I think I’ve just about got to that point with Buffer where sometimes when I stop to reflect on things I think “wow, we’ve actually been doing this for a while now”. It’s about 3.5 years since I started Buffer as a very simple Minimum Viable Product, and we’re now 23 people and doing over $3m in annual revenue. We still have a lot to do and in many ways it feels like just the beginning, but we’ve been at it for some time now.
We have some fairly consistent growth now in new customers, revenue and in people joining the team. In many ways, I think that up until now, everything we have been doing has been innovation. When I first had the idea for Buffer, I didn’t realize at the time but looking back it’s clear that was innovation in social media. The idea of a rolling schedule of posts was not something that existed in all the products. I wasn’t the only one to come up with that idea, but it’s now a feature of most products out there.
These days, with a little more stability, I’ve started to think about innovation again. There are a lot of interesting things happening in the social media tools and marketing space, and I think we need to keep moving and try out new ideas.
The challenge of innovating as you start to grow
One of the interesting things we’ve witnessed at Buffer is that as we’ve started to grow, it is increasingly difficult to do risky experiments.
I think the key reason it’s hard is that we’re in this situation where we’re still struggling to grow the team as fast as we want to. We still have more roles than people, and we’re all wearing many hats. We have an endless list of product enhancements, bug fixes and a/b tests, without even thinking about the crazier ideas we want to try. Also, everything we have on our list is somewhat validated, whereas the innovative ideas will most likely fail (but could have huge rewards if they succeed).
As a result of this situation and challenge, I think we’ve only done somewhat innovative things in the last year. At one point I concluded that we should have a “year of execution” and then eventually be at a point where we can focus on innovation. I think that’s risky, because we will never have completed everything we want to do for the core of the product and may never get to innovating.
A framework from LinkedIn to stay innovative
I was recently watching a fascinating conversation between Reid Hoffman and Matt Mullenweg. I can highly recommend it, they talk about many interesting topics. One of the things that caught my attention was something Reid mentioned in the middle of the conversation which Matt asked him to expand upon. It’s the framework they use at LinkedIn to stay innovative.
Core, Expand, Venture Projects
That’s the wording that LinkedIn use to describe the 3 key areas of activity which they try to balance. Here’s how we’ve tried to take this idea and translate it into what makes sense for us at Buffer:
Core: For us, core means to work on what Buffer already is. It’s to improve our onboarding flow, to fix bugs and figure out where we can make the experience smoother for people who use the product. This also includes lots of ongoing a/b tests to improve the landing page, pricing pages or increase activation rate of new users.
Expand: This is the term for any projects worked on which are logical expansions of what the product already is. For example, adding analytics broken down by team members for the social posts you share, or a calendar view, or better reporting on the business plans. These are all things we want to get to soon, and they’re fairly validated.
Venture Projects: We’re calling this Labs, we’ll probably create “Buffer Labs” in the same way that HubSpot and MailChimp have Labs. This is the area we’ve been neglecting for some time (or maybe just the time wasn’t right until now), and we want to make room for now on an ongoing basis. This is for crazy ideas that we want to just try and see what happens. We’ll always approach these super lean to avoid waste, but we have to take the leap somewhat too. If successful, these projects could move to “Expands”.
I think the idea here is to try and shoot for a good balance between these 3 areas, and to always be working on all 3. It feels like a useful framework to follow. For us, it is probably going to be a 50:30:20 ratio right now. We’ll be sure to share our progress on Core, Expands and Labs through the Open Blog and on Dribbble. It’ll be fun to see how this works. Want to be part of working on any of these areas? We’re always looking for people to join the ride.
On top of spending a week and a half with the rest of the Buffer team on retreats, in the last two occasions I have made a decision to stay or continue traveling in the same area beyond the end of the retreat.
For our latest retreat at the start of the month, 16 of us were together in Cape Town and I have stayed here 2 weeks so far beyond the retreat. I’m not sure yet whether I will continue to stay longer, or whether I will return to San Francisco. This uncertainty in itself is an example of a new way of traveling which I’ve been experimenting with.
How I’ve adjusted my traveling in the last few years
Leo and I started Buffer in the UK, and after 8 months we moved to San Francisco. We spent 6 months in San Francisco, then 6 months in Hong Kong, and then 3 months in Tel Aviv. After that I lived in San Francisco again for the last year and a half, with a little traveling at time.
The result, for me, of traveling to so many different places is that I started to carry much less with me to each subsequent place. I realized that you really don’t need much to travel, or even to live. In fact, you don’t need much in life at all. I’ve become a big fan of one bag living.
In addition, these experiences were the first time I’d experienced “living” in a place rather than “visiting” a place. Being able to stay 3 months or 6 months meant that I could make new friends, discover the culture in a deeper way and experience working and living there. It relieved a lot of the pressure of “seeing all the sights” in a short space of time, and even on shorter trips now I don’t try to cram too much in.
Traveling around Asia
Our second Buffer retreat was in Thailand in December last year. 10 of us stayed in Bangkok for a few days and then in 2 villas in Pattaya for a week where we worked together and went on a boat trip to a nearby island.
After the retreat, I decided to experiment with traveling by myself, something which I hadn’t properly done before. It was an incredible experience, so freeing for everything to be in your control. Even just the fact that it’s down to only you to get around is interesting, you have to be the one to ask directions or make the effort to meet others, rather than relying on a friend (which I sometimes do).
When we do a retreat, it’s quite a busy time and we fit a lot into the week, not to mention the natural excitement and pressure of meeting people, sometimes for the first time. After Thailand, I decided to travel to Singapore for 6 days, then Taipei for 4 days and then make my way to Japan for Christmas to see my brother, his wife and my little nephew.
It was a great experience to see all these different places in the space of a few weeks. At the same time, I didn’t manage to feel a part of any of these places, I didn’t get past experiencing things on the surface.
Staying in Cape Town
My recent experience in Cape Town is in contrast somewhat to that of traveling around Asia. Rather than visiting other countries in Africa (which would be a lot of fun) I decided to simply stay in the retreat location of Cape Town for a few extra weeks. After the week of retreat, I found an AirBnB place and I could start to build my early morning routine go to the gym again. I found a few coffee shops and a co-working space, and I got to know some people. I did a speaking event and met the startup community here.
With each day that passed, I felt like I got some extra insights into how things work here. I met locals and learned some of the Afrikaans words and some of the differences in how they speak English, too. I quickly stopped feeling like a tourist, although I have been on Safari, hiked to the Lion’s Head and had a kitesurfing lesson. During the week I’ve worked just like I would anywhere else.
I’ve become much more spontaneous with my plans and let things flow based on who I meet and how I feel. I have accommodation for only a couple more days here in Cape Town, so this afternoon I’ll start looking on AirBnB again for the next part of the city to experience.
In the future, I think I’ll take every opportunity to stay a few weeks or even a few months in a place, rather than trying to visit as many places as possible. I’ve found it much more fulfilling to become part of a place rather than simply seeing a place, even if it I’m only temporarily part of it.
We’ve recently reached the point with Buffer where I’ve started to think about a lot of key higher level choices. As a CEO these can be difficult decisions to make. I’ve been taking time to reflect and luckily I also have an awesome co-founder I regularly bounce these decisions off and an incredible team whom I sometimes get together with and have discussions about our direction.
Regardless of all the support I’m lucky to have, these decisions can sometimes be overwhelming to make. It’s easy to feel a lot of pressure due to the potential impact and consequences of the choices. One decision will literally take you down a completely different path than another.
The choices to make when building a startup
It’s interesting for me to look back at some of the key choices which have made a huge difference to how Buffer looks today. Here are some that come to mind:
being a distributed team (spread across 16 cities in 5 continents) rather than having everybody in the same city and office
not raising a Series A (and having no investors on our board) when the usual cycle came around after our $450k Seed
doing retreats 3 times a year (the last two were Pattaya, Thailand and Cape Town, South Africa)
choosing to not have a sales team and instead focus on self-serve and word of mouth marketing
serving small businesses rather than large enterprise customers
establishing cultural values early and being disciplined about living to them
The questionable impact of each choice we make
The interesting thing about all of the choices I’ve shared above that relate specifically to Buffer is that there are examples of companies succeeding by making the opposite choices in each case. It’s incredibly difficult to say that each choice specifically played any role in any success we have had.
That isn’t to say that the choices haven’t changed the type of company we are. I think they have absolutely shaped what Buffer is today. However, if you were to try and attribute these choices purely to success (maybe take revenue as the metric), then I think we could probably be just as successful with different choices.
Google is one of the most successful companies ever. Google gives its employees the ability to spend 20% of their time on whatever they want. Therefore, 20% time is a great idea. Is it? Or was Google successful because they’re brilliant engineers who solved the right problem at the right time—killing it despite the lack of focus “20% time” causes? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else.
Let’s not always try to tie choices to success
One of the best books I’ve recently read around company culture is Joy at Work by Dennis Bakke. Bakke was the founder and CEO of AES which earned $8 billion in revenues and employed 50,000 people. A fascinating detail is that they achieved this with a highly unusual business philosophy and company culture.
One of the core values that Bakke set in place at AES was Fun. His quest was to create the most “fun” workplace ever. In his journey to fulfill this vision, he found that some supported him and others didn’t. Most notably, he mentioned that several board members had been very skeptical of his approaches but supported him a year later when AES had some of it’s fastest growth. Bakke argued that the value of Fun should not be tied to success nor failure:
I kept saying that our values were not responsible for the run-up in our share price and should not be blamed for any downturns in the future.
This was a point that took me a long time to understand. If we don’t attribute our choices to success or failure, how can we assess if we are on the right track? I think in this case, the point is that our values should hold true in either case, and we should stand by them.
This is the approach we have started to take at Buffer with our cultural values such as Happiness and Positivity or Defaulting to Transparency. I can’t say that creating a company where everyone is happy is something that will make us more successful, and I can’t say that being fully transparent about revenues, user numbers, salaries and other details helps us grow faster than other companies. These are simply values we have chosen to live by.
Even choices like serving small businesses rather than enterprise customers, or being distributed rather than having a single office are decisions which will be difficult to assess at any time. If we fail eventually, I don’t think we could easily tie it to a single one of these choices, and if we succeed we would be wrong to say it was because of these decisions. I think, therefore, the key is to use our intuition and make the changes we feel are right - both in order to succeed, and also to create the place we want to work.
For the first two years of Buffer we didn’t use C-level titles. In February last year it started to make much more sense for me to use the CEO title, and soon after Leo became CMO. We had grown up a little and were not just a bunch of people hacking on a product. There was a little more structure and it was helpful on the inside and from the outside to reflect that.
For half a year Leo used the CMO title, but it never felt quite right. The CMO role felt quite narrow and specialized, and Leo had much more to contribute than that. He had always helped me to think through other areas. In addition, Leo has a real growth mindset which made sense for marketing, but also for much more than that. The company was growing fast and it made sense for Leo to have more responsibilities than purely marketing.
How we initially structured the COO role
I asked Leo to become COO in November last year. I wasn’t really sure how that would work and what it would change, but I knew it would definitely be different. It felt right, and exciting.
Leo and I spoke and reflected on the key strengths he had and how we wanted to have him involved in all areas to push us further. The title felt perfect since I would describe Leo as someone who really thrives with operations. He will always get everything done in his list, no matter what. And he’ll always choose to have more in his list than anyone else. This is something I’m incredibly inspired by.
We structured ourselves with the analogy of a train. I would be thinking about laying the track ahead in the right direction, and Leo would help the train to run on time and move fast. In practice, this translated to Leo being in sync with every aspect of the company and helping us to improve (product, customer happiness, marketing, growth). He’d sync up regularly with everyone and be someone who could help with setting goals and brainstorming how to keep to them.
Some struggles and learnings with the CEO/COO balance
One of the things that spurred the role adjustment for Leo was that we were right in the middle of going through our quiet pivot. We had realized that growth had slowed with the vision we were currently on, and we made adjustments. In some ways we were moving at our slowest pace for some time and we knew we needed to make some changes. We adjusted the vision and it felt appropriate to rethink our roles too.
We spent about 3 weeks with the “Leo kicks Buffer into a higher gear across all areas” setup. I think it was a welcome change from everyone in the team, however right away something didn’t feel quite right for me.
Leo and I were both excited about his role being to help us move faster. I was happy to try and stay focused on figuring out where we need to go in various areas and with the company as a whole. The problem we found, was that it was almost impossible to clearly separate these two processes. If Leo was working with someone to try and set goals and keep to them, he inevitably had to make decisions which affected our direction.
It felt like with the new structure we were suddenly both involved in every decision. The goal of the new role for Leo was to speed things up, but with both of us discussing every decision, things were sometimes grinding to a halt, especially in cases where we didn’t immediately agree.
This put a lot of strain on our relationship as co-founders, and it’s probably the only time I can think of in the whole lifetime of Buffer so far where I’ve had some really tough conversations with Leo. It was exacerbated by the fact we were hitting some of our slowest growth months ever and both felt pressure to pick things back up. I was confused and needed to quickly figure out why it wasn’t working.
How we came to the current CEO/COO structure
In the first week of December we were in Thailand for our second company retreat. It was during our time there that Leo and I had a lot of lengthy walking meetings around Pattaya about the structure of our roles. We talked a lot. I couldn’t think of a more perfect setting for us to figure these things out. We’re both optimistic people and despite the tough conversations we knew we’d come to a conclusion about how things should work. We had gratitude for how lucky we were to be in Thailand and had built a company to a stage where this problem had arisen.
I’m the kind of person who likes to solve problems. I guess that’s why I naturally enjoyed programming (though I rarely code anymore). Therefore, I always like to try and talk things out until we can agree. As an introvert, however, I often do some of my best thinking and have inspiration when I spend time alone to contemplate. So, after several days of discussions with Leo, one evening I took to my room and started reading up everything I could find about the COO role.
I was surprised by how many different definitions of the COO role there were out there. This really confused me at first. For example, one person may say it’s the CEO’s job to motivate and manage the team as a whole and ensure execution of day-to-day tasks, whereas another person may say it’s the COO’s job to manage day-to-day running of a company and help the CEO have room to think on a higher level.
Everything became clear to me when I found this key insight:
"There is commonality across different businesses between the roles of CMO, CFO and most other executive functions, but not so with the COO, where the roles are hugely varied. Maybe the best way to think about it is that the COO does the things that the CEO doesn’t." - Nic Brisbourne
If you look at the job descriptions of various COOs, you’ll find that they could be completely different from each other, sometimes even opposing. The reason is that it all depends on the strengths of the CEO. It was starting to make sense to me that the best CEO/COO relationships are when the two are very complementary to each other. This got me excited since Leo and I have always found we excel in different areas.
"A COO’s value is designed to be complimentary to the CEO. The truth is that no CEO, no matter how experienced, can possibly cover the complex aspects of managing all the functions of a technology company. It’s better to divide and conquer. By recruiting a COO, the CEO can focus on the aspects of the role that he/she truly excels at – and enjoys the most." - Firas Raouf
So I got to work brainstorming all the areas of the company and which I felt confident about running myself. Once I did that, it became clear how Leo and I should work together. I hopped onto a call with Leo to explain my discovery.
What Leo and I do as COO and CEO
When I shared my learnings around the COO role and how we could work together, Leo was receptive to the adjustments and we were both really excited for the new structure. We’ve used this structure for the last three and a half months and it is working incredibly well.
The key thing we have done is to determine our key areas of focus and embrace the idea that we should not be the key person running anything. It was a key learning that if we’re running something ourselves, we’re not doing it as well as it could be done and we’re also neglecting other areas. So we aim to fire ourselves repeatedly and move to a position where we’re helping with higher level vision, coaching and we’re “being reported to”. This has started to work very well, and it feels like we’re moving faster than ever.
Here’s how Leo and I work together now:
For a while, and especially after the previous experience of stepping on each others’ toes, we tried to make these areas completely separated. Over time, we found there is a lot of natural overlap. Our advisor Hiten shared an analogy which helped us a lot (I’m paraphrasing here):
"Think of it like Batman and Robin. So if Product leads a project, it’s Batman and Growth supports with the right numbers and is Robin."
This is how we approach everything now. The Batman and Robin method helps us have one person who makes that final call, but we can both support each other too.
How do you structure how you work with your co-founder or business partners? I’d love to hear any thoughts, questions or advice you have!
In the last 6 months, we’ve quietly shifted the direction of Buffer. Our adjustment is now almost complete and we’re charging ahead with our new vision. It’s interesting to reflect on how we came to realize that a change was needed, and how we went about finding our new path.
The original vision
The earliest idea of where we wanted to take Buffer was that we aimed to be a sharing standard:
Our vision is to become a new sharing standard across the web and apps, and to set the bar for great customer support.
For us, the idea with this was to be a very widespread consumer product with a low price point. We had been inspired by Evernote and casually used the phrase “The Evernote of Social Media” to describe Buffer. Evernote at the time had tens of millions of users and its business model was super simple: an optional pro version at $5/mo.
In the beginning, we had a $5/mo plan and a $20/mo plan, in line with this philosophy. Over time we adjusted our price to $10/mo and dropped the higher priced plan. Interestingly, for some time we had a $100/mo plan and people very readily paid that to manage additional social media accounts and team members. At the time, however, we were entirely focused on becoming a widespread tool and decided we must stay simple. We ditched the higher priced plan and attempted to scale as a platform rather than adding more power to the product itself. If we wanted to be a button across the web and apps, it had to be a simple idea.
What we learned attempting our original vision
In some ways I wish we had perhaps realized sooner that our vision to be a sharing standard was not going to work. At the same time, we gained many benefits by pushing ourselves to be a widespread product used by many individuals and small businesses.
Growth slowed, conversion rates dropped
We made a lot of progress in becoming a sharing standard. We made partnerships with Feedly, Pocket, Echofon, Reeder, TweetCaster and many other apps and services. I believe these integrations are still incredibly useful for our users (I personally am using the Feedly and Pocket integrations daily).
One of the key learnings we had in fulfilling a large part of our original vision was that partnerships and integrations rarely give you distribution. A key part of this vision working for us was tied to the integrations leading to many new Buffer users. We certainly got a good number, however we always had much more success with signups direct from our own web and mobile apps.
Not only did we not get a significant number of new users from the integrations, we also observed a drastic drop in conversion rates (to active users and eventually paying customers) for people who came from 3rd party apps. In hindsight this is not too surprising, since these users are not in that app primarily to use Buffer.
The benefits of freemium
While we found many flaws in our original vision and eventually decided that we needed to make an adjustment, I couldn’t be happier with the result of that journey.
Luckily for us, generating revenue was always a key focus (we charged from day 1). Therefore, even though we focused on having a wide reach, we always looked at our conversion rates and cared about revenue. In the journey of growing to 1 million users, we grew to significant revenues, to the extent we could be profitable and not have pressure to raise further funding.
In addition to building a profitable business, we have a true freemium / SaaS scenario and scale to be able to grow by understanding user patterns and running a/b tests and other experiments. We have 2,500 new users every day and consistent conversion rates to our $10/mo awesome plan as well as $50+/mo business plans.
I’ve observed that as startups grow, they tend to move up market. They introduce more powerful offerings and charge more. They start doing enterprise sales. We’re even on this journey now. At the same time, it’s incredibly powerful to have a free or lower priced product and have a large top of the funnel. We’re lucky to have both, and it’s much harder to try to fill that room at the bottom later.
The valley of death
Something that’s become increasingly clear to me as I’ve traveled this path is that I think there is a dangerous middle ground between trying to be super widespread and mainstream (and monetizing via ads) and focusing much more on value and power (and monetizing via subscription payments).
The way I see it, is that if you want to monetize through ads you probably need 100M+ users. If you want to build a solid freemium offering you only need a few million users, if that. Pure SaaS and it’s even less. But if you build something that people won’t pay for directly and end up with only 10 or 20 million users, you might be in a tough spot.
We’re now completely focused on building a world-class freemium and SaaS product to solve problems around social media.
The new vision for Buffer
As a result of our learnings and reflection on the slowing growth, Leo and I had a series of conversations towards the end of last year and decided on our new vision:
The vision for Buffer is to be the simplest and most powerful social media tool, and to set the bar for great customer support.
When we decided to make the change, we chose to approach it in a lean way. We didn’t talk too much about it until it really started working. To begin with, we simply brought back higher priced plans and reached out to some key customers hitting the limits of existing plans.
Fast forward to today, we have over 1,000 business customers and it already contributes 15% of our revenue. I’m excited about our new path. We’ve found it is incredibly fun to work with larger customers who have real problems and a need for a powerful social media solution.
Have you made any key decisions around changing the direction of your startup? I’d love to hear about your experiences and learnings. If you have any questions about the journey we’ve had with Buffer or our new direction, leave a comment below!
I’ve always found it interesting to think about co-founder relationships. I’ve been in a few myself, some which were not completely successful and then more recently working with Leo for the last 3 years has been an absolute joy. It’s fascinating to me how co-founders need to be different in many ways and at the same time have shared values they are aligned on. It’s a real art to find someone who you work well with and trust.
I recently watched a video of an interview with DHH from Basecamp and found the audience question on co-founders interesting and very in-line with my own experiences on what makes a good match.
Complementing each other in skill-set
"When two men in business always agree, one of them is unnecessary." - William Wrigley Jr
I think it’s super valuable to have different strengths as founders. I often see fantastic products from great engineers and product people, where I believe the product should be used by far more people. It’s probably because the founders are not naturally inclined to do marketing, and so keep working on the product.
"I see a number of startups where the founders are too alike. Either they agree on everything or even worse they do the same thing. Like starting a company with two programmers - I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think you need skills, and you need mentality, to complement each other." - DHH
In the early days of Buffer, I reached a point with the product where it had a couple hundred users and some paying customers, and I knew in my head that I needed to switch to marketing. There was validation that the product in the exact form it was in, was already useful to people. There was clearly more people out there who would find it valuable as well. However as a developer it was a real challenge to be effective at switching to marketing instead of fixing bugs or building out new features. Luckily for me, that’s when Leo came on board as my co-founder and had a massive impact since he was a great marketer.
It’s also useful to have different mindsets on the business aspects too:
"For me and Jason on skills, Jason was all about design and I was all about programming. So that was just a natural fit right there. On running the business, Jason is more of a risk-taker and I’m more conservative. I’m more about running the numbers and making sure everything’s alright, and Jason’s more like let’s just rip away everything and try something new and take a leap. I think you need both of those things to pull the business in the right way." - DHH
For me and Leo, we’re both scrappy and take the lean mindset. At the same time, Leo is probably more inclined to push something out of the door extremely early, whereas I like to be a little more calculated and logical and get the best balance of learning and not wasting time by building something out without validation, but still shipping something quite polished.
One of the most interesting ways Leo and I complement each other is on “doing” vs “reflecting”. I often joke that if Leo and I each have a daily todo list with 5 items on it, there is absolutely no question that Leo will get through his 5 tasks. For me, I struggle at times to get through everything. I work hard to be productive, however I also like to take time to reflect on the direction we’re going and ponder changes. We both aspire to be more like each other in this regard: I’d love to just crank through more, and Leo says to me he’d like to reflect more and sometimes realize not to do some tasks. We talk very regularly and help each other, and we end up at a nice equilibrium.
Aligned with each other on values and vision
"At the same time, you have to have some overlap too. Jason and I obviously share a lot of opinions about how to run a business and what is important and our values are incredibly alike, in terms of creating a sustainable long-term business that does well for both its customers and its employees. So you can’t just be polar opposites and expect that everything’s going to be daisy. There’s got to be overlap on important cultural values in the company, but outside of that seek as much diversity as you can." - DHH
The hard part of finding a great co-founder is that you want to sufficiently complement each other, but at the same time it’s vital to agree on fundamental values and what you want to do with the company. If one of you wants to flip the company within a couple of years and the other wants to make it their life’s work, it’s going to be difficult to agree on key decisions.
From an early stage it became clear that Leo and I were very aligned on many of the values which became the Buffer culture. I introduced Leo to How to Win Friends and Influence People and we spent countless hours discussing the principles and examples. Leo has always had tremendous gratitude for the opportunities he has had and is one of the most positive and happy people I know, and that was something I aspired to focus on more. I always enjoyed being very open and transparent about my learnings and progress and this came completely naturally to Leo too and he enjoyed pushing us further in that direction.
How did you meet your co-founder and what are the key ways in which you complement each other? I’d love to hear about your experiences
One of the most exciting parts of the culture we’ve developed at Buffer for me is our international retreats. It’s also potentially something we’ve not shared that much about and can be misunderstood, so I wanted to write a little about why we choose to do retreats.
Three times a year we gather the whole company together. The last one was in Thailand (10 people), and our next is coming up in a month’s time in Cape Town (15 people). Buffer covers the expenses (flights, accommodation, most of the meals, fun activities).
It still blows my mind that we can have someone join the team and work together (very effectively) for several months without meeting in person. With chatting all day via HipChat and video calling frequently using Sqwiggle, we even get to know each other very well. However, there’s something magical that happens when you meet in person. In a retreat setting it’s even more powerful. We have casual meals together and do activities on off days. We can learn about what makes each other tick and what our true passions are.
Once you return to your own location (Buffer team members are spread across 12 cities on 5 continents), the conversations you have with team members are enhanced. You know the tone of somebody’s voice and the way they approach problems and discussions. You read their emails differently. This changes things, and is why we’ve found retreats to be not only a fun part of our culture, but an absolute necessity.
Live and work smarter, not harder
As a company, one of our values is to “live smarter, not harder”. This means to think about what affects how well we work and try to optimize to be more productive. It means that almost always, working more is not the answer. We’ve had a number of occasions where we’ve been at full capacity and feeling overwhelmed, and after a brainstorm figured out how to do more without spending more time or working through lunch.
In our “live smarter, not harder” value in the culture deck, we have the following point:
You choose to be at the single place on Earth where you are the happiest and most productive, and you are not afraid to find out where that is.
We do retreats so that everyone has the chance to experience new cultures and grow more open minded. Often team members will travel for some weeks around the retreat or stay in the location beyond the 10 days we spend together. I think this is great for people and helps Buffer as a whole.
Choosing not to live the deferred life plan
"And then there is the most dangerous risk of all — the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later." - Randy Komisar
One of my favorite things about doing retreats is that we’re choosing to travel right now. Often travel or moving can be something that you delay for many years. It’s easy to convince yourself that the only way to travel or explore is to work for 5 years and then take 6 months off between jobs. At Buffer, anyone can travel or move anytime. It’s hardly even noticeable.
This is important because as a startup we want to move fast and make decisions as soon as we see that they are necessary. Whether it’s killing a feature which is not getting much engagement or introducing a new support channel, it can be easy to put these things off. Especially big changes like adjusting our pricing or making salaries completely transparent, it’s easy to stay where we are and avoid change.
We try to weave this notion of doing what you love and what you’re passionate about and believe in, right into the culture of the company. Retreats stretch us and remind us that we can do whatever we want, even travel 25 hours across the other side of the world. Once you’re there, you realize it wasn’t that big of a deal, and you can push yourself in so many other ways too.
We get an insane amount done during the week together
When we go on retreat, it’s not a vacation (it’s as fun as one). We work together for a week and then we enjoy some awesome activities at the weekend (like jet skiing, visiting a tropical island by boat or going on safari).
We’re still figuring out the exact right setup and schedule for retreats. So far, hacking together has worked very well and become a key part of retreat week. We’re inspired by how Automattic do this and have scaled it:
"From our very first meetup of 8 people all the way through to last week’s at 122 people, we’ve always spent a good portion of the week co-working on projects and launching them at the end of the week."
Retreats are some of our most productive weeks of the year. In fact, at our last retreat in Pattaya, Thailand, we built most of Buffer for Business and launched it just a week later. Three months later, Buffer for Business generates over 15% of our total revenue, $60,000 last month.
Do you do company retreats? What have you found is the key benefit and where do you go?
Want to be part of a Buffer retreat? We’re looking for people to help us provide support and build awesome features for customers. Check out our openings →
It’s no secret that I’ve personally been hugely impacted by Eric Ries’ work and the Lean Startup movement. Buffer would not be where it is today without his writings and videos opening my mind to a different way of approaching a startup.
For me, lean is completely about building and approaching things in a way which minimizes the amount of wasted time and effort. A startup is a scary adventure to embark upon because there are so many unknowns. It’s different to a service business in that you have no idea whether your product will actually be adopted. As a result, it’s easy to accidentally build products or features which, in the end, don’t resonate as you had hoped.
Being disciplined about approaching things in a lean way is incredibly difficult. In theory it seems straight-forward. In practice it’s super challenging, and we’ve had some hits and some big misses too.
1. The founding of Buffer: going from an idea to paying customers in 7 weeks
When I finished studying, I was completely set on creating a startup. So I did just that, and I made it completely official. I told everyone I was doing a startup, I incorporated the business and we got a small government grant. I built a product and kept adding more to it. In the end, I hadn’t validated that it was enough of a pain point for people, and it grew very slowly.
With Buffer, I took a different approach. It was just a side project, and I was in no rush to call it more than that. I stopped myself as soon as I realized I’d spent a couple of days coding without validating the need. Then I sat down and thought about how I could see whether people need this product, without building it.
I created a landing page which looked just like it would if the product had existed. That’s the beauty of landing pages, they have almost the same flow through them whether the product exists or not. So I could see whether people would sign up for the product, and then ask them for their email at the end of the process.
I had email conversations and a couple of Skype calls with people who gave me their email. I talked about the problem I was solving and learned a huge amount from these interactions. This is known as customer development and I can’t recommend doing it highly enough.
This process proved to be a success. Through the conversations I learned that others had the same problem and were receptive to a solution. That gave me the confidence to build it, and 7 weeks later I had the first version of the product. 3 days after launch, someone started paying for Buffer. We’ve steadily grown recurring revenue since then. February just came to a close and revenue came in at $333,000.
2. Creating a brand new Buffer browser extension experience
One of Buffer’s key features right from the beginning has been that we have a browser extension which allows you to very easily share a web page or blog post you’re reading. You can share it right away or schedule it to be posted later to all the key social networks.
Throughout 2012 we saw a huge rise in sharing of pictures to Facebook, and we started sharing more pictures ourselves. We found they did very well and received a lot of engagement. That’s when we had the idea to transform our extension to allow sharing of different types of media: links, text or picture. We wanted to make it super easy to share a picture from the page you’re looking at.
So (and here comes our big mistake) we got to work building a brand new version of our browser extension to allow you to pick images off the page to share to Facebook or Twitter. It looked a little like this:
We spent several months working on this alongside other product tasks, and spent some time polishing the experience. We loved the experience ourselves, we were enjoying using it to much more easily share pictures from the page. Then, we were starting to think about when we would launch it to everyone, we though “maybe we can let a few people try it out first”. We almost launched it to everyone at once, which would have been a very bad idea.
We pondered when we could get some people to test it, we thought maybe we could send an email in the next week. Then we thought, why not do that tomorrow? Or how about we send a Tweet right now and ask people if they want to try it. So that’s what we did, and we got on Skype with people and asked them to share their screen and reaction as we switched on the new extension experience.
The feedback from those screen-sharing Skype calls was shocking. 6 out of 7 people were completely confused about the new UI. They thought the picture tab would let them choose the thumbnail for the link they were sharing to Facebook (you could already choose that in the link tab). The biggest mistake we made was that we knew exactly what we wanted to use the feature for ourselves, so the UI made complete sense to us. It wasn’t clear at all for someone seeing it fresh. The worst part is we could have known this months earlier if we’d just done a few mockups and shown those to these same users.
3. Brand New Buffer: a completely redesigned web experience and new iPhone app
In the Summer of 2012 we started to think about some key improvements we should make to the web dashboard for Buffer. We had accounts listed horizontally and this meant there was a natural limit by the width of the page. We wanted to create an interface that would be more flexible. What started as a simple adjustment from a horizontal menu to a vertical menu became a half year project including a complete redesign, new features and unified web and mobile app experiences and design.
One of the core tenets of lean startup is to have small batch sizes. Somehow that went completely out of the window and we decided that we needed to group all of these changes together. We got hungry for a big splash launch and decided that’s what we’d aim for. We envisaged being on all the tech sites and having a surge of new users.
As with everything, this project took longer than we expected. In the end, we managed to wrap it up before the end of the year, which was a relief.
We were successful in getting that big splash we had dreamed of. We emailed our several hundred thousand users and wrotetwo blog posts. We were covered by Lifehacker, TechCrunch, Forbes, VentureBeat, TheNextWeb and more. I remember the excitement as I took this screenshot of our Google Analytics real-time where we had 766 people on Buffer at the same time:
It was several months later when we started to truly focus on metrics and growth that we saw the mistake this big launch was. The problem with grouping all your changes together is that it’s difficult to see how each of the individual changes has impacted everything.
From one day to the next, we had reduced our overall activation by 25%. We count a user as “activated” if they connect a social network and post at least once using Buffer. Activation dropped from 51% to 39% as a result of this launch. In the cloud of buzz and signups, we had no idea and no reason to suspect there was a problem. Upon closer inspection, it was even worse. Taking activation for web by itself, it had actually dropped by 50%. The new design and signup flow caused activation the web contribution to go from 24% to 12%:
The only positive finding was that our new iPhone app was certainly a success, almost doubling activation for people signing up from the iPhone app:
The combination of activation decreasing so much on web and iPhone activation increasing made it hard to see there was a problem. It took us several months to adjust our signup flow to bring the activation back up to previous levels. If we had a/b tested and looked at the metrics of the new web experience with a small percentage of our users before going live with it, we could have identified the drop in activation and fixed it before our big launch. We could have had months of higher activation.
The lesson from this for us is to always launch things in small batches, and to measure the impact of everything we do.
4. How Buffer for Business came into existence, and how it became 25% of our revenue in just a few months
Half way through 2013, Leo and I started to think about our vision for Buffer and whether it was playing out in a way we were happy with. Our vision was to be a sharing platform across the web and apps, and we’d made a lot of progress with our Buffer button across websites and blogs, and our iOS SDK inside Feedly, Pocket, Instapaper, Echofon and others. Our growth was still good, but it was slowing.
We had the amazing chance to meet with Jason Lemkin, who is incredibly experienced and sharp about what it takes to succeed as a SaaS company. We had thought for some time about expanding Buffer and having a product focused on business customers. So far, we’d talked ourselves out of it with the common argument that we should stay focused. Jason gave us some of the best and most controversial advice I’ve had, which was to “do everything, just try it”.
We left that meeting excited and decided we might as well move ahead and see what happens. My co-founder Leo took the lead on investigating the social media problems and needs of businesses.
We had two key product ideas which could be attractive to businesses. The first one we were super excited about: a way to allow the whole organization to connect their personal social media accounts and help spread the news of product launches and press releases. We thought it could be huge for marketing departments. Our second idea was an extension of Buffer, to make it work for businesses and agencies with large numbers of social media accounts and team members.
Leo reached out to several existing customers hitting the limits of our $10/mo plan and jumped on dozens of video calls. He asked them about their problems and shared our ideas to see if they resonated. We were so excited about the idea of supercharging marketing by making use of the whole company’s employees, and were surprised by how few people wanted that product. The best feedback Leo had was from a head of marketing who said:
"I can’t rely on employees to do our marketing. It’s a nice to have, but we wouldn’t pay for that alone."
The idea to make Buffer more powerful was a huge hit. People at the limit of the $10/mo plan were desperate to use Buffer with more than 12 social accounts, which was our current limit. We had a lot of pent-up demand.
So we moved ahead on allowing people to use Buffer for more than the current $10/mo plan. We reflected on how to do this in a lean way and came to the conclusion we could do it without any new features or work on billing. We charged them through the feature to create and change a billing plan in Stripe, and put them onto a plan in our admin area that removed the 12 accounts limit. With no new product or marketing, we suddenly had 50 customers and Buffer for Business generated $10,000 in new revenue, 6% of our total.
We then kept talking to these customers and discovered a handful of additional problems we could solve for them and include in a new product, which we launched as Buffer for Business a couple of months later. It’s been a big hit and is already 25% of our monthly revenue.
Let me know if you have any thoughts or questions about our focus on being lean at Buffer. I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
It’s often interesting to look back and think about how much I’ve learned in the past year or two. Especially areas where I almost had no understanding at all. Company culture is one of those areas. Sure, I had come across the term and I even took an organizational behavior course while studying, but it only really became real for me when I was running a team and it started to grow.
How we became focused on culture-fit
In the first two and a half years of Buffer we slowly grew to 11 people. In December 2012 (2 years in) we were 7 people and I had started to think about company culture. I envisaged we would start to add more definition around what our culture was, and in early 2013 we did so, collaboratively creating our culture deck.
It was right around this time and the few months following where we had quite a lot of turbulence. We realized that as we started to put together the culture deck, a number of our friends we were working with were not completely aligned in living the values. We had to make a number of difficult team changes. Letting people go was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, especially in the cases where they were good friends.
Since then, we have hired (and fired) in a very focused way based on our culture. We also introduced Buffer Bootcamp, a 45 day period for us as well as the new team member to decide whether it feels like a great fit. Everyone goes through the Bootcamp (there are no exceptions) and usually people receive several pieces of feedback. The ratio that’s emerged is that around 70% of people move on from Bootcamp to become fully on board team members.
How the team has grown at Buffer over 3 years
I thought it might be interesting to take a look back at the growth of the team in the last few years. We’ve been running just over 3 years, and we’re now 17 people.
The path hasn’t been completely smooth. For the first year and a half we didn’t fire anybody. In a lot of ways, we thought we had it all figured out and prided ourselves in having never let anyone go. Here’s the reality of startup life, at least in terms of how we’ve experienced it:
The chart above reflects one of my most difficult and important learnings so far with Buffer: that if you want to have a great team and a great company, you’re inevitably going to fire people at times. And I think ‘fire’ is often a strong term (but a correct one) since for us it has usually been a culture-fit decision rather than productivity or a case of someone doing something that would be cause for immediate dismissal (this has not happened in our journey so far).
I’ve since become comfortable that our team growth is much healthier if it looks like the second half of the graph. It’s worth noting that although it looks like a smooth upward trend in the last few months, this is simply because we’re hiring faster. We’ve brought people on and let others go in the same month a number of times. I believe that there will always be people who don’t gel with the team and where it makes sense to part ways. We’ve decided that at Buffer this will be part of the process of creating a team which is super aligned and fun. As Carolyn has put it to me before, at Buffer we’re “birds of a feather”. It’s a place where if you’re a good fit, you’ll feel like you’ve found home.
How has the team at your startup or company grown? I’d love to hear about your experiences.
I’ve written in the past about how I see the role of a CEO to be one where you are repeatedly firing yourself. Joe Kraus brought my attention to thinking about the role in this way, and it has been an incredibly powerful mindset as Buffer has grown.
It’s been fascinating to see how this idea of firing yourself has been reflected not only in the evolution of my role, but also our co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Leo, and our Chief Technical Officer Sunil. I’d say it is probably happening right now for Carolyn, our Chief Happiness Officer, too.
I thought it might be interesting to take a look back on the journey so far and share the times where myself or others have fired ourselves.
When to first think about firing yourself
It seems quite clear to me now that we’re 15 people and I’ve replaced myself a few times, that this notion of ‘firing yourself’ is one which is very useful to embrace as a founder. As a founder you’re always thinking about the whole business, and so by hiring people for your key skill tasks, they can focus fully and do a better job.
I have the opportunity to regularly meet with founders and recently my meetings have caused me to think about when the right time might be to start thinking about firing yourself from the first key skill-based activity you are working on.
First you need to achieve product/market fit
Before any kind of scaling, I think it’s essential to hit product/market fit. This is the point when it’s clear your product ‘works’. People are sticking around, they’d be super disappointed if you went away, and you’re growing fast. You can feel the potential when you’ve hit this stage.
Even once you’ve hit product/market fit, you probably want to keep doing your skill tasks long enough to truly see how useful it will be to have someone else in that role full-time. For your first skill-role, perhaps coding or marketing depending on whether you’re a technical or non-technical founder, you will probably not have the challenge of wanting to let go of the role too soon. Most people hold on too long, and sacrifice slow down growth of the company. I certainly have done this myself. However, once you’ve fired yourself from that first task, for subsequent ones which you’re learning from scratch you might want to do them long enough to see the full opportunity and understand the area well enough to ask the right questions when hiring.
Start doing many things at once (it will become chaotic)
As a founder, especially as a CEO, you’re probably going to be doing many things at once. You’ll at least be thinking about many things at once. My role has shifted from actually doing many things to helping to run many things. As you grow you might find you have a larger impact by becoming an ‘editor’ and thinking about how the team can move faster, as well as helping to refine some of the details and keep everything moving in the right direction.
As you gain more traction, you will find increasingly many areas of the product and company to stay focused on. New useful roles will emerge which you didn’t have to begin with. What’s worked well for me is to embrace this expansion and try to handle many of these areas. When everything feels somewhat chaotic, it’s a great time to think about firing yourself from one or more of the areas. And that chaos is healthy I think. It can be hard, I’ve had many times where I felt I was letting people down by being stretched in many directions.
You’ll start leaving money on the table, so become aggressive about firing yourself
Once you’ve grown to a stage where you’re juggling many different areas and key metrics are growing healthily month to month, you’ll start to leave money on the table by holding onto tasks. You’ll be doing a less adequate job in many areas than someone else could who is more experienced in that speciality and has an opportunity to focus on the task full-time. It’s key to start being reflective about areas of the company for which this is happening. It’s then great to start hiring to remove yourself from the day-to-day of some of the roles.
The times my co-workers and I have fired ourselves
I first fired myself in a small way when Leo and I were fundraising after AngelPad demo day in the last 2 months of 2011. We needed to keep our traction going, so Tom had come on board as our first developer other than myself, and we also hired a contract marketer so that Leo could step back a little from the content marketing. It worked well: we continued to grow at a great pace and managed to secure $450,000 in funding from great investors.
A couple of months later, our support volume had grown quite high and Leo had been the one who decided to take it on so that Tom and I could continue building out the product. We soon realized that it was quite hard to manage, and that we wanted to do more than just ‘manage’ customer support. It’s now a core part of the vision of Buffer which is to be the simplest and most powerful social media tool, and to set the bar for great customer support. That’s when we started to grow our Happiness team and Leo gradually let go of support completely, to stay focused on Marketing, PR and Partnerships/BD.
Half way through 2012 while in Tel Aviv, we realized that Android was a huge potential area of growth and so I spent a couple of months learning Android and preparing a new version of our very minimal app which had thus far been developed by someone on a freelance basis. It was a real struggle to fit in learning Android as well as making progress on the actual app, alongside all my other tasks which were less ‘maker’ and more ‘manager’. This is when I wrote my article about transitioning from a maker to a manager. Shortly afterwards Sunil joined the team as an Android hacker. He eventually fired himself from this role, too, and became our CTO.
In late 2012 and early 2013 we started to grow the engineering team further, and I began to code less and less. My key focuses were hiring, culture, investor relations and overall product and growth coordination. About 3 months into 2013 I decided to drop coding and become more focused on product. Stopping thinking so much about technical details helped me stay focused on the needs of the user.
Sunil’s role evolved a lot in the first half of 2013. Tom finished at Buffer early in the year (now doing great things with Sqwiggle which we use on a daily basis) and Sunil quickly switched over to Web and helped us grow a lot there. We then started looking for someone to take over Android so that he could focus on Web and eventually get into a position of overseeing all of technology at Buffer. In April we made him CTO and Carolyn became our CHO.
The most recent example of firing myself has been to step away from the day-to-day operations on the product side of things. I’m still very much involved with setting the direction and being an editor of the product. I try to be one of the most active users of Buffer (I originally built it to solve a pain-point I experienced so this isn’t hard) and I often spot things we need to adjust.
Stepping away from product has probably been the hardest example of this concept yet for me. I always viewed coding as a means to create something, but product itself is that creation itself. In December 2013 it hit me hard that by keeping hold of the role I was neglecting to think about the business as a whole, and I knew I needed to find someone to run it within the next few months.
I originally thought we might look for someone outside Buffer to help run product, then I chatted with our advisor Hiten and he planted the idea in my mind that I could ask people in the team to take over different parts of the role. I bounced the idea off Brian, our designer, and he immediately took to it. It only took him a week to be doing a better job of product than I ever was. Oh, and it probably comes as no surprise that we’re now looking for our 2nd designer.
When you do something yourself, you’re not doing it well
Having thought about the concept of firing yourself further in the last few weeks, I’ve come to a key realization: if you’re doing something yourself as a founder of a post-product/market fit startup, you’re probably not doing it well.
The way I see it is that if you are doing a task yourself alongside juggling all the other duties you naturally have as a founder, you have to make compromises. To put things into perspective, the areas we’ve identified as key tasks at Buffer currently are: Product (web and mobile), Engineering, Marketing, PR, Customer Support, Partnerships/BD, Admin, Growth, HR, Recruiting and Investor Relations. There are probably more, too. As CEO I have to have all these things in my head, and oversee half of them directly. As COO Leo oversees the other half.
With this much to think about, anything Leo and I are doing directly ourselves right now has to be done only ‘partially’. We both look for the 20% of the work which will get us 80% of the benefits, and can’t do much more than that for everything we’re working on.
Therefore, as a founder, I think it’s important to approach ‘firing yourself’ as a cycle, embrace it and enjoy letting go. You have to be happy to be an expert of nothing.
It’s an exciting time for Buffer. Toby Osbourn just joined and we’re now 16 people. Toby joined us as a Backend Hacker, and he’s been a joy to work with so far. Within just a few days we can all feel his impact.
In the first few days, Toby has been fantastic with asking questions and learning about the Buffer culture. One thing he asked me is how we think about email at Buffer. I thought that writing a blog post as the answer could help lots of other founders too.
Buffer Value #2: Default to transparency
One of our highest values at Buffer is to default to transparency, and we aim to live to this value in many dimensions. We stick to this through good times and bad, and we had a chance to demonstrate this recently with our unfortunate hacking incident. It was amazing to see the support we received by staying transparent and trusting our customers with the full details of everything happening.
Within the Buffer team we have complete compensation transparency and every team member knows each others’ salary and equity stake through stock options. We go all the way - we share whether we’re fundraising, we share when we have acquisition interest, and we share the bank balance. In fact, we share the bank balance and revenue numbers publicly.
Transparency builds trust and triggers better decisions
"lots of traditional, widely accepted, and perfectly legal business practices just can’t be trusted by customers, and will soon become extinct, driven to dust by rising levels of transparency, increasing consumer demand for fair treatment, and competitive pressure" - Don Peppers and Martha Rogers in Extreme Trust: Honesty as a Competitive Advantage
There are many reasons we default to transparency at Buffer, and perhaps the most important is that I genuinely believe it is the most effective way to build trust. This means trust amongst our team but also trust from users, customers, potential future customers and the wider public who encounter us in any way. For example, we have a whole blog dedicated to sharing everything about how we run the company.
By sharing all our decisions, numbers, successes and failures, we are showing our customers and supporters that we are responsible and strive to do the right thing.
Ultimately, if you want people to make smart decisions, they need context and all available information. And certainly if you want people to make the same decisions that you would make, but in a more scalable way, you have to give them the same information you have.
Defaulting to transparency with email communication
Narrowing down to the aspect of team emails, this is an area where we also strive for complete openness and transparency. Stripe do something similar and provided great inspiration for us.
When you start working at Buffer, it can come as a little bit of a shock. Instantly you’re receiving every email exchange between team members, in every single team. If you’re in our Happiness team you still see all the emails going on in the engineering and product team. You see design iterations and progress on our mobile apps. You see emails about our content marketing and work towards getting press.
This might sound a little crazy, and probably certainly seems totally overwhelming. But that’s the price we’ve decided it’s worth to have complete transparency. Nothing is more important to us. We have chosen to be open, and we find ways to handle the volume.
You also see emails of external communications happening. Interview requests, getting press and discussions with partners.
When you experience it, there is a magical aspect to it. You learn how Leo goes about getting us in all the top tech news sites when we launch a new feature. It all contributes to a faster pace of learning for the whole team, and means that everyone naturally knows a lot of what is going on.
How email transparency works in practice
We have several internal email lists, which only Buffer team members can send to:
team@ - this goes to the entire team
engineers@ - includes all our engineering team
heroes@ - for our happiness hero (customer support) team
crafters@ - related to content marketing
design@ - for design discussions
product@ - for product feedback and signals
metrics@ - anything to do with company metrics
biz@ - related to buffer for business
bizdev@ - for BD activities (partnerships, integrations)
marketing@ - related to press activities
Whenever you email something to do with Buffer, you almost always cc or bcc one of these lists. For example:
email a specific team member and cc a list
email an external person and bcc a list
email to a list to notify a whole team
The general rules are as follows:
if it’s “to” you, you’re expected to reply
if you’re specifically cc’d, you’re expected to read it
if it’s your own team that’s cc’d, you should read that
you should strive to always cc or bcc a list
Handling the risk of email overload
Admittedly with a growing team the overall email volume has gone up a lot in the past couple of months. We’re so bullish about transparency that this isn’t a huge concern for us. That said there are a few things we’re doing to ease that volume:
we’re starting to encourage filtering out some emails between other team members so they’re not in your inbox but they’re easily accessible and browsable
transparency often simply means that you can access that information when you want to, not that it’s pushed in front of your face
we’ve set up a private Facebook group to share links and emails that don’t need a reply. The concept of a “like” is proving to be very powerful for messages where you want to show appreciation but might not need to reply
Times when we might keep email private
There are a few times where email transparency doesn’t feel quite right. Usually this revolves around specific personal circumstances or a potential upcoming team change (e.g. a promotion or thinking about a firing). With this said, we truly strive for transparency and want to improve here too. Currently we try to always ask each other whether we can accelerate some of these discussions and bring in transparency.
How do you handle email at your company? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.
Three of our key values at Buffer are “Always choose positivity and happiness”, “Have a focus on self-improvement” and “Live smarter, not harder”. As a result of these particular values, in the last few months I have tried to be quite deliberate about living as fully to the values as I can. Specifically, it has meant finding ways to work on improving my happiness and the quality of my sleep. I wanted to share a couple of neat small techniques which have helped me.
Forcing a smile and feeling the flow of gratitude and happiness
"It is not joy that makes us grateful. It is gratitude that makes us joyful." - David Rast
Åsa, one of our awesome Happiness Heroes at Buffer, Tweeted the above quote, and I have found it to be very true. I think there’s a clear link between gratitude and happiness, and this is an interesting correlation to take advantage of.
This morning I was walking to a meeting, and for some reason I didn’t feel as upbeat as I like to be. I was walking along, perhaps a little more sluggish than usual. I think my head was tilted down towards the ground, rather than feeling calm and confident and looking straight ahead.
As soon as I noticed how I felt, I decided to experiment with something. I’d discussed with Leo and others in the team the fact that smiling can actually be the trigger to feel happier, rather than needing to feel happy in order to smile. Leo had written on the Buffer blog about what happens to the brain when you smile.
So, I simply opened my mouth slightly, and started to force a smile. Even the smallest hint towards a smile changed my mood right away. I then adjusted my posture, looked up to the amazing clear San Francisco sky, and smiled wider. I then felt gratitude that I’ve been lucky enough to find myself in this place, and be able to live here in this magical city. These few minutes completely transformed my mood.
I’ve noticed that for myself, I have a habit of walking around with my mouth closed, and this makes it a little less natural for me to easily break into a smile. I’ve started to open my mouth more, and somehow this has helped me smile more (and make me happier). This seems to help me a lot.
Reflecting on why I woke up many times during the night
Back in March we introduced a perk at Buffer where everyone in the team gets a Jawbone UP. Since then I’ve become quite interested in my sleep and how I can improve it. I have always struggled with sleep, and sometimes convinced myself that I’m the kind of person who doesn’t need that much sleep. When studying I would often get by on 5 or 6 hours sleep. The fact is, however, that when I get 7 hours sleep compared to 6, I can feel a big difference in my focus and productivity during the day.
So in the last few months I started to experiment with all kinds of different things to improve my sleep. I tried wearing earplugs, going for evening walks to wind down, opening a window to cool down my room, etc. A key thing I found out by having the Jawbone UP and seeing the statistics of my sleep, was that I frequently wake up in the night. I then realized that I often wake up to go to the bathroom. Once I discovered this, I tried to stop the waking by drinking less before sleeping. This didn’t seem to stop me waking up, however.
I then began to start thinking about what happens when I wake up and go to the bathroom. When going to the bathroom of course I turn the light on, and this immediately starts to wake me up further. It also naturally led to me washing my hands, and in that process I found myself looking in the mirror and noticing sleep in my eyes. I’d therefore wash my face. By the end of this, I was almost completely awake.
Since I had conceded that I might not stop the waking, I decided to try something else. When I awoke, I simply stayed lying in bed and didn’t get up to go to the bathroom. I didn’t really need to go to the bathroom that bad. Interestingly, this small adjustment has improved my sleep massively, and has led to the difference you can see below:
With the same amount of time in bed, I can get around an extra hour of sleep, just by avoiding getting out of bed to go to the bathroom. It blew my mind how that small change could have this impact. And of course I sleep every single night, and so this leads to better focus and productivity every single day. Wow.
These are just two interesting small techniques I discovered while reflecting on my happiness and my sleep. Are there any small changes like these that you use to help you succeed or feel happier?
One of the things I enjoy most about building a company is to focus on culture, and to think about how we can create a team which is a joy to be part of. A large part of this is creating a set of values and trying to gather people who feel at home amongst each other.
A realization my co-founder Leo and I had shortly after this was that if we truly want to focus on creating a great culture, it is inevitable that some people won’t work out and we would have to ask them to leave the company.
There is very little written on the subject of firing people, and it’s a hard thing to talk about, especially when you are still small. However, one of our highest cultural values is transparency, and for some time I have felt we were not being true to our values by not talking about this.
The journey to the current Buffer team
To put things in perspective here: Buffer is now a team of 13, and in the journey so far we’ve actually let 6 people go. For us, we’ve luckily never had financial struggles, all of these decisions were based around culture-fit. It’s hard work to hire people and even harder to fire people, so a team of 13 feels rather small for the efforts we’ve been through so far. At the same time, this team of 13 is a real privilege to be part of.
Hiring for skills vs hiring for culture
When I started Buffer, I had no real idea what culture is. We grew quite fast, and my intuition was to fill the gaps we had with the most skilled people I could find.
Once we reached 7 people, I started to see the importance of building a cohesive team that works well together and is a lot of fun to be part of. A large part of this is defining the culture and finding people who are a great fit for that culture. That’s when we put our culture into words and created our cultural values.
Once we had put our culture into words, that’s when we started to much more rigorously hire based on the values. In fact, it’s really hard to hire for culture-fit until you have your values in words:
“‘Cultural Fit’ is only a valid hiring criteria if you can accurately define your culture” - Chris Yeh
With our culture in place, we’ve evolved our hiring process and we focus a lot on the culture we have. This means finding people who are positive and happy, with a focus on self-improvement, who have gratitude, are humble and are comfortable with our extreme transparency. We have what we call a ‘Buffer Bootcamp’, essentially a 45 day contract period with 1:1 meetings for feedback at 2 weeks, 1 month and 45 days. A lot of this is to see whether Buffer is a good fit for the person joining the team.
With this more rigorous process, we found that some people didn’t fit the culture and letting people go was inevitable. Surprisingly, the very act of letting people go has shaped our culture more than anything:
"I think some of the core decisions that impact culture are who you let on the bus and who you make sure gets off the bus. The values that determine these decisions really shape your culture. Similarly, who gets rewarded and promoted within your company really shapes your culture. So, it’s the actual every day operating decisions that most shape your culture." - Dave Kashen
Culture is not about right or wrong
Although we’ve let 6 people go, these were all great people and they all did fantastic work. We just realized that they were not a perfect fit for our culture, so it made sense to part ways.
I would even go a step further and say that keeping people around who are not a great culture-fit is one of the worst things that could happen to someone. It has almost always been a mutual feeling when I had the conversation to let someone go: they felt some relief. I even have this quote on my wall to remind myself to think in this way:
"Waiting too long before acting is equally unfair to the people who need to get off the bus. For every minute you allow a person to continue holding a seat when you know that person will not make it in the end, you’re stealing a portion of his life, time that he could spend finding a better place where he could flourish." - Jim Collins
Why letting people go is part of the process
I think firing someone is perhaps one of the hardest things you have to learn as a founder. Another key realization for me has been that letting people go is a continual part of growing a great team.
No matter how awesome our hiring process is, it’s inevitable that sometimes the person is not a great fit. Now that we have grown to 13 people and had to make tough team changes along the way, we’ve started to see a ratio emerge. We now know not to be surprised if about 1 in 4 people we hire doesn’t work out. It helps to know this possibility in advance.
"If you are super-scrupulous about your hiring process, you’ll still have maybe a 70% success rate of a new person really working out — if you’re lucky." - Marc Andreessen
This is probably one of the hardest areas of learning I’ve experienced as a CEO. I’ve spent a lot of the last 10 months thinking this through, reading as much as I could about it and getting lots of advice. We’re still at the very beginning, but it is comforting to have got to a point where this is a bit less scary.
Have you had to let people go while building your company? What do you think about the priority which should be placed on culture-fit? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.
Buffer is a fully distributed team. It’s a decision I had to make at the end of 2012, and it’s interesting to reflect on that decision now. I am happy to report that I am in love with the choice we made to be distributed all across the world.
How Buffer is set up
When I say we’re a distributed team, I mean that we’re literally spread across the whole planet. Buffer is a team of 12 right now, and here are the locations of everyone in the team:
In addition, Michelle was in San Francisco until just a week ago, Andy regularly travels and Åsa just took a few months trip back to Sweden (she normally resides in Sydney, Australia).
6 reasons being distributed is so exciting
I think the distributed team discussion is often focused around the challenges. I wanted to share from our experience the fun side of being distributed, which I think far outweighs the challenges:
1. Our team is super productive
The thing about hiring people for a distributed team is that they need to be self-motivated and productive working at home, coffee shops or a co-working space. We have a 45-day contract period to see how this goes and we look especially for people who have worked as freelancers or on startups. Everyone on board is incredibly smart and it’s humbling to work with them.
2. Team members have incredible amounts of freedom
Have a family event coming up and need to travel on Friday? No problem. Want to take off to Bali or Gran Canaria for a few weeks and work from there? Awesome - please share photos :) These things have all happened and are regular occurrences within our distributed team. It’s the little things too, like being able to avoid a commute and spend more time with family. We don’t have working hours and we don’t measure hours at all. We’re all excited about our vision and we focus on results, balance, and sustained productivity.
3. It feels like the future
Even being able to share the locations of all my co-workers when I meet others and chat about Buffer is so much fun and exciting. I think it provides a great story rather than all of us being in the same office each day. People ask how we manage it and I share our workflows and tools. We call HipChat our office, and a number of Google Hangouts are our conference rooms. I genuinely believe that how we’re set up will be very normal in a few years. There are certainly challenges and we’re still figuring a lot of it out. It’s fun and a huge privilege to be able to be part of this innovation and experiment and share our learnings.
4. I’m learning so much about the world
People within the team speak lots of different languages and talking with each other we learn about what it’s like to grow up elsewhere in the world. We think carefully about shaping our culture further and how our choices might affect the various cultures within the team. Carolyn recently has kindly been educating us about Nashville:
I enjoy having internat’l coworkers for *many* reasons, but explaining the concepts of “honky tonks” and “line dancing” is high on the list!
5. We travel the world to work together 3 times a year
Part of the DNA of Buffer is that we traveled all over the world for much of the first two years. This is something that has been sustained and is part of our values (and many in the team have lived up to this value by traveling as part of the team).
In order to have deliberate face-to-face time together to bond and have fun, we have 3 Buffer Retreats per year, where we gather the whole team in a single location. We spend a week working together and also do activities like sightseeing, boating and jet-skiing. We had our first in San Francisco (and Lake Tahoe) and next time we’ll be heading to a beach in Thailand!
6. Timezones make you awesome
Finally, you can look at timezones as an inconvenience, or you can embrace them and discover the magic of the time difference.
A key part of our vision is to set the bar for customer support. We obsessively track happiness of our customers and our speed to respond to them. We have almost a million users and we reply to 50% of emails within 1 hour and 75% within 6 hours. We do this with a Happiness Hero team of just 3, and we couldn’t achieve this level of service without being spread across multiple timezones.
Timezones are a huge help for our development cycle too - with engineers in the US, UK and Asia, we literally never stop coding.
Do you have experience of working in or growing a fully distributed team? Or do you have any thoughts about working in this way? I’d love to hear from you.
This article is inspired by Startup Edition in response to “What advice would you give young entrepreneurs?”
I feel incredibly lucky that I managed to jump on board the path of building a startup. Having hit upon a product that solved a key pain for many people, Buffer has grown rather fast. We now have over 850,000 users and the team is 12 people.
When I reflect on how quickly things happened and what it has required of me, the first thing that comes to mind is Paul Graham's essay entitled How to Make Wealth. In particular, this part resonates with me:
You can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years. Imagine the stress of working for the Post Office for fifty years. In a startup you compress all this stress into three or four years.
There’s a lot to learn if you aspire to build a startup. I have thoroughly enjoyed the journey, and I can only recommend it to others. I can’t think of a better way to lead a fulfilling life. Here are 6 suggestions I have if you happen to be getting started along this road:
1. Experiment. Lots.
"If you’re not already doing a side project, I’d recommend starting one. Although they can complicate your schedule and make life busier, they are one of the few consistent keys I’ve observed in almost anyone who has impressive accomplishments." - Scott Young
I’ve mentioned previously that the Internet is littered with my past attempts to create a successful startup. Even before I knew I truly wanted to build a startup, I played around with countless side projects and they are spread across the web, too.
I think there is often a misconception that to be successful you need to focus and put all your eggs in one basket. That’s not how it happened for me. I tried a ton of different things, and I started Buffer on the side while working full-time as a freelance developer. The key is to focus once you have something that works, that gains traction and people love. Until then, I say experiment away.
2. Stay inspired.
"People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing - that’s why we recommend it daily." - Zig Ziglar
Looking back to the early days of my first startup attempt, I think something that kept me going was that I continually read books about startups and entrepreneurs and watched as many interviews of founders as I could find. In fact, I was especially humbled to be invited to share my story on Mixergy precisely because I have watched tens of interviews by Andrew Warner and they always inspired me to keep pushing forward.
It’s true that at some point you have to stop soaking up the motivation and actually get to work. However, I think a lot of people underestimate how powerful it can be to be take in the learnings of others. Especially in the early days when you might not necessarily be surrounded by others trying to do startups, I think staying inspired in this way can plant that spark inside to help you make it happen.
3. Travel the world and move.
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." – Mark Twain
Travel is something that I always thought would be fun, and I never imagined the impact it could have for me. From simply moving a hundred miles from my hometown of Sheffield to Birmingham in the UK, to then traveling several continents and living in San Francisco, Hong Kong and Tel Aviv, I’ve been extremely lucky to have experienced completely different cultures and meet great people.
I truly believe that if you choose to travel you’re immediately much more likely to succeed with whatever you are trying to do. Leaving what you know and stepping into uncertainty, you naturally become more open-minded and create new opportunities for yourself.
"You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with." - Jim Rohn
One of the most interesting side-effects of moving and traveling a lot has been that in every new place I have settled in, I have had the chance to rethink every part of my life. I reflect on what kind of place I want to live, how close I want to be to all amenities, what routine I want to adopt and even who I want to hang out around.
The clear example of the power of adjusting your group of friends is that your school friends probably aren’t all entrepreneurs. The thing with doing a startup is that it’s an unusual path and one where there are far more reasons it can go wrong than can go right. If you truly want to succeed, surrounding yourself with other optimists is one sure way to have much better odds. The cool thing is, these are really fun people to be around.
I strive every day to meet (and hire) more people I can learn from.
5. Stay laser focused on building something people want.
"In nearly every failed startup, the real problem was that customers didn’t want the product." - Paul Graham
In my experience, all that really matters is to try and find a real problem to solve. What it comes down to is whether you have hit product/market fit. If you have, you’ll know it, and you’ll start to get traction.
If what you’ve built isn’t working, keep experimenting with new ideas.
6. Be open and vocal
"If you have an apple, and I have an apple, and we swap, we each still only have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we swap, we each have two ideas." - George Bernard Shaw
Before Buffer, I had a few previous startup ideas that weren’t too successful. One of the things that is easier to reflect on in hindsight is that luckily during that time I was Tweeting, blogging, going along to events and generally getting to know a lot of people.
When people ask me what my initial marketing was to get Buffer started, the truth I have to share is that my marketing consisted of sharing the idea with the 1,700 Twitter followers I had at the time. I attribute my previous openness to the fact that I had these followers to help me get Buffer started. As a result, I completely agree with Leah Bursque’s advice:
"Talk to every single person you meet about your idea. Talk until they tell you to shut up. Discover new questions and patterns so you can test and refine your idea. Then find more people to talk to."
What advice would you give to an aspiring startup founder? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Read more on this topic from an awesome group of entrepreneurs at Startup Edition.