Coaching and feedback within startups

I’ve written in the past about the evolution of our culture at Buffer. One of the things we started to do at around 6-7 people as part of the culture is that everyone has a 1:1 session with either myself or their team lead at least every 2 weeks. On top of that, I personally have a 1:1 session with Leo, Carolyn and Sunil (the c-suite) every single week.

It’s been pretty powerful to put in place, and it’s something I would very much encourage startups to experiment with early on. I don’t often hear about coaching and feedback processes being in place at startups, and it took us some time to figure out how to structure it, so I hope this might be useful.

How the 1:1 sessions work

We’ve had many different iterations of the structure of our 1:1 sessions, which originated from the ‘mastermind’ format I’ve previously written about. Currently they last around 70 minutes and have quite a rigid structure as follows:

  • 10 minutes to share and celebrate your Achievements
  • 40 minutes to discuss your current top challenges
  • 10 minutes for the team lead (or me) to share some feedback
  • 10 minutes to give feedback to the team lead (or me)

Each of these sections serve a slightly different purpose and combine to create a very productive session. In addition, once sessions like this are done consistently over a period of a couple of months, a momentum builds and we’ve found the whole team has really started to move into a whole new gear.

The 1:1 is for the team member, not the CEO or team lead

You might notice that in the structure breakdown above, it translates to 60 minutes dictated by the team member, and only 10 minutes led by myself or the team lead. This is very deliberate, and in the early days the balance was the other way around. One of the key realizations for me that it should work this way was a great article Ben Horowitz wrote entitled One on One where he said the following:

Generally, people who think one-on-one meetings are a bad idea have been victims of poorly designed one-on-one meetings. The key to a good one-on-one meeting is the understanding that it is the employees meeting rather than the managers meeting.

When you share the structure in advance and 85% of the time is dedicated to the team member, and it is up to them to set the agenda, it suddenly becomes very empowering.

Listening and suggesting, rather than commanding

During the 1:1 session, the team lead will try her best to simply ask questions and maybe share some of her thoughts or similar experiences. The aim really is to help the team member to think about the challenge and come up with their own solution or steps forward that they can be completely happy and excited about.

This can be one of the hardest things to do - to hold back when an idea comes into your head about what the team member could do next to solve their challenge. However, this is really important. If instead of just instructing the team member as to how to solve their challenge, you ask questions to try and guide them to that answer, then you might find your own idea was in fact the wrong solution entirely. This has happened quite a number of times, and has been fascinating to see.

Even if the solution is what you have in your mind, it is a hundred times more motivating for the team member to come away knowing that they came up with a solution themselves, that this solution is theirs and they were not commanded. Galileo explained perfectly why we try to approach it in this way:

You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him to find it within himself.

The power of scheduled time for reflection, celebration and feedback

I think a reason that the weekly or biweekly 1:1s can serve to accelerate progress at a startup, is that it is a deliberate and scheduled session to spend 10 minutes purely for celebrating achievements (something we often forget to be happy about and grateful for), and a lot of time to reflect and make adjustments. Tim Ferriss put this better than I can myself in one Random Show episode:

It is important that you pay as much attention to appreciation as you do to achievement. Achievement without reflection on what you have and the gratitude for that is worthless.

In addition, having 10 minutes for each person to give feedback to the other is very freeing. The time is set up specifically for feedback, and if this time did not exist it may be hard for someone to share their concerns or suggestions for change within the company. Especially for a CEO, it can be uncomfortable for people to share feedback, so this setup is a way to receive incredibly useful information.

Embracing our cultural value of self-improvement

One of the unique values in the culture at Buffer is to “Have a focus on self-improvement”, and this can be related to your work at Buffer or (often) personal improvements.

In the challenges section of the 1:1s, the discussion may be for challenges within Buffer, or it could be working on your self: for example improving your sleep, pushing yourself to keep learning a new language, trying new forms of exercise such as swimming, or how to blog more frequently.

Do you have a process in place for accelerated improvement and two-way feedback at your startup? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Photo credit: Jerome Carpenter

Work harder on yourself than you do on your startup

"Work harder on yourself than you do on your job." - Jim Rohn

A long time ago, I came across the amazing quote above, which was said often by Jim Rohn. It stook in my mind, and as the years have gone on, I feel I’ve increasingly started to learn the true meaning of it.

I feel that in a startup, the quote is even more relevant. Here are some of the reasons I’ve discovered that tell me that you may want to seriously consider working harder on yourself than you do on your startup:

It usually takes a few tries

I certainly hope you do things better and faster than I have, and I know people far smarter than me building kickass products, but looking back and joining the dots of my own journey it is interesting to recall the number of different projects and startups I’ve started before hitting something that has worked.

Unfortunately, the Internet is literally littered with my previous startup attempts, and it has taken me many tries and many years before I started Buffer and have started to have some success.

For that reason, I think it’s not a smart approach to put all your eggs in the “current startup” basket. Instead, it’s good to work on yourself.

Be open, vocal, and build your network

Looking back, one of the things that has helped me the most when starting Buffer was the fact that during the year and a half I was working on my previous startup, I was consistently sharing my progress via Twitter, Facebook and blogging.

Many ask how I drove the initial traction to the product-less MVP of Buffer. The truth is, I was rather lucky. As a result of being open and quite vocal about startups and my learnings, I had reached a total of 1700 followers on Twitter, and a few on other platforms too. Since the initial target user of Buffer was a Twitter user, this was a great channel for me.

Whether your case is as good a fit as it was for me with Buffer or not, you can still benefit by having a personal Twitter profile and sharing your progress frequently. In addition to the “launchpad” effect at the start of Buffer, I now believe that with just over 6,500 followers I have an amount of credibility which can help to put me in the lucky position to speak at events and connect with people I couldn’t otherwise.

Do activities to improve all aspects of yourself

Of course, sharing your progress on social networks is just a one of the things you can do to improve yourself.

I think that working on these other aspects of yourself can also help you to have a much better chance of succeeding with a current or future startup:

Marketing and blogging

If you’re a coder, you should definitely try attempting to get press for your startup and blogging, or at least pay keen attention to the marketer on your team. It’s an invaluable skill to be able to communicate clearly and hustle your startup to be featured by press. This personal blog is something that has brought me far more benefits than I originally realised it would.

Coding and technical skills

Whether you’re a long-time coder and you hack away on open source projects in addition to the startup, or you’re the marketer and you start to dabble in code, improving understanding and skills on the technical side of a startup are a massive win if you start something by yourself. Whilst researching my previous post on Kevin Systrom of Instagram, I was surprised to see how his activities leading to starting Instagram shaped him to be both a phenomenal marketer as well as very able engineer. This is even more relevant in these current times, since Andrew Chen has clearly highlighted the immense power of a "Growth Hacker" who is both a marketer and an engineer.

Exercise and paying attention to your body

I have quite a rigid schedule and a number of rituals to help me both get great consistent sleep, and also to exercise daily. Working on myself in this way means I am super happy a lot of the time, and this very directly converts into productivity when I’m hacking away on Buffer or positivity and enthusiasm when I’m in an important meeting. In addition to these benefits, having a few different things I can “win at” each day means I always have a great day.

Speaking and mentoring

I’ve recently increased the amount of speaking I’m doing, and each time it becomes much easier. I’m not the kind of person who naturally loves to speak, so it’s been an amazing experience to become more comfortable with doing it.

As well as speaking, I’ve been offering help to local startups here in Hong Kong to talk about validating their idea, gaining traction, fundraising timing and strategy, scaling and other interesting topics. It’s been amazing to widen my viewpoint of the different challenges people face, and also to be in touch with many super smart people. This is outside of the normal startup work, but I have no doubt it benefits Buffer in many ways.

If you want to ask me a question via email or jump on a Skype call, I’d love to hear from you.

Are you working harder on yourself than your startup?

When you’re doing a startup, it’s hard to separate life and work. Therefore, why not work away on yourself just like you do on your startup? Plan the necessary disengagement from the startup just as carefully as you’d plan the time you work on it. If you can systematically improve and expand your skills, then whether this one works out or not, you’ll always be in an increasingly better position as the weeks and months pass.

In what ways are you working hard on yourself? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Photo credit: Pandiyan V