A blog about productivity, workflow best practices, company building and how to get things done with less work.


Archives for October 2011

Learning is a big part of entrepreneurship. At Zapier we do our best to learn lessons from the giants who have come before us. 

Many times entrepreneurs learn lessons the hard way. We don't want to do that.

Here are five entrepreneurs who inspire specific things we are doing at Zapier.

Patrick McKenzie & Long Tail Keywords

Patrick McKenzie, of BingoCardCreator.com fame, is the inspiration behind the Zapier Zapbook

Patrick built his entire business around long-tail organic keywords. His strategy to create a templated landing page then customize it for as many long-tail keywords as possible is wildly successful. If you search for any keyword like "history," "math," or "bridal shower" in combination with "bingo," Patrick's Bingo Card site will be there. 

One of our main hypotheses is we can do the same around web apps. Any time someone searches for any combination of web apps we want to have a custom landing page that ranks for that term.

Dan Martell & Finding Paying Customers

Dan Martell, a lean startup practitioner and co-founder of the recently acquired Flowtown, taught us the value of charging customers from day one. 

Anytime Dan is trying to validate an idea he quizzes friends and potential customers. A great quote from his blog on validating ideas:

If you’re sharing a product idea with a friend and they say “That’s awesome, I would totally use it”, reply with “Great, it cost $20 bucks, you in?”. Watch their facial expression change.

The beauty of this approach is you quickly find out if the idea is really worth pursuing or if you're friends are just humoring you. 

At Zapier, we'll be asking for money from day 1. Anyone that wants in on our beta program will pay a small one time fee and get access to everything we have including our time, email addresses, cell phone numbers, the whole nine yards. 

If in the future they decide Zapier isn't for them we will give them their money back, but the point is we need our customers to tell us they are willing to pay something or else we might find out six months later no one will ever pay. 

Eric Ries & Steve Blank On Lean Startups & Customer Development

Eric and Steve are grouped together because they preach similar things. Eric is the best selling author of The Lean Startup and a blogger at Startup Lessons Learned. Steve is the author of Four Steps to the Epiphany and coined the term Customer Development. 

Eric and Steve have long been fighting the startup mentality "if you build it, they will come." The biggest problem startups face isn't technology; it's a lack of customers. 

In order to find your customers you need to get out the proverbial building and start talking to customers on the phone or in person. Ask them about their problems, hear the suffering in their voice, and find out what problems are real. 

We are deathly afraid of spending lots of time building a product no one wants. That's why we are trying to talk to one potentially new customer each day. We aren't trying to sell them anything, we just want to know how they are using web apps and why/if syncing data sucks for them. 

Ash Maurya & How to do Lean

Ash is to teaching customer development as Eric and Steve are to preaching customer development. If you've read Eric or Steve for any amount of time you'll be convinced you should go lean, but you may not know how. 

Ash is currenlt building bootstrapped, lean, software-as-a-service startups and blogs about his experiences applying customer development with his businesses.

Some of my favorite posts are From Minimal Viable Product to Landing Pages and How I am Measuring Product/Market Fit.

37Signals & The Value of Simplicity

Alright, so 37Signals isn't an entrepreneur. They are a company. But as a company they do a ton of teaching on how to build software. 

One of our favorite things we love of about 37Signals is their attention to detail especially with copywriting. Copywriting is Interface Design is one of our favorite chapters out of Getting Real. 

A big part of Zapier is taking this strange, technical API concept and presenting it in a way that non-technical users just get. 

Who Inspires You?

There are many more entrepreneurs that inspire us, but these five have taught us specific lessons we can put to good use at Zapier. 

Who are your favorite entrepreneurs and what have they taught you?

About the Author

Wade Foster is a Co-founder and CEO at Zapier. He likes to write about process, productivity, startups and how to do awesome work.

Fourth in a four part series about the birth of Zapier at Startup Weekend - Columbia. This post covers the Sunday and the final demo. For more details, review Part I - The IdeaPart II - The Pitch and Part III - Saturday.


Demo Day.

Easily the most exciting day of the weekend.

Everyone is busy hacking together last bits of functionality for their apps, rehearsing the pitch, and gearing up for the final presentation. 

Here's what you need to know to nail the presentation and jumpstart your team into a real business that will last after the weekend.

Managing the Work Day

The only thing on Sunday that matters is the presentation. Forget all the grand plans you made on Friday and Saturday. 

Narrow down on exactly what part of your app users will see that night and work on that.

Zapier has a whole dashboard view that will show off zaps and how often they are performing, but for the demo no one cares. So we scrapped it for Sunday night. 

Don't be afraid to do the same. 

Rocking the Presentation

So many people mess up the presentation for preventable reasons. Here's a short 3 step guide to that will automatically make your demo stand out.

  1. Don't even think about opening Powerpoint, Keynote, Prezi, or whatever other tool of choice you are thinking about boring users with. Simply doing step one alone will automatically separate you from 95% of the presentations.
  2. Focus your opening statement on the problem space. Spend 1 minute tops talking about what problem users have. Use real life scenarios. The problem Zapier solves is that business owners have become glorified paper pushers and spend all day dealing with web apps rather than solving customer problems. 
  3. Focus the rest of the presentation on the solution and show how the product you built solves the problem. This is quite simple. Just run through how the app works. Show off the killer features. If at all possible get the crowd involved. We created a Twitter to Highrise zap that automatically made any Twitter user who mentioned @zapier a contact in Highrise and then asked the audience to tweet at @zapier. We had over 45 people tweet our name before Zapier broke. We had over 100 mentions in a 5 minute span with some big name people tweeting out our product. Simply adding a Call To Action will payoff big time down the road whether it's with Twitter followers, email addresses or Highrise contacts. 

Now you're probably asking about business model, user acquisition, market size, and all the other jazz the judges care about.

Forget about it for the presentation.

Save it for the Q/A session. The judges won't let you off stage without answering these questions about your business.

You only get 5 minutes to catch the attention of everyone in the room with your product and solution. Use them. 

Winning over the Judges

The judges are now impressed with your problem and product, but they've got questions. This is where prior preparation pays off big.

Know who the key judge is for you. For us, it was Jamie Stephens. He was the judge with the most experience in software applications. If we could sell him, we knew he could sell the other judges.

I had about four different ten to fifteen minute brainstorms with him over the weekend. After those, I knew exactly the questions he'd ask during Q/A, because I'd already answered those questions (or sometimes he'd answered them for us).


After a weekend of work, little sleep, and intense concentration you're done for the weekend. Even if the judges don't select your product as the winner you have plenty to celebrate.

  1. You've just done something remarkable to 54 hours. Most people don't do the amount of work you've done in a weekend in an entire month.
  2. You've learned more in one weekend than you've ever learned in an entire semester of college. 
  3. Most important - your product is positioned to turn into a real business. 

After the weekend is done, you have functioning demo, you've talked with users, you've identified a problem and you have a pretty good guess at what a solution looks like. 

Congratulations. Celebrate. You've just done what 99% of people haven't done.


One year later, Zapier returns to Startup Weekend

About the Author

Wade Foster is a Co-founder and CEO at Zapier. He likes to write about process, productivity, startups and how to do awesome work.

Third in a 4 part series about the birth of Zapier at Startup Weekend - Columbia. This post covers the bulk of the work done on Saturday. For more details, review Part I - The Idea and Part II - The Pitch.

The Saturday post could literally be described in two words:

Do work. 

But since that makes for a detail-less post I'll try and go into a little bit more depth about what Saturday is all about.

Saturday is easily the most boring day of Startup Weekend, but in a lot of ways it's the most important. It's the only day where you have 24 hours of time completely available to you.

The four main things you should be worrying about on Saturday are: backend code, front end user interface, the message, and generating excitement. 

The Backend

This is all about generating a database schema and writing the logic that will make the demo work. You're basically implementing the vision you set forth on Friday night. 

For Zapier, that meant Bryan and Daniel put their heads down and were writing tests and slinging code all day. If you saw Bryan outside of the garage for more than twenty minutes on Saturday - congrats! You saw the real life equivalent of a unicorn. 

The Front End

The front end is one of the hardest parts to get right. It's the part the user interacts with. If a button doesn't quite describe what happens correctly or the user flow is just a little off, your app can be rendered unusable. 

With Zapier, the user interface is our highest concern. Syncing APIs is already a technical topic, now we have to find a way to make a highly technical topic seem simple and friendly for non-technical users. 

Mike spent Saturday morning sketching out wireframes, getting feedback from Dan and I, as well as other attendees. Getting  user feedback before ever implementing the UI design helped save us from some terrible UI mistakes. 

After you figure out the design implementation, it's all about doing work. And Mike did just that. We found him still churning out the front end - with lots of awesome javascript polish on Sunday morning. Yes, he pulled an all-nighter. 

The Message

Sometimes called the Story. This combined with a product demo is where you win Startup Weekend. 

The story is all about describing how users will use your product, why they will use your product, and what problem they are solving with your product. 

Then you need to figure out how to tell your story. Is it video? Is it an image? Is it copy? How will you communicate the story during the demo?

How did we find a story for Zapier? Saturday morning, I spent as much time with potential users as possible trying to get them to describe the problem back to me. Once I had some strong hypothesis, I went to the esteemed copywriter David Reed for feedback. 

I also sketched out a concept for the image on our home page and went to Michael P. Hill who nailed it all weekend designing logos and images teams. He turned our sketched concept into our current home page image and re-did the logo without us even having to ask. 

By the time Saturday is over you should have a solid message that accompanies your product that users can latch onto and resonate with.

Generating Excitement

The final thing you should be doing is generating excitement around your team and your product. Now that doesn't mean pimping out your product at every chance you get. 

Generating excitement usually boils down to a few things. Asking people for help and helping other people out.

People love to be heard and valued. If you ask for their opinion about your product they'll become a part of the story and that's cool for you and for them.

Teams are also going to be playing with a short bench all weekend because the teams all have varying skill sets. If you help someone out they'll remember that and how you made them feel.

Zapier was blessed with a strong technical team so we tried to help people out whenever we could. If someone needed help buying a domain, fixing a wordpress site, or setting up a landing page on KickoffLabs.com we tried to help out. 

You won't be able to meet with everyone or help everyone out, but by the end of Saturday most of the teams should know a member of your team and should have a basic understanding of the product you are working on. 

Getting ready for Sunday

By the time Saturday is over your team should have most of the functionality in place, the core UI should be in ready, the message should be taking form, and hopefully your product is the talk of the event. If you made it this far on Saturday, you should be feeling pretty comfortable and you won't have to make any crazy last minute changes on Sunday. 

If you don't make it this far - no worries. Zapier didn't have much in place for the UI on Saturday night, the back and front ends didn't talk to each other at all, and the core message is something we are still iterating on today.

As long as you know the road map forward, though you should be in good shape. 

Next up: Sunday - How to blow people away with your demo.

Startup Weekend Part IV - Sunday, Demo Day

About the Author

Wade Foster is a Co-founder and CEO at Zapier. He likes to write about process, productivity, startups and how to do awesome work.

Second in a 4 part series about the birth of Zapier at Startup Weekend - Columbia. This post covers the pitch, building a team, and first night. Part One about the idea can be found here.

Friday night is easily the most important night of Startup Weekend. What you achieve on Friday night sets the tone for the whole weekend. If you start out on fire, the rest of the weekend will go great. If you start slow, you'll be playing catch up the rest of the weekend. 

How do you make sure Friday night goes great? Nail the pitch, form a killer team, take care of the essentials, and go off to the races.

Nailing the Pitch

How do you nail the pitch?

Spend as much time exploring the idea before the event as possible. Talk to developers about how the idea will be built, talk potential customers to see if your idea solves a real pain point. The whole purpose of this exercise is to make sure you have a solid idea and don't need to spend much if any time pivoting your idea during the weekend. 

Aside: This assumes your goal is to take your idea to the next level and make a real business. If you're just at Startup Weekend to have fun and learn it's alright to come in less prepared. 

Bryan and I (Wade) had dozens of 10-15 minute chats about Zapier before the weekend. We also each spent time in forums validating the problem exists. 

With that level of preparation it was pretty easy to make sure Zapier got enough votes to form a team for the weekend even if the initial pitch wasn't super polished. 

Forming a Killer Team

The single most important thing you need for the weekend is a killer team. 

What makes a killer team? Lot's of technical skill matched with laser-like focus on the customer. 

You'll notice marketing is missing here. Marketing is important for any startup - just not for the weekend. More important is having a strong focus on the problem your trying to solve and the customer you're solving it for. If you're interested in finding out why - leave a comment and I'll write a post later going into more detail about this.

The Zapier team was the perfect mix. Bryan nailed the back-end, Mike smoked the front-end, Dan was the jack-of-all-trades, and I built both splash pages. 

And to top it off, all of us cared more about the customer and the problem we were trying to solve than any of the code we were writing. 

Take Care of the Essentials

Once your team is formed it's time to get down to business. But before you get too far you need to take care of the essentials. 

What are the essentials? 

  • Make sure everyone on the team understands what their role is for the weekend.
  • Rehash the problem and proposed solution. If everyone gels with this you'll be able to build you're product during the weekend rather than spend time talking about an idea.
  • Come up with a name and make sure the corresponding domain and social media accounts are available. 

These three things should take no more than an hour. If you find it taking too long - stop. Find a mentor. Get some outside help. Do anything you have to do to make sure the three bullet points are resolved.

For Zapier, Bryan and I were on the same page because we talked so much about the idea before the weekend. Plus, before Dan and Mike even joined the team we talked a ton and knew they were on the same page too. 

By the time we started working all we needed was a name. Now usually, naming is ridiculously hard, but we lucked out. Zapier was the first name we thought of and we liked it well enough so we ran with it.

After that it's time to get to work. 

Off to the Races

How do you start the work?

Ideally, your least technical person can buy the domain and go straight to KickoffLabs.com and set up a splash page to start collecting emails. Kickoff Labs is seriously the easiest way to get a landing page up in minutes. Being able to collect emails is going to pay dividends throughout the weekend. This person should also set up any relevant social media accounts - Twitter, Facebook, etc.

The rest of the (more technically inclined) team should be tackling the demo. The most important question is what is Minimal Viable Product or MVP you need to be able to demonstrate for the demo on Sunday. 

If your idea required crazy technical work, the demo can be faked, but the most important part is anyone working on the core product has a clear plan of attack. 

With Zapier, I was able to have the domain and Kickoff Labs page set up in roughly thirty minutes and a twitter account in five all while Bryan, Mike, and Dan were deciding what technical limitations needed to be tackled by Sunday. 

Once you get to this point, any more work you can do on Friday night is all gravy.

We got through this stuff more quickly than I expected and were able to put in three or four more hours before we crashed for the evening (if you aren't able to put additional work in, don't worry. If you have a solid plan for your MVP you should be in good shape for Saturday).

Next up: Find out how to blast through Saturday - the longest day of your life - and set your team up for a strong finish on Sunday. 

Startup Weekend Part III - Pushing through Saturday

About the Author

Wade Foster is a Co-founder and CEO at Zapier. He likes to write about process, productivity, startups and how to do awesome work.

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