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

One of the most exciting parts of the culture we’ve developed at Buffer for me is our international retreats. It’s also potentially something we’ve not shared that much about and can be misunderstood, so I wanted to write a little about why we choose to do retreats.

Three times a year we gather the whole company together. The last one was in Thailand (10 people), and our next is coming up in a month’s time in Cape Town (15 people). Buffer covers the expenses (flights, accommodation, most of the meals, fun activities).

Truly getting to know each other

There are an incredible number of benefits which come from us being a distributed team. At the same time, it means that if we don’t arrange retreats we would never meet each other.

It still blows my mind that we can have someone join the team and work together (very effectively) for several months without meeting in person. With chatting all day via HipChat and video calling frequently using Sqwiggle, we even get to know each other very well. However, there’s something magical that happens when you meet in person. In a retreat setting it’s even more powerful. We have casual meals together and do activities on off days. We can learn about what makes each other tick and what our true passions are.

Once you return to your own location (Buffer team members are spread across 12 cities on 5 continents), the conversations you have with team members are enhanced. You know the tone of somebody’s voice and the way they approach problems and discussions. You read their emails differently. This changes things, and is why we’ve found retreats to be not only a fun part of our culture, but an absolute necessity.

Live and work smarter, not harder

As a company, one of our values is to “live smarter, not harder”. This means to think about what affects how well we work and try to optimize to be more productive. It means that almost always, working more is not the answer. We’ve had a number of occasions where we’ve been at full capacity and feeling overwhelmed, and after a brainstorm figured out how to do more without spending more time or working through lunch.

In our “live smarter, not harder” value in the culture deck, we have the following point:

You choose to be at the single place on Earth where you are the happiest and most productive, and you are not afraid to find out where that is.

It’s our belief that environment can fundamentally affect how happy and productive we are. As an example, I think the people you surround yourself with can change who you are and what you achieve.

We do retreats so that everyone has the chance to experience new cultures and grow more open minded. Often team members will travel for some weeks around the retreat or stay in the location beyond the 10 days we spend together. I think this is great for people and helps Buffer as a whole.

Choosing not to live the deferred life plan

"And then there is the most dangerous risk of all — the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later." - Randy Komisar

One of my favorite things about doing retreats is that we’re choosing to travel right now. Often travel or moving can be something that you delay for many years. It’s easy to convince yourself that the only way to travel or explore is to work for 5 years and then take 6 months off between jobs. At Buffer, anyone can travel or move anytime. It’s hardly even noticeable.

This is important because as a startup we want to move fast and make decisions as soon as we see that they are necessary. Whether it’s killing a feature which is not getting much engagement or introducing a new support channel, it can be easy to put these things off. Especially big changes like adjusting our pricing or making salaries completely transparent, it’s easy to stay where we are and avoid change.

We try to weave this notion of doing what you love and what you’re passionate about and believe in, right into the culture of the company. Retreats stretch us and remind us that we can do whatever we want, even travel 25 hours across the other side of the world. Once you’re there, you realize it wasn’t that big of a deal, and you can push yourself in so many other ways too.

The concept of the deferred life plan is something I discovered from Randy Komisar:

We get an insane amount done during the week together

When we go on retreat, it’s not a vacation (it’s as fun as one). We work together for a week and then we enjoy some awesome activities at the weekend (like jet skiing, visiting a tropical island by boat or going on safari).

We’re still figuring out the exact right setup and schedule for retreats. So far, hacking together has worked very well and become a key part of retreat week. We’re inspired by how Automattic do this and have scaled it:

"From our very first meetup of 8 people all the way through to last week’s at 122 people, we’ve always spent a good portion of the week co-working on projects and launching them at the end of the week."

Retreats are some of our most productive weeks of the year. In fact, at our last retreat in Pattaya, Thailand, we built most of Buffer for Business and launched it just a week later. Three months later, Buffer for Business generates over 15% of our total revenue, $60,000 last month.

Do you do company retreats? What have you found is the key benefit and where do you go?

Want to be part of a Buffer retreat? We’re looking for people to help us provide support and build awesome features for customers. Check out our openings

Photo credit: Robert Schrader

Experimenting with a 7 day work week

For the first two weeks of last month, I religiously tried to follow a new routine I created for myself: a 7 day work week routine.

The idea was quite simple: I would work 7 days a week, rest 7 days a week, go to the gym 7 days a week, reflect 7 days a week. This was less about working lots, much more about feeling fulfilled every day, feeling stretched during the day but also rested. I aimed to work less each day, and replace two hours of work with a long break in the middle of the day.

The biggest thing I wanted to do was to satisfy my craving of “why not?” and to challenge the status quo of working 5 days a week and then taking 2 days off. Many of us know that working 9-5 is not the most effective way to work, and I had found this to be true for quite some time. I had a curiosity about whether the 5 day work week might also not be the most effective routine.

Some of the hypotheses I had about a new 7 day work week:

  • I would be much more successful in building solid habits that became ingrained, since I wouldn’t have two days off and then the struggle to get back into broken habits.
  • I would be in much better sync with my team who are distributed around the world, and I would have a better handle on my emails and work by having time in the weekends too.
  • I could work less than 40 hours a week and be more productive, since I would have long breaks between super focused work periods.

The 7 day work week routine

I’ve been an early riser for a couple of years now, and during this experiment I was rising at 4:30am. I aimed to do 5.5 hours of work each day, which is around 38.5 hours a week.

  • 4:30: Rise.
  • 5-6:30: 90 minutes of focused work.
  • 6:30-9: Gym, breakfast, shower, etc.
  • 9-11:30: 2.5hrs of focused work.
  • 11:30-3pm: Lunch, then extended rest period.
  • 3-4:30: 90 minutes of focused work.

Results from 2 weeks of the 7 day work week routine

In the end, I have decided that I won’t continue with the 7 day work week routine. That said, it has been a very interesting experiment and I have kept some aspects of the new routine.

Here are two of the things that didn’t work out:

How the world works does affect you

This is one of the things I wanted to avoid believing for the longest time. I don’t think it’s ever healthy to believe things “are the way they are”, and in many cases I think this can be forgotten. After all, as entrepreneurs we are in the business of changing reality by making something out of nothing.

I found that Saturdays and Sundays could never be the same as other days, as much as I wanted them to be and I tried to create a routine that could be exactly the same, every day. There are more people wandering the streets, more noise outside. There is no one in the office. You can’t send certain emails, because they need to hit someone’s inbox in work hours. It’s not the best day to push a new feature or blog post.

You can certainly take advantage of the fact that Saturday and Sunday are different, by doing specific tasks. However, the point of my experiment was to have identical days, and in this respect it was a failure.

I burned out, even with lots of breaks

I wanted every day to be exactly the same. So I worked each day, and rested each day. I also went to the gym every day, I adjusted my work out so that this would be sustainable.

I found that even with a gym routine of just a few exercises and different muscle groups, I felt I couldn’t get adequate overall renewal just in a single day period. I worked out for 15 days straight and in the end strained a muscle and had to take almost a week off.

Similarly, I found it interesting to observe how my passion towards the work I was doing adjusted. To begin with, I was excited during the first week and even at the weekend I enjoyed working. The hardest aspect I found was to stop myself working so much during the week, so that I could be fully rested and keep working at the weekend.

Overall, I feel like the 7 day work week fell apart because of lack of an extended period of renewal. My hypothesis that a couple of extra hours during the day and less overall daily hours working would be enough was invalidated in my experience.

The wisdom of the day of rest

After trying a 7 day work week, I became quite fascinated by the concept of a “day of rest”. It occurred to me that this is a tradition that has been around for a very long time, and of separate origins. Almost all of the world observes some form of a weekly “day of rest”.

I’m no expert of the bible, however with a little research I found that the origin of the “seventh day” or Sabbath is Genesis 2:2-3:

And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made.

Similarly, in Buddhism there is the concept of Uposatha which is the Buddhist day of observance. I find it interesting how Buddhism teaches the purpose of this day:

the cleansing of the defiled mind

I feel a sense of calm and confidence in the knowledge that many thousands of years of wisdom all converges towards the idea of a weekly day of rest. Certainly from my naive experiment I feel that this is a very good practice.

6 days of work, 1 day of rest

Both from my own experiment and the wisdom of the day of rest, I have become very interested in the idea of a single day of rest. However, I have not once come across anything advocating two days of rest. This is one of my biggest takeaways from this experiment, and I plan to continue to work on the basis of 6 days of work and a single day of rest.

Jim Rohn, who I have been very inspired by, also said it well:

Work was so important, here was the original formula for labor. If you have forgotten it, remind yourself. Six days of labor, and one day of rest. Now, it’s important not to get those numbers mixed up. Why not five/two? Maybe one of the reasons for six/one: if you rest too long the weeds take the garden. Not to think so is naive. As soon as you’ve planted, the busy bugs and the noxious weeds are out to take it. So you can’t linger too long in the rest mode, you’ve got to go back to work. Six days of work, then rest.

I think one of my biggest takeaways from trying a 7 day work week is: despite the conclusion that rest is important, a single day is the perfect amount, no more. I am working to consistently live by this method for as many of the weeks as I can during the year. I believe that this will be a key to success.

Have you considered experimenting with your work week? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Photo credit: David Joyce

Make progress faster by cooperating: 4 tips to try with your co-founder or co-worker

For a number of years now, I’ve found that I generally always had a “training partner” for my entrepreneurial goals. A few years ago, this was my great friend Khuram, with whom I consistently had a weekly meeting for over a year. In the meeting, we discussed our achievements and challenges to help each other keep pushing forward.

In the world of weight training, it is well known that having a partner helps with motivation and will mean you can lift more and see gains more quickly. Taking this a step further to the area of personal trainers, research has shown that those who switch from training alone, to using a personal trainer see many improvements.

Similarly, pair programming has become relatively well established and has shown to improve the quality of code, as well as keep both developers in “flow” state for a more sustained period of time.

In the recent months I have been using these techniques in my day to day work on Buffer and my personal projects such as blogging. In essence, my co-founder Leo and I act as personal trainers for each other for our work and life goals. Here are a few examples:

Brainstorm blog posts together, in detail

When I started this blog, every post I wrote completely by myself. It can be done that way, but when Leo had come on board Buffer fully as a co-founder, I soon naturally started discussing future posts with him, and he was super encouraging and interested.

These days, I deliberately brainstorm many of my articles with Leo, right down to the individual sections. It makes my writing task much easier, and the posts are better as a result.

Write a list for the next day

One of the activities Leo and I are trying to build as a habit right now, is to sit down together for 20 minutes at the end of each day, and plan the key tasks we each want to do the next day.

We’ve found that whenever we plan the day ahead, we’re much more productive, procrastinate less, and feel happier as a result. This is something I can definitely recommend you do with your co-founders if you’re in the early stages, or if you’re part of a team you could try it with a co-worker.

Pull the other person in, even for your own tasks

Something I’ve just started doing, and encourage Leo to do as well, is whenever there’s something I need to work on myself, and I find myself struggling to get stuck into it, I will book a slot with Leo to ask him to work through it with me.

This is especially useful for analyzing and brainstorming, where you need to map out many things and come to some conclusions. Although I do it with Leo, I am mostly leading it and it is one of those cases where simply explaining something to someone can help me a lot.

Weekly mastermind sessions

Perhaps the most productive two hours of my week are Friday night, where Leo and I always go to Samovar, drink tea and have a systematic mastermind session which I have learned and cultivated over the last few years. We share our achievements and the other person helps celebrate them and point out interesting patterns. Then, we discuss our biggest challenges right now, and help the other person find solutions or adjustments to make to improve. It’s something I look forward to every week, and I make real changes for the week ahead during every session.

Do you have any activities which you do with a co-founder or co-worker which help you to progress faster or increase productivity? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Photo credit: U.S. Pacific Fleet

Zero notifications

A couple of months ago, my co-founder Leo gave me an interesting suggestion: he said I should try disabling all notifications on my iPhone. I find this suggestion especially interesting because it is one that goes against the normal phone setup. It’s so usual to stick to how things are, and with iPhone apps the easiest thing to do is to “allow” all those notifications. It seems almost odd to even consider doing things any other way.

I chose to go along with Leo’s suggestion, although I was admittedly quite skeptical that it would change much. I imagined that I had pretty good willpower, and that I am fairly productive already. Just because I got notifications, I didn’t think that affected my workflow all too much. In hindsight looking back though, one clear indication that it was already affecting my was that I was regularly turning my phone over to stop those notifications lighting up the screen and distracting me.

What it’s like to live without notifications

"Don’t Confuse the Urgent with the Important" - Preston Ni

For the first week that I turned off notifications, I checked Twitter, Facebook, Email and other places regularly. In fact, I still do, although maybe not so much as that first week. After a couple of weeks, I came to love the fact that nothing came onto my lock screen or lit up my phone. I even found that I frequently started to use the switch in Mac OSX to turn off desktop notifications until the next day.

With zero notifications, I feel like I can get my head stuck into a problem much more easily than I did before. I never realised when I had those notifications on that they truly could throw me off my current thought and cause me difficulty getting that focus back. More than anything, I feel a lot calmer. Notifications create a sense of urgency around something that’s not important at all. I don’t need to know right now that someone liked my status on Facebook.

It changes the balance, it’s now my choice

"There are two types of people: One strives to control his environment, the other strives not to let his environment control him. I like to control my environment" - George Carlin

The thing I like the most about turning off all notifications is that it is now completely up to me when I choose to check my email, Twitter, Facebook, etc. I have no excuse that a notification came in. If I check it too frequently and find myself procrastinating, it is only my fault: I went out of my way to go and look. As Derek Sivers puts it, "everything is my fault":

But to decide its your fault feels amazing! Now you werent wronged. They were just playing their part in the situation you created. Theyre just delivering the punch-line to the joke you set up. What power! Now youre like a new super-hero, just discovering your strength. Now youre the powerful person that made things happen, made a mistake, and can learn from it. Now youre in control and theres nothing to complain about.

It was my fault that I received push notifications, too, but by controlling that part of my environment everything is so much more pronounced. And now that it’s my fault, I can work solely myself to be better, to check those notifications less.

I choose to avoid reliance on willpower

"we each have one reservoir of will and discipline, and it is depleted by any act of conscious self-regulationwhether thats resisting a cookie, solving a puzzle, or doing anything else that requires effort." - Tony Schwartz and Jean Gomes in The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working

The other reason I am happy that I’ve turned off all notifications, is that wherever possible I like to avoid relying on willpower or self-discipline. As Tony Schwartz and Jean Gomes put it, we all have a limited reservoir of willpower, and by turning off notifications it means I save some of that for other tasks rather than using it on resisting checking on each push notification that comes in. I’m certainly not suddenly a superhuman with complete focus at all times, but I feel much more in control.

Have you tried turning off notifications? I can highly recommend trying it, just for a week. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Photo credit: Christian Ostrosky

The maker/manager transition phase

Paul Graham has a fantastic article on the topic of scheduling work as a maker and as a manager, which I’ve drawn insights from and I know many others have too. Here’s a key part of it:

One reason programmers dislike meetings so much is that they’re on a different type of schedule from other people. Meetings cost them more.

The great piece is focused around two sets of distinct people in a startup: makers (typically coders) and managers (those with lots of meetings). The interesting thing I’ve found is that as a startup founder you often have to transition from a maker to a manager, and there will also be a period of time when you need to be both at once. I wanted to share my experience of dealing with the transition from maker to manager.

The maker focus

In the early days, being comfortable in a “maker” schedule, for example cranking out lots of code or content fast, is essential. Of course, there is an element of “manager” activities whether it’s getting press or doing customer development, but a large portion of the work around building a great product and gaining traction is “maker” work by nature.

The key question to ask, is, is 1 hour of my time better spent “making” or “managing”? In the first few months, you’re likely just a couple of guys, and you can’t move faster by delegating than by just getting stuck in and doing it yourself. For almost the first year of Buffer, I’d say Leo and I were mostly in “maker” schedules, where we would chat briefly for a small portion of the day, then just get on with our tasks.

I think as founders we all want to be visionary and do more than just write code, but to get to that stage we have to learn to thrive in the maker schedule and get the product off the ground.

The maker/manager split

I learned the hard way that you don’t just switch completely from being a maker to a manager. Additionally, the transition phase between the two is probably one of the hardest things I’ve experienced as a startup founder. There’s no way around it, you have to juggle being a maker and a manager for at least a few months, so you better figure out how to do that. Here’s how it worked for me:

The transition happened after the team had grown to 5 people. I suddenly realised that if I didn’t have a clear idea about what it is best for others to work on, then they would be much less effective. We realised having lists for people was efficient. I made the mistake of dropping coding completely, as I felt like it was no longer an important thing for me to do. I then took some time to think, and realised I needed to spend a number of months being both a maker and a manager. It’s a difficult phase.

Earlier this year, we realised how powerful mobile will be for Buffer, but the team was small and we had no spare resources for Android development. So I decided that I would learn Android from scratch, and at least get the app off the ground and learn what we needed from someone who would eventually lead our Android development. So, for 2-3 months, I spent 50% of my time coding Java, and 50% doing manager tasks.

For some weeks, I spent every morning coding, and every afternoon doing manager activities. This worked well, but often my maker time would overflow as I didn’t feel I’d achieved enough. I was lucky enough to sit down and chat with Eden Shochat about this, and he instantly recommended instead of half days, I do full days. I found this much better, and I also noticed that Ben Kamens does the same.

The manager focus

During the time I spent in the maker/manager split, I came across one of the most powerful concepts I’ve discovered as a first-time CEO: to “fire thyself”. It came from an awesome article by Joe Kraus:

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. Your goal, crazy as it sounds, is to free up 50% of your time by constantly firing yourself from whatever skill position you’re playing.

Over the next month, I searched for a great engineer to take over Android development, and I was lucky to find Sunil. I gradually let Sunil take over and dropped my maker/manager split to 25% Android development, and eventually dropped it completely.

One of the hardest things as a developer transitioning into a manager role has been to get a feeling of progress without writing code. Progress is usually clear with code, and harder with manager activities. However, when you get towards 10 people in your team, coming back to the question from earlier is interesting: is 1 hour of my time better spent on “making” or “managing”? As a founder you’re in the best position to guide people and help them be super productive. That becomes your role. For me, I’m spending a lot of time finding great people to join Buffer, and also making adjustments all the time within the team.

As for coding, I still do a little. I help with development of our browser extensions, since that is the part of our codebase which has the least engineering resources, and is still very important for Buffer. Of course, I’m in the midst of firing myself from that, too. If you’re a JavaScript engineer in the bay area, I’d love to hear from you.

Have you found yourself torn between being a maker and a manager? Are you still coding when you should be building a company and awesome culture? I’d love to hear your experiences on this topic.

Photo credit: Paul Goyette