Something I’ve found difficult to completely embrace, but which understanding has been super important, is the idea that there is a ratio for everything. I’ve started to call this Ratio Thinking, and I’ve found myself describing this to quite a number of people recently.
The law of averages
I think we all understand that we might not get a 100% success rate on everything we do. In fact, in most cases it is far lower. For myself, I think I have struggled to fully comprehend this.
I’ve heard the idea of a ratio for success many times. I think perhaps the best description I’ve come across what Jim Rohn describes as the “law of averages”:
If you do something often enough, you’ll get a ratio of results. Anyone can create this ratio.
Once I fully understood this, it made everything much easier. As soon as I accepted that the whole world works in ratios, that’s when it became easier. Knowing that success happens in ratios allowed me to go ahead and send that email, without worrying about not getting a response, about ‘failing’.
Here are a few examples where I think ratio thinking can help you as a startup founder:
Ratio thinking in marketing
Arguably some of our biggest success with Buffer has been the content marketing we did in the early days and are once again pushing hard recently. In fact, we are currently hiring our first content writer beyond my co-founder Leo, and plan to grow out a full team for our blogging efforts.
I can remember very well many of the conversations I had with Leo. What he did so well was to quickly realize the law of averages and know that to get a single reply, a large number of emails must be sent to bloggers for a potential guest post. This knowledge meant he rarely felt bad if he didn’t get a response. Instead he knew it’s just the way it works.
What is perhaps even more powerful than just knowing about ratio thinking, is that Leo used this knowledge to his advantage. If he wanted to get a single guest article published, he would sit down and send 5 emails. We had around a 20% success rate based on the emails Leo sent.
Once you’ve established the success rate, for example 20%, you can keep working and eventually the ratio will improve. Maybe you’ll eventually get 3/10 instead of 2. Once that happened, Leo was smart and moved on to bigger blogs and pulled that ratio back down to 20%. This technique led us to our first 100,000 users.
Ratio thinking in fundraising
When we finished AngelPad, we started trying to get meetings with and pitching investors. The law of averages really comes into play with raising investment, too.
Overall, we probably attempted to get in contact with somewhere around 200 investors. Of those, we perhaps had meetings with about 50. In the end, we closed a $450k seed round from 18 investors.
Perhaps the most important part of our success in closing that round was that Leo and I would sit down in coffee shops together and encourage each other to keep pushing forward, to send that next email asking for an intro or a meeting. In many ways, the law of averages is the perfect argument that persistence is a crucial trait of a founder.
Ratio thinking in hiring
The most recent area where I’ve found ratio thinking to be useful is hiring. It can take a large number of applicants to find the right person, someone who has the right skills and is also a great culture-fit.
There are so many factors at play here - so of course there won’t be a 100% success rate. Once you accept that, it can make your life a whole lot easier. That was the case for me - I conceded to the fact that I will need to work hard to publicize our positions, and then only a small fraction of the applications would make sense to follow up for interview.
And the ratio thinking applies in the same way for the hiring process as well as once somebody is on board. This stuff is hard, but once again it is simply how it works - the sooner you accept it, the sooner you can thrive.
Have you encountered the law of averages while working on your startup? I’d love to hear about where you’ve found ratio thinking useful.
Photo credit: Peter Renshaw
Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined. - Henry David Thoreau
I can distinctly remember that for the month of December in 2010, and for much of January 2011, I did a lot of dreaming.
Back then, as I do now, I had a daily ritual of going for an evening walk before sleeping so that I could disengage from the day. I had discovered this helped me sleep better. By leaving my phone at home and setting off for my twenty minute walk, I had only my mind to keep myself entertained during the walk.
When I go on my walk, for the first five or ten minutes, my mind is usually occupied by thoughts about my current issues, challenges and tasks, or the highlights or low points of the day. After ten minutes, interesting things happen.
I would guess that for many of us, we rarely go for ten minutes without a task to do, a friend to talk to or a social network to check. I can tell you that in my experience, ten minutes of solitude leads to some powerful thoughts. It is fascinating to observe where your own mind wanders.
In December 2010, I had just launched Buffer and my mind often wandered to the thoughts about where this new side project might lead. Two weeks into the month, I had got two paying customers for Buffer, paying me $5 a month. This was a huge milestone for me, and the thought that kept occupying my mind was: could this ever make enough money that I could quit my day job? Another two weeks passed, and another two people started paying $5 per month. Now I was up to $20 of monthly revenue.
On my walks I day dreamed about the day when Buffer would make enough for me to quit my day job. Since these walks were just before bed, I also often had real dreams about this too. The number I had in my mind for this milestone was around $1,000 per month. On my walks, I remember calculating in my mind how long it might take at the current pace of paying customers joining Buffer. With 4 new customers per month, it was going to take a long time.
Then January rolled around, and things started to pick up. I became more focused and the product was improving fast. Leo had joined me and we were getting customers faster. I kept going on my walks and I kept having the same dream. In the first two weeks of January, we got another 4 customers: as many as the whole of December! We were now making $40 per month. But it was still going to take a long time to make $1,000 a month.
In February, things really started to change. The dreams I was having were starting to feel real, to feel possible. I kept going on the walks, and letting my mind wander back to the dream. By the end of March, I had dropped two of my five days of freelance work, I was just working three days a week and could spend the rest of my time on Buffer.
I felt like I was now working on making my dream a reality. By the end of May 2011 I had dropped my freelance work completely, and in June we hit our $1,000 per month milestone. We were growing rather fast.
I remember that I continued to go on my walks, and at times I would be amazed that this dream had now come true. I could remember exactly the feeling of going on a walk just a few months prior and imagining how amazing it would be to be able to work only on Buffer. On my own project, my own startup. Nothing else. And it was amazing. It felt fantastic.
What struck me, is that it might have been the fact that I let my mind wander, the fact I had these dreams, that made me push ahead during the early mornings and evenings and actually achieve those things. The dreams made me want it, even if I didn’t fully realize. The dreams meant that I had allowed my mind to be taken over by this objective.
These days, things are even crazier. When I stop to take a moment and truly appreciate where I am, I realize that I now have more than I could have ever dreamed of. That $1,000 a month goal is easy to forget. We now make $1,000 in less than half a day and if we don’t then something is wrong. And in a month, we now make a hundred times that original dream.
Now I have new dreams, and they can come true too.
Photo credit: Michael
I remember when I was 12, I was desperate to grow up. I think most of us are when we’re young. Similarly, when you’re getting your startup off the ground, it can be easy to wish ourselves ahead to having a big team, a fully-fledged product and millions of users.
The thing is, there are a lot of cool things to experience, enjoy and be happy about when you are 12, before you become 13, 14, 15. The same applies when you’re a 2 person or 3 person startup. There are plenty of reasons to be happy.
You can move fast when you are small
I think one of the interesting things I’ve learned while growing Buffer to 11 people is that you can move fast when you’re 11 people, however you can also move rather fast when you’re just 2 people.
This is not to say that we moved faster overall when we were 2 people. We now have a larger footprint: we have a super useful web product, mobile apps for iPhone, Android and Blackberry, browser extensions for Chrome, Safari and Firefox as well as countless integrations with awesome partner apps and startups. There is no way we could move fast in all of these various areas if we were just 2 people.
However, the key thing is that you can move just as fast in terms of percentage growth when you are 2 people as when you are 11. In fact, in our early days we sustained 40% MoM growth for almost the whole of the first year.
Just focus on the right things and crank away at code and marketing and you can make a lot happen as just a couple of founders. That brings me to my next point:
You don’t need structure when you’re small
A couple of months ago I had a very interesting week where I spoke separately with both Jonathan Abrams and our advisor Maneesh Arora and found that they both had similar advice, and shared that they were staying small for as long as they could with their startups. These are two very experienced founders, and they were sharing that they had no hurry to grow big. I even remember Maneesh advising us to pay ourselves more instead of spending the cash on new hires. It now makes a lot of sense to me.
I’ve found that there is are a series of tipping points in a startup where prior to that point, structure would slow you down, and after the fact structure will speed you up.
- When you’re just 2 founders you can make all the decisions collaboratively, with no real structure.
- When you become 3 people, it probably still works.
- When you’re 5, 6 or 7 then it starts to break down and slow you down.
“Adding just two more people to a team of 3 means that there will be 10 possible combinations of 1:1 conversations. Make it 10 people and you have a whopping 45 possible sets of conversation partners.” - Duane Jackson
That’s when you need to introduce structure and select one person to make the final call and lead the process. We’ve found this repeatedly, with product and with our customer support team and our engineering team too. We recently added more structure by promoting Sunil to CTO, leading engineering, and Carolyn to CHO, leading customer support.
My lesson learned here is that it is important to get the timing right with staying unstructured, or introducing structure. If you have departments and titles when you’re just a couple of people, that will probably slow you down. If you have a team of 30 people and no one in charge, that’s probably going to be slow too.
You can learn more easily from your users when you are small
When you are just getting started, it is vital to be in touch with the user and to do good customer development in order to understand whether your assumptions are correct.
The beauty is that when you are small it is actually very easy to have a conversation with your users, because there aren’t many of them! The harder part is actually taking the plunge and asking for that Skype call or coffee meeting with someone who signed up for your product.
I think Eric Ries put it very well in one of his presentations:
Most of the techniques that big companies use to do customer research (surveys, in depth analysis, data mining) they do because they have too many users to keep track of, and therefore they have to do that stuff to try to make sense of all the information they have. When you’re small you have the advantage that you only have a small group of people to get to know.
Indeed, we found that when we tried to do A/B testing and build out detailed metrics in our first few months, we were much better off to simply reach out and talk with the people who were signing up to Buffer.
Now that we have over 600,000 users posting more than a million times a week, what Eric Ries said resonates even more. We now have a small team working just on metrics and understanding what our users are doing. You can avoid this when you’re small, it is a lot of fun to be able to glean so much from just a few conversations.
Are you in the early stages of your startup? Are you embracing the benefits of how small you are? Or, maybe you’re at a later stage and remember how different it was when you were small. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.
Photo credit: Christian
It’s a long time ago now, however I still remember it very well. When I first went about creating the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) for Buffer, there was something I kept very clear in my mind.
When I came across Eric Ries and his work on the Lean Startup while working on my previous startup, I tried to read almost everything he had created and watch every presentation he had done. I found his presentation on the Minimum Viable Product and remember this answer to one of the questions from the audience:
Most entrepreneurs’ instincts for what is the minimum viable product are like 10 times off. So, maybe you’re one of those rare entrepreneurs who has that gut instinct for creating an MVP, but just in case, just check out whether it’s possible that you could accomplish your strategy and learn something interesting with half the features, and maybe if you want to be really bold with half again, and just imagine: what would that look like for customers?
As a result, I had in my mind the whole time when I was putting together the first version of Buffer: how can I go even more minimal here? In fact, as we have grown, we have also incorporated this into the culture with a key point of our “Be a ‘no ego’ doer” value to often asking ourselves the question “what can we do right now?”
I’ll even admit that with all of this knowledge and even while I kept asking myself “do I really need this?” I was headed clearly along a path of launching with far too many features. In the end, I luckily had committed to a “November Startup Sprint” concept on Hacker News where a group of people had all committed to build and launch something within November. Oh, and I still launched the Buffer MVP on November 30th, 2010 (with no remaining days of the November Startup Sprint).
However, all these things combined helped me to launch a very minimal version of Buffer and gain early validation for the idea and feedback to guide our direction and for which bugs and features to prioritize moving forward. So, here are the 5 things we launched Buffer without, which could be seen as essential:
1. A paid feature mentioned on the pricing page: your own bit.ly details for analytics
This one was interesting. I think it was perhaps laziness in the end, but with my own deadline approaching it took some discipline to decide “I can launch without this feature”. bit.ly was an advertised feature for the paid plan, yet without launching I had no idea if anyone would pay for Buffer, so it made a lot of sense not to build the feature: I had little validation for it! I was lucky that the first paying customer was after 3 days, but they didn’t ask me about the bit.ly feature, so I still didn’t build it.
When the second customer started paying for Buffer, I remember them emailing me and asking me about a text box for his bit.ly details that “did nothing” when he filled it out. So, I quickly fixed that and emailed him back to say “try now”. In hindsight this was a great way to validate before building.
2. Automatic upgrade and immediate access to paid plan features after paying
An auto-upgrade process is one of those things that would be easy to think is essential when you’re charing for a product. What an awful experience it would be if they had to wait until I upgraded them manually myself. However, that is exactly what happened with the first handful of Buffer customers.
I was using PayPal and as many will know their Instant Payment Notification (IPN) system is not the easiest to code in order to have auto-upgrade for customers who pay. I had no idea whether it would be 3 days, 3 weeks or 3 years before the first paying customer, so why spend time on a smooth process for people who upgrade? I instead chose to spend time on work that might help me get that first paying customer.
When someone upgraded, I got a standard “someone sent you money” email from PayPal and then rushed to the database to manually upgrade them. Sometimes I got there fast enough, often though people noticed. Here’s an email I received which is typical of the first few paying Buffer customers:
I upgraded, but I’ve still got a free account. How do I get the account to upgrade?
This could be seen as an awful experience and very damaging. The crazy thing? The result was quite the opposite. This “issue” actually triggered an interaction between me and these users, and made them super loyal. People loved to chat with the founder.
3. Change email, forgotten password, delete account
Perhaps these kinds of features are much easier to build and have in place from day one with the kinds of frameworks available now. However, I think these are features that do very little to help you learn and validate whether people have a need for your product. If they might add any delay at all to your launch, do without them!
4. Editing tweets which you’ve added to your queue to be posted
In the first MVP of Buffer, if you added a Tweet to your queue, you couldn’t edit it. If you wanted to edit it, you’d need to delete and add it again. Tiny typo and want to correct it? Tough luck. This is one of those features that seems small, but I can assure you they all add up. I truly recommend you are ruthless about avoiding these kinds of features, so that you can ship your product and learn from what happens after you’ve launched.
You know when you need to get on with some work and you tidy your room instead? These are those kinds of tasks when working on your not-yet-launched startup. It is so tempting to have everything looking nice and tidy for the launch, but these pages are so standard and won’t help you validate whether anyone will use your product. Showing that there is a human behind the product can be a benefit, but I’d just advise that you add a link to your Twitter profile in the footer instead of building fancy pages.
The goal here? To learn.
That’s the key thing to keep in mind, and it’s so easy to forget. You can build something pretty or make the code super clean if you want to, but that will just be an exercise for yourself at this point. What will help you to validate the idea and see whether you should continue along this same path is to get the product in front of users and talk with them and observe what they do. Do they understand it? If they understand it, is it useful for them? Stay laser focused on these questions.
One of the key lessons I’ve learned along my journey is that lean startup seems obvious, almost common sense, but it is much harder to do in practice. These tips are what I would try to stick to in order to really follow the lean startup concepts in the earliest stages.
Photo credit: Barefoot Photographers of Tilonia
I’ve done a lot of traveling throughout my journey with Buffer. I started in the UK, and since then I’ve lived in Hong Kong and Tel Aviv as well as San Francisco where I’ve now settled for the longer term.
When I was in my hometown of Sheffield in the UK, I became quite involved in the (then tiny) startup scene, and even ran a meetup for startups. The choice to move to a different city was quite a big one, and later the choice to leave the UK completely was a step even further.
I often hear the argument that people should stay in their hometown to help the startup ecosystem. I believe that paradoxically, the best way to grow the ecosystem in your hometown might be to leave it.
I think there’s this myth that the best way to help your hometown is to stick around. I also think there is a misconception that the way to help is to focus on the community, more than on yourself.
Focusing inwards, in order to be able to help others
One of the key things I’ve learned is that you can help a community far more by focusing inwards, on yourself, than you can by spending a lot of time working on the community itself.
“The greatest gift you can give to somebody is your own personal development. I used to say ‘If you take care of me, I will take care of you.’ Now I say, ‘I will take care of me for you if you will take care of you for me.’” - Jim Rohn
Indeed, in a recent post on the gender bias in the tech and startup world, Melissa Miranda concluded:
“The best way to have more women at the top is to climb up there myself.”
Kate Kendall, a great friend and a founder I am inspired by and respect a lot similarly mentioned in a recent post:
“I cannot continue to provide for others if I don’t get my own company’s foundation firmly planted. I look forward to giving more again soon. Once I first learn how to ask.”
These are some very wise words. The message is clear. Many who have taken considerable steps along their journey are realizing that their best way to help is to focus inwards on themselves, in order to become more and have more to offer. This is certainly the approach I am aiming for, too.
Refreshing your environment and your circle
One of the toughest things to accept as an ambitious entrepreneur is that you are affected by your environment and the circle of friends you have. We have far less willpower and self-control than we like to admit to ourselves.
Seneca wrote in a letter somewhere between 63 and 65 AD that even the most accomplished men are affected by the “crowd” they choose to be amongst:
“Even Socrates, Cato, and Laelius might have been shaken in their moral strength by a crowd that was unlike them; so true it is that none of us, no matter how much he cultivates his abilities, can withstand the shock of faults that approach, as it were, with so great a retinue.”
If Socrates himself would be affected by a crowd who did not push him and encourage him, how can we hope to even achieve a sliver of the success he had unless we decide carefully who and what we choose as our environment? Seneca advised in this same letter:
“Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship”
I got lucky myself. Something drew me to Birmingham in the UK, from my hometown of Sheffield. Then, after Buffer reached ramen profitability Leo and I had a craving, a calling to visit San Francisco. After arriving and spending 6 months in Silicon Valley, lack of visas forced us to travel the world and live in places such as Hong Kong and Tel Aviv.
It was through this journey I learned the power of a fresh environment and starting new friendships. With each new place, I had a more specific criteria for who I would let into my true circle of friends. Today, I have much freedom and I am surrounded by people who never judge and always encourage. The difference this makes is something I can’t put into words. Leaving your hometown is the best way to deliberately sever those ties and step into the unknown and the chance of great possibilities.
Finding somewhere to thrive
With an inward focus and a desire to shape your environment in a very deliberate way, I think that if you choose to try and do these things in your hometown, you are very much at a disadvantage.
There is no way I would have been able to develop as much as a person if I had not jumped on a plane to a place where I knew nobody. I love my friends and I love my family, but the truth is that stepping away has helped me tremendously to become a better version of myself, and paradoxically to allow me to help them even more, too.
There’s probably a place in the world that is better for your business than where you are right now. For AirBnB, it was New York:
While at incubator Y Combinator, Paul Graham looked at their plans for Airbnb and asked them the simple question, “Where is your market?”
The founders said that New York seemed promising. To which Paul, gesturing wildly with his hands, said, “Your users are in New York and you’re here in Mountain View.”
The founders were dumbfounded, saying they were in Mountain View for Y Combinator.
Paul repeated himself. “Your users are in New York and you’re here in Mountain View.” After a pause, he added, “What are you still doing here?”
For us, it is San Francisco. We’re a distributed team, but many of the conversations we need to have with startups we partner with and the social networks we are providing a service on top of, happen much more easily when we’re in the same location as the majority of them and can grab coffee face-to-face. I’ve come to agree with what Brad Lindenberg said in a blog post recently:
“I am convinced now that in order to be a player, you need to have a presence where your target market is because if you do, things can happen really quickly.”
A lot has happened in my hometown of Sheffield since I left. There is even a startup accelerator there now. If I hadn’t left, I’d not be on a level where I would comfortably and excitedly be a mentor for the accelerator. Would you be able to help more if you let go of your roots and focused on yourself?
Photo credit: Christine Vaufrey
My co-founder Leo and I are headed to Hawaii tomorrow morning for a 10 day trip. I just emailed the team, and I thought in line with one of our core values of defaulting to transparency, it might be an interesting message to share:
I think I’ve mentioned to most of you by now that Leo and I are leaving tomorrow for a short 10 day trip to Hawaii.
We find ourselves in a very fortunate position with a thriving business and some solid relationships. At a time like this, Leo and I felt it would be wise to take a little time slightly “off the grid” and ask ourselves the questions “where do we want to take this now?”, “what do we all want to spend our precious time doing, and how can we ensure we’re happy and inspired?” and “how can we really move the needle as we continue on in 2013?”. It is a real pleasure that we can even be at a point to consider these questions.
I am extremely thankful to be able to work with such an amazing group of people, all so aligned with the culture and excited about the product. I crave and enjoy every day working with you all. A lot of what Leo and I will ponder will be just as much to do with culture as to do with product direction, and for me personally this is what makes me jump out of bed every day. I think we have an opportunity here to really push the boundaries in terms of what an outstanding, empowering and supportive culture can be. We can primarily help ourselves and Buffer move forward at an incredible pace, and as a side effect we might attract some interest in the way we do things and be able to impact and help other companies too.
Super excited to report back on what we come up with!
P.S. Leo and I will still be very much active in Hip Chat and I’ll be keeping Trello updated :)
Photo credit: MattW
“Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good” - Gretchen Ruben
One thing I have realized for myself, is that although I have an existing solid routine of great habits, I often expect that a new habit will also slot into the routine and immediately be just as solid. That’s a key mistake I’ve been making a lot, and I’ve recently adjusted my expectations.
It is often said that if you choose a specific time in advance for a new habit, then it can help you to be more likely to follow through. For example, if you tell a friend that you will go to the gym in the next week, compared with telling them that you will go to the gym at 7:30am on Tuesday, you are more likely to go to the gym when you are more specific:
“There are several key elements in building effective energy-management rituals but none so important as specificity of timing and the precision of behavior during the thirty-to sixty-day acquisition period.” - Tony Schwartz
The flipside I’ve found, to this, is that if I choose a very specific time like 7:30am, then if that time comes by and goes, then I feel I have failed and the feeling of disappointment can stop me going at all, even though there is a lot of time left in the day. So, I try to combine this with a freedom to still go in the afternoon or evening and count that as success for my aim to create a habit, too. I let myself be sloppy with the timing of new habits, especially at the start.
Another key reason I found I sometimes failed with new habits, was when I made them into big things and then fell short. Or even worse, they were so big in my mind that I didn’t even do it at all.
As an example, if I decide to step up my gym routine and I aim to do 7 exercises, spending a whole hour in the gym, then some days I find that to be quite daunting. The problem with this is that it even stops me going to the gym for just a few minutes. What I do now instead is tell myself that if I go for 10 minutes and do just a single exercise, that counts too.
“the 20-minute walk I take is better than the 3-mile run I never start. Having people over for take-out is better than never having people to an elegant dinner party.” - Gretchen Ruben
The interesting thing about this is that for the purpose of building new habits, going to the gym for 10 minutes is better than not going for 1 hour.
This blog post? it’s not as long as most I write. Both Gretchen Ruben quotes are from the same article. Yet, it’s still better than not shipping something this week.
Photo credit: Newtown grafitti
In the recent months I’ve realized I am very much in a bubble. Everyone I know is building a company. Amongst my circle of friends, that is the norm. This, however, is mostly out of choice: I believe, in agreement with Seth Godin, that to be an outlier is an inefficient way to make progress:
The easiest way to thrive as an outlier is to avoid being one. At least among your most treasured peers. Surround yourself with people in at least as much of a hurry, at least as inquisitive, at least as focused as you are.
With that said, there was a time when I felt out of place. I was studying Computer Science, and all of my friends were making their choices about what to do after graduation. All events and advice were centered around either getting a job, or continuing onto further education. Those were the two options. The only options you’d find. I had other things in my mind. I was considering building my own business, creating a startup. A third option.
I fundamentally believe that this elusive third option should be talked about much more. I think there needs to be higher awareness that creating a startup is a real, tangible option for increasing numbers of students. It’s one of the reasons I speak at college and university events as often as I speak at some of the bigger scale events with more marketing potential. I hope to inspire a few people to take the third option.
During my time studying, I was always doing side projects and freelance work. By the time I was approaching graduation, I had worked as a freelancer on the side for several years. As a result of my side projects and practical assignments, I had decided that I’d like to create a product: (something much more scalable and with my income not tied to time) instead of continuing freelance work or getting a regular job.
So, after graduation, I took the plunge and tried to create my own startup. The third option. It’s certainly not a smooth path, it’s not the easy option. For some, it may never work out. For the next year and a half, I struggled to build a startup, and still worked as a freelancer to make ends meet. From the outside it may have seemed that I was not going anywhere. I made little progress with my startup, and I intentionally limited time I spent working as a freelancer. Yet, that’s how it works with startups: it’s the bamboo effect. You’re accumulating learning. Suddenly it all comes together and you have an impact.
After a year and a half of struggles with the first startup, I launched a little experiment called Buffer. Two years later, it’s an eleven person company generating over a million dollars a year. I would like to say I would always have got here, but I know in my mind I was close to being influenced by the fact there were only two obvious choices for me. I luckily found a way to choose that third option no one talks about.
The upside of doing a startup
Building a startup is not for everyone. If, however, you think this path might be for you, I want to share some of the amazing benefits to my life that I’ve found as a result of choosing the third option.
One of the things I like the most about building a startup is the immense freedom and responsibility which results. This is also true if you work for an early stage startup, and that could be a good first step too. The other side of the coin of this freedom and responsibility is that the choice of whether to get out of bed and keep going is only up to you. For me, this triggered a spiritual journey, where I have learned more about myself and what motivates me. It’s also why I’m always changing my routine and habits.
The more direct upside is through learning and the potential to have your income not be tied to your time, and build wealth in a very short period of time. Paul Graham explained this in the best way I’ve come across:
“Economically, you can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years.”
What Paul Graham is talking about takes hard work, but is achievable. A regular job doesn’t require too many hard conversations, or making decisions without complete information. This is what makes a startup harder. Paul Graham once again has a great way to put this:
“if you want to make a million dollars, you have to endure a million dollars’ worth of pain”
It’s a fun way to live. I’ve never learned as much in a couple of years as I have building Buffer. I can definitely recommend it.
The opportunity cost of working a normal job
I have come to believe that not only is there a massive upside to building a startup, there is also an opportunity cost of working a regular job. That is to say - if you have the goal to eventually build a startup, then every moment you spend working a regular job is making you less experienced as a startup founder.
Why would this be the case? Well, firstly, let’s look at the lifestyle implications of a regular job. A lot of smart folks will graduate and have good prospects of working at in investment banking or at a consultancy, and the salary potential is very high. So you get started and you have a nice apartment. Once you get a raise, you naturally upgrade your lifestyle. You soon reach a point where you have a lot to lose by cutting your salary in half or to nothing.
Not only is it very easy to get used to the lifestyle promoted by the salary and the people you are around, you also learn to speak in a way which helps you as an investment banker, but not necessarily when you’re building a product or service for the masses. Most importantly, you are becoming an expert of something, and thereby losing the beginner’s mind which is vital to have as a startup founder.
Let’s encourage the third option
As a result of my own experience and the interaction I’ve had with students who could have been great founders, I believe the most useful thing we can all do is to provide encouragement for anyone who shows the smallest sign of considering the path of being a startup founder. Sure, there are risks and there will be failure, but there is immense learning and satisfaction ahead for those who choose the third option. Anyone can point out the dangers, that’s the easy thing to do. Let us be positive about the good things that could happen. Will you join me?
Did you consider the third option when you graduated, or are you nearing that point in your life and considering your options? I’d love to hear from you.
Photo credit: jeco
For a number of years now, I’ve found that I generally always had a “training partner” for my entrepreneurial goals. A few years ago, this was my great friend Khuram, with whom I consistently had a weekly meeting for over a year. In the meeting, we discussed our achievements and challenges to help each other keep pushing forward.
In the world of weight training, it is well known that having a partner helps with motivation and will mean you can lift more and see gains more quickly. Taking this a step further to the area of personal trainers, research has shown that those who switch from training alone, to using a personal trainer see many improvements.
Similarly, pair programming has become relatively well established and has shown to improve the quality of code, as well as keep both developers in “flow” state for a more sustained period of time.
In the recent months I have been using these techniques in my day to day work on Buffer and my personal projects such as blogging. In essence, my co-founder Leo and I act as personal trainers for each other for our work and life goals. Here are a few examples:
Brainstorm blog posts together, in detail
When I started this blog, every post I wrote completely by myself. It can be done that way, but when Leo had come on board Buffer fully as a co-founder, I soon naturally started discussing future posts with him, and he was super encouraging and interested.
These days, I deliberately brainstorm many of my articles with Leo, right down to the individual sections. It makes my writing task much easier, and the posts are better as a result.
Write a list for the next day
One of the activities Leo and I are trying to build as a habit right now, is to sit down together for 20 minutes at the end of each day, and plan the key tasks we each want to do the next day.
We’ve found that whenever we plan the day ahead, we’re much more productive, procrastinate less, and feel happier as a result. This is something I can definitely recommend you do with your co-founders if you’re in the early stages, or if you’re part of a team you could try it with a co-worker.
Pull the other person in, even for your own tasks
Something I’ve just started doing, and encourage Leo to do as well, is whenever there’s something I need to work on myself, and I find myself struggling to get stuck into it, I will book a slot with Leo to ask him to work through it with me.
This is especially useful for analyzing and brainstorming, where you need to map out many things and come to some conclusions. Although I do it with Leo, I am mostly leading it and it is one of those cases where simply explaining something to someone can help me a lot.
Weekly mastermind sessions
Perhaps the most productive two hours of my week are Friday night, where Leo and I always go to Samovar, drink tea and have a systematic mastermind session which I have learned and cultivated over the last few years. We share our achievements and the other person helps celebrate them and point out interesting patterns. Then, we discuss our biggest challenges right now, and help the other person find solutions or adjustments to make to improve. It’s something I look forward to every week, and I make real changes for the week ahead during every session.
Do you have any activities which you do with a co-founder or co-worker which help you to progress faster or increase productivity? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Photo credit: U.S. Pacific Fleet
One of the most interesting and simultaneously challenging realizations I’ve had is that as a founder, especially the CEO, you essentially have chosen to never become an expert of anything. Oh, and if you don’t embrace that reality, it’s probably going to affect your likelihood of success.
Danielle Morrill wrote that there are a handful of roles that she became very good at, yet she no longer cares to play. As she continues her fascinating journey with Referly, I feel I can relate to a lot of what she’s going through, from my experience with Buffer.
Huh - I was a coder?
It’s crazy. I haven’t coded more than a day every two weeks for over six months now, and I haven’t coded at all for the last two. If I look back at the whole of the last year, I wasn’t coding, I was doing a bunch of other things. Important things.
Yet, looking back at my life and my identity, it’s largely been defined by programming. It was such a core part of who I was. I learned to code when I was 12, I was a freelance developer and I did Computer Science. So it feels odd that in just a year, I can be so distant from it. And that’s exactly how I need to feel. That’s what needs to happen for Buffer, and it’s what will help me grow the most, personally.
Repeatedly firing myself
If you’re a founding CEO, I believe that you are doing your company a disservice if you don’t fire yourself from your skill position.
- Joe Kraus
For much of the first year, I was coding. I did whatever was needed to build the product, from design and front-end work to back-end and server admin. Then, we started looking for investment and everything changed. I had to learn how to pitch investors, how to describe our traction. Then I had to work with Leo to learn how to get press. We got into AngelPad and Tom immediately joined us. That was when I first fired myself. I was no longer the main coder, Tom took over and gradually all of my code was touched and improved in some way by Tom.
That was a shock for me, to let go of my main thing. I got over it, and found a joy in the immense personal learning and growth of Buffer which we found as a result of my doing all these other things.
A few months later, we realized the power of mobile for Buffer. I jumped in and learned to code Android, just enough to build a decent version of Buffer for Android. It was hard, I was stuck almost every day with a new challenge in Java. Then, just as I found my feet and gained confidence in the coding, I knew how truly fundamental mobile will be for us, so I knew I needed to hire someone to do it full-time. Sunil joined us and I gradually reduced my involvement in Android development. I never became an expert, then I fired myself and we found someone else.
Feeling lost, and getting used to it
Being an expert of nothing is draining, and something I never anticipated. There is a lot to do, and you don’t really know how to do any of it. On top of that, you’re supposed to be the leader, to know everything. You’re meant to be the expert that everyone can look to. They’re counting on you.
It’s pretty hard at times, if I’m totally frank. There are days when I wonder what it is I even do anymore. Everything used to be so tangible - I would write a line of code, and it would do something for me. These days, there are these fluffy things like culture (and it’s so important), and I have to direct product and hire new people. I have to manage much of the team, and talk with investors. I truly have no idea what I’m doing - I have zero previous experience of hiring, or managing people, or being a product manager.
Every day I’m an expert of nothing. And just when I finally start to feel like I know how this role works, and the activities I need to do? That’s exactly the point when I need to hire someone to replace myself, so I can move onto the next thing I have no idea how to do.
I’m starting to find a kind of peace and comfort in this place now. I quite like it. It is a real privilege to be able to experience it.
Photo credit: Daniel Novta
A few weeks ago I restarted one of my favorite habits: a daily evening walk. I want to share a couple of reasons why I love this habit so much, and how I recommend starting it if you find that you want to give it a try.
Disengagement from the busy day
One of the key reasons that the evening walk has become a crucial part of my daily routine is that it provides a powerful way to quickly become fully disengaged from the activities of the day and the plans, worries or excitement I have lingering.
I’ve written before that I believe the evening routine is just as important as the morning routine, when trying to create a lasting early waking habit.
In a recent interview with Leo Babauta, Mark Sisson recommended a tech cut-off time in the evening:
Set a tech cut-off time before bed. Shoot for at least an hour before you go to sleep, but strive to extend that period to two hours.
For me, the evening walk provides the perfect tech cut-off time and is a key reason I am able to sustain habits through the whole week.
I recently set a goal of becoming a more frequent content creator, rather than simply a consumer or curator. I share a daily 3 minute voice clip on SoundCloud, I blog here usually twice a week and I create and share a video once a week.
With this high frequency of sharing my thoughts through various forms of content, I need lots of ideas in order to be able to keep up that pace. Therefore, I started reflecting a lot around when exactly the breakthroughs of the ideas come - when the inspiration comes to me.
What I realized, is that I have most of my ideas for blog posts, sound clips or videos through the combination of two things:
- Spending time discussing startup and life challenges and ideas with my team, or with other founders.
- Time to reflect on the discussions I’ve had, to ponder the ideas by myself and let thoughts emerge with clarity.
After this discovery, I started deliberately working to do these two things even more. Firstly, I offer help for founders and generally have 30 minute office hours sessions with 6-8 people a week. Secondly, I scheduled time for the reflection to happen and the inspiration to hit me: by having a daily evening walk. Most people leave this to chance, their “inspiration” time being when they are in the shower. I try to be much more deliberate about it.
The walk helps me wind down for the day and sleep better when I return, and it also is a time when I find I have inspiration for blog posts and voice clips, as well as many product, vision and culture ideas for Buffer.
How to start an evening walk habit
If the evening walk sounds like something you want to try, I’d love to share some practical tips to start doing it. In the last two years I’ve lived in the UK, San Francisco, Hong Kong and Tel Aviv and during my time in each of these places I always quickly formed a specific and automatic evening walk habit.
1. Aim to walk for 20 minutes
I’ve tried shorter than 20 minutes and I’ve also done 30 or 40 minutes at times, and I’ve found that 20 minutes is, for me, the most ideal duration for the evening walk. It’s short enough that it’s easy to fit it in each day, especially when forming the habit to begin with. It’s long enough to gradually let go of the day to day excitement or worries, and let your mind wander and reflect on a higher level.
2. Plan a precise route, and stick to it
One of the most important aspects of the walk for me has been to quickly decide a route, and stick to it. The route should be very specific, down to almost each step. When creating a new evening walk habit, I plan each turn and visualize walking it in my mind. The power of this specificity is that it quickly becomes automatic and you forget about where you are going or what you are seeing, and can start to reflect inwards on what you are doing and whether you are happy. I usually walk much more slowly than my normal walking pace, and find I can start to ponder changes I want to make in my life.
3. Think backwards from when you want to sleep
To utilize the evening walk as a core part of your morning routine, the key is to think about when you want to awake, ensure that you will get 7-8 hours of sleep, and then work backwards from there to decide exactly when you should set off for your evening walk. Having a specific time to walk out of the door each day makes it much easier to create the habit. I leave at 7:30.
Have you tried having a daily evening walk routine? Do you find it helps you to make progress with the most important things in your life? Or, do you think you will try it? I’d love to hear from you.
Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar
Through my journey from a founder whose role it was to essentially build the product and code all day, to growing into a CEO role with more management duties and a fast growing team of 7 people, there have been a lot of challenges and I’ve had to learn new skills over and over.
If you can relate to this, whether you’re a CEO or you find that you have to wear many hats and your role changes a lot, you’ve probably discovered, like me, that the general mentality is that we should be working non-stop and sacrificing our sleep, health and everything else in order to ensure we are successful with our endeavors.
How, then, would we possibly have time to “meditate”? It’s this elusive thing, where tangible benefits are not often associated and even the practicalities of what the activity is, are often not discussed.
Despite all of this, I’ve recently started regularly meditating as soon as I awake in the morning, and just before I sleep in the evening. I’ve found this to have a profound effect on my life and my ability to succeed as a CEO, so I wanted to share the benefits you might get from forming a habit of meditation yourself:
1. You will easily handle the inevitable ups and downs
One thing you can be sure of if you run a startup, is that it’s not all going to be plain sailing. You’re going to have to change your mind, you’re going to run into unexpected events and there are going to be days where nothing works out.
I’ve found that my daily morning and evening meditation helps me to reduce how dramatically these highs and lows can effect my ability to keep moving forward and make progress. Through simply focusing on my breathing for at least 5 minutes each morning, I am brought back to the present moment and over time, I become more and more tolerant to the ups and downs that arise.
2. It will save you time, by reducing procrastination
I truly believe that the purpose of meditation is simply to meditate, but there are of course some amazing benefits that come as a result. I focus on “now” when I meditate, and if you’ve tried to do this you will know how hard it can be. As soon as you close your eyes to meditate, you think about what you’ll do today, whether your metrics will grow as they need to, even what you’ll eat for breakfast and how much time is left on the counter for your meditation session.
The result of having all these unhealthy thoughts come into your mind while you meditate, is that you are practicing letting these thoughts come in and then leave your mind, and you are therefore improving your ability to be unaffected by distractions. I’ve found this carries over to my workday and makes me much more productive.
3. You will have bursts of creative genius
Often after my meditation session I feel so renewed and my mind is so clear, that the activity afterwards is filled with much more creativity. Whether I sit down to work on a most important task, I go to the gym, or I take a shower, I seem to have breakthroughs when I’m doing an activity just after meditating.
Try it for a week. Meditate for just 3 minutes, or try 5 if you can. There are many ways to meditate. Personally, I simply sit cross-legged on a cushion, close my eyes, and focus on breathing in and out. If you try it, I truly believe you will find that you have many more useful thoughts on a consistent basis. In the evening I am doing guided meditation with Headspace, which is also great.
4. You will feel alive and healthy and have better sleep
After I started doing my daily evening meditation session, my sleep became much better. I usually struggle to sleep, and I often have all kinds of thoughts swirling around in my head. After 5 minutes of meditation, those thoughts are emptied from my mind and I’ve found it easier to fall asleep, and in addition the quality of my sleep has been higher.
Through meditation, I have learned to respect my body and be grateful for it. I’m much healthier and I find it easier to restrain myself with food, in a similar way that I have found I can avoid procrastinating. Overall, I feel much more alive.
5. It will make you happy and you’ll find meaning
A great result of feeling alive, healthy and spending more time in the present moment, is that you will naturally be happier. Being happy is being in the present moment. The most common times I’m unhappy are when I’m thinking about the past or the future, so meditation makes me happy. Through regular meditation, I’ve had deeper and deeper sessions where my mind has become even more clear and I’ve let go of my day-to-day worries. This has helped me to much more easily reflect on what I truly want to achieve through my role as the CEO of a startup, and in life itself.
Have you tried a habit of daily meditation? If not, what’s stopping you? I’d love to hear about your experiences.
Photo credit: Caleb Roenigk
Often if I give a talk or I speak with someone about getting their idea off the ground, the topic of how solid the product should be comes up. In particular, people very frequently wait far too long before launching.
One of the key learnings for me with Buffer was that the impact of problems people have and downtime they experience are directly tied to how we, as a startup, choose to handle it. Let me share some examples for why this is the case.
Downtime is an opportunity to make people love you more than they did before you went down
“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it” - Charles R. Swindoll
As Buffer grew from a few hundred users to tens of thousands in the first six months, we hit some scaling issues, in particular as a result of my lack of experience in scaling MySQL (as an aside, we’ve since moved to MongoDB). I quickly learned how to optimize queries and which indexes to add. I often needed to resize the single Linode instance Buffer was hosted on. As a result, there were times of both unexpected as well as deliberate downtime in the early days of Buffer.
One of the most remarkable things we found during these periods of downtime, was that if we were super responsive on Twitter, we could actually gain some very loyal Buffer supporters. The scenario would be that I (or later, Tom and I) would be hard at work fixing the issues, and Leo would be 100% focused on responding to Tweets within seconds. What we found, which is very counterintuitive, was that in some ways by being down, we had emerged in a better position afterwards than we were beforehand. This insight helped us to be much calmer about downtime in the future.
With bugs in the wild, you’re forced to work harder and faster. Your product improves quickly.
I’ve found that some of the hardest stages of creating a new startup are those early weeks or months when you’re racing to get your product ready for initial launch. You’re trying to decide how polished the product should be, and how many features you need to include.
Through my own experience and speaking to other founders who have launched products, I’ve found that we almost always say we should have launched sooner. The thing is, when something is live, that’s where all the learning happens. Until you put it out there and get real usage, you’re sat in the dark coding and have no idea if it will work.
I would even go as far as to say that you should “push it live” when there are still a few bugs or it doesn’t look perfect. Once it’s out there, you’re going to fix them faster, and your users will find and tell you about problems you had no idea about. Doing this is a nice hack to increase your productivity: I’ve found that when I did this especially in the early days, I always had a great todo list and was compelled to work away at the items. Essentially, the product will improve much more quickly than if you work quietly in stealth mode.
Handling challenges and pressure is a key skill for startup teams
One of the things that is often said is that startups are inherently a process where there is a massive amount of uncertainty. Alyssa and Andy in the team certainly know that we can change our minds about even fundamental aspects of Buffer literally from one day to the next. It takes a certain type of person to be able to handle this kind of environment.
With this uncertainty, often those involved with a startup are faced with some fairly pressurised situations, whether it is downtime or figuring out and fixing some critical bug quickly. I think these times are really the ones where, more than anything, the team needs to remain optimistic and positive. Therefore, any bugs or downtime that comes up, is yet another opportunity to practice these traits and in some cases to find out who can see those situations through while remaining calm and productive.
The other thing that we’ve often found at Buffer, is that we look back on the downtime and those times where we are up all night figuring out how to get Buffer back up and realise that in those few hours we’ve learned a massive amount. In that light, we don’t wish that those scenarios wouldn’t happen.
What are your thoughts on the bugs and downtime that comes inevitably with any startup venture? I’d love to hear about your experiences.
Photo credit: Bearden
One thing I realised over the holiday period is that my definition of failure in a couple of things had changed considerably since the year before.
In particular, in the year of 2012 I built up my gym routine to the point where for the final 3 months, I went to the gym consistently 5 times per week. During the holidays, I “failed” with my 5 times per week routine, but this meant that I still went to the gym 2-3 times a week during that time.
Similarly with blogging, I’m now aiming to write 2-3 times per week, and so for me to “fail” with blogging means that I write once a week.
The role of failure and imperfection in building skills
Failure is part of success, an integral part. - Bill Walsh
I’ve written before that I believe imperfection is a key part of building habits and gaining skills. To sit down and decide a new goal or habit and expect to flawlessly go ahead and achieve it is unproductive. Instead, I think the best plan is to expect to miss the mark several times along the way.
The key to simultaneously expecting imperfection and not allowing it to get you down and cause you to bail on your idea, is perspective. For me, once I take a moment to realise just how far I’ve come, despite the fact I’ve failed at this moment, that’s when it’s easy to still be happy with that failure and then move forward towards being better the next week.
If you’ve been blogging once a month for 6 months, then you step it up to twice a month and achieve that for the first two months but fall short the third, don’t be too disappointed. Remember that eight months ago you weren’t even blogging at all, and this ‘failure’ probably just means you’ve blogged once a month. It’s always a process of gradual improvement.
Your failure is highly individual
We constantly compare our beginning to someone else’s middle. Our middle to someone else’s end. And when you do that – you’ll find that you’re never, ever satisfied. You’ll never, ever be good enough. You’ll always struggle to celebrate your accomplishments. - Matt Cheuvront
One of the hardest things I’ve found to grasp and be aware of, is that to each person, failure has a different definition. We are all at different stages, and our journeys are very different too. As Matt Cheuvront says, we’re always comparing ourselves to others when it makes zero sense to do that.
A most important thing with this, is that if you feel like you have failed with something, make sure that failure is your own and not someone else’s. If you’re hitting the gym twice a week and meet someone who is going to the gym every day, don’t let that make you feel like a failure. Our own goals and habits are completely individual to us. I think one of my biggest satisfactions comes from continually improving my personal bests, whether it’s running or lifting weights, blogging or speaking. Once you get into a habit of beating yourself continually, you can make some amazing progress.
Adjusting your definition of failure over time
The other fascinating thing I’ve found, is that in just one year you can dramatically change what failure means for you. You can go from your highest success scenario becoming your “failure” scenario. This is very encouraging for me. It means that for example, in a year from now I can gradually work towards daily blogging, and by that point my “failure” might be that I only blog 3 times per week, which is my current success scenario.
It was a reassuring thought for me over the holidays that despite the fact I felt like I was failing by not keeping up my routine of going to the gym 5 times per week, I was still going 2-3 times a week and this was a lot more than I was doing a year earlier. So, the key is to think about the line you are creating rather than the individual dots.
Do you often accidentally allow failure to get you down without realising how far you have come? Do you sometimes compare your journey to others? I’ve been a victim of these things before, and I’m working to change that, and make real progress in my own individual path. I’d love any thoughts you have on this topic.
Photo credit: Behrooz Nobakht
A couple of months ago, my co-founder Leo gave me an interesting suggestion: he said I should try disabling all notifications on my iPhone. I find this suggestion especially interesting because it is one that goes against the normal phone setup. It’s so usual to stick to how things are, and with iPhone apps the easiest thing to do is to “allow” all those notifications. It seems almost odd to even consider doing things any other way.
I chose to go along with Leo’s suggestion, although I was admittedly quite skeptical that it would change much. I imagined that I had pretty good willpower, and that I am fairly productive already. Just because I got notifications, I didn’t think that affected my workflow all too much. In hindsight looking back though, one clear indication that it was already affecting my was that I was regularly turning my phone over to stop those notifications lighting up the screen and distracting me.
What it’s like to live without notifications
“Don’t Confuse the Urgent with the Important” - Preston Ni
For the first week that I turned off notifications, I checked Twitter, Facebook, Email and other places regularly. In fact, I still do, although maybe not so much as that first week. After a couple of weeks, I came to love the fact that nothing came onto my lock screen or lit up my phone. I even found that I frequently started to use the switch in Mac OSX to turn off desktop notifications until the next day.
With zero notifications, I feel like I can get my head stuck into a problem much more easily than I did before. I never realised when I had those notifications on that they truly could throw me off my current thought and cause me difficulty getting that focus back. More than anything, I feel a lot calmer. Notifications create a sense of urgency around something that’s not important at all. I don’t need to know right now that someone liked my status on Facebook.
It changes the balance, it’s now my choice
“There are two types of people: One strives to control his environment, the other strives not to let his environment control him. I like to control my environment” - George Carlin
The thing I like the most about turning off all notifications is that it is now completely up to me when I choose to check my email, Twitter, Facebook, etc. I have no excuse that a notification came in. If I check it too frequently and find myself procrastinating, it is only my fault: I went out of my way to go and look. As Derek Sivers puts it, “everything is my fault”:
But to decide it’s your fault feels amazing! Now you weren’t wronged. They were just playing their part in the situation you created. They’re just delivering the punch-line to the joke you set up.
What power! Now you’re like a new super-hero, just discovering your strength. Now you’re the powerful person that made things happen, made a mistake, and can learn from it. Now you’re in control and there’s nothing to complain about.
It was my fault that I received push notifications, too, but by controlling that part of my environment everything is so much more pronounced. And now that it’s my fault, I can work solely myself to be better, to check those notifications less.
I choose to avoid reliance on willpower
“we each have one reservoir of will and discipline, and it is depleted by any act of conscious self-regulation—whether that’s resisting a cookie, solving a puzzle, or doing anything else that requires effort.” - Tony Schwartz and Jean Gomes in The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working
The other reason I am happy that I’ve turned off all notifications, is that wherever possible I like to avoid relying on willpower or self-discipline. As Tony Schwartz and Jean Gomes put it, we all have a limited reservoir of willpower, and by turning off notifications it means I save some of that for other tasks rather than using it on resisting checking on each push notification that comes in. I’m certainly not suddenly a superhuman with complete focus at all times, but I feel much more in control.
Have you tried turning off notifications? I can highly recommend trying it, just for a week. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
Photo credit: Christian Ostrosky