Vision

The quiet pivot

In the last 6 months, we’ve quietly shifted the direction of Buffer. Our adjustment is now almost complete and we’re charging ahead with our new vision. It’s interesting to reflect on how we came to realize that a change was needed, and how we went about finding our new path.

The original vision

The earliest idea of where we wanted to take Buffer was that we aimed to be a sharing standard:

Our vision is to become a new sharing standard across the web and apps, and to set the bar for great customer support.

For us, the idea with this was to be a very widespread consumer product with a low price point. We had been inspired by Evernote and casually used the phrase “The Evernote of Social Media” to describe Buffer. Evernote at the time had tens of millions of users and its business model was super simple: an optional pro version at $5/mo.

In the beginning, we had a $5/mo plan and a $20/mo plan, in line with this philosophy. Over time we adjusted our price to $10/mo and dropped the higher priced plan. Interestingly, for some time we had a $100/mo plan and people very readily paid that to manage additional social media accounts and team members. At the time, however, we were entirely focused on becoming a widespread tool and decided we must stay simple. We ditched the higher priced plan and attempted to scale as a platform rather than adding more power to the product itself. If we wanted to be a button across the web and apps, it had to be a simple idea.

What we learned attempting our original vision

In some ways I wish we had perhaps realized sooner that our vision to be a sharing standard was not going to work. At the same time, we gained many benefits by pushing ourselves to be a widespread product used by many individuals and small businesses.

Growth slowed, conversion rates dropped

We made a lot of progress in becoming a sharing standard. We made partnerships with Feedly, Pocket, Echofon, Reeder, TweetCaster and many other apps and services. I believe these integrations are still incredibly useful for our users (I personally am using the Feedly and Pocket integrations daily).

One of the key learnings we had in fulfilling a large part of our original vision was that partnerships and integrations rarely give you distribution. A key part of this vision working for us was tied to the integrations leading to many new Buffer users. We certainly got a good number, however we always had much more success with signups direct from our own web and mobile apps.

Not only did we not get a significant number of new users from the integrations, we also observed a drastic drop in conversion rates (to active users and eventually paying customers) for people who came from 3rd party apps. In hindsight this is not too surprising, since these users are not in that app primarily to use Buffer.

The benefits of freemium

While we found many flaws in our original vision and eventually decided that we needed to make an adjustment, I couldn’t be happier with the result of that journey.

Luckily for us, generating revenue was always a key focus (we charged from day 1). Therefore, even though we focused on having a wide reach, we always looked at our conversion rates and cared about revenue. In the journey of growing to 1 million users, we grew to significant revenues, to the extent we could be profitable and not have pressure to raise further funding.

In addition to building a profitable business, we have a true freemium / SaaS scenario and scale to be able to grow by understanding user patterns and running a/b tests and other experiments. We have 2,500 new users every day and consistent conversion rates to our $10/mo awesome plan as well as $50+/mo business plans.

I’ve observed that as startups grow, they tend to move up market. They introduce more powerful offerings and charge more. They start doing enterprise sales. We’re even on this journey now. At the same time, it’s incredibly powerful to have a free or lower priced product and have a large top of the funnel. We’re lucky to have both, and it’s much harder to try to fill that room at the bottom later.

The valley of death

Something that’s become increasingly clear to me as I’ve traveled this path is that I think there is a dangerous middle ground between trying to be super widespread and mainstream (and monetizing via ads) and focusing much more on value and power (and monetizing via subscription payments).

The way I see it, is that if you want to monetize through ads you probably need 100M+ users. If you want to build a solid freemium offering you only need a few million users, if that. Pure SaaS and it’s even less. But if you build something that people won’t pay for directly and end up with only 10 or 20 million users, you might be in a tough spot.

We’re now completely focused on building a world-class freemium and SaaS product to solve problems around social media.

The new vision for Buffer

As a result of our learnings and reflection on the slowing growth, Leo and I had a series of conversations towards the end of last year and decided on our new vision:

The vision for Buffer is to be the simplest and most powerful social media tool, and to set the bar for great customer support.

When we decided to make the change, we chose to approach it in a lean way. We didn’t talk too much about it until it really started working. To begin with, we simply brought back higher priced plans and reached out to some key customers hitting the limits of existing plans.

Fast forward to today, we have over 1,000 business customers and it already contributes 15% of our revenue. I’m excited about our new path. We’ve found it is incredibly fun to work with larger customers who have real problems and a need for a powerful social media solution.

Have you made any key decisions around changing the direction of your startup? I’d love to hear about your experiences and learnings. If you have any questions about the journey we’ve had with Buffer or our new direction, leave a comment below!

Photo credit: takasuii

Why I'm going to Hawaii with my co-founder

My co-founder Leo and I are headed to Hawaii tomorrow morning for a 10 day trip. I just emailed the team, and I thought in line with one of our core values of defaulting to transparency, it might be an interesting message to share:

Hey everyone, I think I’ve mentioned to most of you by now that Leo and I are leaving tomorrow for a short 10 day trip to Hawaii. We find ourselves in a very fortunate position with a thriving business and some solid relationships. At a time like this, Leo and I felt it would be wise to take a little time slightly “off the grid” and ask ourselves the questions “where do we want to take this now?”, “what do we all want to spend our precious time doing, and how can we ensure we’re happy and inspired?” and “how can we really move the needle as we continue on in 2013?”. It is a real pleasure that we can even be at a point to consider these questions. I am extremely thankful to be able to work with such an amazing group of people, all so aligned with the culture and excited about the product. I crave and enjoy every day working with you all. A lot of what Leo and I will ponder will be just as much to do with culture as to do with product direction, and for me personally this is what makes me jump out of bed every day. I think we have an opportunity here to really push the boundaries in terms of what an outstanding, empowering and supportive culture can be. We can primarily help ourselves and Buffer move forward at an incredible pace, and as a side effect we might attract some interest in the way we do things and be able to impact and help other companies too. Super excited to report back on what we come up with! P.S. Leo and I will still be very much active in Hip Chat and I’ll be keeping Trello updated :)

Photo credit: MattW