How my co-founder and I structure ourselves as CEO and COO

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. Its 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!

Photo credit: Hans Splinter

Expert of nothing

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

5 reasons as a CEO you should develop a habit of daily meditation

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

The maker/manager transition phase

Paul Graham has a fantastic article on the topic of scheduling work as a maker and as a manager, which I’ve drawn insights from and I know many others have too. Here’s a key part of it:

One reason programmers dislike meetings so much is that they’re on a different type of schedule from other people. Meetings cost them more.

The great piece is focused around two sets of distinct people in a startup: makers (typically coders) and managers (those with lots of meetings). The interesting thing I’ve found is that as a startup founder you often have to transition from a maker to a manager, and there will also be a period of time when you need to be both at once. I wanted to share my experience of dealing with the transition from maker to manager.

The maker focus

In the early days, being comfortable in a “maker” schedule, for example cranking out lots of code or content fast, is essential. Of course, there is an element of “manager” activities whether it’s getting press or doing customer development, but a large portion of the work around building a great product and gaining traction is “maker” work by nature.

The key question to ask, is, is 1 hour of my time better spent “making” or “managing”? In the first few months, you’re likely just a couple of guys, and you can’t move faster by delegating than by just getting stuck in and doing it yourself. For almost the first year of Buffer, I’d say Leo and I were mostly in “maker” schedules, where we would chat briefly for a small portion of the day, then just get on with our tasks.

I think as founders we all want to be visionary and do more than just write code, but to get to that stage we have to learn to thrive in the maker schedule and get the product off the ground.

The maker/manager split

I learned the hard way that you don’t just switch completely from being a maker to a manager. Additionally, the transition phase between the two is probably one of the hardest things I’ve experienced as a startup founder. There’s no way around it, you have to juggle being a maker and a manager for at least a few months, so you better figure out how to do that. Here’s how it worked for me:

The transition happened after the team had grown to 5 people. I suddenly realised that if I didn’t have a clear idea about what it is best for others to work on, then they would be much less effective. We realised having lists for people was efficient. I made the mistake of dropping coding completely, as I felt like it was no longer an important thing for me to do. I then took some time to think, and realised I needed to spend a number of months being both a maker and a manager. It’s a difficult phase.

Earlier this year, we realised how powerful mobile will be for Buffer, but the team was small and we had no spare resources for Android development. So I decided that I would learn Android from scratch, and at least get the app off the ground and learn what we needed from someone who would eventually lead our Android development. So, for 2-3 months, I spent 50% of my time coding Java, and 50% doing manager tasks.

For some weeks, I spent every morning coding, and every afternoon doing manager activities. This worked well, but often my maker time would overflow as I didn’t feel I’d achieved enough. I was lucky enough to sit down and chat with Eden Shochat about this, and he instantly recommended instead of half days, I do full days. I found this much better, and I also noticed that Ben Kamens does the same.

The manager focus

During the time I spent in the maker/manager split, I came across one of the most powerful concepts I’ve discovered as a first-time CEO: to “fire thyself”. It came from an awesome article by Joe Kraus:

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. Your goal, crazy as it sounds, is to free up 50% of your time by constantly firing yourself from whatever skill position you’re playing.

Over the next month, I searched for a great engineer to take over Android development, and I was lucky to find Sunil. I gradually let Sunil take over and dropped my maker/manager split to 25% Android development, and eventually dropped it completely.

One of the hardest things as a developer transitioning into a manager role has been to get a feeling of progress without writing code. Progress is usually clear with code, and harder with manager activities. However, when you get towards 10 people in your team, coming back to the question from earlier is interesting: is 1 hour of my time better spent on “making” or “managing”? As a founder you’re in the best position to guide people and help them be super productive. That becomes your role. For me, I’m spending a lot of time finding great people to join Buffer, and also making adjustments all the time within the team.

As for coding, I still do a little. I help with development of our browser extensions, since that is the part of our codebase which has the least engineering resources, and is still very important for Buffer. Of course, I’m in the midst of firing myself from that, too. If you’re a JavaScript engineer in the bay area, I’d love to hear from you.

Have you found yourself torn between being a maker and a manager? Are you still coding when you should be building a company and awesome culture? I’d love to hear your experiences on this topic.

Photo credit: Paul Goyette