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Zapier co-founder Mike Knoop: Follow the breadcrumbs from superfans

Here's how the founders knew this wasn't "just another piece of software."

By Adam O’Donnell, Host of the Sit Down Startup podcast

Last updated July 27, 2023

Mike Knoop once maintained that software integrations, the bedrock of his startup, aren’t that exciting. But fans of that startup, Zapier, shouting his name and high-fiving him at conferences, suggested otherwise.

Knoop, co-founder of Zapier, joined the Sit Down Startup podcast to talk about how startup life has changed since the company was founded in 2011, and funded as part of the Y Combinator accelerator program in 2012. Zapier is still a no-code platform designed to help connect the many tools and workflows supporting businesses. Knoop remains in an instrumental leadership role, keeping an eye on future growth opportunities.

His first tip: If you’re stuck in a growth rut or trying to hone in on your brand vision, find those superfans who believe your product isn’t just another piece of software.

Achieving product-market fit

Ten years ago, if you searched for “how do I integrate x and y” platforms, you’d probably get a list of results that link to an API, or maybe a blog post or community forum. Knoop describes this as an obvious market inefficiency. Companies did build their own integrations–maybe the top three requests from customers–but no one could build one for every business tool that was coming down the pike, Knoop recalls. SaaS was coming into vogue, payment technologies were developing, and a lot of niche software was gaining traction—too much for any individual provider to create bridges between all of them.

Zapier stepped in to be that bridge, integrating with all of these providers in the marketplace. With new tools being created and joining the Zapier community every day, companies could unlock thousands of integrations over time. And they did: there are more than 5,000 apps listed on their website today.

Product-market fit is like pushing a boulder up a hill, Knoop says. You spend 10 units of effort for the boulder to move an inch. But as you get closer to the top, it requires less effort. Once it’s over the hill, you have to sprint after the boulder because it has so much momentum.

Build an SEO strategy alongside a stellar product

Search engine optimization is a widely used marketing tool and channel today, but it wasn’t in 2011. Optimizing the company’s integration landing pages resulted in the earliest growth spurts for Zapier.

Instead of focusing on enterprise companies with complicated implementations and developer-heavy IT buyer groups, Knoop and his co-founders targeted smaller businesses that were literally googling their needs. And Knoop knew their solution had to be the easiest and best to earn the top spots on a search results page.

Knoop recalls building their app directory and demand-generating landing pages on their website before there was even a product. They used that list to prioritize which integrations were built, which included names like Trello and AOL Instant Messenger. Often, the small team was able to build an integration within an hour of a request coming in, which is how they got many of their initial customers.

About those Zapier superfans

These smaller companies weren’t getting the same service somewhere else or for cheaper; it just didn’t get done. Those early customers reported building something–better workflows, better onboarding–they didn’t think was possible. The loudest evangelists raised the founders’ own level of ambition, Knoop says.

After having led research, engineering, and project management teams at Zapier, Knoop spends most of his time today “living in the future” and doing whatever needs to be done to expand the business. He still sees the passion in the language people use for no-code tools, and it reminds him that their creation was something that “should exist in the world.”

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