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, you’re 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
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:
In addition, Michelle was in San Francisco until just a week ago, Andy regularly travels and Åsa 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:
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
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
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
I remember when I was 12, I was desperate to grow up. I think most of us are when we’re young. Similarly, when you’re getting your startup off the ground, it can be easy to wish ourselves ahead to having a big team, a fully-fledged product and millions of users.
The thing is, there are a lot of cool things to experience, enjoy and be happy about when you are 12, before you become 13, 14, 15. The same applies when you’re a 2 person or 3 person startup. There are plenty of reasons to be happy.
You can move fast when you are small
I think one of the interesting things I’ve learned while growing Buffer to 11 people is that you can move fast when you’re 11 people, however you can also move rather fast when you’re just 2 people.
This is not to say that we moved faster overall when we were 2 people. We now have a larger footprint: we have a super useful web product, mobile apps for iPhone, Android and Blackberry, browser extensions for Chrome, Safari and Firefox as well as countless integrations with awesome partner apps and startups. There is no way we could move fast in all of these various areas if we were just 2 people.
However, the key thing is that you can move just as fast in terms of percentage growth when you are 2 people as when you are 11. In fact, in our early days we sustained 40% MoM growth for almost the whole of the first year.
Just focus on the right things and crank away at code and marketing and you can make a lot happen as just a couple of founders. That brings me to my next point:
You don’t need structure when you’re small
A couple of months ago I had a very interesting week where I spoke separately with both Jonathan Abrams and our advisor Maneesh Arora and found that they both had similar advice, and shared that they were staying small for as long as they could with their startups. These are two very experienced founders, and they were sharing that they had no hurry to grow big. I even remember Maneesh advising us to pay ourselves more instead of spending the cash on new hires. It now makes a lot of sense to me.
I’ve found that there is are a series of tipping points in a startup where prior to that point, structure would slow you down, and after the fact structure will speed you up.
- When you’re just 2 founders you can make all the decisions collaboratively, with no real structure.
- When you become 3 people, it probably still works.
- When you’re 5, 6 or 7 then it starts to break down and slow you down.
"Adding just two more people to a team of 3 means that there will be 10 possible combinations of 1:1 conversations. Make it 10 people and you have a whopping 45 possible sets of conversation partners." - Duane Jackson
That’s when you need to introduce structure and select one person to make the final call and lead the process. We’ve found this repeatedly, with product and with our customer support team and our engineering team too. We recently added more structure by promoting Sunil to CTO, leading engineering, and Carolyn to CHO, leading customer support.
My lesson learned here is that it is important to get the timing right with staying unstructured, or introducing structure. If you have departments and titles when you’re just a couple of people, that will probably slow you down. If you have a team of 30 people and no one in charge, that’s probably going to be slow too.
You can learn more easily from your users when you are small
When you are just getting started, it is vital to be in touch with the user and to do good customer development in order to understand whether your assumptions are correct.
The beauty is that when you are small it is actually very easy to have a conversation with your users, because there aren’t many of them! The harder part is actually taking the plunge and asking for that Skype call or coffee meeting with someone who signed up for your product.
I think Eric Ries put it very well in one of his presentations:
Most of the techniques that big companies use to do customer research (surveys, in depth analysis, data mining) they do because they have too many users to keep track of, and therefore they have to do that stuff to try to make sense of all the information they have. When you’re small you have the advantage that you only have a small group of people to get to know.
Indeed, we found that when we tried to do A/B testing and build out detailed metrics in our first few months, we were much better off to simply reach out and talk with the people who were signing up to Buffer.
Now that we have over 600,000 users posting more than a million times a week, what Eric Ries said resonates even more. We now have a small team working just on metrics and understanding what our users are doing. You can avoid this when you’re small, it is a lot of fun to be able to glean so much from just a few conversations.
Are you in the early stages of your startup? Are you embracing the benefits of how small you are? Or, maybe you’re at a later stage and remember how different it was when you were small. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.
Photo credit: Christian
I’ve done a lot of traveling throughout my journey with Buffer. I started in the UK, and since then I’ve lived in Hong Kong and Tel Aviv as well as San Francisco where I’ve now settled for the longer term.
When I was in my hometown of Sheffield in the UK, I became quite involved in the (then tiny) startup scene, and even ran a meetup for startups. The choice to move to a different city was quite a big one, and later the choice to leave the UK completely was a step even further.
I often hear the argument that people should stay in their hometown to help the startup ecosystem. I believe that paradoxically, the best way to grow the ecosystem in your hometown might be to leave it.
I think there’s this myth that the best way to help your hometown is to stick around. I also think there is a misconception that the way to help is to focus on the community, more than on yourself.
Focusing inwards, in order to be able to help others
One of the key things I’ve learned is that you can help a community far more by focusing inwards, on yourself, than you can by spending a lot of time working on the community itself.
"The greatest gift you can give to somebody is your own personal development. I used to say ‘If you take care of me, I will take care of you.’ Now I say, ‘I will take care of me for you if you will take care of you for me.’" - Jim Rohn
Indeed, in a recent post on the gender bias in the tech and startup world, Melissa Miranda concluded:
"The best way to have more women at the top is to climb up there myself."
Kate Kendall, a great friend and a founder I am inspired by and respect a lot similarly mentioned in a recent post:
"I cannot continue to provide for others if I don’t get my own company’s foundation firmly planted. I look forward to giving more again soon. Once I first learn how to ask."
These are some very wise words. The message is clear. Many who have taken considerable steps along their journey are realizing that their best way to help is to focus inwards on themselves, in order to become more and have more to offer. This is certainly the approach I am aiming for, too.
Refreshing your environment and your circle
One of the toughest things to accept as an ambitious entrepreneur is that you are affected by your environment and the circle of friends you have. We have far less willpower and self-control than we like to admit to ourselves.
Seneca wrote in a letter somewhere between 63 and 65 AD that even the most accomplished men are affected by the “crowd” they choose to be amongst:
"Even Socrates, Cato, and Laelius might have been shaken in their moral strength by a crowd that was unlike them; so true it is that none of us, no matter how much he cultivates his abilities, can withstand the shock of faults that approach, as it were, with so great a retinue."
If Socrates himself would be affected by a crowd who did not push him and encourage him, how can we hope to even achieve a sliver of the success he had unless we decide carefully who and what we choose as our environment? Seneca advised in this same letter:
"Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship"
I got lucky myself. Something drew me to Birmingham in the UK, from my hometown of Sheffield. Then, after Buffer reached ramen profitability Leo and I had a craving, a calling to visit San Francisco. After arriving and spending 6 months in Silicon Valley, lack of visas forced us to travel the world and live in places such as Hong Kong and Tel Aviv.
It was through this journey I learned the power of a fresh environment and starting new friendships. With each new place, I had a more specific criteria for who I would let into my true circle of friends. Today, I have much freedom and I am surrounded by people who never judge and always encourage. The difference this makes is something I can’t put into words. Leaving your hometown is the best way to deliberately sever those ties and step into the unknown and the chance of great possibilities.
Finding somewhere to thrive
With an inward focus and a desire to shape your environment in a very deliberate way, I think that if you choose to try and do these things in your hometown, you are very much at a disadvantage.
There is no way I would have been able to develop as much as a person if I had not jumped on a plane to a place where I knew nobody. I love my friends and I love my family, but the truth is that stepping away has helped me tremendously to become a better version of myself, and paradoxically to allow me to help them even more, too.
There’s probably a place in the world that is better for your business than where you are right now. For AirBnB, it was New York:
While at incubator Y Combinator, Paul Graham looked at their plans for Airbnb and asked them the simple question, “Where is your market?”
The founders said that New York seemed promising. To which Paul, gesturing wildly with his hands, said, “Your users are in New York and you’re here in Mountain View.”
The founders were dumbfounded, saying they were in Mountain View for Y Combinator.
Paul repeated himself. “Your users are in New York and you’re here in Mountain View.” After a pause, he added, “What are you still doing here?”
For us, it is San Francisco. We’re a distributed team, but many of the conversations we need to have with startups we partner with and the social networks we are providing a service on top of, happen much more easily when we’re in the same location as the majority of them and can grab coffee face-to-face. I’ve come to agree with what Brad Lindenberg said in a blog post recently:
"I am convinced now that in order to be a player, you need to have a presence where your target market is because if you do, things can happen really quickly."
A lot has happened in my hometown of Sheffield since I left. There is even a startup accelerator there now. If I hadn’t left, I’d not be on a level where I would comfortably and excitedly be a mentor for the accelerator. Would you be able to help more if you let go of your roots and focused on yourself?
Photo credit: Christine Vaufrey
Startup ideas that involve two sided markets are notoriously difficult to get off the ground. It’s the age-old chicken and egg problem. You need lots of buyers for the sellers to be interested, and you need lots of sellers for the buyers to be interested. The same goes for the recruitment space, and many other verticals too.
I myself have failed in a two sided market, where I once tried to build a product which would kill the business card. It would only work if everyone used the product and exchanged their business cards using my platform. Or so I thought.
While I don’t have any direct personal experience of solving the two sided market problem, I have now been involved in startups for quite some time and have helped over 100 people through 1:1 Skype calls and coffee meetings, and gaining traction in a network effects startup is a challenge that comes frequently. Here are the two ways I would go about building traction for a product in a two sided market:
Go super niche
The first thing I would advise is to think about just how narrow you could go with the first iteration of your product. The more niche you go, the smaller the market becomes. The smaller the market, the easier it is to gain a critical mass within that market and become the defacto product for the audience.
In addition, the smaller and more focused you make the market, the more you can do specific things which will make your product the better option than any others. I think there is a reason Facebook did so well in the early days when it only supported Harvard and other colleges. Zuckerberg mentioned in an early interview that by staying more focused they could provide more value:
There was a level of service that we could provide when we were just at Harvard that we can’t provide for all the colleges, and there’s a level of service that we can provide when we’re a college network which we couldn’t provide if we went to other types of things.
I would encourage you to think “what can I do to provide value for a much smaller niche market that might not necessarily scale?”. This means to provide value very specific to that niche market, that might not apply to other markets you later want to support. That’s an interesting thing I’ve learned: methods you use early to gain traction don’t need to be able to scale as you grow.
Usually a great plan is to go truly niche by picking a specific location as well as specific use case, then expand outwards. Chris Dixon has a great article on using this method, he calls it the bowling pin strategy. For example, Facebook focused on Harvard, and students. Yelp on San Francisco and dining out. Think about what’s the best focus for your idea.
Have a single player mode
The other great way to gain traction when getting started with an idea in a two sided market, is to essentially avoid the “two sides” aspect all together. While it is very powerful to have network effects at a later stage and can help trigger fast growth, in the beginning attracting both sides is a tough problem to solve.
In my experience, I’ve seen that most ideas have one side which has many problems and could actually benefit from a “tool” of some sort in addition to the benefits that are provided with the other side of the market. The idea is that the features which involve both sides of the market (for example, repinning, commenting and browsing others’ pins on Pinterest) are the "multiplayer mode" of the product. If you can also provide a “single player mode” (for example, creating your own personal pinboard of great pictures you find and want to save) then this can be very powerful for gaining the initial traction when the userbase is small.
I’ve observed that often founders have not considered that they could provide a tool for one side of the market and this could give them a way to get the product off the ground, while still retaining the multiplayer aspect for later benefit.
Are you building a startup which inherently has network effects and the challenge of the chicken and egg problem to gain traction? Have you thought about these two techniques? I’d love your thoughts on the topic.
Photo credit: Simply Boaz
I was recently back in the UK for two weeks and had the chance to speak at an event in London about the incredible journey with my startup in the last two years.
When I speak, I try my best to share useful information and this generally consists of mistakes I’ve made along the way and some of the greatest lessons I’ve come away with from the experience. At the same time, I also aim for my talks to be a little inspirational too, by sharing how I’ve been lucky enough to achieve some astonishing milestones despite the fact that I’m certainly no smarter than anyone else.
At the end of this particular talk, someone asked me a really fantastic question, which was “you’ve shared great lessons, tips and some amazing achievements, but what has been the lowest point in this journey so far?”. It is a great question and there’s certainly one moment that stands out amongst others as one of the hardest times I’ve had with Buffer.
A choice to raise funding
When Leo and I jumped on a plane to San Francisco around one and a half years ago, what we didn’t realise at the time is that in hindsight this was a clear turning point for us personally, and for Buffer as a startup.
When we first arrived, we quickly set up a number of different meetings. Notable people we met were Hiten Shah and Daniel Brusilovsky amongst a number of other founders at different stages of their startup career, including a few YCombinator founders.
What we quickly realised through conversations with people was that we could keep growing slowly and solidly without funding, but we were at a point with good traction and a clear bottleneck in terms of me being the only person working on the whole product and all technical aspects, where if we had some funding we could grow the team more quickly and get much faster growth.
Leo and I always have a very positive outlook which helps us a lot, so we quickly decided it made sense to raise investment and whilst we had no idea how to do that, we agreed that it was simply another thing we would figure out.
Switching our focus to fundraising
Of course, since we had literally no idea how raising funding worked, we asked many many people for advice, and we started to take action right away to attempt to make progress. One thing we were sure of was that we should try our best to reach out to investors and have meetings. We were scared to talk to investors since we didn’t know how to pitch or how the process works, but we knew that was exactly what we needed to do.
Due to our lack of experience and knowledge, we worked jointly on fundraising. We sat down together in various coffee shops and sent out dozens of emails to investors, to other founders and to people who had become casual advisors. We learned many things, including that you should always get an introduction to an investor, and that you should be very specific with a call to action in emails.
One of the important things we discovered, was that there should always be a clear focus of any pitch. Most pitches have similar content sections such as the market, a problem, your solution, current traction and the team. However, each individual startup will have a single aspect which is the strongest part of the pitch. For us, this was definitely our traction; Buffer already had 25,000 users, monthly revenues around $1,500 and we were growing 10% week over week.
The great thing was: it is often said that when pitching, traction trumps everything. Certainly looking back, since we were first time founders with no track record, traction was even more important. The problem was, whilst traction was the key part of our pitch and the traction was good, as soon as we switched our focus to fundraising our traction slowed.
A difficult few weeks of learning
The traction which we were proud of was largely driven by a lot of hard work. For the six months previous, the only focus Leo and I had was to build a great product which solved a real need, and to market it so that people who would find it useful knew that it existed.
We learned that fundraising is a full-time task, so what happened next was that around three weeks into fundraising, around three weeks after we had almost stopped working on the product and marketing altogether, our traction started to slow dramatically. We had some long-tail traffic, but a large portion of the traction was driven by articles about Buffer which we were triggering on an almost daily basis.
We essentially started to lose our most valuable asset in pitching Buffer. To add to the struggles, we were almost one month into our allowed three months in San Francisco on the visa waiver program, and we were also quickly running out of money because we didn’t realise how expensive the Bay Area is. With only two months left before we would have to move on from San Francisco, we were eager to raise the funding we had decided would be so valuable for building the startup further.
However, one of the things we learned while figuring out how fundraising works is that two months is a very fast amount of time to close a seed round, even for the most experienced founders.
A tough Saturday morning conversation
One Saturday morning around three weeks after we started our attempt to raise a seed round for Buffer, at the apartment where we were sharing a single room (alternating between one sleeping on a bed and the other on the floor on an airbed), Leo and I talked about what we were going to do to try and turn things around.
We had been trying for three weeks, and we had learned a lot about how to raise funding, but we now knew that a joint effort from both of us in order to try to quickly close a seed round was not going to be successful. We needed our traction to continue, since the fundraising was going to be a longer task. We had very little cash left, in fact I was actually borrowing money from Leo, who was well into his savings.
So we needed a new strategy. Since I was the coder, we decided that I would be the one to work towards keeping our traction going, which I would do by building the product but also by doing all the marketing tasks which I was much less experienced with. Leo, on the other hand, would focus entirely on fundraising and learning more, and trying to figure it out. I would be pulled into meetings only when we reached a point where we were discussing terms.
We knew it was going to be extremely difficult, with many highs and lows for both of us, which we would need to shield each other from and remain positive and optimistic. I think we both believed we could pull it off, but we knew there was a good chance that we might end up back home on a plane to the UK without closing the funding we sought.
An amazing high: Being accepted into AngelPad
The next few hours taught us how crazy life as a startup founder can be. We were both truly at a very low point, and we often look back with fond memories of that moment since it was a great example of the struggles founders have to go through.
Around 2 weeks into our attempt to raise funding, we had noticed that AngelPad had a class coming up, and that even though the deadline had passed, they were accepting late applications. Since we were struggling, we applied. We didn’t take too long over it, though, and we quickly moved back to focusing on our fundraising efforts. We had a number of emails back and forth with Thomas, Gokul and others in the AngelPad team, and even had a Skype interview with Thomas. Still, we weren’t too confident we would get in.
After our memorable Saturday morning discussion, Leo got a call from Thomas. We had got into AngelPad and would receive $120,000 in funding for Buffer. We’d go through the 10 week program with 14 other startups and have a demo day at the end, and we would be taught about how to raise funding. It was simply one of the most incredible moments of my life and I remember a real feeling of elation, compounded by the fact we had just had to make a very difficult decision a few hours prior, which no longer mattered.
AngelPad proved to be a significant part of the Buffer journey, and enabled us to get some amazing advisors and investors on board when we did our fundraising after demo day. Although it was not easy, after the struggles and learning we had gone through we were fortunate to be able to raise a $400,000 seed round for Buffer.
I have realised that when I have low points, they are the times where the most growth and learning occurs. I would therefore not change a thing about those tough weeks.
Have you had some truly low points during your startup journey so far? Have you found that these moments have taught you some valuable lessons? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Photo credit: TexasEagle
"We live in a vague world. And it gets vaguer all the time. In this environment, the power of the specific, measurable and useful promise made and kept is difficult to overstate." - Seth Godin
It’s easy to be vague, broad, and to never commit to a particular direction. It’s frightening to be specific.
One of the key things I’ve learned in the last two years of doing startups is that to make real progress, it’s important to be specific. I think this applies beyond email, but with a specific example I think it’s easier to understand.
Why it’s hard to be specific in emails
I was recently looking back at some of the emails I was sending out when I was just beginning my journey with startups. It was quite frankly embarrassing. In almost every case the emails were far too long and had no clear call to action. Still, emails are consistently somewhere that I see new founders struggling the most. They rarely get a reply and they often wonder why.
What I’ve realised, is that it’s actually very difficult to be specific. If we take the example of trying to get a meeting with a well-known investor, then it’s easy to think that we should let them choose the time. So you say something like this:
How is your schedule looking next week?
It seems sensible. They’re probably much more busy, so if you suggest a time to meet it’s likely that it won’t work for them.
How vagueness fails to clinch that important meeting
"A large array of options may discourage consumers because it forces an increase in the effort that goes into making a decision. So consumers decide not to decide, and don’t buy the product." - Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice
What generally happens when the investor receives the email is that they have a number of options for “next week”. Rather than spending the effort to make that decision, they instead “decide not to decide” and you get no reply to your email. It happened to me countless times.
How I learned to be specific in emails
I was quite lucky - I was forced to improve the emails I was sending, because we were fundraising and email is still by far one of the most useful tools when raising investment. I learned by making the mistake over and over, and then deciding that a new approach was required.
I asked advice from many people and discussed our approach with my co-founder Leo. I read lots of articles with great insights such as the following from Elad Gil:
Add specific times. This reduces the friction to scheduling as if you leave it open ended it (a) does not convey urgency and sets up the timeframe within which you will meet and (b) makes the investor work harder to figure things out. Don’t put the burden on them to suggest a time.
How to write emails which get more replies
After many failed attempts to get meetings, I adjusted my approach. Instead of:
How is your schedule looking next week?
I started to say:
Would 10am on Thursday at South Beach Cafe work for you?
The above is from a real email that I sent during the time we were raising our seed round.
The interesting thing, is that by simply making that choice for them, it doesn’t mean it will always work for them but it means it is much easier for them to reply with a slight adjustment. We’d often get a reply such as:
Thursday is tough, but Friday could work.
I could do 10a but it would have to be in Hayes Valley as I have a 9a and an 11a there. Would La Boulange in Hayes work?
From here, we were often able to confirm a meeting within one or two emails. This technique was crucial for us in securing investors for our seed round.
Have you tried being more specific in your emails? I’d love to hear about your experiences with this too.
Photo credit: Juli
I often reflect upon the differences between my previous startup and Buffer, and think about what changes to my mindset affected the better outcome this time compared with my previous attempts.
One of the mindset adjustments which I think has had a large impact on my success is to think about what my goal as an entrepreneur is. The key thing has been to focus on a goal of succeeding overall with creating a startup, rather than to focus on being successful with a particular idea. It’s an interesting tweak to your thinking, but one which I’ve found very powerful.
A goal to succeed with an idea
With my previous startup, one of the mistakes I made was to make my sole aim to succeed with the particular idea that I started with. Despite that fact that I still made adjustments to the idea and it changed a little, I had a mindset that I wanted to make the idea work. I struggled, with little traction and almost zero retention.
When the goal is to succeed with the idea you have, you don’t give yourself much room to course-correct. The fact is, that almost all startups change considerably over their lifetime, so to stay fixated on that original idea can be detrimental to the success of the startup.
A goal to create a successful startup
"If you don’t succeed with your current startup, it’s not your fault. If you’re not successful in your career, it is your fault." - Chris Yeh
The better approach I’ve found is to focus solely on being successful with your startup, without the idea being involved in that equation. That way, you allow for the required change in order to arrive at an eventual success, rather than limiting your ability to adjust and move towards success.
I truly believe that if you have not found something that works, something that people are using and find valuable, then you should be doing nothing but trying to reach that goal. In essence, if you are pre-product/market fit, then your only goal should be to reach product/market fit. What I want to suggest is that the goal of any startup founder should be to reach product/market fit with an idea, not necessarily the idea they started with.
This ties in very well with the lean startup notion of validated learning being the measure of progress. A lot of the formalities can be forgotten in the early days of a startup. No need to incorporate, no need for an office. Just try to learn about your customers and figure out if your assumptions about your idea and market are correct. If not, make changes. If you need to make a big change and arrive at a whole different idea, then do it.
It’s a change in mindset
It may seem quite obvious to read, but I’ve found personally that this is very difficult in practice. I think a key reason Buffer was more successful than my previous endeavours was that I had reached a point with enough previous failure that I wanted so bad to succeed with something, with anything. That meant I didn’t mind if it was this idea or another I discovered. That slight shift in mindset makes you much more eager for feedback and learning, and makes you genuinely open to changing the idea based on that feedback. This means you listen and people can tell that you are truly appreciative of their time.
Your goal should not be to succeed with a particular idea. Your goal should be to create a successful startup.
Have you previously found yourself limited by a goal focused on an idea, rather than being open to change? I’d love your thoughts on this topic.
Photo credit: Kreg Steppe
It’s now 2 years since I launched Buffer, and the company has grown from just myself (working from my bedroom) to a team of 7. In the last few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about culture and asking many other founders about different aspects such as having an office, having company values and different forms of communication like team meetings and 1:1 meetings.
One thing I realised recently when talking with Thomas Schranz, the founder of the very cool Blossom, was that we’ve actually got quite a few cool things in place that define the Buffer culture. It occurred to me that the different aspects of the culture were introduced at various times along the 2 year journey so far, and it forms the evolution of culture at Buffer.
Since working on the culture has happened gradually, I wanted to document the things we’ve done for culture at the earliest stage of the startup, since as we go forward it might be more difficult to recall.
Culture as an evolutionary process
It seems rather obvious in hindsight, but only after growing a team over 2 years have I realised just how gradual and progressive building a startup culture is. When I started Buffer, I was a solo founder with no team for 3 months. Clearly, at that stage, there was no “culture”. Then Leo came on board and whilst we certainly talked about our approaches and put some things in place to help us be aligned, we still didn’t think in terms of a culture we we building.
Fast-forwarding to now, where we are 7 people, I find myself thinking about culture a lot and making changes from time to time. Examples of topics that are in my mind are team communication, our approach to customer support, our release cycle time and how transparent we are.
My belief now as a result of looking back at this process is that you can’t think too much about culture when you’re one or two founders, but you naturally need to think about it a lot more once you have a sizeable team. It’s certainly an evolutionary process, not something you just put in place once and never change.
Here is how the Buffer culture has evolved, including some of the specific things we do which shape the culture we have:
Culture is deeply influenced by the founding team
Although company culture is something that is worked on over time and can be adapted a lot, it is heavily affected by the personalities of the founding team. There’s no right or wrong with culture, it is simply a combination of natural personality of the founding team in addition to proactive work to push the culture in a desired direction and to maintain certain values.
A good recent example of this I’ve seen is Ev Williams describing his formula for startup success. One of his points is the following:
When you don’t sleep, eat crap, don’t exercise, and are living off adrenaline for too long, your performance suffers. Your decisions suffer. Your company suffers.
I would agree that for me, this kind of culture is something I choose not to have with Buffer. That said, I see other startups which are very successful and yet they encourage employees to be at work until 11pm and do all night hackathons a lot. In essence, I think it’s up to you to choose the values and build a culture around them.
Since the early days, Leo and I have had a strong focus on self-improvement, always discussing what we’re currently working on and changing our routines. This has influenced the culture we’ve created, and it’s one with an emphasis on working on yourself as much as the startup, with a lot of positive encouragement from everyone in the team.
It’s a choice to be proactive about your culture
The other thing I’ve noticed is that it is a choice for the founder as to whether you choose to ‘create’ a specific culture. I agree with Jason Cohen that with culture, one thing is certain:
Every company has a culture. The only question is whether or not you decide what it is.
This is something I’ve found very interesting to ponder. I’ve met founders where I feel like they have let the culture develop by itself, and it still seems to work. At the same time, I think to build a culture that can inspire people to want to work for you, you will want to take the time to make specific changes to shape it. At Buffer, culture is definitely something we’re starting to be more deliberate about.
On the extreme end of the “proactive” approach to culture, you can take an approach where you hire and fire people very specifically based on their fit with the culture. We are taking a path where we want to focus a lot on culture, so we’ve recently started to think hard about whether the next set of people who come on board are a great fit for the culture we’re creating. We’re definitely inspired by Tony Hsieh’s approach and commitment to great culture:
Even if someone’s great at their job, even if they’re a superstar at their job, if they’re bad for our culture we’ll fire them for that reason alone.
How much do you focus on culture at your startup? Is it something you try to grab a hold of and throw in the direction you want the company culture to go, or do you let it develop naturally? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Photo credit: quami77
Before I had any success with Buffer, I helped many startups with their ideas. I attended events, spoke at events and even created my own meetup for startups. These were not particularly big events, but nevertheless I somehow found myself in a position of being able to help people, and a position where people would come to me to brainstorm and get advice.
I remember the point just before I started Buffer, where these events and opportunities came up more and more, despite the fact that my startup was not exploding with any kind of success. I had neither generated any revenue, nor raised any funding, and we didn’t have great traction either. I remember often feeling like a fraud, standing up there and telling others what to do when I had no success myself. I often questioned whether I should be up there. It also was one of the things that gave me the burning desire to figure out how to make something work.
Why we often feel like a fraud
One of the most interesting things I’ve found with this feeling is that it seems like it doesn’t ever stop. I now have the opportunity to speak at even bigger events, to help people quite far along with their startups, and also to help people just getting started who want my advice for things I really don’t know that much about.
I recently attended Lean Startup Machine in San Francisco to mentor the teams and help them to validate their ideas. Eric Ries did a Q&A at the event, and one of the things he said was very interesting:
We are in the business as entrepreneurs to look at statistically insignificant sample sizes
This got me thinking more about why it is that we sometimes feel like a fraud, especially even as we make progress. It seems that as startup founders, we never have significant data. We can’t know for sure whether we were wholly responsible for all of our success, or whether other factors influenced things and we found ourselves being fortunate. That, for me, is the reason it’s easy to feel like a fraud.
Why we can help a lot even without ‘success’
Another thing I’ve found, is that we can usually help people much sooner than we realise. Over time I’ve managed to become quite comfortable helping others regularly, and the more I’ve done it the more I’ve realised that I can usually help a lot, and even if I can’t it’s always a fun conversation.
One thing I’ve noticed is that there are quite a few founders where the thought to help others has crossed their mind, and the desire to do it exists, but they often dismiss it and decide that they haven’t learned enough yet, or people wouldn’t want their help.
Helping others has been so powerful for me for lots of different reasons, so I think it’s great to try and get past this myth that you can only help people once you have had a huge exit. In fact, I think a lot of the times it’s the people at the earliest stages that can help the most, because the gap is smaller and so the person you’re helping can really relate to the position you’re in.
Just as these 'lizard brain' thoughts about how entitled you are to help others can affect whether you will do so, if you take the plunge and start helping others I think you will often find that you feel like you don’t deserve to be giving the advice.
Could it be that it’s optimal to feel like a fraud?
What I have started to realise, is that perhaps this is exactly how we should feel if we’re making progress. It may seem counterintuitive, but I am starting to believe that if you feel like a fraud and feel uncomfortable, it’s probably a great thing. Just as the adage that “the magic happens outside your comfort zone” I think perhaps if you’re feeling like a fraud, you’re doing things right.
I think the important thing is to remember that none of us have significant sample sizes or complete information about what we should do, or whether we deserve what success we have. Therefore it’s completely natural to feel like we’re not entitled, to feel like a fraud from time to time. I think the best thing to do is to remind ourselves that it’s our job to work with incomplete information, and to "do" where others stay paralysed by lack of a clear path.
Have you ever felt like a fraud whilst working on your startup? I’d love to hear your experiences of battling with this feeling.
Photo credit: Fabiana Zonca
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.
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
The other day I was listening to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and and I found it amazing how this book, which has now sold over 15 million copies, originally started:
I prepared a short talk. I called it ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People.’ I say ‘short.’ It was short in the beginning, but it soon expanded to a lecture that consumed one hour and thirty minutes.
After giving this talk for some time, Carnegie found that the attendees started discussing their experiences and some “rules” emerged. Eventually the talk became a course, and there was a need for a textbook of sorts. Here’s how the now famous book became a reality:
we started with a set of rules printed on a card no larger than a postcard. The next season we printed a larger card, then a leaflet, then a series of booklets, each one expanding in size and scope. After fifteen years of experimentation and research came this book.
I found that absolutely fascinating. The book came out of a short talk and a few notes on a postcard-sized piece of card. Interestingly, I think a lot of the really big successes start like this.
The dangers of “big”
The challenge for a lot of us, is that when we go about our lives we interact with so many “big” things, and we forget or don’t even know how they originally started. It’s difficult to understand how the evolutionary process of products and brands contributes and is vital to what they are today. We also all have big aspirations and want to get there fast.
I’ve personally made the mistake of trying to jump to “big” too soon many times before: the goal my previous startup was to kill the business card, and we struggled to execute effectively on a much smaller scale. I think there are probably countless other examples out there where founders try to have an immediately huge vision.
Great things start small
What I’m starting to notice more and more, is that great things almost always start small. Most of us know that Branson started the Virgin brand with a student magazine, but Virgin is just one of many examples which shows that the reality is counterintuitive: actually, the best things we know and love started as tiny things.
I’ve found that if I look into my own life, I find similarly that some of the most important achievements I’ve made started as little projects. My startup Buffer itself is a great example: it started as a two page website and in addition the short blog post describing this process has now turned into a talk I’ve given more than 30 times.
Make it smaller: you’re more likely to succeed
One of my most interesting realisations from this thinking and from seeing many examples is that actually in order to succeed, we probably should think and execute on a smaller level. If we do this, we’re more likely to succeed. I wrote about this previously, in the context of not trying to change the world right away. I was pleasantly surprised when Paul Graham wrote a comment in the discussion on my recent article which suggested similar:
Don’t even try to build startups. That’s premature optimization. Just build things that seem interesting. The average undergraduate hacker is more likely to discover good startup ideas that way than by making a conscious effort to work on projects that are supposed to be startups.
Start everything with an MVP
I think Eric Ries really nailed this concept with his notion of the Minimum Viable Product. The great thing is, we see that even historical successes like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, published in 1936, started as just a short talk and a few notes on a small piece of card. That was the MVP, and it was a perfect way to start. And if the content in this smaller form hadn’t resonated with people, my guess is that the book wouldn’t even exist.
I believe that we could and should start to think about everything beginning as an MVP, starting much smaller than we might currently think about it. Andrew Chen has a great example: decide what blog posts to write based on Tweeting the potential headline. I think there are countless other opportunities for this too, in all areas of life.
Have you thought about the relationship of big thinking to success? Did something work out better when you started smaller? I’d love your thoughts on this topic.
Photo credit: Toby Bradbury
In the past couple of years, I’ve been through a number of interesting experiences through building Buffer. One of the things I’ve ended up thinking about a lot is the subject of whether you should drop out of college to work on your startup.
I personally didn’t drop out, but my co-founder Leo has as a result of the success we’ve had with Buffer and I’ve talked to him a lot about the topic. I also talk to many startup founders regularly who are still at college and are thinking about whether they should drop out. As a result, it’s been necessary for me to have an answer to this question.
College is powerful
"One of the amazing things about being in college is you can work on all these hobbies and code a lot of stuff and try a lot of different things. It’s this amazing flexibility that I think most people take for granted." - Mark Zuckerberg
One of the things I’ve realised only looking backwards is just how powerful college can be if you want to build a startup. In my own time at Warwick University, I had many many side projects and even two courses in which I did projects which looking back felt a lot like startups.
When you’re studying, there is absolutely no pressure on you in terms of building a startup. As a result, you can experiment and try lots of different things. You can learn new languages, you can try different startup concepts such as customer development and lean startup. You can get out of the building and try talking to people about the problems they have, and then try to solve them. You can easily try charging for something you build, with no pressure to make enough money to be able to eat. Everything is taken care of, so you can relax and experiment.
It’s relatively easy to find like-minded people at college. There is such a vast number of students at any university that as long as you have the desire to seek these like-minded people, you will find them and you can work with them. I know that countless great co-founder relationships started at college. That’s the case for Buffer, Leo and I met whilst we were both at Warwick University, and we met at an entrepreneurship event we were both helping out with. So go out there and take advantage of the environment.
Start an experiment
When you’re in college, you can have many ideas and try them all out in your free time. Each of these ideas can potentially be a great startup, but since there’s no pressure you can use the concept of an experiment and this can help you in many ways. I think Vinicius Vacanti, the co-founder and CEO of Yipit put it best:
"The beautiful thing about experiments is that disproving your hypothesis isn’t thought of as a failure. It’s thought of as progress."
You can really take this “experiment” approach at college, and learn a massive amount about startups in a short space of time.
Blocks of free time
Every college student has something in common: that they have various blocks of time throughout the year where there is less workload. It’s in these times that you have a great opportunity to create something that could become big. There’s no better example for this than when Facebook started:
"I wrote the first version of Facebook in January of 2004 and released it in February. The reason why I did it in January is that Harvard had intersession."
My best advice for students is to use these lighter blocks of time wisely. Start a new project each time, take the learnings and keep building stuff.
Dropping out is not usually so dramatic
My belief and experience with going through Leo dropping out is that when it is good to drop out for your startup, you will know it. That said, I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that you have to abruptly cut everything off and burn all your bridges with university.
How I’ve seen it play out more often than not, is that someone does many different side-projects during college and then when something begins to work, they go through a massive amount of learning and progress in an incredibly short space of time. This is very much related to Paul Graham’s notion of compressing your life:
"You can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years. Instead of working at a low intensity for forty years, you work as hard as you possibly can for four."
This is exactly what happens and how it feels when one of your startup ideas begins to “work”. Another great way to describe it is how Marc Andreessen describes reaching product/market fit:
"You can always feel product/market fit when it’s happening. The customers are buying the product just as fast as you can make it — or usage is growing just as fast as you can add more servers."
I think when you reach this point, you’ll feel that it may be worth dropping out of college. The interesting part is, even at this point you don’t need to dramatically “drop out”. You can just take a term off, or take a year off. In fact, we’ve now reached almost a $1M annual revenue run rate with Buffer, there are 7 people in the team and we’ve hit 370,000 users, but Leo is technically still in college. He hasn’t officially dropped out yet, and you don’t need to hastily do that. I was fascinated to hear Zuckerberg describe his experience in a very similar way:
"Harvard has this policy where you can take as much time as you want off from school. So why don’t we just take one term off and then just try to get it under control and build the toolings so we can go back for Spring semester and grow it more autonomously. Spring term came along and we hadn’t quite built the tooling and automation so let’s take another term off. Then finally at some point we decided we were out, but by then we had millions of users."
Keep studying. Keep building.
Unfortunately, startups are pretty hard. I know that for myself, it’s been a tough few years since I realised I wanted to build my own startup, for it to actually work in reality. I had a few failures during college which were much more learning than failure, and the fact I was still studying meant it didn’t matter at all.
After I graduated, I worked on another startup whilst working as a contract web developer on the side. I can assure you, it’s a lot harder to stay committed to making a startup work once you’ve left. I think many don’t make that leap because it’s so hard. It’s much easier to get a normal job and have a definite salary each month.
As a result, my advice to anyone thinking of dropping out is to keep studying, and use every opportunity to build projects and startups on the side. When something starts to work, you’ll have that same feeling that many others have, and you’ll know that it’s your duty to keep building it and bring it to the world. Until that happens, keep studying and keep building. When it happens, drop out slowly.
Have you had to think about whether you should drop out to pursue your startup? Did you drop out? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Photo credit: Steve Garfield