What it's really like to grow a team when you're focused on culture-fit

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

What no one talks about when building a team: letting people go

One of the things I enjoy most about building a company is to focus on culture, and to think about how we can create a team which is a joy to be part of. A large part of this is creating a set of values and trying to gather people who feel at home amongst each other.

As part of this focus on culture, we have done quite a few things rather early at Buffer. We started to think seriously about culture when we were just 7 people and put our values into words shortly afterwards.

A realization my co-founder Leo and I had shortly after this was that if we truly want to focus on creating a great culture, it is inevitable that some people won’t work out and we would have to ask them to leave the company.

There is very little written on the subject of firing people, and it’s a hard thing to talk about, especially when you are still small. However, one of our highest cultural values is transparency, and for some time I have felt we were not being true to our values by not talking about this.

The journey to the current Buffer team

To put things in perspective here: Buffer is now a team of 13, and in the journey so far we’ve actually let 6 people go. For us, we’ve luckily never had financial struggles, all of these decisions were based around culture-fit. It’s hard work to hire people and even harder to fire people, so a team of 13 feels rather small for the efforts we’ve been through so far. At the same time, this team of 13 is a real privilege to be part of.

Hiring for skills vs hiring for culture

When I started Buffer, I had no real idea what culture is. We grew quite fast, and my intuition was to fill the gaps we had with the most skilled people I could find.

Once we reached 7 people, I started to see the importance of building a cohesive team that works well together and is a lot of fun to be part of. A large part of this is defining the culture and finding people who are a great fit for that culture. That’s when we put our culture into words and created our cultural values.

Once we had put our culture into words, that’s when we started to much more rigorously hire based on the values. In fact, it’s really hard to hire for culture-fit until you have your values in words:

“‘Cultural Fit’ is only a valid hiring criteria if you can accurately define your culture” - Chris Yeh

With our culture in place, we’ve evolved our hiring process and we focus a lot on the culture we have. This means finding people who are positive and happy, with a focus on self-improvement, who have gratitude, are humble and are comfortable with our extreme transparency. We have what we call a ‘Buffer Bootcamp’, essentially a 45 day contract period with 1:1 meetings for feedback at 2 weeks, 1 month and 45 days. A lot of this is to see whether Buffer is a good fit for the person joining the team.

With this more rigorous process, we found that some people didn’t fit the culture and letting people go was inevitable. Surprisingly, the very act of letting people go has shaped our culture more than anything:

"I think some of the core decisions that impact culture are who you let on the bus and who you make sure gets off the bus. The values that determine these decisions really shape your culture. Similarly, who gets rewarded and promoted within your company really shapes your culture. So, it’s the actual every day operating decisions that most shape your culture." - Dave Kashen

Culture is not about right or wrong

Although we’ve let 6 people go, these were all great people and they all did fantastic work. We just realized that they were not a perfect fit for our culture, so it made sense to part ways.

I would even go a step further and say that keeping people around who are not a great culture-fit is one of the worst things that could happen to someone. It has almost always been a mutual feeling when I had the conversation to let someone go: they felt some relief. I even have this quote on my wall to remind myself to think in this way:

"Waiting too long before acting is equally unfair to the people who need to get off the bus. For every minute you allow a person to continue holding a seat when you know that person will not make it in the end, youre stealing a portion of his life, time that he could spend finding a better place where he could flourish." - Jim Collins

Why letting people go is part of the process

I think firing someone is perhaps one of the hardest things you have to learn as a founder. Another key realization for me has been that letting people go is a continual part of growing a great team.

No matter how awesome our hiring process is, it’s inevitable that sometimes the person is not a great fit. Now that we have grown to 13 people and had to make tough team changes along the way, we’ve started to see a ratio emerge. We now know not to be surprised if about 1 in 4 people we hire doesn’t work out. It helps to know this possibility in advance.

"If you are super-scrupulous about your hiring process, you’ll still have maybe a 70% success rate of a new person really working out — if you’re lucky." - Marc Andreessen

This is probably one of the hardest areas of learning I’ve experienced as a CEO. I’ve spent a lot of the last 10 months thinking this through, reading as much as I could about it and getting lots of advice. We’re still at the very beginning, but it is comforting to have got to a point where this is a bit less scary.

Have you had to let people go while building your company? What do you think about the priority which should be placed on culture-fit? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

A special thanks to Leo, Carolyn, Belle and Sunil for reading drafts of this.

Photo credit: Katie Tegtmeyer

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

The evolution of culture at a startup

It’s now 2 years since I launched Buffer, and the company has grown from just myself (working from my bedroom) to a team of 7. In the last few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about culture and asking many other founders about different aspects such as having an office, having company values and different forms of communication like team meetings and 1:1 meetings.

One thing I realised recently when talking with Thomas Schranz, the founder of the very cool Blossom, was that we’ve actually got quite a few cool things in place that define the Buffer culture. It occurred to me that the different aspects of the culture were introduced at various times along the 2 year journey so far, and it forms the evolution of culture at Buffer.

Since working on the culture has happened gradually, I wanted to document the things we’ve done for culture at the earliest stage of the startup, since as we go forward it might be more difficult to recall.

Culture as an evolutionary process

It seems rather obvious in hindsight, but only after growing a team over 2 years have I realised just how gradual and progressive building a startup culture is. When I started Buffer, I was a solo founder with no team for 3 months. Clearly, at that stage, there was no “culture”. Then Leo came on board and whilst we certainly talked about our approaches and put some things in place to help us be aligned, we still didn’t think in terms of a culture we we building.

Fast-forwarding to now, where we are 7 people, I find myself thinking about culture a lot and making changes from time to time. Examples of topics that are in my mind are team communication, our approach to customer support, our release cycle time and how transparent we are.

My belief now as a result of looking back at this process is that you can’t think too much about culture when you’re one or two founders, but you naturally need to think about it a lot more once you have a sizeable team. It’s certainly an evolutionary process, not something you just put in place once and never change.

Here is how the Buffer culture has evolved, including some of the specific things we do which shape the culture we have:

Culture is deeply influenced by the founding team

Although company culture is something that is worked on over time and can be adapted a lot, it is heavily affected by the personalities of the founding team. There’s no right or wrong with culture, it is simply a combination of natural personality of the founding team in addition to proactive work to push the culture in a desired direction and to maintain certain values.

A good recent example of this I’ve seen is Ev Williams describing his formula for startup success. One of his points is the following:

When you don’t sleep, eat crap, don’t exercise, and are living off adrenaline for too long, your performance suffers. Your decisions suffer. Your company suffers.

I would agree that for me, this kind of culture is something I choose not to have with Buffer. That said, I see other startups which are very successful and yet they encourage employees to be at work until 11pm and do all night hackathons a lot. In essence, I think it’s up to you to choose the values and build a culture around them.

Since the early days, Leo and I have had a strong focus on self-improvement, always discussing what we’re currently working on and changing our routines. This has influenced the culture we’ve created, and it’s one with an emphasis on working on yourself as much as the startup, with a lot of positive encouragement from everyone in the team.

It’s a choice to be proactive about your culture

The other thing I’ve noticed is that it is a choice for the founder as to whether you choose to ‘create’ a specific culture. I agree with Jason Cohen that with culture, one thing is certain:

Every company has a culture. The only question is whether or not you decide what it is.

This is something I’ve found very interesting to ponder. I’ve met founders where I feel like they have let the culture develop by itself, and it still seems to work. At the same time, I think to build a culture that can inspire people to want to work for you, you will want to take the time to make specific changes to shape it. At Buffer, culture is definitely something we’re starting to be more deliberate about.

On the extreme end of the “proactive” approach to culture, you can take an approach where you hire and fire people very specifically based on their fit with the culture. We are taking a path where we want to focus a lot on culture, so we’ve recently started to think hard about whether the next set of people who come on board are a great fit for the culture we’re creating. We’re definitely inspired by Tony Hsieh’s approach and commitment to great culture:

Even if someone’s great at their job, even if they’re a superstar at their job, if they’re bad for our culture we’ll fire them for that reason alone.

How much do you focus on culture at your startup? Is it something you try to grab a hold of and throw in the direction you want the company culture to go, or do you let it develop naturally? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Photo credit: quami77

For the first few people, hire from your network

We’re lucky enough to have reached the stage with Buffer where we have had to start to think about growing the team. For the first 10 months the team consisted of just myself and Leo. When we arrived in the valley just under a year ago, we weren’t initially looking for funding but after talking with a few people we quickly realised that with product/market fit, good traction and bottlenecks in building as quickly as we wanted to, it made sense for us to consider funding.

We were fortunate to get onto the AngelPad batch last Summer, and as soon as we were accepted we brought on board our third co-founder Tom. After demo day, we raised an angel round and got many smart investors on board too. We’ve been working with some great freelancers, and I’m excited to say that we’ve also just hired our first employee Andy who will start full-time soon.

We’re still figuring out the best approach to hiring, but I wanted to share some of the things I’ve come to realise from the hiring I’ve done so far.

The importance of culture-fit for early hires

One of the things Leo and I talked about a lot in the early days was how we wanted to shape the culture of Buffer. Culture is often a very abstract thing to talk about, but we had specific things we wanted to do such as providing outstanding customer service and having a very positive environment where no ideas are dismissed, no matter how crazy. We’ve definitely been influenced heavily by a few books, the key ones being How to Win Friends and Influence People and Delivering Happiness which we’ve all read and discuss frequently within the team.

Get to know each other first, work on freelance terms

With these values quite clear, I knew that finding people to fit the culture may be difficult. There are a number of great articles out there about hiring employee #1 and many suggest great reasons you should date before getting married. I was therefore convinced that I needed to work with people for a long time, probably on a freelance basis, before they came on board full-time as an employee. This has been a very good thing for us to do, simply because there are personalities of the new hire and the combined personality of Buffer and it could easily not be a good fit.

Better yet, know each other already

Even better than meeting someone new and working with them for a while before bringing them on board is to know them already. That’s how it’s worked for me so far with Buffer. It won’t scale forever, but for the first few hires at least it seems like a perfect approach and is working very well. If you know someone already and have maybe worked on a few side projects together, done a Startup Weekend or Launch48 event together or simply been bouncing projects and challenges off each other, then it’s much easier to have a good gut instinct about whether you will be able to work well together.

How we’ve done it with Buffer

As I mentioned, we’ve now grown the Buffer team, bringing on board Tom as a third co-founder and more recently Andy as our first employee. We’ve used the “hire from your network” approach rather than trying to post jobs in various places. We’ve tried the more traditional method in a minimal way but not had much success.

Tom Moor, Co-Founder and Chief Hacker

After graduating, I headed back to my hometown of Sheffield in the UK and found there wasn’t much going on for startups. After some time, I decided that rather than complain I should create a meetup for startups, and so I did that.

Tom came to the very first meetup, and was by far the most startup-minded and pro-active of all the people who came along. After that we bounced our startups and side-project ideas off each other lots, spent weekends working on our startups together and we went to a Launch48 event together. We knew we were thinking on the same wavelength and could work together. Tom came on board after 10 months when we were still getting off the ground and had many struggles. He’s now integral to Buffer and we would not be where we are without him.

Andrew Yates, iOS Coder and Full Stack Hacker

Whilst I spent some time in Birmingham in the UK, I also created a version of the startup meetup there too. Through that and other networking activities, I met many awesome people and even found freelance work. Andy was someone I met through a friend of a friend in this network, and also someone I started to bump into very regularly at Urban Coffee where I did a lot of coding.

When I launched Buffer, Andy was one of the first to sign up and was also a very early paying customer. In that sense, getting Andy on board was very much what Gabriel Weinberg calls Inbound Hiring. After we had been launched for almost a year, we decided that it made sense to develop an iPhone app, and I knew Andy had been building an awesome app called Magic Bean. We worked on a freelance basis for about 6 months before I asked him to come on board fully. Luckily, he has agreed and will start soon.

How have you approached hiring for your startup? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Photo credit: Thomas Watson Steen