The top reason we haven’t sold our startup

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

4 short stories of our attempts to be lean at our startup

It’s no secret that I’ve personally been hugely impacted by Eric Ries’ work and the Lean Startup movement. Buffer would not be where it is today without his writings and videos opening my mind to a different way of approaching a startup.

For me, lean is completely about building and approaching things in a way which minimizes the amount of wasted time and effort. A startup is a scary adventure to embark upon because there are so many unknowns. It’s different to a service business in that you have no idea whether your product will actually be adopted. As a result, it’s easy to accidentally build products or features which, in the end, don’t resonate as you had hoped.

Being disciplined about approaching things in a lean way is incredibly difficult. In theory it seems straight-forward. In practice it’s super challenging, and we’ve had some hits and some big misses too.

1. The founding of Buffer: going from an idea to paying customers in 7 weeks

When I finished studying, I was completely set on creating a startup. So I did just that, and I made it completely official. I told everyone I was doing a startup, I incorporated the business and we got a small government grant. I built a product and kept adding more to it. In the end, I hadn’t validated that it was enough of a pain point for people, and it grew very slowly.

With Buffer, I took a different approach. It was just a side project, and I was in no rush to call it more than that. I stopped myself as soon as I realized I’d spent a couple of days coding without validating the need. Then I sat down and thought about how I could see whether people need this product, without building it.

I created a landing page which looked just like it would if the product had existed. That’s the beauty of landing pages, they have almost the same flow through them whether the product exists or not. So I could see whether people would sign up for the product, and then ask them for their email at the end of the process.

I had email conversations and a couple of Skype calls with people who gave me their email. I talked about the problem I was solving and learned a huge amount from these interactions. This is known as customer development and I can’t recommend doing it highly enough.

This process proved to be a success. Through the conversations I learned that others had the same problem and were receptive to a solution. That gave me the confidence to build it, and 7 weeks later I had the first version of the product. 3 days after launch, someone started paying for Buffer. We’ve steadily grown recurring revenue since then. February just came to a close and revenue came in at $333,000.

Read more about Buffer’s lean beginnings

2. Creating a brand new Buffer browser extension experience

One of Buffer’s key features right from the beginning has been that we have a browser extension which allows you to very easily share a web page or blog post you’re reading. You can share it right away or schedule it to be posted later to all the key social networks.

Throughout 2012 we saw a huge rise in sharing of pictures to Facebook, and we started sharing more pictures ourselves. We found they did very well and received a lot of engagement. That’s when we had the idea to transform our extension to allow sharing of different types of media: links, text or picture. We wanted to make it super easy to share a picture from the page you’re looking at.

So (and here comes our big mistake) we got to work building a brand new version of our browser extension to allow you to pick images off the page to share to Facebook or Twitter. It looked a little like this:

We spent several months working on this alongside other product tasks, and spent some time polishing the experience. We loved the experience ourselves, we were enjoying using it to much more easily share pictures from the page. Then, we were starting to think about when we would launch it to everyone, we though “maybe we can let a few people try it out first”. We almost launched it to everyone at once, which would have been a very bad idea.

We pondered when we could get some people to test it, we thought maybe we could send an email in the next week. Then we thought, why not do that tomorrow? Or how about we send a Tweet right now and ask people if they want to try it. So that’s what we did, and we got on Skype with people and asked them to share their screen and reaction as we switched on the new extension experience.

The feedback from those screen-sharing Skype calls was shocking. 6 out of 7 people were completely confused about the new UI. They thought the picture tab would let them choose the thumbnail for the link they were sharing to Facebook (you could already choose that in the link tab). The biggest mistake we made was that we knew exactly what we wanted to use the feature for ourselves, so the UI made complete sense to us. It wasn’t clear at all for someone seeing it fresh. The worst part is we could have known this months earlier if we’d just done a few mockups and shown those to these same users.

3. Brand New Buffer: a completely redesigned web experience and new iPhone app

In the Summer of 2012 we started to think about some key improvements we should make to the web dashboard for Buffer. We had accounts listed horizontally and this meant there was a natural limit by the width of the page. We wanted to create an interface that would be more flexible. What started as a simple adjustment from a horizontal menu to a vertical menu became a half year project including a complete redesign, new features and unified web and mobile app experiences and design.

One of the core tenets of lean startup is to have small batch sizes. Somehow that went completely out of the window and we decided that we needed to group all of these changes together. We got hungry for a big splash launch and decided that’s what we’d aim for. We envisaged being on all the tech sites and having a surge of new users.

As with everything, this project took longer than we expected. In the end, we managed to wrap it up before the end of the year, which was a relief.

We were successful in getting that big splash we had dreamed of. We emailed our several hundred thousand users and wrote two blog posts. We were covered by Lifehacker, TechCrunch, Forbes, VentureBeat, TheNextWeb and more. I remember the excitement as I took this screenshot of our Google Analytics real-time where we had 766 people on Buffer at the same time:

It was several months later when we started to truly focus on metrics and growth that we saw the mistake this big launch was. The problem with grouping all your changes together is that it’s difficult to see how each of the individual changes has impacted everything.

From one day to the next, we had reduced our overall activation by 25%. We count a user as “activated” if they connect a social network and post at least once using Buffer. Activation dropped from 51% to 39% as a result of this launch. In the cloud of buzz and signups, we had no idea and no reason to suspect there was a problem. Upon closer inspection, it was even worse. Taking activation for web by itself, it had actually dropped by 50%. The new design and signup flow caused activation the web contribution to go from 24% to 12%:

The only positive finding was that our new iPhone app was certainly a success, almost doubling activation for people signing up from the iPhone app:

The combination of activation decreasing so much on web and iPhone activation increasing made it hard to see there was a problem. It took us several months to adjust our signup flow to bring the activation back up to previous levels. If we had a/b tested and looked at the metrics of the new web experience with a small percentage of our users before going live with it, we could have identified the drop in activation and fixed it before our big launch. We could have had months of higher activation.

The lesson from this for us is to always launch things in small batches, and to measure the impact of everything we do.

4. How Buffer for Business came into existence, and how it became 25% of our revenue in just a few months

Half way through 2013, Leo and I started to think about our vision for Buffer and whether it was playing out in a way we were happy with. Our vision was to be a sharing platform across the web and apps, and we’d made a lot of progress with our Buffer button across websites and blogs, and our iOS SDK inside Feedly, Pocket, Instapaper, Echofon and others. Our growth was still good, but it was slowing.

We had the amazing chance to meet with Jason Lemkin, who is incredibly experienced and sharp about what it takes to succeed as a SaaS company. We had thought for some time about expanding Buffer and having a product focused on business customers. So far, we’d talked ourselves out of it with the common argument that we should stay focused. Jason gave us some of the best and most controversial advice I’ve had, which was to “do everything, just try it”.

We left that meeting excited and decided we might as well move ahead and see what happens. My co-founder Leo took the lead on investigating the social media problems and needs of businesses.

We had two key product ideas which could be attractive to businesses. The first one we were super excited about: a way to allow the whole organization to connect their personal social media accounts and help spread the news of product launches and press releases. We thought it could be huge for marketing departments. Our second idea was an extension of Buffer, to make it work for businesses and agencies with large numbers of social media accounts and team members.

Leo reached out to several existing customers hitting the limits of our $10/mo plan and jumped on dozens of video calls. He asked them about their problems and shared our ideas to see if they resonated. We were so excited about the idea of supercharging marketing by making use of the whole company’s employees, and were surprised by how few people wanted that product. The best feedback Leo had was from a head of marketing who said:

"I can’t rely on employees to do our marketing. It’s a nice to have, but we wouldn’t pay for that alone."

The idea to make Buffer more powerful was a huge hit. People at the limit of the $10/mo plan were desperate to use Buffer with more than 12 social accounts, which was our current limit. We had a lot of pent-up demand.

So we moved ahead on allowing people to use Buffer for more than the current $10/mo plan. We reflected on how to do this in a lean way and came to the conclusion we could do it without any new features or work on billing. We charged them through the feature to create and change a billing plan in Stripe, and put them onto a plan in our admin area that removed the 12 accounts limit. With no new product or marketing, we suddenly had 50 customers and Buffer for Business generated $10,000 in new revenue, 6% of our total.

We then kept talking to these customers and discovered a handful of additional problems we could solve for them and include in a new product, which we launched as Buffer for Business a couple of months later. It’s been a big hit and is already 25% of our monthly revenue.

Let me know if you have any thoughts or questions about our focus on being lean at Buffer. I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

P.S. Like using the lean startup approach to build products? I’d love your help - we’re growing the team at Buffer.

Photo credit: Betsy Weber

5 realisations that helped me write regularly

I was recently talking with Eytan Levit, a really interesting founder who’s had a lot of amazing experiences. We were chatting about some of his current challenges, and amongst some things to do with the startup, blogging also came up as something Eytan wanted to find regularity in. I’m happy that our chat triggered him to start writing again.

I’ve also since spoken to Andy, Alyssa and Sunil, who are getting into regular blogging and seem to be going through some of the experiences I had at the start of my blogging journey. I thought sharing some of my realisations about what held me back might help people create a habit quicker than I did.

I’ve now written over 50 articles on this blog over the last two years, and I’ve recently successfully written an article every week for the last 5 months. Luckily people have noticed this, and seem to enjoy the articles, and as a result I get a few people asking me how I’ve kept up blogging as a habit. This triggered me to think about the key things that helped me:

1. Research or strong points are not necessary

I used to often believe that I needed some very solid research to back up any thought I penned down in an article. I also frequently found myself thinking that my ideas or experience were not interesting or valuable enough for others.

I’ve since realised that by simply writing from a personal experience perspective, sharing lots of details about any topic I’ve recently touched on in my startup, personal projects or thoughts about life, I usually creating content that was interesting for people to read.

2. Delaying an article with the belief spending longer will make it better usually just means it won’t get written

I used to create a draft in Tumblr every time I had an idea for a blog post. Then I’d let it sit there for a while, because I believed the idea wasn’t fully formed yet, or I didn’t have enough points to share about the topic. I believed by delaying, the perfect post would eventually come to mind.

What I’ve realised is that there is no better time to write the article than when the thought first enters your mind. I should only write it at another time if I simply can’t open my laptop and write it all the way through right at that moment. The content is freshest when it first appears in my mind, and in that state I write the best posts.

I’ve gotten much better at this over time, but I have 10s of drafts lying in Tumblr from the early days when this caught me out time and time again. If you delay, the more likely outcome is that it just won’t get written.

3. We should fear not publishing articles, rather than fearing the bad outcomes of putting something out there

Over time, the concept of “shipping” started to really fascinate me. I forced myself to, despite it being uncomfortable, “ship” everything I did earlier and earlier. Whether a product, a blog post, a speaking opportunity, I’d quit delaying and just put it out there or say “yes” to speaking.

One of my biggest learnings in the last year is that there is immense power in doing a huge volume of work. If I write a blog post every week, I learn a massive amount about what works, and it gives me much more inspiration for more articles. Also, if I write each week, I’m gradually reaching more people, growing my connections on Twitter and Facebook, and putting myself in a better position overall. I know now, that if I don’t publish one week, I’m missing out on these benefits. Therefore, I actually fear not shipping.

4. When I have a strong connection between writing and my higher level goals and purpose, it’s easy to write

One of my aspirations for some time which has driven many of my actions around writing and helping startup founders, is that I eventually want to be a fantastic advisor and angel investor for other startups. I want to be the kind of advisor who has been through many different experiences, and has a lot of thoughts about startup challenges and solutions right in my mind.

This higher level purpose is what often helps me go through the tougher times, since I need that experience first-hand in order to help others. It’s also what helps me continually write, because I know that if I write a blog post about a topic, it is always very clear in my mind from then onwards. If someone asks advice on something I’ve written about, it’s very easy to help them and add a lot of value.

5. Choosing a schedule for writing is a great hack to ensure regularity

Finding a pattern and rhythm for writing is really helpful of course. I’ve found that once I get #3 and #4 very clear in my head, that I fear that I’ll fail to put something out there, and that I attach my writing to a higher level purpose, then it is much easier to establish a regular writing habit. In this way, I’ve been able to write consistently once a week for the last 5 months.

In the early days of my blog, I set myself a rule that I would always write on a Sunday, and always publish by noon. This worked very well, and it also meant that people began to notice my pattern and look forward to the content. I follow a similar pattern now - I always write on the second day of my weekend (whilst here in Tel Aviv that’s been Saturday, normally it is Sunday).

Are there any cool realisations you’ve had whilst working towards a regular blogging or writing schedule? I’d really love to hear what worked for you.

Photo credit: Kartikay Sahay

What can we do right now?

Recently there have been a few occasions at Buffer where we’ve hesitated about next steps or thought about spending longer on certain tasks. As a result of my thinking around this, I’ve started to believe that the following question can be one of the most powerful questions for startup founders to say to each other:

"What can we do right now?"

"Right now" means faster validation

The reason I think this question is so powerful is largely based on the core nature of startups. Unfortunately for us startup founders, the key difference between what we do when we’re building a scalable startup and what you would be doing if you’re running a service business is that a large amount of the work we do every day is building things which are not yet validated.

There are three common scenarios in a startup where we’re handling assumptions which need to be validated as soon as possible:

  • we haven’t launched yet and so almost nothing is validated
  • we’re modifying the experience of a current feature
  • we’re adding a new feature we expect will improve one or more metrics

Therefore, a lot of what we spend our time building hasn’t yet been seen by our potential or existing audience. This is a key issue that many founders agree is vital to address:

"Usage is like oxygen for ideas. You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something youve created until its out there. That means every moment youre working on something without it being in the public its actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world." - Matt Mullenweg, WordPress

Two examples from Buffer

Just in the last few weeks, there are times when between Leo, Tom and myself one of us has used the powerful “what can we do right now?” question to great effect. Here are a couple:

Getting a user on Skype for user testing

We’ve recently been working on an overhaul of the browser extension popup that you see when you use Buffer to add a new Tweet or Facebook update about a page you want to share. Initially, we thought about launching it to everyone without getting feedback. However, there are some new concepts which are quite different compared to the current version, so we decided it is best if we try and validate our assumptions about how clear the new experience is.

To do this validation, we’ve been connecting with a few users through Skype and enabling the new version for them. As they experience the new version, they share their thoughts and we ask questions to specifically get insight into whether they understand the different parts of the experience.

At first, we said to each other: “maybe we could do some user testing next week”. Then, in the same conversation we moved towards “how about this week”. In the end, we took it even further and said “why not today” and then finished by concluding “let’s Tweet right now and have a call with someone in the next few minutes”. Within 20 minutes, we’d done an interview and learned a massive amount. We’ve since done ten more user interviews and learned even more.

Hacking and hard-coding UI changes

Whilst conducting these user interviews, we’ve learned a massive amount very quickly. Some of what we’ve learned has proven that our assumptions were in fact incorrect. Part of the interface we have built for the new browser extension popup is not being perceived as we expected it to, and users are getting very confused about the purpose of that particular section.

As a result of invalidating this assumption, we’ve realised we need to make some changes in order to improve the clarity and help people “get it” faster. As we started to tweak the interface, we quickly agreed that we’d need to do more user interviews to check whether we’ve achieved the clarity we are aiming for.

When we first started to tweak the UI, we were doing it very thoroughly, checking that everything worked perfectly. After a while, since we knew we had to test the UI through user interviews again, we decided we should try and shortcut the process. We asked “what can we do right now” that would help us to learn whether we’ve improved the clarity. What we’re doing now is hard-coding these types of changes and leaving out large parts. Then we jump on another Skype call. If we find something that works, we can built it out further and add polish.

Validated learning is the measure of progress

The key thing that this process of asking the question “what can we do right now?” reminds me of is the way that Eric Ries defines the measure of progress in a lean startup:

"Progress in manufacturing is measured by the production of high quality goods. The unit of progress for Lean Startups is validated learning-a rigorous method for demonstrating progress when one is embedded in the soil of extreme uncertainty." - Eric Ries

When was the last time you asked your co-founder “what can we do right now?”. I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Photo credit: christopher charles

Why I crave mistakes

I’ve mentioned many times before on this blog that I learned a huge amount through my previous, not so successful startup OnePage which I spent one and a half years pursuing.

A lot of the reason we got traction and reached product/market fit so fast with Buffer was due to my learnings from the time I spent on OnePage.

And using those learnings seemed to work out perfectly. For most of the first year of Buffer it felt like we had done everything right and couldn’t have done things any better. We hit product/market fit, got good traction and raised our seed round.

In that year, Leo and I spoke a lot about how we could do better than we were. We’ve had consistently good growth but we always want to grow faster. Alarm bells were ringing in our heads when we couldn’t think of many things we could do better. Over time, these alarm bells grew louder and louder, and we started to try more and more drastic things to trigger even faster growth.

The realisation of a few big mistakes

In the last few weeks, experimenting with more drastic adjustments has triggered the realisation of a few mistakes we’ve made:

As you gain traction, you don’t need to do more

One of the amazing things about gaining traction is that you have a massive amount of continuous immediate feedback about your product. This means that you have good validation for new features based on how often certain feature requests comes up. However, it also means you have lots you could build which you think would make many people happy.

We built out extensions for all browsers, added features to the web app, built mobile apps, built our Buffer button and acquired a great WordPress sharing buttons plugin. We only realised recently that we were spreading ourselves very thin. We’ve tried to change this recently, by focusing on a few things and improving them continuously rather than doing more. Kevin Systrom describes this very well, and Instagram is a perfect example of succeeding by focusing:

"What do people love about the product and what can we go deeper into? Not: what do people love about the product, let’s add a bunch of shit."

Internally we have started to say that “the extensions are Buffer, Buffer is a browser extension” rather than the extensions being “goodies” or “an addon”. We’ve already done a lot to improve the extensions and we’ve just hit 50,000 weekly active users for Buffer on Chrome, where the extension is starting to trend.

Even after product/market fit, qualitative feedback is invaluable

In the early days of Buffer, one of the things I did quite well was Steve Blank’s notion of "getting out of the building". When I built the product-less MVP to test whether people would want and pay for the product, I was in touch with many people via email and I had Skype calls to chat about the problems people had in being able to post consistently to Twitter. Ultimately, this lead to great traction when I launched and resulted in having the first paying customer after 3 days. The first paying customer was someone I’d talked with in the validation phase and had told me he would pay for Buffer if it solved the problems I had discussed with him.

We reached product/market fit for Buffer in the first 6 months, and since then we continued to receive qualitative feedback through customer support emails, but we stopped doing as many Skype calls. There’s no real good reason why, I think we just thought that perhaps it wasn’t scalable, or that we didn’t need much more feedback. The thing is, however, hearing someone’s voice and the way they describe their process of using a product, or the way they describe your product to you (and others) is extremely useful.

In the last few weeks, we’ve been preparing a whole new version of our Buffer browser extension experience, which as I mentioned above really is the single thing Buffer is all about now. Almost on a whim we decided it might be cool to do a few user interviews. We enabled the feature for them whilst on a Skype call, asked them to visit a web page we provided and then asked them to share that page using the Buffer Chrome extension. We asked them to talk aloud about their experience. It has been absolutely fascinating, and we found that a key element of our redesign was being misunderstood. We’re making changes and have another round of interviews planned next week.

Mistakes are learning, so I now crave them

These two recent realisations of mistakes we’ve made have been an amazing experience. I remember turning to Leo whilst walking to a steak place we often get dinner and saying “it feels so good that we’re finally realising some mistakes we’ve made during Buffer”. We went on to talk about how the more quickly we discover these mistakes, the faster we can learn the best approach.

In general, I think the more we can have a mindset where we crave mistakes because we know they are directly related to learning and progression, the better we can do. This quote sums it all up very nicely:

"Entrepreneurs think of learning the way most people think of failure" - Peter Sims

I’m genuinely very excited to uncover the next mistake.

How do you feel about mistakes? Do you enjoy the discovery of mistakes? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Photo credit: Mark Menzies