Remote Talks: Episode 5 with Wade Foster - Global Leadership, Working Async, and International Compensation
by Preston on 2021-02-22
Welcome to Remote Talks!
Remote Talks is a series of video interviews with the brightest minds in remote work and global employment, hosted by Remote CEO Job van der Voort. This week, we welcome Wade Foster, co-founder and CEO of Zapier. As a longtime leader of a global team, Wade is one of the world’s most experienced leaders in remote work and international employment.
To see the full interview, watch the video on this page or view the Remote Talks playlist on YouTube.
For the people who don't know who you are, what is it that you do and what does your company do?
Wade: So my name is Wade, I'm the co-founder and CEO at Zapier. Zapier is the easiest automation platform for small businesses of any kind. We go into 3000 different apps, things like the common tools we use at work, like G Suite, Slack, Dropbox, Trello, QuickBooks, and MailChimp, things like that, all the way to startups and niche software utilized in specialized industries, like for real estate, accountants, marketing and all, what have you. So, anytime you're thinking about, “Hey, I need to connect this to that, integrate this to that, automate this and that,” Zapier is likely there to help you out.
How big is the company today? Does Zapier have any offices?
Wade: We’re turning 10 in September, and we’re just over 400 people. There’s no office. We've never had an office at Zapier. In fact, the only time in the company's history where everyone worked in the same location was when we went through YC in the summer of 2012. Three founders lived in a two-bedroom apartment in California for about three months. But after that, we sort of went back to the distributed lifestyle.
Job: We did the same with GitLab in 2015. And I think we were eight guys in one small house for YC. Yeah, it was, it was tough for sure. It really turned us off of ever working in the same space.
Wade: Yeah, if you can do that, you can get through a lot of things.
What is Zapier’s company culture like? How do things run internally?
Wade: Oh, that's a big question. A couple of things are really important to us. One, we have a couple of values that help guide us in how we work. The first one is default to action. When you have a distributed company, you have to try to hire folks who are predisposed to finding problems and solving them.
You want those folks who are going to be naturally curious, naturally motivated, self-starters, spot an issue and get in there, roll up their sleeves, and take ownership of what that looks like. I think it's important because you don't have that office to fall back on where it's like, “Hey, I can see that person's stuck, maybe I'll see if I can help them out.”
You don't get that in a remote company. Maybe somebody figured out how to do it, but for us, we found that it's just trickier. So we try to hire folks that are naturally self-starting. This provides a lot of, “Hey, see that, let's fix it,” mentality.
To accompany that, we have a similar value of default to transparency. We try and avoid DMs and other types of communication that are in a private setting. There's some things that have to happen in private, you know: HR, personnel issues, things like that. But by and large, everything else, we try and keep out in public so that folks can come along and ask a question and see that it was already solved before.
What’s it like at Zapier to work across so many different time zones?
Wade: We work distributed across six continents. The only one we don't have is Antarctica, you know, 30 countries, something like that.
So there's always something going on inside of Zapier, always work happening. We lean more asynchronous because of that. We try not to be too heavy of a meeting culture, but there has to be synchronous stuff at times to work on things. It's always changing. You grow and you realize, “Hey, some things that worked before aren’t working as well now,” and you try and fix them. So we're constantly evolving as well. I think that kind of gives a good high level summary of how we work.
Job: There's a lot of impact here, but one question that immediately came to mind is, you have people all over the world. Are there any particular practices that you have? Do you build teams based on their location and how much overlap they have in working hours?
Wade: Yeah. This is something that has changed over time. You know, I think early on, we were a bit naive about the impact of time zones. One of the first people we hired outside of the United States, we hired in the UK. When they joined, we sort of talked to them and said, “Hey, we've never been in this big of a time zone difference before. I'm not sure it's going to work, but we think it will.” It ended up working great, was quickly one of our best, most productive engineers on the team.
That was our viewpoint for a little while. Then we had a situation where we hired a new engineer in APAC. Everything that normally works just kind of naturally just didn't work in that situation. Since then, we've been a little more intentional about how we approach it.
Some teams have natural time zone diversity. You think of your support teams, 24/7, follow-the-sun is great. Anyone doing like ops infrastructure, great to have that 24/7, follow-the-sun model. But in your core product teams, you actually want maybe three or four hours of time zone overlap. It's not a hard and fast rule. It's more of a guideline. It's like, “Hey, this is probably going to help these teams be more effective.” And so we try and lean that way whenever possible.
Is there anything that surprised you about truly hiring across the globe?
Wade: The talent is incredible across the globe. I think that's one thing that was quickly obvious to us is that, while there are some maybe executive-level functions that are trickier to hire globally, your engineering roles, your support roles, your marketing roles, sales roles, there's great talent everywhere. Limiting yourself to San Francisco or New York City or whatever artificially limits the talent pool you have access to.
There's a lot of compliance and regulatory work that you have to deal with. That's been a learning curve for us throughout the years, just getting good at how to make this work for folks and how to do it in a way that matches their expectation and is fair and equitable across all the teams. That's a different approach versus when you're hiring everyone in one city, everyone has the same mindset around how employment works.
How do you lead as a remote CEO? How do you speak through the whole company to make it work at such a global scale?
Wade: Writing is really what it boils down to. You have to get good at writing.
I write weekly memos to the team about what's on my mind. Sometimes they're very strategy, company-specific. Other times, it's more about the vision and more inspirational. Sometimes it's very personal. Like, “Hey, I had a kid, and here's what I'm experiencing.” I do that every week, and it just gives people and chance to hear from their leader every week. Lately I've been experimenting with my co-founders a little bit more on podcast format.
I think one of the things I've learned as we've gotten bigger is that folks learn and digest things in different ways. If you can produce different mechanisms to help people understand the direction, that's probably a good thing. Not everyone's going to be like a prolific reader, You get big enough, and it's not going to be everyone's preferred format. If you can mix things up a little bit, have different ways for folks to catch things, it's generally a good thing.
Job: We've been experimenting with videos a lot. I always speak at our all-hands, which, obviously only about half the team can make that, at best. So we've been recording Loom videos. And the nice thing is now you can have them be transcribed.
Wade: Works great, right? People can sort of pick and choose your own adventure sort of style of learning, which I think is good.
A few years ago, you offered employees $10,000 to leave the Bay Area. What was the outcome of that?
Wade: We didn't actually have that many people employed in the Bay area. The reason we did it is we'd hired two people recently that, after getting hired, immediately left. One went to Pennsylvania, and one went to Florida. We had this idea to turn relocation on its head a little bit. Instead of saying, “Hey, you should move to San as a condition of your employment,” we said, “Hey, as a condition of your employment, move wherever you want.” Hence delocation was born, and it's been pretty successful.
About half the people that we hire in the Bay Area end up moving pretty much right away and leaving. I think it's definitely been something that has helped us attract some talent on the margins. I don't think it probably affects most folks, but if you're the kind of person who's in the Bay Area and you just need like a little bit of a kick to sort of make the move, it's one of those things where it can be the cherry on top that helps convince people to do it.
One thing almost all companies hiring globally are struggling with is compensation. Is there anything in particular that Zapier does?
Wade: The gist of how we've approached it is, same country, same role, same compensation. I think we're moving more and more to global markets in terms of compensation. So the roles that you play, you should be paid the same as your peers.
The reason we ended up drawing the line at country is because there's a lot of country-by-country differences that you just have to take into account. So we try and make it somewhat even across countries. You just take into account things like currencies, benefits, compensation that governments provide, there's a whole bunch of things that just make it different to be employed in one country versus another.
Job: I think that the country-by-country differences are very stark. Just earlier today, we were discussing it. For example, in the Netherlands, the government offers fully subsidized child care. So if your kid goes to daycare, which is really expensive, it's like €2k a month per child. Fully subsidized if both parents are working. That is a very meaningful difference. You can take €40k less in salary, and you would still be in a really good position.
Wade: Oh yeah, 100%. Those types of differences are, like you said, they're stark in many countries.
How do you form bonds and connections with a globally distributed remote team?
Wade: I think it helps that we've done it from the get-go. One, we onboard folks in cohorts. So every two weeks, we have a group of folks that start together at our size. It's about 10 people every two weeks or so that start together and they get onboarded as a cohort together. They go through a set of live Zoom onboarding calls or sessions classes, mixed with self-guided material. The actual live stuff is really important, because it gives them a chance to get to know different people. Some companies take a fully like async approach to it, but that sort of reinforces the isolation aspect of remote. You actually need things that bring folks together.
They get their own dedicated onboarding channel in Slack where they can hang out together, get to know each other. You see those channels stay active. They die down a little bit after the first month, but you'll see people chime in, you know, “Hey, happy one year anniversary to the crew.” When we have our events and things like that, you'll see them hanging out together because it just builds a special bond when you onboard with somebody together.
We also have a whole set of off topic channels that happen in Slack that sort of recreate that water cooler. They're all prefixed with fun, and it's things like sports, movies, gardening, parenthood, homeownership, like you name it, there's tons of these. We do this thing called Donut calls. I think a lot of folks do these now, where it randomly pairs you up with one other person, you get to know each other that way.
I think the last thing that we found has been really important is our retreats. Twice a year, we do these retreats. We haven't been able to do one now for over a year, and we're noticing it. Even in a fully remote company, that in-person time is really effective at bringing that camaraderie, building those bonds, building that sense of community. Not having had that for about a year, we're feeling it. If you're going to go fully remote, don't forget that some amount of in-person connection does go a long way.
Job: Yeah. It's very sad to see it at Remote. We see this very starkly, because we used to come together once a month, pre-pandemic. We were a team of 10 before. Today, we are 110 people, a little bit more, even. Since the pandemic started, we have not had that opportunity at all. So the majority of the team has never met anybody else in the team at all, including my executive team. Only my co-founder and people that I happened to have met before
Has the pandemic changed anything in Zapier beyond the inability to meet in person?
Wade: I think this is not unique to Zapier, but I think it's something that all of us are sort of trying to deal with. I've seen some pundits call this the great reset. A lot of folks have been cooped up in a house or wherever they live, they've been cooped up for over a year. They haven't had a lot of control over their life. It's been disrupted in so many different ways. Maybe there's been illness and death in their family. Maybe they are dealing with Zoom school.
The experiences are unique, but there's many that are shared as well. One of the things we've noticed is that there's a lot of folks that are taking a reset on how they think about what they want. We had a small boutique contractor that we used. They notified us at the beginning of the year, “Hey, I'm going to stop doing this. I'm going to go to culinary school instead.” It was very much a left turn from what they'd been going on.
We see that inside the company as well. Our turnover is a smidge higher, not a lot. A lot of it just comes down to this reset period where folks are looking for some control over their life, looking to have some way of taking their day-to-day into their own hands.
A job change is one. It could be moving locations. It could be, you know, getting a pet, as simple as that. It could be having a kid. I talked to tons of other CEOs, and you can tell that inside their companies, they're seeing this as well.
The whole world, we need this vaccine. Hopefully we can get that to happen by summer. And we can have a big summer party.
How do you make sure your team members take care of themselves?
Job: At Remote, I'm sure it's the same at Zapier, you have a fast-growing company. There's a lot of exciting things happening. There can be pressure on people. We have to regularly remind people, look, this is the worst time. You have to take care of yourself.
Next Monday, we have a self-care day, which is when everybody just has the day off on Monday. You don't have a choice, you get a day off. So you can do whatever you want. The idea is to just give you like, a day of margin. You have unlimited vacation days. We have a minimum set of vacation days, but we're going to force you to take this day off. Many people, including myself, are taking off tomorrow, Friday, so you have a really long weekend, you can recover a little bit.
Wade: I like that. I think we maybe have done it once or twice. I think it's good because one of the things we've done at Zapier is that our approach to vacation and holidays has to be very different when you're across all these different countries. Our approach to holidays is, “Hey, you take some holidays off based on where you're at. So just take them, you don't have to, you know, get approved.”
There's no official company holidays. Because they're different between countries, you might still have like some of your team in the office. It just creates this tension where folks naturally get drawn back into the office because some folks are working and they're creating content or creating tickets or creating whatever, and someone happens to see it.
In a remote culture, it feels like you're almost repeating yourself. We constantly are saying that over and over and over again. I don't think we can say it enough, candidly. I've never found in our history of the company that we've said it enough times. Take time off. Don't burn yourself out.
Remote, I find, tends to have the opposite problem in that regard than in an office. I think folks think that remote workers are gonna watch Netflix all day. I think it's the exact opposite. If you hire hire right, their motivation to do well is so high that they will risk burning themselves out to prove that they are working