The way Wade Foster tells it, there’s no big mystery as to why his startup Zapier, which allows users to easily connect web services, has grown to process 100 million API requests per month.
“A lot of startups have this thing where they build something and they realize nobody cares about it or they have to iterate over a couple different things,” says Foster, Zapier’s CEO and co-founder. “It was never like that with us because we knew from the get-go that there were a lot of people who could use a product like this. So whether it was useful or not never really was a question.”
Foster attributes Zapier’s success to what happened before the company was even formed: He and co-founders Mike Knoop and Bryan Helmig identified a real problem and came up with a useable solution. Now they concentrate on constantly fine-tuning the user experience for their customer base, which is “well into the tens of thousands,” Foster says.
“I think a lot of people tend to come up with startup ideas in a vacuum, or you’re in the shower and you’re like, ‘Wouldn’t this be cool?’” he says. “So we weren’t like this at all.”
People were begging for a product like Zapier. While Foster and his future co-founders were working on SaaS products, customers frequently asked them for integrations that they didn’t have time to build. “
“On more than one occasion I would run into these really lengthy support requests on help forums where people would say things like, ‘Hey, does your application have integration with MailChimp?’” Foster says. “Sometimes these were like two-year-old threads with hundreds of replies on this, where people were just like begging for this stuff. But clearly it wasn’t something that the app developers were ever going to get around to.”
They poked around on other help forums and found similar queries across the web. After building a product that was friendly for the non-developer set, Foster revisited the forums. “I would say, “Hey, you know, while waiting, you can solve this problem by using the APIs if you know how to do it,’” he says. “‘If you’re not familiar with APIs I’m actually working on a project. Here’s a link to this page. If you’re interested, leave me your email address, I’ll get in touch with you.’ That provided us with everything we needed to get off the ground.”
Many of these posts are still floating around online, still sending traffic to Zapier. Here’s one about an Evernote/Dropbox sync. And here’s the post on Stackexchange that first connected Zapier to Mixergy.com founder Andrew Warner. These posts sent maybe a dozen visitors a day, and over time they were able to map hundreds of users for the beta version, which was released in November 2011. Zapier, a Y Combinator-backed service, launched in June 2012.
“So we went exactly to where people were begging for it, and that’s how we got our earliest customers,” Foster said.
After scoring their first success, Foster says growth has been steady, and Zapier typically hits its goal of five to ten percent revenue growth. One of biggest reasons is that their reach is exponential: What started out as, say, a PayPal integration with Highrise quickly became PayPal with Evernote, plus Highrise with Evernote, then Evernote with MailChimp, etc. “
No user on Zapier even comes close to using even a single percentage point of the possibilities that are there,” Foster says. Zapier now partners with 181 web services and counting, and each new integration means more potential customers.
That doesn’t mean, however, it wasn’t without a bit of effort on their part. Foster says building close relationships with Zapier’s partner services is a marketing technique within itself. When Zapier launches new integrations, their partners announce it in blog posts and emails, and on Facebook and Twitter.
“And so what better targeted advertising can you get than MailChimp saying, ‘Here’s the solution, it’s on our page,’” Foster says. “It’s kind of like a qualified endorsement of us.” It drives traffic and boosts Zapier in search.
To keep customers happy, they’re focused on simplifying the process and still maintaining an element of play, in addition to continually adding more services.
“That was one of the things that we figured out very early on, that the user experience for this type of product has to be impeccable or else they get confused,” Foster says. “It’s kind of a technical thing that we’re doing but we’re trying to make it seem not technical at all.”
“Improving accessibility across more devices, making it easier to create zaps, and revamping the user interface–for the second time–are all in the works.”
“It comes down to making it as simple as possible to use. We think we have a pretty simple product today, but there’s still a lot more that we can do so that people can just come in and use it right away with as little problems as possible,” he says. “And second is making sure we support as many as the popular applications out there as possible, because it comes down to, even if Zapier is the simplest thing in the world to use, if we don’t have the tools that they need, we’re not useful for them.”