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6 Questions With Startup Weekend Fargo Keynote Speaker Wade Foster

Wade Foster

PHOTO BY J. Alan Paul Photography

Wade Foster, who gave the keynote address at last month’s Startup Weekend Fargo, knows first-hand how useful the Startup Weekend experience can be. Foster was part of a team that participated in the first-ever Startup Weekend Columbia (Mo.) in 2011 and that eventually went on to become a real-life company and success story.

The seeds for Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Zapier, which Foster cofounded with two other University of Missouri alumni, were sown at that inaugural event six years ago. We spoke with Foster about what the experience was like, what humans do better than robots and why his best advice for entrepreneurs is to not get whiplash.

How did you come up with the idea for Zapier?

Wade Foster: “It was basically my cofounder Bryan’s (Helmig) idea to build a tool that allows non-technical folks—folks who don’t have API (application program interface) expertise, coding chops, things like that—to build automation workloads between various business apps.

“So we signed up for a Startup Weekend in Columbia, Mo.—the very first one (in Columbia) happened to be happening in the next month or so—teamed up with Mike (Knoop), who’s our third cofounder, and built out the initial prototype at that Startup Weekend.”

Zapier’s story is interesting because your company actually evolved from participating in a Startup Weekend. What do you remember about the experience?

Foster: “I remember we were in this kind of strange building. They had this back garage area—because it used to be a furniture store—where I think a lot of the furniture would get shipped into.

“At the very beginning of the weekend, people were looking for a place to go work—to camp out, basically—and the three of us spotted this back garage and were like, ‘Well, no one will be able to disturb us. We’ll be able to focus.’

“At the very beginning of the weekend, people were looking for a place to go work—to camp out, basically—and the three of us spotted this back garage and were like, ‘Well, no one will be able to disturb us. We’ll be able to focus.’

“For us, having a pretty well-spec-ed idea and then being able to concentrate throughout the weekend by having a good place to work played out in our favor.”

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the inevitable robot takeover of our economy. You say on your site you believe there are jobs that computers are better at and jobs that humans are better at. Can you elaborate?

Foster: “I think machines are great at anything you can concretely describe. Calculations are something a computer is going to be great at. Automating events like we do at Zapier— so take an email and automatically put the attachment into Dropbox. No human should be manually copying and pasting data entry from one app to another.

“Whereas, humans, what we excel at is creativity. We’re really good at storytelling, and we’re really good at connecting with other human beings. The more time we can spend on creative endeavors, (the better).”

Had you been to Fargo before this trip?

Foster: “I’d never been to Fargo before. That’s why I came. I’d never been to North Dakota either, and so I was like, ‘Hey, this sounds like fun. I can go see somewhere I’ve never seen.’

“I’m a big fan of the Midwest. I grew up in the Midwest. I think there’s a lot of cool stuff happening here that a lot of people on the coasts tend to overlook. You all have the seeds of something really amazing here, and I’m super glad I took up the invite to come visit.”

You mention all the cool stuff going on in the Midwest, but you’re headquartered in Silicon Valley. I’m curious why you decided to headquarter your company there.

Foster: “When we were in the early days of Zapier, we applied for Y Combinator, which is a startup incubator (in Silicon Valley), and they require you to move there for three months. So we moved there for that three months, and we were young enough that a lot of our partnerships weren’t as solidified as they are today. It was helpful to be able to meet with and have access to the various companies that we were building integration to.

“And while we know that work can get done anywhere in the world, it was still helpful for some of those companies that didn’t operate quite the way we did—to be able to shake their hands and meet them in person and that kind of thing. Also, the Bay Area is great. The weather is awesome, there’s a lot of cool stuff to do, and so we like that, too.”

Are there any specific holes you can help fellow founders step around that you guys fell into?

Foster: “You’re going to get a lot of advice from a lot of people. And sometimes that advice is going to be conflicting. Some people will tell you to raise a bunch of money, and others will tell you to never raise any money. Some people will say you have to have everyone in the same room. Some people will tell you that you can do it all remotely.

“There’s going to be tons of advice. The best thing you can do is listen to most of it, but then base your opinion on what you truly believe. Don’t get whiplash from too much advice. Pick the thing that you think works best for you and your situation, and go with that.”

Check out Zapier at Zapier.com

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Written by Nate Mickelberg

Nate Mickelberg is the former editor of Fargo INC! He holds his master's in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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