This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend Columbia MO's second annual Startup Weekend (you can read about Zapier's origins at the first annual, last year) While the Zapier team was officially registered as mentors, Wade and I decided to also build a gag startup, PRLibs.
PRLibs — madlibs to create press releases for startups. We realized that many startup press releases sound the same and that we could build something to auto-generate them. I think the expression is, "adding fuel to the fire".
The product works like this: users fill out a few form boxes with details pertaining to their startup. Those form entries (coupled with a website scrape which we added later) combine to create an often hilariously inaccurate madlib-style press release.
Wade and I decided that we wanted the final product to auto-post to a blog somewhere. We could have spent a few hours installing, configuring, and designing a WordPress blog (or similar) but realized we could get there even faster by using Posterous and using their built-in "Email a blog post" functionality.
The final piece of the puzzle was the glue between our madlib form and sending an email. Something Zapier can help with! You can hook up simple HTML forms to Zapier using our Webhooks app. In a few minutes we had our Zap, Webhook -> Send Email, and even used Zapier to build final paragraph out of the submitted form fields.
Zapier can help you get from idea to working demo, even if you don't know how to program. Many times (like in the example above) you can build an entire demo only knowing HTML.
There are a ton of other tools out there that can help you get from zero to demo, especially if you are not a developer. This list is compiled from actual observed successful usage at Startup Weekend:
Kickoff Labs Landing pages and email collection. A great thing to have live by the end of the night, Friday
Balsamiq Pitching an idea or vision? Mock-ups can quickly convey information to would be developers
WooThemes Get a custom Wordpress Site off the ground by Sunday
So, how'd we do? 54 hours and a working demo later, we had this nice traffic graph:
I believe one of the judges referred to us as "worst startup of all time". In other words, PRLibs was a smashing success and great way cap-off the real Startup Weekend participants. Congratulations to everyone who participated!
In the tech world we tend to get self centered. When B2B startups talk about customers, many times they mean the unfunded startup down the street. Not the business that has been running for decades and is just trying to keep up with the times.
These are the companies that power the backbone of America and abroad. These are the companies that only the biggest of tech companies have been able to sell to (think Salesforce and Intuit). Part of it is because we don't know how to reach out to these customers. But another part is that we don't understand how they adopt technology.
With that preface here's an unscripted response I got yesterday from a user asking him how he uses Zapier. But unlike most of these emails it's not just about Zapier. It's about how his centuries old company tries to stay ahead of the curve with technology. And how technology gets adopted. With that I'll let the rest stand on it's own.
I run a very old fashioned business that hasn't changed much for 100 years. Back then we'd get telegrams from China and Japan ordering steel plates. We'd read the requirements and then send a telegram back. Sometimes we'd get an order and then we'd put some big steel plates on a ship - some plates are 40 tonnes each - and they would be delivered 8 - 10 weeks later.
Move forward a 100 years and not a lot has changed. The plate quality is better, we use email instead of telegrams and the ships are bigger and sail faster.
Like most small businesses we have a cobbled together patchwork of systems with most of the transmission done manually. Amongst others we use - Wufoo, Salesforce, Xero, Google, HelpScout, Wordpress and more. So when I cam across Zapier I was initially in Geek heaven. This is cool and it will solve all my problems. Well not exactly.
When you're running a small business the most important resource is time. Specifically the boss's time.
Unlike most tech start ups we don't have bright enthusiastic peeps who will rapidly adopt the latest cool idea. Change is slow and grudging because familiarity with the old systems is far better than the short term disruption that the new brings. So you can't dump software on the team - you need to set it up - then play with it yourself, then iron out all the bugs, then brutalise a victim and make them be the guinea pig.
Then you need to find a way to stop them telling everyone how shit it is whilst you fix the new bugs and then start trying to implement the darned thing. Moving from Outlook to HelpScout has taken us 8 weeks so far and will probably take another 8 for everything to be bedded down and working smoothly.
Limited time and lots of resistance means that this is the life of small businesses. The gains are worth it though. I want to give one example of how we have thought of using Zapier and the issues that we have faced with it. We have some data that we receive regularly that we want to get into Salesforce. For various reasons we use Force.com so most of the integration is to standard objects - i.e. Wufoo's - don't work because we don't have them. Zapier lets us create new custom objects - which is totally cool.
Now this task - is something that we should do daily - it's repetitive and boring - but unfortunately we can't pass it back up the supply chain - and because the data is unstructured it can't be obviously automated. Parsing it may be possible - but that hits the management time trade off again. So we thought - lets create a Wufoo to Salesforce Zap. We'll then hire a virtual assistant via Elance to process the data for $3/hour. (Won't give them direct access to Salesforce as that costs too much for another licence and we're not really sure how to lock everything down to keep them where they should be). We'll give them a HelpScout account - and forward all the information to there. They'll then transcribe it into a Wufoo form which then zaps it across the ether into a new Salesforce custom object.
Proved the technology in 5 minutes. Got it all set up in about 30 (45 fields to move across). That is the easy part - Now I have to define the process in a structured way that gives me an output that delivers reliably and which I have high confidence in - but which does not require me to spend as much time doing quality control as it took to do the process to start with. Oh - and then we have to start worrying about data security, operative reliability, standardisation.
There's always the thought that this might be another failure - Experimentation means failure as Seth Godin points out. When you are small the costs seem higher. Then there are all the little tweaks.
We get it 80% right on the first run through. The trouble is that as we work through this there are so many little exceptions and rules and caveats that we had never written down that what had seemed like a simple process has become a twisted thorn bush dripping with blood.
And yet as we do this we have the vision that this is yet another part of the jigsaw that will enable us to scale. So going back to the Steel - not a lot has changed on the surface - but under it lie hundreds and hundreds of little zaps ready to be implemented - each helping us to structure and organise our data faster - and that translates back into customer happiness and support. That's why I use Zapier.
Oakley Steel Limited
Helping You Build Better Boilers
About Denis: "Denis runs Oakley Steel, Asia's leading supplier of carbon steel pressure vessel plate, and BeyondTransition.com - the worlds best triathlon guide."
It hasn't been that long ago when I installed my first Python build. In fact, the earliest record I have of an earnest attempt at coding is dated April 19th, 2009 (an autogenerated Django manage.py). Of course, PHP had preceeded that, but only hacking on top of existing packages. I wanted more control over the site.
My first real project was LetsJ.am, a specialized forum for musicians where you'd create "jams" (IE: threads) and upload an MP3 of your playing. Someone else would come along, download it, slap it into Garageband, record another track with it, and upload both their isolated track and the mix. Rinse and repeat.
Like many others, I didn't even consider hiring someone to code it for me, I just Googled around and found Django (the fact that it was written in Python meant nothing to me). Rails seemed cool, but, Django seemed cooler (being a jazz guitarist myself).
So I installed Django and proceeded to bang my head against the wall. Though the wonderful Django tutorial softened each blow, the suffering was noteworthy. But, after a week or two, something interesting happened...
I figured out just enough Python and Django to do what I wanted to do. Namely, I figured out:
(?P<some_id>[\d]+)meant dynamic numbers in URLs that let you get records from the database. (What is a regex?)
And to be honest, that was it. But, once I had those three pieces of the puzzle, it was good enough. What had previously been a mysterious and confusing world suddenly started making a little bit of sense. In my mind, URLs just mapped to an HttpResponse which grabbed Models.
Armed with that knowledge, I just coded and coded some really repetitive (and horribly maimed) code and, to my surprise, it worked.
And that was my tipping point. Once I got past that, my learning of "proper things" accelerated, but I could always fall back to the really hacky solutions to "get things done". And I never knew enough to feel guilty about it.
This is one thing I think a lot of the "learn to code" sites get wrong (though they get a lot right). To me, it isn't about achievements, challenges or whatever. It's about hacking a way to a solution, however rudimentary it may be.
If you don't have a problem that code can solve, what are you hacking for?
Getting notifications for certain events can be pretty important, but a lot of times they can be pretty generic.
Savvy Zapier user, Taylor over at Sched.org, made a pretty clever way to spice up Campfire alerts:
I created a Campfire user called Notorious B.O.T. and connected it to Zapier. He tells us when signups happen with Wufoo, purchases happen with Paypal and support tickets come in with Desk.com.
Here's what a notification from Wufoo looks like in practice:
And from Desk.com:
And finally from PayPal:
I'm especially a fan of the Ka-Ching found in the PayPal notification.
If you want to try replicating this go check out the Campfire integrations, but I'd suggest coming up with your own creative use case. :D
Once your done come back here and share it with us all.
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