Distributed Team

Why we go on international retreats 3 times a year with our startup

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

The joys and benefits of working as a distributed team

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:

  • 4 people in San Francisco, California: Leo, Carolyn, Sunil and myself
  • 1 person in Texas: Brian
  • 1 person in Massachusetts: BMR
  • 2 people in the UK: Andy and Colin
  • 1 person in Sweden: sa
  • 1 person in Hong Kong: Michelle
  • 1 person in Taipei, Taiwan: Niel
  • 1 person in Melbourne, Australia: Belle

In addition, Michelle was in San Francisco until just a week ago, Andy regularly travels and sa 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!

Carolyn Kopprasch (@CaroKopp) August 26, 2013

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.

Photo credit: Colleen Lane