Mike Knoop

Inside Zapier’s entirely remote company

11 May 2019   |   Collaboration Remote Teams

Mike Knoop

Inside Zapier’s entirely remote company

11 May 2019   |   Collaboration Remote Teams

What are we talking about?

Creating a company from scratch that is built around the idea of remote teams.

Why are remote teams important for the future of work?

A lot of companies will try to transition to remote work, but very few are built that way from the beginning. It’s a fundamental difference in the structure and culture.

What did we learn from Mike Knoop?

  • Hierarchies of communication
  • Values required for remote work
  • Dealing with time zones
  • Why it’s a horrible idea to have one remote employee

Learn more about Mike Knoop

Welcome back to Work Minus where we’re talking about what we need to drop from how we view work today and what we need to replace it with. Today’s guest is Mike Knoop who is the co-founder and Chief Product Officer at Zapier. Thanks a lot, Mike, for being on the show.

Yeah. Thanks, Neil, for having me. Happy to have a little chat today.

So, Mike, today’s episode we’re calling Work Minus HQ. Zapier, of course, is famous for lots of things but one thing is your remote culture that you do. We’re going to dive into that a little bit more. I want to start with a question of was this kind of remote working plan always a part of what Zapier was going to be or did it develop over time?

That’s a really good question. So, like you said, I’m one of the three co-founders. The two co-founders are Brian and Wade. When we got started, Zapier was very much a nights and weekends kind of project. We got started out of startup weekends back in 2011, got some initial momentum and kind of decided to start working on it. We all had day jobs and I was still even a full-time student at the time. So back then, the only time we could really work on it was after 5:00. And at that point, we were often in our apartments or I was on campus and we would just be working remotely. We moved out to California to go to YCombinator in 2012 and that was the one period of the company’s history where we are actually all together in one place. That’s one of the requirements of their program is you had to come out, move out to California. That worked pretty well where we were all outdone. But after the program was over, my girlfriend and now wife, was finishing law school back in Missouri, which is where Brian, Wade and I all met. And so I was flying back and forth twice a month between Missouri and California.

And that was also the time we went to start hiring. And the people that we wanted to start hiring were, we knew we wouldn’t be able to get them to go out to California. They had no interest in moving to California. That was kind of the initial decision, like, we’ve already been working remotely on this nights and weekends thing. We’ve seen it work. The people we want to hire aren’t here so let’s just keep doing this way. I wouldn’t say it was super intentional. It was kind of more like a realization that, hey, this is how we’re working. It works really well. That’s more of a pragmatic choice to start with, honestly. And since then, I think we’ve kind of seen all the benefits of remote but the reality, it was definitely more of a pragmatic choice.

I think a lot of the companies, like you said, have kind of experimented with remote working on a certain project, much like you would have seen the beginnings of Zapier. As you say, okay, maybe this will work here, but to have it from the beginning as a part of the culture is a very interesting take. So as you guys have grown, you’re up to more than a hundred people now?

Yeah. 130 by our last count. Maybe close to 140 today. It always depends how you count, if you count when people have started or after they’ve agreed to start.

So as you’ve grown in that and become more of an established company, have you ever doubted this remote working plan? Has there been a time when you felt like, maybe, hey, it was good while it lasted but we really need to bring everyone into the same place.

It’s a good question. I think it’s we’re talking about, why you work remote. What are the big benefits of it? What are the downsides? And usually, the biggest downside you have to solve with remote work is communication. Everything else gets pretty easy. Communication is really the big one. I’ve said this before but, in most co-located spaces, when you’re working together with somebody, the default is like you go over and tap them on the shoulder. Your default is I’ve got this really really high bond with, high disruption interaction with my teammates. Whereas in remote, it’s completely the opposite. The default is actually people don’t talk to each other and we have to spend a lot of time coaching our teammates up to actually be comfortable talking out into Slack channels or wherever, even if they’re not quite sure who is on the other end of that channel, just to help with the asynchronicities of the organization, given how many different time zones we’re in. That’s the one really big thing you have to solve.

And, at beginning, when we hadn’t quite figured those out, there were certainly like hurdles we had to get over to figure this kind of stuff out. It requires hiring a certain type of person who is comfortable working in that way and we hadn’t, in the early days, quite figure out what those like cultural values where. We quickly figured them out and I think it’s helpful to talk about what some of those things are.

Our top, number one value in the organization is a default to action. And the reason we took this is a value is in remote work, you don’t have someone who’s sitting next to you, watching your screen all day long. There’s no one monitoring. The only thing we, as an organization, look at is what people get done or what their output is. And we want to encourage people not to get blocks, basically. So if you’re in a different time zone, and you’re working with the teammate who is offline for the day, we don’t want people to get stuck and say, oh, I can’t do anything until tomorrow. We really want to encourage people to solve problems himself and default to action to get things done.

And another one, we have is default to transparency. Again, as an organization, it doesn’t work if people aren’t sharing the information they need for other people to do what they need to do, to do their jobs. So this is kind of pairing of some of our really basic cultural values that helped solve some of those communication issues, and we figure those out pretty quickly as we started scaling the organization. Of course, the number one benefit of remote is you get to hire the best people anywhere. We’re not limited by who we can convince to move to California. We don’t have to make that awkward choice of like, ah, we’ve got two good candidates. One can move, one can’t. How do we say yes? We just get to say, yeah, you’re the best person and we want to make you an offer. And more often than not, we end up getting the best people. So that’s worked out really really well.

In your experience, you talked about these cultural values that people need to have. Have there been times when you hired somebody who had the right talent but just couldn’t adapt to the culture of remote working?

There have certainly been people who adapts quicker than others, is what I’ll say. There’s a lot of people who we talked to who are a little skeptical of remote work. They might not have done it in the past. They’ve only worked in their entire career in co-located companies. And we’ve had several of those teammates who ended up joining Zapier with that element of skepticism. But they’re knowing the benefits of remote, getting to decide their own schedule, the flexibility that comes with it, not having a commute anymore and going ahead and giving it a try, and almost universally, three months into the job, everyone raves about it. So I think we definitely have had teammates who have adapted quicker than others to that process and how quickly they fit it into their life, because it does require a little bit of a life change, especially if you’re a strong extrovert.

I tell all candidates that are applying to us, you really can’t use your company as your family in a remote environment. Certainly, we try our best to instill a really good sense of culture through Slack. It’s kind of like our office water cooler. But you really need a network outside of work. You’re going to need family or you’re going to need friends or a sporting activity or a religious group or whatever it is in your local community or something. You’re going to need that network because, otherwise, you’re not going to get that piece fulfilled through work alone. And that is something some of our most extrovert teammates have had to work through is the realization that, oh, yeah, a big part of my life was the people that I saw every day at work and having to be very intentional about supplementing that with other networks in their communities.

That’s really interesting about making sure that people have those other communities that are there, those other circles of friends because it’s true. Most of our time, we’re spending it at the office and then we get to know those people, they become our friends, we do softball with them. Those are the people that we see all the time. But when you are remote and you just focused on getting things done, you can be friendly and banter and talk and chat. But in terms of actual community, you need something else.

And this isn’t to say we have no in-person time either. I actually do think in-person time is really really important valuable for the organization. We just actually got back from our bi-annual Zapier retreat where we fly everyone in the entire company, all 130 people, to some location. We just got back from Hilton Head, South Carolina. These retreats are so important for building empathy in the organization. It allows you to hear other people’s voices. And I think this is something that gets lost in text when you see a message sent in and Slack or somewhere online and you can’t hear the person voice, who said it, in your head, immediately there’s like this disconnect and you kind of might default to thinking worst intentions. And when you can hear their voice, it’s a lot easier in your head to just even like, I know how they would have said that word or phrase. It adds so much more empathy and allows you to assume the best intent of all interactions online and that helps really retain the cultures of the organization. As we’ve gotten a lot bigger, making sure people are assuming positive intent everywhere in the organization. A curt message was not intended to be like a curt message. That was just like they were short on time that day or were typing it on their phone or something like that.

Yeah. Talk a little bit more about the distinction between types of communication when it comes to a text only type version or a telephone call or a video conference and in person. How do you decide when to kind of move up that chain?

We’re coming back to having to encourage people to overcommunicate in text channels. To me, I like see a few major different types of communication that go up the bandwidth chain. We were talking before about, in person, at the very top, you get a very, very high level of bandwidth. I can use nonverbal communication. I can use body language, facial communication. But it’s very high distraction I have to have your entire attention and it’s rude for you to look away. On the other end, which is where we start on remote, there’s zero communication or just no talking. The kind of the two that are in the middle, going up from zero is you’ve got just a team chat or text chat. So this might be sending email, sending a Slack message, writing a post and sharing it with someone.

And then the next one up from there is we all can do video or audio calls. And one of the things that happens and I love to say there’s actually a heuristic, I encourage other teammates in Zapier to use, which if you use Slack before, you may know about this feature they have, called “Several people are typing…” In fact, I think their entire blog is called this. But the idea is if many people are typing into a Slack channel at the same time, they put up this little indicator that lets you know like, “Oh, man this is the hot topic.” And I encourage you, if you see that, that’s almost the first thing you should think of when you see that message is maybe there should be a video call. Because often, what that means is we’re in a topic that has a lot of opinions and we’re going to probably spend a good probably thirty minutes talking about this at Slack. At the very least, it’s going to distract people for about thirty minutes and you know how many people are going to get pulled into this conversation. Oftentimes, you can resolve it a lot quicker, five to ten minutes, by elevating that up to a video call. And then after you’re done, have the person who started the video call summarize it back into the chat Slack room. That way, any other teammate who comes along and in asynchronous time zone, can see oh, there was a topic here, it got discussed on video and here was the outcome. This is like an efficiency hack, essentially, knowing you know when to move up as opposed to pulling in ten different teammates for an hour-long conversation all over the day.

Why don’t you talk about the other hierarchy you mentioned, as well, which is the difference between a channel like Slack where you’re having lots of quick instant messages and then the need to actually document a conversation, to put that somewhere, because if you put that on Slack, then it kind of gets missed. So how do you guys handle that?

That’s a great question that opens up the topic of what tools Zapier really uses day to day. We use, essentially, three, maybe four primary tools that drive almost all the communication in the organization versus Slack. We’ve been talking about Slack as really our day-to-day office water cooler. It’s also where most work gets done and talked about. We have another tool that’s out there called Quip, to do all of our documentation. The idea of Quip is that it’s long-form static documentation that doesn’t roll off like a feed. Slack has this kind of feed view where there’s a time bound to it. Quip doesn’t. There’s a directory of folder. The organization is structured to it. So almost all of our internal company processes, our guide to how to set up your development environment, our guide on how to do refunds and customer support, all of that is documented in Quip and organized there.

We have another tool called Async. This is actually a tool we built our self. It’s essentially an internal blog. The way I like to describe Async is it’s kind of like the slow thinking version of Slack. There’s the book Thinking Fast and Slow, where there’s two modes of communication. Are you in fast reaction mode thinking where your primate brain is responding? Or, are you in slow thinking mode where the frontal lobe of your brain is you’re thinking very thoughtfully and putting a lot of intentionality into this thing that you’re saying? And Slack, we actually designed it to be slowly used. Not to say it’s bad to use, but it doesn’t have live chat in it. There’s no automatic refreshing. We designed it to try to inform and encourage people to spend the time to think thoughtfully. And even through the size of the text boxes we have, they’re big on the page to encourage longer form content as opposed to riffing off the top of your head kind of content. So those are the three pillars of how like all text-based communication happens in Zapier. You’ve got two that are time bounded. Both Async and Slack, feeds that roll off. And then Quip is kind of our permanent static documentation that a new teammate, if they’re looking to figure out something, can go to.

Talk a little bit more about the time zone issue that comes up. Because if you have people working remotely, and you said you can get the best people, the best person might be on the other side world, literally twelve hours away in time. So how do you manage that? Do you ask people to work on that similar times, or overlap, or what do you do?

This is a great question. My opinion of this has changed a little bit over the years too, so even probably a better question. So originally, I guess, I should preface this by saying Zapier has no standard set of hours. There’s no expectation that everyone works 5 to 9, even if you’re in the same time zone. We give people the flexibility to choose and set their own their own schedules. The piece that I will often encourage teammates to do is look around to your immediate teammates, and it just depends on what part of the organization you’re on, of course. But to use an example, maybe you take an engineer who has an immediate teammate of maybe the product manager and a designer that they’re working with. And I encourage them to try to find somewhere between two to four hours of overlap per day in their schedules. This isn’t perfect. We can’t always get quite this but I found is really really helpful to have a couple hours where those teammates do schedule to be online at the same time so that they can unblock each other and hand off tasks from one to the next. This actually highlights one of those.

When it works perfectly, one of the benefits of remote work, which is like kind of the sun never sets. You can have an engineer working on, or having a product manager working on a spec, hand it off to the designer for when they wake up the next day, they could just run with it, and then hand that off to the engineer who wakes up in their time zone and they build it. And you can kind of compress time zones. Doesn’t always work out that way but there is some kind of efficiency to be gained if you can really get that moving pieces down with time zones. Anyway, so I’m initially encouraging just people to overlap these time zones. And we then, beyond that, didn’t put very many constraints or controls in the organization around how time zones worked or who is staffed under what teams. And this worked pretty well. It got us from zero product teams up to where we’re at today, which was seven or eight across three different areas of the organization. As we’ve gotten bigger, the option has opened itself up to us. And this was something we just couldn’t do in the early days. But now, because we have enough teammates in enough time zones, we can start to be a little bit more intentional about organizing and staffing teams around location in the world. Like I said, this is just something we couldn’t do before. It would be great if we probably could have. And we are starting to see there are some benefits around just having people that are in certain parts of the world together on the same team. Just setting time zones and overlap is a lot easier. And it’s like, oh, let’s try to make sure everyone’s staffed here is working Central European hours, or East Coast US hours. It’s not perfect but as we’ve gotten bigger, that has been one thing that has opened its doors and we’ve taken advantage of a few times.

Well, Mike, we’re talking about Work Minus HQ. So the headquarters is always like, okay, that’s the big office downtown, up in the penthouse type of thing. Zapier doesn’t have a central office. So how does that impact your work culture? How you guys do things when people think, okay, the people sitting around the board are making the decisions. They’re also doing video chat. They’re also gathered in these types of channels. How does that element of not having that central decision-making power, with that also being dispersed, how does that impact your culture?

Good question. So even though we’re not remote, Zapier still is a very traditionally managed organization. It’s not quite like Valve where no one has titles, everyone is like equally leveled. We still have C-level executives. We have a leadership management team. We have managers. We run the very traditional, classic, well-known playbook that’s published by the Management Tools podcast, which is another great one. So from that perspective, things aren’t too different. It doesn’t feel too different to go from any typical organization to operating inside Zapier. It’s going to feel pretty similar. The thing we have to do as a leadership team, and the burden on us, more so than it would be in another company environment is because there’s less visibility over there, we have to be more intentional about transparency on planning.

So we just got through our 2018 planning, wrapped up here early January. And that was a process that I led from starting in middle of December, all the way through the beginning of January. We just set up a public Slack channel for it. Everyone was invited to join that Slack channel if they wanted to pay attention to it. All of our product managers use this single place to communicate about what plans they were thinking about, what problems they had. And the main reason we had to do this is because a lot of those plans overlapped with each other. As we’ve gotten bigger, it’s become more important to make sure people who are making decisions have visibility into the other people who are making those same decisions, especially where those decisions overlap. This element of transparency, I think, is the way we address the visibility.

So, Mike, let’s close out with this question. Both on two sides. One, some advice from a company that’s been doing this for several years on remote working. Give advice to somebody who’s starting up a brand new start up culture that wants to do remote working. And then also, flip that on to head and tell us some advice to somebody who’s working in a very established, co-located space that wants to experiment with this. What are some things you would tell both those people?

Great question. First piece of advice to the person who wants to start a new remote company, learn from someone who’s done it before. When we got started, there were a few better organizations than us that were doing remote. Basecamp was doing remote. Automatic is a huge company that’s doing remote. Mozilla has a lot of remote components. We learned a lot from them. We’ve tried to pay this forward a little bit. We wrote an entire guide to remote work. If you Google Zapier Guide to remote work, you’ll find an ebook that we wrote. It’s free advice. For someone who is in a co-located company considering adding a remote piece is it’s very very difficult to split the difference. It’s very difficult to add one or two people remote because the culture of the office is not often set up to support it. The best thing to do here is really take a bigger stake than just one person. If you’re in a hiring process, you’re like, oh, we really want to hire this one person but they all they can do is remote, you’re going to have a really tough time in that person and likely not going to be set up for success. My best piece of advice there is be intentional about it. Try to identify a team, an entire team that you could say to operate remotely and let them operate autonomously as a remote unit. Give them the decision-making because, oftentimes, that’s the first piece that gets re-centralized back and I think you’ll find success going that route.

Well, fantastic. Mike, thanks so much for joining the show. We’ve been talking about Work Minus HQ, and it’s been fascinating to talk to you.

Thanks, Neil. I appreciate it.


Mike is the Head of Labs and co-founder at Zapier. He works with their product teams to figure out what to build next and how make it happen. 

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