In the early years of my startup, and after its sale to a larger company, my co-founder and I faced a challenge familiar to many young tech companies: Our engineering resources were spread thin, with competing priorities and an ever-changing roadmap. We felt we were to blame, distracting our engineers with requests to integrate off-the-shelf apps rather than letting them focus on building technology products to differentiate us from our competitors.
Chris Coleman and I co-founded Carlypso in 2013, after graduating from Stanford Business School. We went through YCombinator in 2014 and raised $10 million in venture funding the next year. We sold the business to Carvana in 2017, where Chris went on to head Carvana's pre-purchase web experience and I launched the Sell to Carvana vertical that helped Americans sell their cars to the company.
Carlypso sold cars 100 percent online. Unlike a traditional dealership, however, we weren't taking any inventory. Instead, we gave consumers access to vehicles coming off lease before a dealer had the chance to buy them. We joined Carvana to combine our efforts, integrate our vehicle data and pricing technology, and build out new verticals.
How Zapier empowered me at Carvana
Every technology startup faces the same resource constraint: we don't have enough engineers to get through our roadmap. Even well-funded organizations have this challenge.
When I launched Sell to Carvana, I needed to find clever ways to build proofs-of-concept with a very small team—two engineers and two customer advocates. We were doing a lot of manual things that didn't scale.
Once we had defined a number of critical processes—like collecting car ownership documents and verifying information with DMV records—I came to an interesting realization: Our key differentiator was valuing vehicles online and in real-time. The things that prevented us from scaling quickly, however, were manual tasks where we moved data from one system to the other.
I needed to find ways to scale our manual tasks without adding people to the team. That's when I discovered Zapier.
Zapier is a tool that helps you automate tasks between web apps. Our automatic workflows—which we call Zaps—send information from one app to another so you can stop worrying about copying and pasting and focus on more meaningful work. Check out this Zapier demo to learn more about how it works.
In my first Zaps, I managed to populate fields in SalesForce, create PDFs from excel templates and attach those documents to the respective SalesForce records. Within weeks, I built Zaps that included more than 10 steps and took the manual time spent per car purchased from more than 20 minutes to literally seconds.
My colleagues referred to my Zaps as Rube Goldberg machines. But nobody questioned the incredible impact our Zaps had. By letting automation handle the manual data entry, our engineers could focus on the pricing and valuation technology.
One of my Zaps started when an email hit a Mailbox.io inbox. Zapier parsed the lead information, searched Salesforce for the respective records, called several internal APIs, scheduled email and SMS follow-ups, calculated some information, updated Salesforce again, and notified the team over Slack.
We were able to buy significant numbers of cars from the public, broaden Carvana's inventory and provide incredible customer experience with NPS scores north of 90. These metrics allowed our small team to make a strong case for more resources.
When I joined Carvana in 2017, we were buying 134 cars from consumers per month. As of the third quarter of 2020, Carvana was purchasing more than 22,000 cars per month. The business unit that started out as a number of Zapier-powered workflows now sourced the majority of the inventory of the $40 billion car retailer.
How we use Zapier to iterate to product market fit
In June 2020, my co-founder Chris and I left Carvana to start our new company Clutch. Iterating toward product market fit is the phase of a company we enjoy most. Zapier is once again proving to be an incredibly strong companion on our journey.
Our first and simplest Zaps are triggered by webhook calls from our NoCode website builder every time a user completes our lead form:
Slack notification for every lead that comes in
We are building our business purely on organic traffic. That's why we needed Slack notifications! It was "crickets" for many, many weeks. Slowly but surely, however, our Slack notifications were picking up:
When on Zoom calls with partners and investors, we share our screens and show them the Slack channel above. Seeing these Zapier-powered submission alerts makes our business much more tangible and real. We can highlight potential customers, showing their credit scores, loan provider, and key information about their loan.
On an average weekday, we're now seeing more than 100 submissions from car owners who want to refinance their car loans through us. Thanks to Zapier, we were able to build our submission flow stack without writing a single line of code.
Partner API callback uRL
A number of our Zaps require API calls to our partners. Since these calls are often asynchronous, we need to provide callback URLs to our partners. We could have asked our engineers to stand up webhooks. However, we chose to use Zapier instead: every time a partner returns responses to us via the callback webhook, we automatically send emails to our customers with their new loan offer.
Our Business Development team is signing up dozens of partners, often multiple per week. Leveraging Zapier's webhooks, our BD Team can create callback URLs themselves - often even while on the Zoom call! We've noticed that our partners are truly impressed by such a level of agility.
Build or automate with Zapier?
To get more distribution quickly, we're architecting our refinance pipeline in microservices. We want every personal finance blog, NeoBank, tax software, Credit Union, or auto lender to be able to easily implement our product with a simple code snippet. Think Stripe for auto loan refinance.
Through our API-driven design, we can help even more Americans save money on their auto loans. We continuously challenge ourselves to only dedicate engineering effort to the parts of the product that is most critical.
From a culture perspective, we're observing a very strong positive reinforcement cycle: the more we empower non-technical team members to complete technical tasks, the more courageous our non-technical team members become. Historically, technical requirements where roadblocks. Today, technical challenges are opportunities!
Empowering every individual in our organization to do tasks that historically required engineering allows us to move at lightning speed. Naturally, we're coordinating these trade-offs carefully and thoughtfully with our engineering team. After all, we do want our infrastructure to scale.
Internally, we're calling these Zapier-vs-Build decisions. We've created a culture where non-technical team members feel empowered and proud because they can complete technical tasks themselves, rather than needing to create a ticket for engineers to handle.