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.
Keith Rabois, COO of Square, put better than I ever could the second reason we place such a priority on transparency in an interview with Rob Hayes of First Round Capital:
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.
Photo credit: Juin Hoo
"We live in a vague world. And it gets vaguer all the time. In this environment, the power of the specific, measurable and useful promise made and kept is difficult to overstate." - Seth Godin
It’s easy to be vague, broad, and to never commit to a particular direction. It’s frightening to be specific.
One of the key things I’ve learned in the last two years of doing startups is that to make real progress, it’s important to be specific. I think this applies beyond email, but with a specific example I think it’s easier to understand.
Why it’s hard to be specific in emails
I was recently looking back at some of the emails I was sending out when I was just beginning my journey with startups. It was quite frankly embarrassing. In almost every case the emails were far too long and had no clear call to action. Still, emails are consistently somewhere that I see new founders struggling the most. They rarely get a reply and they often wonder why.
What I’ve realised, is that it’s actually very difficult to be specific. If we take the example of trying to get a meeting with a well-known investor, then it’s easy to think that we should let them choose the time. So you say something like this:
How is your schedule looking next week?
It seems sensible. They’re probably much more busy, so if you suggest a time to meet it’s likely that it won’t work for them.
How vagueness fails to clinch that important meeting
"A large array of options may discourage consumers because it forces an increase in the effort that goes into making a decision. So consumers decide not to decide, and dont buy the product." - Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice
What generally happens when the investor receives the email is that they have a number of options for “next week”. Rather than spending the effort to make that decision, they instead “decide not to decide” and you get no reply to your email. It happened to me countless times.
How I learned to be specific in emails
I was quite lucky - I was forced to improve the emails I was sending, because we were fundraising and email is still by far one of the most useful tools when raising investment. I learned by making the mistake over and over, and then deciding that a new approach was required.
I asked advice from many people and discussed our approach with my co-founder Leo. I read lots of articles with great insights such as the following from Elad Gil:
Add specific times. This reduces the friction to scheduling as if you leave it open ended it (a) does not convey urgency and sets up the timeframe within which you will meet and (b) makes the investor work harder to figure things out. Don’t put the burden on them to suggest a time.
How to write emails which get more replies
After many failed attempts to get meetings, I adjusted my approach. Instead of:
How is your schedule looking next week?
I started to say:
Would 10am on Thursday at South Beach Cafe work for you?
The above is from a real email that I sent during the time we were raising our seed round.
The interesting thing, is that by simply making that choice for them, it doesn’t mean it will always work for them but it means it is much easier for them to reply with a slight adjustment. We’d often get a reply such as:
Thursday is tough, but Friday could work.
I could do 10a but it would have to be in Hayes Valley as I have a 9a and an 11a there. Would La Boulange in Hayes work?
From here, we were often able to confirm a meeting within one or two emails. This technique was crucial for us in securing investors for our seed round.
Have you tried being more specific in your emails? I’d love to hear about your experiences with this too.
Photo credit: Juli
Last week I had the great pleasure of grabbing dinner with Jon Bradford, and having him stop over at my place on his way to speak on a panel at an event in Jerusalem.
The story of how I know Jon is a crazy one, and one which whenever I think about always reminds me of the power of being on great terms with as many people as I find myself being in contact with.
I first met Jon several years ago, when I was working on my previous startup. At that time, I’d just graduated and had jumped straight into the startup scene with a lot of passion to build something. I had no clue about what was involved in creating a startup, and ultimately the startup I worked on at that time was not successful.
I was very naive and looking back at some of the things I did and the way I wrote emails or thought about building the startup leaves me feeling grateful for how much I’ve been able to learn in the last few years. I was, however, always looking for opportunities to meet others in the startup scene (small as it was in the north of the UK), and so I created my own startup meetup and attended many others. I also tried to continually push myself out of my comfort zone, and I met Jon when I pitched the previous startup at an event in Manchester (something very uncomfortable for me at the time).
Startup accelerator rejection
At the same event I pitched my startup, Jon spoke about the startup accelerator he was creating. It was modelled on TechStars and was unique in the UK, especially in the north. Since the first accelerator around 2 years ago, Jon has gone on to help start 12 accelerators from Montreal to Moscow and runs 5: Springboard, ignite100, Startup Wise Guys, Eleven and TexDrive. I think there may well be even more on the way, too.
After hearing Jon speak about the accelerator, I spoke with my co-founder at the time Oo Nwoye and we decided it made a lot of sense to apply. We felt like we had a pretty good chance, especially since we were moving fast and had some users. A couple of weeks later, we got our rejection email and felt quite disheartened. We pushed forward regardless and ended up getting into a smaller scale incubator with a grant in Birmingham before eventually deciding that the startup wasn’t working out.
I exchanged a few emails with Jon at this time, and I remember a feeling of a lot of mutual respect. Despite the rejection, things were very amicable, and I’m happy that was the case.
After that short-lived connection, the two years following were defining for myself, and evidently now with 12 accelerators he is part of, they were two short years with much progress for Jon too. For myself, I realised that the previous startup wasn’t working out (Jon made the right call) and moved on to Buffer, where applying my learnings of lean startup got the startup off to a great start. Since then, we’ve gone through AngelPad, brought great investors and advisors on board and grown Buffer to 325,000 users, an $800,000 annual revenue run rate and a team of 7.
An email to kick things off again
One of the most fascinating things about Jon is just how good he is at email. He shared with me his calculation about how much email he does, and the result was that whilst working (which is by no means any normal working hours) he sends an email every 6 minutes. Jon is someone I’m very inspired by to become much better at email. With this kind of volume, it’s no surprise that even after not being in touch for 2 years, his “touch base” email was the following, in its entirety:
Congratulations on AngelPad and follow-on funding - when you are next back in the UK - let me know and can catchup and grab a coffee/beer.
I know now that even the “Hey dude” was a slight exception for Jon. He gets straight to the point and this is something I’m trying to do more and more, too.
"Could I crash over?"
I’d been in touch a few times after we reconnected via email, and Jon introduced some smart people to me.
Around a month ago I got another classic Jon Bradford sized email:
What are you doing on the evening of Monday 10th? Could I crash over?
I jumped at the opportunity to get some of Jon’s time and learn from his experiences and accumulated pattern recognition. We grabbed dinner in the evening, and then headed back to the apartment where Jon made some amazing introductions for me.
This whole experience made me realise how great it is to know lots of people, even if only as acquaintances initially for a long time.
Have you had any experiences like mine of an unlikely connection becoming something very powerful? I’d love to hear your stories!
Disclaimer: I’m a mentor at ignite100 and know a few startups who’ve gone through Springboard.
Photo credit: Andrew Ferguson