Startup

How we're trying to stay innovative as a 3.5 year old startup

I think I’ve just about got to that point with Buffer where sometimes when I stop to reflect on things I think “wow, we’ve actually been doing this for a while now”. It’s about 3.5 years since I started Buffer as a very simple Minimum Viable Product, and we’re now 23 people and doing over $3m in annual revenue. We still have a lot to do and in many ways it feels like just the beginning, but we’ve been at it for some time now.

We have some fairly consistent growth now in new customers, revenue and in people joining the team. In many ways, I think that up until now, everything we have been doing has been innovation. When I first had the idea for Buffer, I didn’t realize at the time but looking back it’s clear that was innovation in social media. The idea of a rolling schedule of posts was not something that existed in all the products. I wasn’t the only one to come up with that idea, but it’s now a feature of most products out there.

These days, with a little more stability, I’ve started to think about innovation again. There are a lot of interesting things happening in the social media tools and marketing space, and I think we need to keep moving and try out new ideas.

The challenge of innovating as you start to grow

One of the interesting things we’ve witnessed at Buffer is that as we’ve started to grow, it is increasingly difficult to do risky experiments.

I think the key reason it’s hard is that we’re in this situation where we’re still struggling to grow the team as fast as we want to. We still have more roles than people, and we’re all wearing many hats. We have an endless list of product enhancements, bug fixes and a/b tests, without even thinking about the crazier ideas we want to try. Also, everything we have on our list is somewhat validated, whereas the innovative ideas will most likely fail (but could have huge rewards if they succeed).

As a result of this situation and challenge, I think we’ve only done somewhat innovative things in the last year. At one point I concluded that we should have a “year of execution” and then eventually be at a point where we can focus on innovation. I think that’s risky, because we will never have completed everything we want to do for the core of the product and may never get to innovating.

A framework from LinkedIn to stay innovative

I was recently watching a fascinating conversation between Reid Hoffman and Matt Mullenweg. I can highly recommend it, they talk about many interesting topics. One of the things that caught my attention was something Reid mentioned in the middle of the conversation which Matt asked him to expand upon. It’s the framework they use at LinkedIn to stay innovative.

Core, Expand, Venture Projects

That’s the wording that LinkedIn use to describe the 3 key areas of activity which they try to balance. Here’s how we’ve tried to take this idea and translate it into what makes sense for us at Buffer:

Core: For us, core means to work on what Buffer already is. It’s to improve our onboarding flow, to fix bugs and figure out where we can make the experience smoother for people who use the product. This also includes lots of ongoing a/b tests to improve the landing page, pricing pages or increase activation rate of new users.

Expand: This is the term for any projects worked on which are logical expansions of what the product already is. For example, adding analytics broken down by team members for the social posts you share, or a calendar view, or better reporting on the business plans. These are all things we want to get to soon, and they’re fairly validated.

Venture Projects: We’re calling this Labs, we’ll probably create “Buffer Labs” in the same way that HubSpot and MailChimp have Labs. This is the area we’ve been neglecting for some time (or maybe just the time wasn’t right until now), and we want to make room for now on an ongoing basis. This is for crazy ideas that we want to just try and see what happens. We’ll always approach these super lean to avoid waste, but we have to take the leap somewhat too. If successful, these projects could move to “Expands”.

I think the idea here is to try and shoot for a good balance between these 3 areas, and to always be working on all 3. It feels like a useful framework to follow. For us, it is probably going to be a 50:30:20 ratio right now. We’ll be sure to share our progress on Core, Expands and Labs through the Open Blog and on Dribbble. It’ll be fun to see how this works. Want to be part of working on any of these areas? We’re always looking for people to join the ride.

Photo credit: M Glasgow

The different ways of traveling

One of the incredible side-effects of doing retreats 3 times a year with my startup is that I get the opportunity to travel and experience completely different cultures.

On top of spending a week and a half with the rest of the Buffer team on retreats, in the last two occasions I have made a decision to stay or continue traveling in the same area beyond the end of the retreat.

For our latest retreat at the start of the month, 16 of us were together in Cape Town and I have stayed here 2 weeks so far beyond the retreat. I’m not sure yet whether I will continue to stay longer, or whether I will return to San Francisco. This uncertainty in itself is an example of a new way of traveling which I’ve been experimenting with.

How I’ve adjusted my traveling in the last few years

I’ve been very lucky to be born in a time where there is such a thing as work that doesn’t depend on where you are. We’ve set up Buffer as a completely distributed team (now 20 people across 18 cities in 5 continents), and I’ve had the opportunity to travel a lot already during the Buffer journey.

Leo and I started Buffer in the UK, and after 8 months we moved to San Francisco. We spent 6 months in San Francisco, then 6 months in Hong Kong, and then 3 months in Tel Aviv. After that I lived in San Francisco again for the last year and a half, with a little traveling at time.

The result, for me, of traveling to so many different places is that I started to carry much less with me to each subsequent place. I realized that you really don’t need much to travel, or even to live. In fact, you don’t need much in life at all. I’ve become a big fan of one bag living.

In addition, these experiences were the first time I’d experienced “living” in a place rather than “visiting” a place. Being able to stay 3 months or 6 months meant that I could make new friends, discover the culture in a deeper way and experience working and living there. It relieved a lot of the pressure of “seeing all the sights” in a short space of time, and even on shorter trips now I don’t try to cram too much in.

Traveling around Asia

Our second Buffer retreat was in Thailand in December last year. 10 of us stayed in Bangkok for a few days and then in 2 villas in Pattaya for a week where we worked together and went on a boat trip to a nearby island.

After the retreat, I decided to experiment with traveling by myself, something which I hadn’t properly done before. It was an incredible experience, so freeing for everything to be in your control. Even just the fact that it’s down to only you to get around is interesting, you have to be the one to ask directions or make the effort to meet others, rather than relying on a friend (which I sometimes do).

When we do a retreat, it’s quite a busy time and we fit a lot into the week, not to mention the natural excitement and pressure of meeting people, sometimes for the first time. After Thailand, I decided to travel to Singapore for 6 days, then Taipei for 4 days and then make my way to Japan for Christmas to see my brother, his wife and my little nephew.

It was a great experience to see all these different places in the space of a few weeks. At the same time, I didn’t manage to feel a part of any of these places, I didn’t get past experiencing things on the surface.

Staying in Cape Town

My recent experience in Cape Town is in contrast somewhat to that of traveling around Asia. Rather than visiting other countries in Africa (which would be a lot of fun) I decided to simply stay in the retreat location of Cape Town for a few extra weeks. After the week of retreat, I found an AirBnB place and I could start to build my early morning routine go to the gym again. I found a few coffee shops and a co-working space, and I got to know some people. I did a speaking event and met the startup community here.

With each day that passed, I felt like I got some extra insights into how things work here. I met locals and learned some of the Afrikaans words and some of the differences in how they speak English, too. I quickly stopped feeling like a tourist, although I have been on Safari, hiked to the Lion’s Head and had a kitesurfing lesson. During the week I’ve worked just like I would anywhere else.

I’ve become much more spontaneous with my plans and let things flow based on who I meet and how I feel. I have accommodation for only a couple more days here in Cape Town, so this afternoon I’ll start looking on AirBnB again for the next part of the city to experience.

In the future, I think I’ll take every opportunity to stay a few weeks or even a few months in a place, rather than trying to visit as many places as possible. I’ve found it much more fulfilling to become part of a place rather than simply seeing a place, even if it I’m only temporarily part of it.

Photo credit: Dimitry B

The Yin and Yang of a great co-founder relationship

I’ve always found it interesting to think about co-founder relationships. I’ve been in a few myself, some which were not completely successful and then more recently working with Leo for the last 3 years has been an absolute joy. It’s fascinating to me how co-founders need to be different in many ways and at the same time have shared values they are aligned on. It’s a real art to find someone who you work well with and trust.

I recently watched a video of an interview with DHH from Basecamp and found the audience question on co-founders interesting and very in-line with my own experiences on what makes a good match.

Complementing each other in skill-set

"When two men in business always agree, one of them is unnecessary." - William Wrigley Jr

I think it’s super valuable to have different strengths as founders. I often see fantastic products from great engineers and product people, where I believe the product should be used by far more people. It’s probably because the founders are not naturally inclined to do marketing, and so keep working on the product.

"I see a number of startups where the founders are too alike. Either they agree on everything or even worse they do the same thing. Like starting a company with two programmers - I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think you need skills, and you need mentality, to complement each other." - DHH

In the early days of Buffer, I reached a point with the product where it had a couple hundred users and some paying customers, and I knew in my head that I needed to switch to marketing. There was validation that the product in the exact form it was in, was already useful to people. There was clearly more people out there who would find it valuable as well. However as a developer it was a real challenge to be effective at switching to marketing instead of fixing bugs or building out new features. Luckily for me, that’s when Leo came on board as my co-founder and had a massive impact since he was a great marketer.

It’s also useful to have different mindsets on the business aspects too:

"For me and Jason on skills, Jason was all about design and I was all about programming. So that was just a natural fit right there. On running the business, Jason is more of a risk-taker and I’m more conservative. I’m more about running the numbers and making sure everything’s alright, and Jason’s more like let’s just rip away everything and try something new and take a leap. I think you need both of those things to pull the business in the right way." - DHH

For me and Leo, we’re both scrappy and take the lean mindset. At the same time, Leo is probably more inclined to push something out of the door extremely early, whereas I like to be a little more calculated and logical and get the best balance of learning and not wasting time by building something out without validation, but still shipping something quite polished.

One of the most interesting ways Leo and I complement each other is on “doing” vs “reflecting”. I often joke that if Leo and I each have a daily todo list with 5 items on it, there is absolutely no question that Leo will get through his 5 tasks. For me, I struggle at times to get through everything. I work hard to be productive, however I also like to take time to reflect on the direction we’re going and ponder changes. We both aspire to be more like each other in this regard: I’d love to just crank through more, and Leo says to me he’d like to reflect more and sometimes realize not to do some tasks. We talk very regularly and help each other, and we end up at a nice equilibrium.

Aligned with each other on values and vision

"At the same time, you have to have some overlap too. Jason and I obviously share a lot of opinions about how to run a business and what is important and our values are incredibly alike, in terms of creating a sustainable long-term business that does well for both its customers and its employees. So you can’t just be polar opposites and expect that everything’s going to be daisy. There’s got to be overlap on important cultural values in the company, but outside of that seek as much diversity as you can." - DHH

The hard part of finding a great co-founder is that you want to sufficiently complement each other, but at the same time it’s vital to agree on fundamental values and what you want to do with the company. If one of you wants to flip the company within a couple of years and the other wants to make it their life’s work, it’s going to be difficult to agree on key decisions.

From an early stage it became clear that Leo and I were very aligned on many of the values which became the Buffer culture. I introduced Leo to How to Win Friends and Influence People and we spent countless hours discussing the principles and examples. Leo has always had tremendous gratitude for the opportunities he has had and is one of the most positive and happy people I know, and that was something I aspired to focus on more. I always enjoyed being very open and transparent about my learnings and progress and this came completely naturally to Leo too and he enjoyed pushing us further in that direction.

How did you meet your co-founder and what are the key ways in which you complement each other? I’d love to hear about your experiences

P.S. We need help with many areas of Buffer right now, to complement the existing great team. Check out our openings

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

Firing myself, again

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