We’ve been lucky at Buffer to receive a number of acquisition offers along our journey so far. When I mention this to people, a key question that often comes up is “how did you decide not to sell?”.
The earliest offer we had for Buffer was not long after we had started, and it felt fairly easy for us to say no, simply because we felt we wanted to see where further our current path leads. In many ways, the reason we haven’t accepted an acquisition offer is in order to continue on our path.
How much more learning could you have if you keep going?
However, after we said no the first time, we noticed something quite incredible happen. In the months that followed, we had several brand new learnings and experiences about growing a company. For example, after our first offer we soon established the values of the Buffer culture, chose to commit to being a distributed team, and I found myself in a position where I needed to learn how to let people go. These were all priceless business and life experiences. Learning to fire people was not easy, but I feel very thankful to now have this experience.
This is one of the most important considerations for us now. If you sell your company, you will sacrifice upcoming learnings. Of course, you will learn many valuable things as part of a new company. A framework I have created in my head for this, however, is to think about when I will have the same opportunity again.
When can you get back to that same level of learning again?
If you are 2 years into your startup and have found traction, and then you sell your company, when will you next be 2 years into a startup? When will you be able to experience the learning that happens in the 3rd year of a startup? I think that doing a full cycle and selling a company will be valuable, and I like to think that with that experience I could perhaps grow a company faster in the future. However, it will still take some time. In addition, you will likely work at the acquirer for a couple of years. For me, in this scenario, I would expect to work at the acquirer a couple of years, then it might take a year to find a good idea which can gain product/market fit, and then you have the 2 years to reach the same stage.
So, all in all, if I sell my 2 year old company, it could be 5 years before I am able to next experience the learnings that come in the 3rd year of a startup. We don’t have many 5 year periods in our lives to wait to have another chance for incredible experiences.
The second time we turned down an acquisition offer, we grew to around 15 people and started to feel like we went beyond a product towards an actual company. Many new learnings came with this, like thinking about how to structure a company with more people, and the true importance of culture. And interestingly, the most recent time we chose not to sell, we have found ourselves on a magical journey of removing hierarchy and managers, embracing self-management and striving to create a truly fulfilling workplace where a foundation of trust and freedom means that everyone can work on what they are passionate about.
Focusing on learning and experiences rather than money
Money will come and go, but experiences and learning is what I define as true wealth. This is why we try to frame a decision of whether to sell around the opportunities for learning and experience in each path.
Our advisor Hiten asked us perhaps the most simple and useful question when we discussed the topic of selling with him:
“Are you done? No? Then don’t sell.” - Hiten Shah
Sometimes founders may be tired, lacking the motivation they once had. Maybe then it can make sense to sell. We’re not done yet, and I’m excited to see where this path leads.
Photo credit: Cindee Snider Re
I think there's an interesting concept that's prevalent, which I believe could actually be quite dangerous. It's the idea that as a CEO or executive of a company, you need to shield your team from bad news, the risks of a startup, and other negative aspects that are inevitable on the startup journey.
One of our core values at Buffer is to Default to Transparency. This means absolutely everything in the company is shared knowledge. It was scary at first, not least because the idea goes very much against the grain. I found myself hesitating, not because I genuinely could think of reasons not to share, but simply because no one else shares some of the things we've shared.
What it means when you shield your team
I think one of the most fascinating things about witholding information of any kind is the message it unknowingly sends to the team.
I believe that if you hold back information, you are silently telling your team that you don't trust them. Frédéric Laloux put it well in Reinventing Organizations:
"In most workplaces, valuable information goes to important people first and then trickles down to the less important. Sensitive information is best kept within the confined circle of top management. The underlying assumption is that employees cannot be trusted; their reactions could be unpredictable and unproductive, and they might seek to extract advantages if they receive too much information."
The reason starting a trend of secrecy is so dangerous is that it's self-reinforcing:
"Because the practice is based on distrust, it in turn breeds distrust"
That is, the policies you set up based on these assumptions might trigger people to try to cheat the system, because they start to dispise it. Once you find people are doing this, the natural thing is to introduce yet more controls and restrictions.
How shielding your team could hurt you as a founder
Beyond affecting the culture and spirit of your team, I believe that withholding information puts unnecessary strain on yourself as a founder. A startup journey is a series of many ups and downs, and the lows can really be difficult. There are many sad examples of things becoming too much for a founder, and more often than not they've kept the stress to themselves.
The traditional structure of a company in a hierarchy naturally leads to a pyramid, with a single person at the top. The law of pressure in physics can illustrate the outcome here:
pressure = force/area
That is, the smaller the area, the higher the pressure. In the following example, the pressure from an under an elephant's feet is far less than that from a woman's stiletto heels:
Therefore, if bad news comes up and you take the whole burden on yourself, the pressure is much higher than if that news was shared across many people.
The ego at play
Another reflection for me is that whenever I have felt that I should hold something back from people in the team, I believe it is often my ego at play. I am essentially saying that I can handle the situation better or take more than others in the team.
It's as if I'm saying that I am more responsible than the rest of the team. It's like I'm treating my team like children, which is ironic because many people in the team have children and I don't yet! I am convinced that if we can let go of our ego as leaders and share information and responsibility, we will be pleasantly surprised.
Holding onto information or key decisions is in a lot of ways a fear of giving up control, at the expense of trust and moving faster thanks to shared decision making. I think often as leaders we feel a need for control and privileges, and this comes almost entirely from ego. One of the reasons I try to practice daily meditation is to more easily act without ego.
Do you guard your team from some of the tough decisions and risks of your company? Do you think that in some cases we should? I'd love to hear any thoughts at all on this topic.
Photo credit: mararie
Diagram credit: Leeds Vineyard
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
P.S. We need help with many areas of Buffer right now, to complement the existing great team. Check out our openings
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).
Truly getting to know each other
There are an incredible number of benefits which come from us being a distributed team. At the same time, it means that if we don’t arrange retreats we would never meet each other.
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.
It’s our belief that environment can fundamentally affect how happy and productive we are. As an example, I think the people you surround yourself with can change who you are and what you achieve.
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.
The concept of the deferred life plan is something I discovered from Randy Komisar:
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
Photo credit: Robert Schrader
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.
Photo credit: Antoine Gady