I've 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.
It's 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. I'd 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 we're 15 people and I've 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 you're 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 it's 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 you've 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 you've 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 you've 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, you're probably going to be doing many things at once. You'll 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 didn't have to begin with. What's 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, I've had many times where I felt I was letting people down by being stretched in many directions.
You'll start leaving money on the table, so become aggressive about firing yourself
Once you've grown to a stage where youre juggling many different areas and key metrics are growing healthily month to month, you'll start to leave money on the table by holding onto tasks. You'll 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. It's key to start being reflective about areas of the company for which this is happening. It's 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