It might be that automation was invented by the ancient Egyptians, made widely available with mechanical clocks in the 14th Century, and perfected on Fords assembly-line factories in the 1940s. But when it comes to easy workflow automation, Wade Foster’s Zapier has been the category-defining company.
I am not able to judge whether that is enough to secure a spot in the annals of world history. But if any future historian ever digs up this article from the digital wasteland of blog articles produced by once-great SaaS companies in a few thousand years from now, note this: Zapier were incremental in democratizing the fourth industrial revolution. They invented modern workflow automation, and they spearheaded the future of work movement of the early 21st. Century.
That is why we had to have Zapier’s CEO and co-founder, Wade Foster, as the first expert in our new article series entitled The Crystal Ball.
In the coming months, we will interview some of the most acknowledged thought-leaders and practitioners to learn how they approach the future of work and what they do to remain the vanguard of modern companies worldwide. Sign up for our free Future Institute newsletter if you want to make sure that you read all of them.
Wade Foster has not only pioneered the workflow automation industry. In fact, Zapier was also one of the first companies to explore the benefits of distributed work and establish a remote-first culture. So we invited him for a talk about how automation will free us up, what drives the future of work, and what you can do to make a better remote work environment in the middle of a pandemic.
Could you explain to me what the grand vision of Zapier is?
“We want to democratize automation for everyone. Far too often, you hear in the press and the mainstream that automation is this scary thing that happens to us. It takes our jobs and does these bad things.
Automation should be something that is for us. It should be something that helps us and that everyone can take advantage of. Our job is to make easier, accessible automation that everyone can see the benefit of.
We started that by helping you connect the tools, you use in your work. So we can hook up over 3000 apps - like G Suite, Mailchimp, Trello, Basecamp, Salesforce, you name it.“
You’ve said previously that you are just humans who think computers should do more work. Excuse me if this is an obvious question, but why is that?
“We as humans desire things like community, creativity. Missions. We are not at our best when we are doing data entry and copy/pasting. No one wants to do these sort of ground-level tasks.
In my view, machines should do that stuff and free us up to do the more creative endeavours. That could be anything. It could be reinvesting time in our business. It could be spending more time with our families. It could be spending pursuing hobbies we care about. It’s up to each of us how we reinvest that time. All of us have tedious work that we do day in and day out that we would rather not have to do.”
Work is about creativity, solving problems, and figuring out how to serve the customers. It doesn't really matter where it happens or when that happens. It's about getting the job done.
What is it that forces this change? Is there an overall macro-structure that drives this new work life?
“We do. We as humans have a desire for work to get better. That steady march for progress is an almost innate desire for us as humans.
We don’t want to be trapped in jobs we hate. We don’t want to be doing work that is not impactful. We have things that we are passionate about; we have missions to fulfill. We want to see the world be better for ourselves, better for each other, better for our children.
That is core for us as a species, and that drives the future of work. That innate desire to see things get better.“
What is the most important aspect of how future work life will be different from the current one?
“This year, we saw how much work could be done distributed. I think we will see remote work progress further.
There are jobs where folks say that will never get done distributed. Now more than ever, those things are possible. When you look at innovations in robotics and AR, you can conceivably see how things in construction might be done from home.
It could be construction working almost like playing a video game from home, controlling this machinery thousands of miles away. Surgeries! Many surgeries happen through robotics these days, so you can see how medicine could happen remotely.
We are learning that technologies fundamentally change how these jobs get done. Hopefully, that opens up the opportunity to folks globally, so you don’t have to be in a major city to progress your career, advance yourself, and partake in wealth creation. Instead, that can be distributed to anyone across the globe.“
Many companies are working distributed these days, ourselves included. But in 2012 it must have been kind of extraordinary. Why did you choose to go 100% remote from the beginning?
"It was actually a pretty mundane reason. We had started the company as a side project and side projects can’t afford offices, so we got used to working from apartments and coffee shops and use tools like GitHub or chat tools and what not to make Zapier.
Then we moved to the Bay Area for YC, but at the tail end of that my co-founder had moved back to Missouri to be with his then girlfriend, now wife, as she was wrapping up law school. He was too important, so we decided to work distributed.
Around the same time we realized we needed to start hiring some help. We had never hired anyone before so someone advised us to hire someone we worked with in the past, so we already had that trust and a working relationship established to de-risk things a little bit.
Well, we didn’t know anybody in the Bay Area. They all lived in the Mid West. So we hired someone in Chicago and another in Missouri, so we worked in three cities. What we realized is that the customers are happy, we are growing, revenue is growing, customer count is growing, our team is happy, founders are happy. So we just looked across all these health metrics and felt like, this feels pretty good to us. So we kept doing that and along the way, we learned how good it can be and got better at understanding the advantages.“
As you mentioned, many are suddenly working remotely because of the lockdowns. And it seems many are struggling because they are not used to it and haven’t organized themselves properly. What would your advice for these companies be and, what can they do to make remote work better structured?
"The first thing I would say to those folks is that remote work during a pandemic is not like normal remote work. You have got kids at home, doing Zoom-school. Maybe you have a partner at home. You didn’t plan your life around this. You didn’t plan your living situation around this, so you are forced into a suboptimal situation.
Remote work allows the autonomy to, design your day-to-day work in a way that takes into account what your situation looks like.
As an employer, if you want to help folks (especially in a pandemic) you need to be aware of the situations people are working in. Many employees have considerations that prevent their work environment from being ideal.
As an employer ask yourself: can you add more flexibility to their day if they have to help kids out? Can you decrease the number of meetings? Meetings are really expensive and synchronous time is hard to come by, so can you try and do more things via Slack or Email that are easier to get done in an asynchronous way?
Step back and question how your operating procedures work and how that helps your team be successful.“
Do you have any tips for the employees?
“Employees should advocate for flexibility and autonomy and encourage that behavior with their team, their managers, and their leaders.
Beyond that, I think the biggest benefit you have in remote work is optics of what makes successful work has totally changed. Work is not about being in your seat all day, waving at the boss, and saying hi to your boss at the water cooler.
In some ways, work has become a lot more about the quality of the work, which is what it should have been all along.
The biggest thing you can do is to understand: What is my job? What impact can I have in my role? What do I have influence over? How can I help? So if you can focus on getting clarity on those things.”
Work is not about being in your seat all day, waving at the boss, and saying hi at the water cooler. In some ways, work has become a lot more about the quality of the work which is what it should have been all along.
Explore how Contractbook and Zapier together make easy and accessible data-driven document automation for everyone. Through Zapier, you can connect Contractbook with more than 3000 other apps and automate all your tedious manual contract work to save time on data entry and copy/pasting, so you can spend it on more creative endeavours. Read more here.