Startup

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

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

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

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

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

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

The journey to the current Buffer team

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

Hiring for skills vs hiring for culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culture is not about right or wrong

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

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

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

Why letting people go is part of the process

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Katie Tegtmeyer

The joys and benefits of working as a distributed team

Buffer is a fully distributed team. It’s a decision I had to make at the end of 2012, and it’s interesting to reflect on that decision now. I am happy to report that I am in love with the choice we made to be distributed all across the world.

How Buffer is set up

When I say we’re a distributed team, I mean that we’re literally spread across the whole planet. Buffer is a team of 12 right now, and here are the locations of everyone in the team:

  • 4 people in San Francisco, California: Leo, Carolyn, Sunil and myself
  • 1 person in Texas: Brian
  • 1 person in Massachusetts: BMR
  • 2 people in the UK: Andy and Colin
  • 1 person in Sweden: sa
  • 1 person in Hong Kong: Michelle
  • 1 person in Taipei, Taiwan: Niel
  • 1 person in Melbourne, Australia: Belle

In addition, Michelle was in San Francisco until just a week ago, Andy regularly travels and sa just took a few months trip back to Sweden (she normally resides in Sydney, Australia).

6 reasons being distributed is so exciting

I think the distributed team discussion is often focused around the challenges. I wanted to share from our experience the fun side of being distributed, which I think far outweighs the challenges:

1. Our team is super productive

The thing about hiring people for a distributed team is that they need to be self-motivated and productive working at home, coffee shops or a co-working space. We have a 45-day contract period to see how this goes and we look especially for people who have worked as freelancers or on startups. Everyone on board is incredibly smart and it’s humbling to work with them.

2. Team members have incredible amounts of freedom

Have a family event coming up and need to travel on Friday? No problem. Want to take off to Bali or Gran Canaria for a few weeks and work from there? Awesome - please share photos :) These things have all happened and are regular occurrences within our distributed team. It’s the little things too, like being able to avoid a commute and spend more time with family. We don’t have working hours and we don’t measure hours at all. We’re all excited about our vision and we focus on results, balance, and sustained productivity.

3. It feels like the future

Even being able to share the locations of all my co-workers when I meet others and chat about Buffer is so much fun and exciting. I think it provides a great story rather than all of us being in the same office each day. People ask how we manage it and I share our workflows and tools. We call HipChat our office, and a number of Google Hangouts are our conference rooms. I genuinely believe that how we’re set up will be very normal in a few years. There are certainly challenges and we’re still figuring a lot of it out. It’s fun and a huge privilege to be able to be part of this innovation and experiment and share our learnings.

4. I’m learning so much about the world

People within the team speak lots of different languages and talking with each other we learn about what it’s like to grow up elsewhere in the world. We think carefully about shaping our culture further and how our choices might affect the various cultures within the team. Carolyn recently has kindly been educating us about Nashville:

I enjoy having internat’l coworkers for *many* reasons, but explaining the concepts of “honky tonks” and “line dancing” is high on the list!

Carolyn Kopprasch (@CaroKopp) August 26, 2013

5. We travel the world to work together 3 times a year

Part of the DNA of Buffer is that we traveled all over the world for much of the first two years. This is something that has been sustained and is part of our values (and many in the team have lived up to this value by traveling as part of the team).

In order to have deliberate face-to-face time together to bond and have fun, we have 3 Buffer Retreats per year, where we gather the whole team in a single location. We spend a week working together and also do activities like sightseeing, boating and jet-skiing. We had our first in San Francisco (and Lake Tahoe) and next time we’ll be heading to a beach in Thailand!

6. Timezones make you awesome

Finally, you can look at timezones as an inconvenience, or you can embrace them and discover the magic of the time difference.

A key part of our vision is to set the bar for customer support. We obsessively track happiness of our customers and our speed to respond to them. We have almost a million users and we reply to 50% of emails within 1 hour and 75% within 6 hours. We do this with a Happiness Hero team of just 3, and we couldn’t achieve this level of service without being spread across multiple timezones.

Timezones are a huge help for our development cycle too - with engineers in the US, UK and Asia, we literally never stop coding.

Do you have experience of working in or growing a fully distributed team? Or do you have any thoughts about working in this way? I’d love to hear from you.

Photo credit: Colleen Lane

6 suggestions for an aspiring founder

This article is inspired by Startup Edition in response to “What advice would you give young entrepreneurs?”

I feel incredibly lucky that I managed to jump on board the path of building a startup. Having hit upon a product that solved a key pain for many people, Buffer has grown rather fast. We now have over 850,000 users and the team is 12 people.

When I reflect on how quickly things happened and what it has required of me, the first thing that comes to mind is Paul Graham's essay entitled How to Make Wealth. In particular, this part resonates with me:

You can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years. Imagine the stress of working for the Post Office for fifty years. In a startup you compress all this stress into three or four years.

There’s a lot to learn if you aspire to build a startup. I have thoroughly enjoyed the journey, and I can only recommend it to others. I can’t think of a better way to lead a fulfilling life. Here are 6 suggestions I have if you happen to be getting started along this road:

1. Experiment. Lots.

"If you’re not already doing a side project, I’d recommend starting one. Although they can complicate your schedule and make life busier, they are one of the few consistent keys I’ve observed in almost anyone who has impressive accomplishments." - Scott Young

I’ve mentioned previously that the Internet is littered with my past attempts to create a successful startup. Even before I knew I truly wanted to build a startup, I played around with countless side projects and they are spread across the web, too.

I think there is often a misconception that to be successful you need to focus and put all your eggs in one basket. That’s not how it happened for me. I tried a ton of different things, and I started Buffer on the side while working full-time as a freelance developer. The key is to focus once you have something that works, that gains traction and people love. Until then, I say experiment away.

2. Stay inspired.

"People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing - that’s why we recommend it daily." - Zig Ziglar

Looking back to the early days of my first startup attempt, I think something that kept me going was that I continually read books about startups and entrepreneurs and watched as many interviews of founders as I could find. In fact, I was especially humbled to be invited to share my story on Mixergy precisely because I have watched tens of interviews by Andrew Warner and they always inspired me to keep pushing forward.

It’s true that at some point you have to stop soaking up the motivation and actually get to work. However, I think a lot of people underestimate how powerful it can be to be take in the learnings of others. Especially in the early days when you might not necessarily be surrounded by others trying to do startups, I think staying inspired in this way can plant that spark inside to help you make it happen.

3. Travel the world and move.

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." Mark Twain

Travel is something that I always thought would be fun, and I never imagined the impact it could have for me. From simply moving a hundred miles from my hometown of Sheffield to Birmingham in the UK, to then traveling several continents and living in San Francisco, Hong Kong and Tel Aviv, I’ve been extremely lucky to have experienced completely different cultures and meet great people.

I truly believe that if you choose to travel you’re immediately much more likely to succeed with whatever you are trying to do. Leaving what you know and stepping into uncertainty, you naturally become more open-minded and create new opportunities for yourself.

Interestingly, many have an attachment to their hometown and want to be there in order to help their town and others who live there. My belief is that you can do a lot more to help your hometown if you make the decision to leave. I’ve never once heard someone regretting their decision to travel.

4. Choose your friends wisely.

"You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with." - Jim Rohn

One of the most interesting side-effects of moving and traveling a lot has been that in every new place I have settled in, I have had the chance to rethink every part of my life. I reflect on what kind of place I want to live, how close I want to be to all amenities, what routine I want to adopt and even who I want to hang out around.

The clear example of the power of adjusting your group of friends is that your school friends probably aren’t all entrepreneurs. The thing with doing a startup is that it’s an unusual path and one where there are far more reasons it can go wrong than can go right. If you truly want to succeed, surrounding yourself with other optimists is one sure way to have much better odds. The cool thing is, these are really fun people to be around.

I strive every day to meet (and hire) more people I can learn from.

5. Stay laser focused on building something people want.

"In nearly every failed startup, the real problem was that customers didn’t want the product." - Paul Graham

It’s easy to get distracted when you begin your startup endeavors. You might take a look around and assume you need to incorporate, or raise funding, or countless other things that everyone seems to do.

In my experience, all that really matters is to try and find a real problem to solve. What it comes down to is whether you have hit product/market fit. If you have, you’ll know it, and you’ll start to get traction.

If what you’ve built isn’t working, keep experimenting with new ideas.

6. Be open and vocal

"If you have an apple, and I have an apple, and we swap, we each still only have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we swap, we each have two ideas." - George Bernard Shaw

Before Buffer, I had a few previous startup ideas that weren’t too successful. One of the things that is easier to reflect on in hindsight is that luckily during that time I was Tweeting, blogging, going along to events and generally getting to know a lot of people.

When people ask me what my initial marketing was to get Buffer started, the truth I have to share is that my marketing consisted of sharing the idea with the 1,700 Twitter followers I had at the time. I attribute my previous openness to the fact that I had these followers to help me get Buffer started. As a result, I completely agree with Leah Bursque’s advice:

"Talk to every single person you meet about your idea. Talk until they tell you to shut up. Discover new questions and patterns so you can test and refine your idea. Then find more people to talk to."

What advice would you give to an aspiring startup founder? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Read more on this topic from an awesome group of entrepreneurs at Startup Edition.

Photo credit: Robert Scoble

Dreams come true

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined. - Henry David Thoreau

I can distinctly remember that for the month of December in 2010, and for much of January 2011, I did a lot of dreaming.

Back then, as I do now, I had a daily ritual of going for an evening walk before sleeping so that I could disengage from the day. I had discovered this helped me sleep better. By leaving my phone at home and setting off for my twenty minute walk, I had only my mind to keep myself entertained during the walk.

When I go on my walk, for the first five or ten minutes, my mind is usually occupied by thoughts about my current issues, challenges and tasks, or the highlights or low points of the day. After ten minutes, interesting things happen.

I would guess that for many of us, we rarely go for ten minutes without a task to do, a friend to talk to or a social network to check. I can tell you that in my experience, ten minutes of solitude leads to some powerful thoughts. It is fascinating to observe where your own mind wanders.

In December 2010, I had just launched Buffer and my mind often wandered to the thoughts about where this new side project might lead. Two weeks into the month, I had got two paying customers for Buffer, paying me $5 a month. This was a huge milestone for me, and the thought that kept occupying my mind was: could this ever make enough money that I could quit my day job? Another two weeks passed, and another two people started paying $5 per month. Now I was up to $20 of monthly revenue.

On my walks I day dreamed about the day when Buffer would make enough for me to quit my day job. Since these walks were just before bed, I also often had real dreams about this too. The number I had in my mind for this milestone was around $1,000 per month. On my walks, I remember calculating in my mind how long it might take at the current pace of paying customers joining Buffer. With 4 new customers per month, it was going to take a long time.

Then January rolled around, and things started to pick up. I became more focused and the product was improving fast. Leo had joined me and we were getting customers faster. I kept going on my walks and I kept having the same dream. In the first two weeks of January, we got another 4 customers: as many as the whole of December! We were now making $40 per month. But it was still going to take a long time to make $1,000 a month.

In February, things really started to change. The dreams I was having were starting to feel real, to feel possible. I kept going on the walks, and letting my mind wander back to the dream. By the end of March, I had dropped two of my five days of freelance work, I was just working three days a week and could spend the rest of my time on Buffer.

I felt like I was now working on making my dream a reality. By the end of May 2011 I had dropped my freelance work completely, and in June we hit our $1,000 per month milestone. We were growing rather fast.

I remember that I continued to go on my walks, and at times I would be amazed that this dream had now come true. I could remember exactly the feeling of going on a walk just a few months prior and imagining how amazing it would be to be able to work only on Buffer. On my own project, my own startup. Nothing else. And it was amazing. It felt fantastic.

What struck me, is that it might have been the fact that I let my mind wander, the fact I had these dreams, that made me push ahead during the early mornings and evenings and actually achieve those things. The dreams made me want it, even if I didn’t fully realize. The dreams meant that I had allowed my mind to be taken over by this objective.

These days, things are even crazier. When I stop to take a moment and truly appreciate where I am, I realize that I now have more than I could have ever dreamed of. That $1,000 a month goal is easy to forget. We now make $1,000 in less than half a day and if we don’t then something is wrong. And in a month, we now make a hundred times that original dream.

Now I have new dreams, and they can come true too.

Photo credit: Michael