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
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
Ive 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.
Its 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. Id 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 were 15 people and Ive 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 youre 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 its essential to hit product/market fit. This is the point when its clear your product works. People are sticking around, they’d be super disappointed if you went away, and youre growing fast. You can feel the potential when youve hit this stage.
To put it another way: until you hit it, your only job as a startup founder is to work on reaching product/market fit.
Keep working on a skill long enough to hire well
Even once youve 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 youre 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 youve fired yourself from that first task, for subsequent ones which youre 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, youre probably going to be doing many things at once. Youll 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 didnt have to begin with. Whats worked well for me is to embrace this expansion and try to handle many of these areas. When everything feels somewhat chaotic, its 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, Ive had many times where I felt I was letting people down by being stretched in many directions.
Youll start leaving money on the table, so become aggressive about firing yourself
Once youve grown to a stage where youre juggling many different areas and key metrics are growing healthily month to month, youll start to leave money on the table by holding onto tasks. Youll 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. Its key to start being reflective about areas of the company for which this is happening. Its 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. Its 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. Thats 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.
Sunils 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. Im 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 isnt 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 were now looking for our 2nd designer.
When you do something yourself, youre not doing it well
Having thought about the concept of firing yourself further in the last few weeks, Ive come to a key realization: if youre doing something yourself as a founder of a post-product/market fit startup, youre 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 weve 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 cant do much more than that for everything were working on.
Therefore, as a founder, I think its 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.
As an interesting final point, there might be another way to do this. Ive found it fascinating to read Rand Fishkin talk over the last year about the idea of a high-level Individual Contributor. A key piece on this was his article titled If Management is the Only Way Up, Were All Fd. I also found it fascinating that Rand recently stepped down as CEO of Moz and his role is now simply Individual Contributor. I love Rands idea of multiple ways to progress in a company.
Have you experienced your role evolve and the concept of firing yourself? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. I imagine I still have a lot more self-firing to do yet!
Photo credit: Xavier
I remember when I was 12, I was desperate to grow up. I think most of us are when we’re young. Similarly, when you’re getting your startup off the ground, it can be easy to wish ourselves ahead to having a big team, a fully-fledged product and millions of users.
The thing is, there are a lot of cool things to experience, enjoy and be happy about when you are 12, before you become 13, 14, 15. The same applies when you’re a 2 person or 3 person startup. There are plenty of reasons to be happy.
You can move fast when you are small
I think one of the interesting things I’ve learned while growing Buffer to 11 people is that you can move fast when you’re 11 people, however you can also move rather fast when you’re just 2 people.
This is not to say that we moved faster overall when we were 2 people. We now have a larger footprint: we have a super useful web product, mobile apps for iPhone, Android and Blackberry, browser extensions for Chrome, Safari and Firefox as well as countless integrations with awesome partner apps and startups. There is no way we could move fast in all of these various areas if we were just 2 people.
However, the key thing is that you can move just as fast in terms of percentage growth when you are 2 people as when you are 11. In fact, in our early days we sustained 40% MoM growth for almost the whole of the first year.
Just focus on the right things and crank away at code and marketing and you can make a lot happen as just a couple of founders. That brings me to my next point:
You don’t need structure when you’re small
A couple of months ago I had a very interesting week where I spoke separately with both Jonathan Abrams and our advisor Maneesh Arora and found that they both had similar advice, and shared that they were staying small for as long as they could with their startups. These are two very experienced founders, and they were sharing that they had no hurry to grow big. I even remember Maneesh advising us to pay ourselves more instead of spending the cash on new hires. It now makes a lot of sense to me.
I’ve found that there is are a series of tipping points in a startup where prior to that point, structure would slow you down, and after the fact structure will speed you up.
- When you’re just 2 founders you can make all the decisions collaboratively, with no real structure.
- When you become 3 people, it probably still works.
- When you’re 5, 6 or 7 then it starts to break down and slow you down.
"Adding just two more people to a team of 3 means that there will be 10 possible combinations of 1:1 conversations. Make it 10 people and you have a whopping 45 possible sets of conversation partners." - Duane Jackson
That’s when you need to introduce structure and select one person to make the final call and lead the process. We’ve found this repeatedly, with product and with our customer support team and our engineering team too. We recently added more structure by promoting Sunil to CTO, leading engineering, and Carolyn to CHO, leading customer support.
My lesson learned here is that it is important to get the timing right with staying unstructured, or introducing structure. If you have departments and titles when you’re just a couple of people, that will probably slow you down. If you have a team of 30 people and no one in charge, that’s probably going to be slow too.
You can learn more easily from your users when you are small
When you are just getting started, it is vital to be in touch with the user and to do good customer development in order to understand whether your assumptions are correct.
The beauty is that when you are small it is actually very easy to have a conversation with your users, because there aren’t many of them! The harder part is actually taking the plunge and asking for that Skype call or coffee meeting with someone who signed up for your product.
I think Eric Ries put it very well in one of his presentations:
Most of the techniques that big companies use to do customer research (surveys, in depth analysis, data mining) they do because they have too many users to keep track of, and therefore they have to do that stuff to try to make sense of all the information they have. When you’re small you have the advantage that you only have a small group of people to get to know.
Indeed, we found that when we tried to do A/B testing and build out detailed metrics in our first few months, we were much better off to simply reach out and talk with the people who were signing up to Buffer.
Now that we have over 600,000 users posting more than a million times a week, what Eric Ries said resonates even more. We now have a small team working just on metrics and understanding what our users are doing. You can avoid this when you’re small, it is a lot of fun to be able to glean so much from just a few conversations.
Are you in the early stages of your startup? Are you embracing the benefits of how small you are? Or, maybe you’re at a later stage and remember how different it was when you were small. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.
Photo credit: Christian
"Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good" - Gretchen Ruben
One thing I have realized for myself, is that although I have an existing solid routine of great habits, I often expect that a new habit will also slot into the routine and immediately be just as solid. That’s a key mistake I’ve been making a lot, and I’ve recently adjusted my expectations.
It is often said that if you choose a specific time in advance for a new habit, then it can help you to be more likely to follow through. For example, if you tell a friend that you will go to the gym in the next week, compared with telling them that you will go to the gym at 7:30am on Tuesday, you are more likely to go to the gym when you are more specific:
"There are several key elements in building effective energy-management rituals but none so important as specificity of timing and the precision of behavior during the thirty-to sixty-day acquisition period." - Tony Schwartz
The flipside I’ve found, to this, is that if I choose a very specific time like 7:30am, then if that time comes by and goes, then I feel I have failed and the feeling of disappointment can stop me going at all, even though there is a lot of time left in the day. So, I try to combine this with a freedom to still go in the afternoon or evening and count that as success for my aim to create a habit, too. I let myself be sloppy with the timing of new habits, especially at the start.
Another key reason I found I sometimes failed with new habits, was when I made them into big things and then fell short. Or even worse, they were so big in my mind that I didn’t even do it at all.
As an example, if I decide to step up my gym routine and I aim to do 7 exercises, spending a whole hour in the gym, then some days I find that to be quite daunting. The problem with this is that it even stops me going to the gym for just a few minutes. What I do now instead is tell myself that if I go for 10 minutes and do just a single exercise, that counts too.
"the 20-minute walk I take is better than the 3-mile run I never start. Having people over for take-out is better than never having people to an elegant dinner party." - Gretchen Ruben
The interesting thing about this is that for the purpose of building new habits, going to the gym for 10 minutes is better than not going for 1 hour.
This blog post? it’s not as long as most I write. Both Gretchen Ruben quotes are from the same article. Yet, it’s still better than not shipping something this week.
Photo credit: Newtown grafitti