedback that we're doing, in terms of how we collect that. A lot of this stems from different areas in the UI and in the product, or surveys that we're sending out where we're trying to collect information from particular sets of customers to let us know how things are working. All that stuff gets funneled into databases somewhere that are queryable by our product managers and other folks to understand what's working well and what's not. So there's a whole set of zaps around that kind of use case.

A ton of scheduling-related things. Scheduling for job candidates, scheduling for customers to do demos or support calls, scheduling for user research interviews. There's this whole massive game that happens when you try to schedule anything that is just super, super burdensome. And we've got a couple little zaps that you can pretty much just tweak to help you do these more sophisticated scheduling systems that we use in tons of places.

What about you personally? What's the craziest level-9000 zap you have running?

Our weekly staff meeting runs out of a Coda doc. And what it does is, every week, on a schedule, it generates a new template doc. And it has sections associated with it. It creates a calendar event on folks' calendars to make sure that they're ready for it, it pings folks a couple of days ahead of time and says, "Hey, make sure to fill out these things." But one of the cool things that the doc is doing is, it's sucking in real-time data based on what has happened inside the company. So it's like, here's what last week's revenue trends looks like, here's what the schedule around XYZ thing looks like. And then it's like scoring that stuff red/yellow/green in real time.

And so what you're getting when you walk into that doc is part just normal staff meeting template stuff. But you're also getting what's akin to a dashboard of key business metrics to be paying attention to, and some assessment of, are these good or bad for us? In most companies, that's a person who just goes through and does the work of pressing buttons and copying and pasting stuff and sending out meeting invites. And that's one that is basically entirely automated at this point.