The dream forms over time

Written on 27th January, 2015 Comments


In my recent travels around Asia, I’ve had the great opportunity to meet a lot of local founders and aspiring entrepreneurs.

One of the things that seems to come up many times is that people will ask me “what triggered you to become passionate about company culture and transparency” or “how did you know you wanted to build Buffer to what it is today”. One of the most memorable moments for me was when a super smart lady who is having a lot of success at a large company, who longs to work on something more meaningful, told me about her friend. She said to me:

“My friend has her own fashion startup and is doing well. She is so passionate about what she is doing. I want to do a company in fashion too, but I don’t feel like I have the same level of passion as my friend. What should I do?”

I think there is a lot of advice out there that says “you must be super excited about what you’re working on, otherwise you won’t stick with it”. I think there is a lot of truth in that.

At the same time, if I look back on my own journey, I don’t think that’s how it worked. It would be easy (and incorrect) for me to say that I always imagined creating a company with full transparency and no managers from day 1. Or for me to say that I had a vision to build a SaaS startup that helps companies solve all their social media struggles and reach 30,000 customers and $5m in annual revenue.

The thing is, 4 years ago when I started the company, I didn’t even start a company. I just had a side project. I had to work full-time for clients to pay the bills. It was almost incomprehensible that I could dream about those things, I had much more immediate needs.

But I did have a little dream. My goal in the earliest days was simply to build something that truly solved a problem for people and make money online with a product. My earnings had always been tied to my time, doing contract and freelance work. I was passionate about moving from that to creating a product which someone would pay for.

Back when I started, having someone pay $5 for my product was as big as the dream got. It didn’t involve having a team, creating a movement around transparency, raising funding or building a unique workplace.

What happened was that once I achieved that first dream, my horizon became much clearer. It’s like the fog lifted and I could see ahead and the next dream came into my head. After the first customer paid $5 for Buffer (in the first month we had total revenue of $20), my next goal was to make $1,000 per month so that I could drop my freelance work and focus completely on Buffer. This was the dream I pursued for the next few months.

The dream forms over time. It’s okay if you don’t have a world-changing vision from the beginning. The key, in my mind, is to follow that tiny dream. That little spark, the idea in the very back of your mind. Once you pursue that, you are on the path to your most meaningful and fulfilling work.

Photo credit: Aristocrats-hat

The top reason we haven’t sold our startup

Written on 13th January, 2015 Comments

We’ve been lucky at Buffer to receive a number of acquisition offers along our journey so far. When I mention this to people, a key question that often comes up is “how did you decide not to sell?”.

The earliest offer we had for Buffer was not long after we had started, and it felt fairly easy for us to say no, simply because we felt we wanted to see where further our current path leads. In many ways, the reason we haven’t accepted an acquisition offer is in order to continue on our path.

How much more learning could you have if you keep going?

However, after we said no the first time, we noticed something quite incredible happen. In the months that followed, we had several brand new learnings and experiences about growing a company. For example, after our first offer we soon established the values of the Buffer culture, chose to commit to being a distributed team, and I found myself in a position where I needed to learn how to let people go. These were all priceless business and life experiences. Learning to fire people was not easy, but I feel very thankful to now have this experience.

This is one of the most important considerations for us now. If you sell your company, you will sacrifice upcoming learnings. Of course, you will learn many valuable things as part of a new company. A framework I have created in my head for this, however, is to think about when I will have the same opportunity again.

When can you get back to that same level of learning again?

If you are 2 years into your startup and have found traction, and then you sell your company, when will you next be 2 years into a startup? When will you be able to experience the learning that happens in the 3rd year of a startup? I think that doing a full cycle and selling a company will be valuable, and I like to think that with that experience I could perhaps grow a company faster in the future. However, it will still take some time. In addition, you will likely work at the acquirer for a couple of years. For me, in this scenario, I would expect to work at the acquirer a couple of years, then it might take a year to find a good idea which can gain product/market fit, and then you have the 2 years to reach the same stage.

So, all in all, if I sell my 2 year old company, it could be 5 years before I am able to next experience the learnings that come in the 3rd year of a startup. We don’t have many 5 year periods in our lives to wait to have another chance for incredible experiences.

The second time we turned down an acquisition offer, we grew to around 15 people and started to feel like we went beyond a product towards an actual company. Many new learnings came with this, like thinking about how to structure a company with more people, and the true importance of culture. And interestingly, the most recent time we chose not to sell, we have found ourselves on a magical journey of removing hierarchy and managers, embracing self-management and striving to create a truly fulfilling workplace where a foundation of trust and freedom means that everyone can work on what they are passionate about.

Focusing on learning and experiences rather than money

Money will come and go, but experiences and learning is what I define as true wealth. This is why we try to frame a decision of whether to sell around the opportunities for learning and experience in each path.

Our advisor Hiten asked us perhaps the most simple and useful question when we discussed the topic of selling with him:

“Are you done? No? Then don’t sell.” - Hiten Shah

Sometimes founders may be tired, lacking the motivation they once had. Maybe then it can make sense to sell. We’re not done yet, and I’m excited to see where this path leads.

Photo credit: Cindee Snider Re

Why I don't shield my team from bad news

Written on 11th December, 2014 Comments

I think there's an interesting concept that's prevalent, which I believe could actually be quite dangerous. It's the idea that as a CEO or executive of a company, you need to shield your team from bad news, the risks of a startup, and other negative aspects that are inevitable on the startup journey.

One of our core values at Buffer is to Default to Transparency. This means absolutely everything in the company is shared knowledge. It was scary at first, not least because the idea goes very much against the grain. I found myself hesitating, not because I genuinely could think of reasons not to share, but simply because no one else shares some of the things we've shared.

What it means when you shield your team

I think one of the most fascinating things about witholding information of any kind is the message it unknowingly sends to the team.

I believe that if you hold back information, you are silently telling your team that you don't trust them. Frédéric Laloux put it well in Reinventing Organizations:

"In most workplaces, valuable information goes to important people first and then trickles down to the less important. Sensitive information is best kept within the confined circle of top management. The underlying assumption is that employees cannot be trusted; their reactions could be unpredictable and unproductive, and they might seek to extract advantages if they receive too much information."

The reason starting a trend of secrecy is so dangerous is that it's self-reinforcing:

"Because the practice is based on distrust, it in turn breeds distrust"

That is, the policies you set up based on these assumptions might trigger people to try to cheat the system, because they start to dispise it. Once you find people are doing this, the natural thing is to introduce yet more controls and restrictions.

How shielding your team could hurt you as a founder

Beyond affecting the culture and spirit of your team, I believe that withholding information puts unnecessary strain on yourself as a founder. A startup journey is a series of many ups and downs, and the lows can really be difficult. There are many sad examples of things becoming too much for a founder, and more often than not they've kept the stress to themselves.

The traditional structure of a company in a hierarchy naturally leads to a pyramid, with a single person at the top. The law of pressure in physics can illustrate the outcome here:

pressure = force/area

That is, the smaller the area, the higher the pressure. In the following example, the pressure from an under an elephant's feet is far less than that from a woman's stiletto heels:

Therefore, if bad news comes up and you take the whole burden on yourself, the pressure is much higher than if that news was shared across many people.

The ego at play

Another reflection for me is that whenever I have felt that I should hold something back from people in the team, I believe it is often my ego at play. I am essentially saying that I can handle the situation better or take more than others in the team.

It's as if I'm saying that I am more responsible than the rest of the team. It's like I'm treating my team like children, which is ironic because many people in the team have children and I don't yet! I am convinced that if we can let go of our ego as leaders and share information and responsibility, we will be pleasantly surprised.

Holding onto information or key decisions is in a lot of ways a fear of giving up control, at the expense of trust and moving faster thanks to shared decision making. I think often as leaders we feel a need for control and privileges, and this comes almost entirely from ego. One of the reasons I try to practice daily meditation is to more easily act without ego.

Do you guard your team from some of the tough decisions and risks of your company? Do you think that in some cases we should? I'd love to hear any thoughts at all on this topic.

Photo credit: mararie
Diagram credit: Leeds Vineyard

50 books that transformed my business and my life

Written on 2nd December, 2014 Comments

As a teenager I had a period of many years where I stopped reading books completely. I even remember a time where I couldn't imagine reading books at all. After I graduated and started to be interested in business and startups, I realized the immense power and knowledge contained within books, and I started reading more and more. Today, I can't imagine even a couple of days passing by without some time spent reading.

As an introvert, I'm a reflective person. Sometimes that can be a challenge, since in a startup you really need to get shit done. At the same time, I see it as one of my strengths. I will sometimes go on a walk just to ponder what's currently going on in the company and the things we could improve. Sometimes it's my reflectiveness that I find helps us to untangle some of the most complex challenges we find ourseles confronted with.

I've found that due to this natural desire to reflect, I love to read books and think about what we could try to apply at Buffer. On top of this, at Buffer we give all new team members (and family members) a Kindle and have an unlimited Kindle books program (no limits and no questions asked).

Here are some of the books which have had the biggest impact on Buffer and me personally:

1. How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie

"In such technical lines as engineering, about 15 percent of one’s financial success is due to one’s technical knowledge and about 85 percent is due to skill in human engineering – to personality and the ability to lead people." - Dale Carnegie

I first read How to Win Friends and Influence People perhaps a year before I started Buffer, around 5 years ago. It instantly had an impact for me, both on how I wanted to improve my character and how I wanted to run a company.

A lot of what Carnegie proposes doesn't seem all that profound, and can even seem like common sense. Simple things like "Don't criticize, condemn or complain.", "Smile", "Become genuinely interested in other people." and "Ask questions instead of giving direct orders." What I've found is that it is incredibly difficult to put into practice. On top of that, this is not about a few tricks to get ahead, as Carnegie puts it, this is "a new way of life".

For myself personally, I have become so convinced that the How to Win Friends way of life is the one I want to live, that I now try to read this book every few months, both on Kindle and via audiobook, in order that I can completely engrain the principles and they can become who I am. I'm up to around 12 reads of it so far, and I don't imagine ever stopping re-reading.

When I introduced my co-founder Leo to the book in the earliest few months of Buffer, he too was hooked and we had endless conversations and discussions around the stories and principles. He helped me grow as a person much more than I could alone, due to his excitement and interest of the How to Win Friends way. The result of this has been that we have based a large number of the values within the Buffer culture directly on the principles Carnegie proposes.

2. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don't by Jim Collins

"You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end— which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be." - Jim Collins

Good to Great is one of the first transformative books I read as Buffer started to grow beyond a product, and into a company. This happened when we were around 7 people and I started to feel like we needed to think about "culture", a concept that I previously had no real way to understand apart from conceptually.

As the team grew beyond 7, I noticed that team dynamics came much more into play, and we couldn't assume that everyone knows everything anymore. In addition, I realized that the people we work with affect us immensely.

Good to Great helped me to understand how important culture is for building a great, lasting company that has an impact on the world. It started to become clear that we already had a culture, and it was evolving. The book helped me to understand that culture can be crafted by choice rather than rather than simply observed:

"Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice." - Jim Collins

Perhaps one of the most difficult yet crucial learnings for me from Good to Great was that there will be people whose values don't align with the culture we create, and who will do better and thrive in a different company rather than staying on as part of Buffer. Asking these people to leave is one of the hardest things I've had to learn how to do, and something that has made Buffer what it is today.

3. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

“When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.” - Paulo Coelho

Reading The Alchemist the first time was a very liberating experience for me. It helped me to dream big and keep following my gut, and not settle - which is what the story, about a shepherd boy named Santiago, is all about. It's a simple and short book and has stook in my mind ever since I read it.

The Alchemist conveys a powerful idea: that the world will help you if you just choose to follow your dream, that often times our upbringing and environment lead us to believe dreams are impossible to realize, and that it won't be a smooth journey and that is fine.

"It's the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting" - Paulo Coelho

If you ever happen to find yourself becoming skeptical or feeling that you're not enjoying what you do, I can recommend reading The Alchemist.

4. Joy At Work: A Revolutionary Approach to Fun on the Job by Dennis Bakke

"Leaders who want to increase joy and success in the workplace must learn to take most of their personal satisfaction from the achievements of the people they lead, not from the power they exercise." - Dennis Bakke

Joy At Work provides great insight into the journey of Dennis Bakke and AES, the company he co-founded. Bakke and his partner Roger Sant started the company and strived to live to a core value of Fun. It is a fascinating read in terms of their definition of fun (making important decisions and being given trust, not ping pong tables and snacks), and also in how difficult they found it to run the company unconventionally in order to be true to their values.

AES reached over 40,000 employees all across the world and they created a significantly different corporate structure than many organizations of today. At Buffer, AES and Bakke have been a big inspiration for us in staying true to our own values.

A large part of the process of staying true to the value of fun for Bakke was for him to be a sevant leader and to help individuals in the company make as many important decisions as possible. They devised the Decision Maker method of making decisions as a team, where the person closest to the problem (rather than a manger) makes key decisions. He also wrote a fable called The Decesion Maker around this concept, which I have also included in this list.

5. The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal by Tony Schwartz & Jim Loehr

“Because energy capacity diminishes both with overuse and with underuse, we must balance energy expenditure with intermittent energy renewal.” - Tony Schwartz & Jim Loehr

The Power of Full Engagement was one of the first books that helped me to start to understand myself, and to work to embrace how I feel and be intuitive. The key concept in the book is that you should be either fully engaged in a task, or fully disegaged and finding renewal. For example, finding the natural dips within your day and thinking about rituals and changes you could make. Maybe you go for a 20 minute walk at 3pm when you naturally find yourself less productive.

The other thing this book revealed to me was the idea of having 4 key types of energy: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. We should work on each of these separately, and with each we can expand our capacity by stretching ourselves and then renewing. It uses the analogy of muscle growth to describe this a lot, and argues that the same approach can be used for our other types of energy.

For me, reading this book triggered many changes over time to my routine. I started exercising almost every day, and I tried a ritual of an evening walk to wind down before sleeping. All these experiments have helped me to feel happier and more productive, and many of them I have kept for several years now, with compounding benefits as a result.

6. The Seven-Day Weekend: Changing the Way Work Works by Ricardo Semler

“For a company to excel, employees must be reassured that self-interest, not the company’s, is their foremost priority. We believe an employee who puts himself first will be motivated to perform.” - Ricardo Semler

Ricardo Semler took over his father's business, Semco, in 1980 under the condition that he could change it completely. On his first day as CEO, he fired 60% of all top managers. Since then he has introduced a wide range of unconventional practices, such as having no official working hours, employees choosing their own salaries, and having no vision (instead wanting employees to find the way using their instinct).

For me, The Seven-Day Weekend opened my eyes and helped me to question every business practice that exists today. Semler aimed to operate as a 'sevant leader' and made a conscious effort to make zero decisions himself.

7. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

“Team members who are not genuinely open with one another about their mistakes and weaknesses make it impossible to build a foundation for trust.” - Patrick Lencioni

A leadership fable about a failing Silicion Valley tech company who brings in a new CEO. Kathryn attempts to unite a highly dysfunctional team and through his narrative Lencioni explains the five key ways that teams struggle, and how to overcome the hurdles.

I read this book at a key point in time where we were just discovering that we needed to put our values into words and shape the culture of Buffer. The book helped to clarify that through culture, provided we lived it, we could solve problems of trust and enable much better teamwork within the company.

8. Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose by Tony Hsieh

“Our philosophy has been to take most of the money we would have spent on paid advertising and invest it into customer service and the customer experience instead, letting our customers do the marketing for us through word of mouth.” - Tony Hsieh

Zappos has always been a huge inspiration for us at Buffer. I clearly remember watching a video interview Tony Hsieh had where he was asked what one thing he would do sooner if he could start Zappos again. He replied "put values in place on day 1". We had already started Buffer, but we established our values shortly after that when we were 7 people.

On top of their focus on culture and values, Zappos has also provided us with inspiration for making half of our vision "to set the bar for great customer support". We have always had a large happiness team compared to the ratios other companies have, and we find great joy in aiming to surprise and wow customers with how quickly and caringly we respond to Tweets and emails.

9. Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days by Jessica Livingston

“Starting a startup is a process of trial and error. What guided the founders through this process was their empathy for the users. They never lost sight of making things that people would want.” - Jessica Livingston

I read Founders at Work in the earliest few months of Buffer, before I had managed to drop my freelance work which I was doing on the side to pay the bills before our revenues grew. It was inspirational and practical at the same time, and laid out very clearly the paths that many of the biggest tech successes took to reach their prominence.

10. Do More Faster: TechStars Lessons to Accelerate Your Startup by Brad Feld & David Cohen

“Usage is like oxygen for ideas. You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something you've created until it's out there. That means every moment you're working on something without it being in the public arena, it's actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world.” - Brad Feld & David Cohen

There is so much great content packed into this book across all aspects of a start: ideas, execution, culture, hiring, firing, fundraising, product, metrics, incorporation, work-life balance. It is a book I can highly recommend if you're interested in or are getting started with a startup. Brad Feld and David Cohen are super smart and have a lot of experience, and it shows.

I especially loved the chapter titled "If you want money, ask for advice". It's something I've tried to apply ever since reading the book. I've found that genuinely seeking advice is often more productive and leads to more opportunities than asking for money or a partnership or a sale.

11. The Monk and the Riddle: The Art of Creating a Life While Making a Living by Randy Komisar

“And then there is the most dangerous risk of all — the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.” - Randy Komisar

I first heard the term 'deferred life plan' in this fantastic book by Randy Komisar. It has been especially relevant for me, since it is a story about a silicon valley entrepreneur and teaches the idea that there are many things more important than money. The book poses the question "what would you be willing to do for the rest of your life?" and persuasively argues that if you will do that, the money will follow.

12. Maverick: The Success Story Behind the World's Most Unusual Workplace by Ricardo Semler

“To survive in modern times, a company must have an organizational structure that accepts change as its basic premise, lets tribal customs thrive, and fosters a power that is derived from respect, not rules. In other words, the successful companies will be the ones that put quality of life first. Do this and the rest - quality of product, productivity of workers, profits for all - will follow.” - Ricardo Semler

Maverick is Semler's earlier book, which goes into the full details of how he took over Semco from his father, fired over half of the executive team, diversified the business and revolutionized the way an organization could be run.

I especially enjoy how Semler challenges some deeply ingrained assumptions and beliefs about how business needs to be run. Things like whether growth is even a good thing, and how rules and policies can quickly snowball and grind companies to a halt. It has helped us to reach one of our most powerful phrases we use at Buffer, as an often used alternative to policies: "use your best judgement".

13. Peace is every step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hahn

“Peace is present right here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see. Every breath we take, every step we take, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity. The question is whether or not we are in touch with it. We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment.” - Thich Nhat Hahn

Around two and a half years ago I found myself on a very organic path from business, success and self-improvement books to those that spanned both personal success and spirituality. Books like The Monk and the Riddle mentioned above address this topic. After reading some of these books, I naturally found myself interested in meditation and Zen Buddhism. One of the most fascinating Zen Buddhists and authors for me has been Thich Nhat Hahn who has written many books.

I was even lucky enough to attend a Day of Mindfulness with him and many other like-minded people in San Diego around a year ago. Today, I find that meditating almost daily is a key part of maintaining a clear mind, balancing my energy, feeling healthy and being present.

14. The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries

“The goal of a startup is to figure out the right thing to build—the thing customers want and will pay for—as quickly as possible. In other words, the Lean Startup is a new way of looking at the development of innovative new products that emphasizes fast iteration and customer insight, a huge vision, and great ambition, all at the same time.” - Eric Ries

In many ways, Eric Ries and The Lean Startup deserve a lot of the credit for where I am today and for Buffer existing. I first discovered Eric and his Lean Startup concepts via his blog about 5 years ago. He really helped me to understand the idea of validating an idea before spending lots of effort, and the notion of measuring progress in terms of learning rather than lines of code.

The Lean Startup is an incredible handbook for anyone who wants to get their startup off to the very best start possible. It helped me to take Buffer from idea to paying customers in 7 weeks.

15. The 4-hour Work Week: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich by Tim Ferriss

“What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do. As I have heard said, a person's success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have. Resolve to do one thing every day that you fear. I got into this habit by attempting to contact celebrities and famous businesspeople for advice.” - Tim Ferriss

This is one of the most practical books I've ever read. It is packed with so much information and actual resources to get you on your journey with creating passive income and if you desire, traveling. It really opened my mind to a lot of productivity improvements I could make.

I would also say that The 4-hour Work Week helped me to dream about the idea of traveling while working. I read it 4 years ago, and in that time I have traveled the world and lived in 4 different continents. It's been one of the best experiences of my life so far, especially when I've spent months rather than weeks or days in a place.

16. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

“Introverts often work more slowly and deliberately. They like to focus on one task at a time and can have mighty powers of concentration . They’re relatively immune to the lures of wealth and fame.” - Susan Cain

I read Quiet recently and it gave me an instant feeling of comfort in myself, how I'm wired and my personality. It made me feel confident about aspects of how I approach things which I previously saw as a weakness. It helped me discover some of my true strengths. I'm an introvert. This book helped me realize that the core difference between introverts and extroverts is the way that they recharge. It helped me to make sure that I get my solitude so that I feel sharp and alert, and so that I have the time to reflect.

It also helped me discover an important difference in how myself and my co-founder Leo approach things. Often when we have a discussion, I am purely interested in contemplating or reflecting on something and Leo is often more interested in the definite next step and deciding that right away. There's value in both of these approaches, and a middle ground where we reflect a little and then take action seems to create great outcomes. Previously, this difference in style used to sometimes cause some tension. Quiet surfaced exactly what is going on:

introverts are “geared to inspect” and extroverts “geared to respond.”

I shared this with Leo, and ever since we both realized this we now have much more empathy for each other. It also became clear that the combination of these differing approaches and other ways Leo and I are different is what makes us a great co-founder combination.

17. The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Ruiz Don Miguel

“Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.” - Ruiz Don Miguel

The Four Agreements introduce the idea of "don't take anything personally" to me in a whole new light. This is a book based on ancient Toltec wisdom and refers to this concept in terms of removing ego. I was recommended this book by one of our awesome investors Robert Fanini who told us that he previously based his company culture and values around the 4 primary ideas in this book:

  • Be Impeccable with Your Word
  • Don't Take Anything Personally
  • Don't Make Assumptions
  • Always Do Your Best

These are great life values and I've tried to live to them since I read The Four Agreements.

18. The Decision Maker: Unlock the Potential of Everyone in Your Organization, One Decision at a Time by Dennis Bakke

“When leaders put control into the hands of their people, at all levels, they unlock incalculable potential.” - Dennis Bakke

Within Buffer, we have a concept where anyone is able to make any decision, provided they get advice from people who will be affected by the decision. It is the way we've found to envision a company without managers or bosses. We're still at the beginning of this journey, it's an exciting one to be on and I think we're creating an incredible company to be part of.

This decision making concept originates from a company called AES. I already mentioned Joy At Work, AES co-founder Dennis Bakke's first book and this is a fable he wrote to describe a company changing how they work and adopting the Advice Process.

19. Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers by Gabriel Weinberg

“Poor distribution— not product— is the number one cause of failure. If you can get even a single distribution channel to work, you have great business. If you try for several but don’t nail one, you’re finished.” - Gabriel Weinberg

Traction has been a somewhat recent read for me. The key take-away I had from the book was to try to spend as much time on traction as on product development. The other realization the book triggered for me was that in the early days of Buffer, we focused our content marketing efforts around traction, and we found that guest blogging helped us a lot with spreading the word and triggering new signups for Buffer.

We now try to strike this balance a little better. As a team we don't necessarily believe that all marketing activity should be tied to creating traction, but we do think it is worth exploring new traction channels and measuring our impact on traction from marketing. I can recommend this book to any new startup trying to get traction, or existing startups trying to reach new levels of traction. The book helped to give us a nudge to try some new traction channels again.

20. Confucius Analects translated by Edward Slingerland

“This is wisdom: to recognize what you know as what you know, and recognize what you do not know as what you do not know.” - Confucius

This translation of Confucius' ancient teachings is a book I keep coming back to time and time again. It's another of the books I feel like I just want to take in and let it become who I am. There are many great themes which Confucius discusses such as self-cultivation (the idea that in ancient times learning meant to make ourselves better people and not just to memorize or recite texts) or virtue, goodness and focus on action rather than words:

"A person’s character is not properly judged by his words or his public reputation, but is rather revealed to one who carefully observes his actual behavior, comes to know something about his motivations, and discovers what he is like in private. It is in the details of one’s daily behavior that true virtue is manifested."

21. Tao Te Ching by Stephen Mitchell

“Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” - Laozi

Tao Te Ching is one of the most famous texts that exists for philosophical Taoism (along with Zhuangzi which I have also included below). This book follows a different format to other philosophical texts and is very easy to read. It is split up into 81 very brief chapters (some just a few words). It's one of the philosophy books which for me had a lot of impact in very few words. There are many thought-proviking ideas shared, the most clear of which is the idea of 'Wu wei' or non-action:

"Less and less do you need to force things, until finally you arrive at non-action. When nothing is done, nothing is left undone."

This was a fascinating paradox for me to try to understand, and author Stephen Mitchell explains it very well:

"This “nothing” is, in fact, everything. It happens when we trust the intelligence of the universe in the same way that an athlete or a dancer trusts the superior intelligence of the body."

If you enjoy challenging norms and yourself and strive to improve your character, I can highly recommend Tao Te Ching.

22. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

“Habits are powerful, but delicate . They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize— they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.” - Charles Duhigg

This book introduced me to the idea of 'keystone habits', which are ones where if you focus on them then they can transform your whole state and can trigger further healthy changes. For me and for many people, exercise is a keystone habit:

"Typically, people who exercise, start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change."

This is one of the reasons that exercise, alongside early mornings, helping people and other habits are rituals which I now try to live by, and which I believe make me happy. The book is a great guide for understanding and creating habits, stopping bad habits and reframing your life around habits in order to achieve your dreams.

23. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” - Stephen R. Covey

The Buffer value of 'Listen first, then listen more' comes almost directly from the quote above and Habit 5 from this bestselling classic. Each of the 7 habits are all worth studying and reflecting upon:

  1. Be Proactive
  2. Begin with the End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First
  4. Think Win/Win
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
  6. Syngergize
  7. Sharpen the Saw

The 7 Habits is another of those books which I consider worth going back to time and time again. Even now typing this list of the 7 habits, I feel that I am quite far from being as good as I can be at each of them, and I think I need to re-read the book to take in the advice and try to focus on applying it again.

24. Reinventing Organizations by Frédéric Laloux

“When trust replaces fear, will a hierarchical pyramid still provide the best structure? Will we need all the rules and policies, detailed budgets, targets, and roadmaps that give leaders today a sense of control? Perhaps there are much simpler ways to run organizations when the fears of the ego are out of the way.” - Frédéric Laloux

Reinventing Organizations is currently being read by almost all 27 people within the Buffer team, and it is likely that it will drastically transform how the company operates. If the changes succeed, it is also likely that my role which look very different. Why is that? Let me try to explain.

In this fascinating book, Laloux reminds us that there have been several different management paradigms and organizational structures in the last several centuries. He then proposes that a brand new paradigm is currently underway, and illustrates it with a dozen example organizations which run very differently to what most of us know. There are 3 key concepts to what Laloux describes as a "Teal Organization":

  1. Self-management: There are no bosses. People in the company choose to work on what they are passionate about, and hold multiple roles. They are not constrained by a job title. New teams form and disband fluidly as needed.
  2. Wholeness: The company is set up such that everyone feels comfortable bringing their whole self to work. Everyone is appreciated and is heard. The idea of work-life separation slides away, because you can be yourself at home and at work.
  3. Evolutionary purpose: The company doesn't follow a set vision, because that would limit everyone. Instead, the company listens to individuals and teams and develops a natural purpose and direction. The organization goes where it naturally is meant to go and can achieve its full potential.

This is one of the most exciting books I've ever read, and I can't wait to see how it might impact Buffer.

25. Seneca: Letters from a Stoic by Lucius Annaeus Seneca, translated by Richard Mott Gummere

“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.” - Seneca

For some time, I have been very fascinated by Stoicism. When I discovered the ideas, it felt like quite a natural fit for my personality. I enjoy the idea of controlling my excitement and as a result my sadness. For example, stopping myself working late into the evening, so that I can wake up fresh in the morning. In essence, I feel that Stoicism can help entrepreneurs a lot, since there are naturally a lot of highs and lows in a startup journey, and Stoicism can help us handle those.

I love the format of Letters from a Stoic, as each chapter is an 'essay in disguise' in the form of a letter of advice from Seneca to his friend Lucilius. It makes for enjoyable and easy reading.

26. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin

“If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix'd in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error.” - Benjamin Franklin

I was drawn to read Benjamin Franklin's autobiography because it is mentioned several times in How to Win Friends and Influence People. Franklin achieved extraordinary things and he has a lot of wisdom to share in his autobiography, alongside a gripping account of the story of his life.

There are also some super humbling aspects of the book, since it was published in 1791. Here's an example:

My brother had, in 1720 or 1721, begun to print a newspaper. It was the second that appeared in America, and was called the New England Courant. The only one before it was the Boston News-Letter. I remember his being dissuaded by some of his friends from the undertaking, as not likely to succeed, one newspaper being, in their judgment, enough for America.

27. The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham

“Never mingle your speculative and investment operations in the same account, nor in any part of your thinking.” - Benjamin Graham

Graham's The Intelligent Investor must have been recommended to me at least 5 times from different people, and I've come to learn that it is probably the classic book on investing. I love how many of the concepts can translate to wise living even if you're not in a position to invest.

For example, the concept of "dollar-cost averaging" is something that has especially stuck with me. The idea is that you invest a fixed amount of money at regular intervals (say weekly, monthly, or quarterly) regardless of the state of the market (up, down or sideways). For me, this felt like a great philosophy for productivity and life. For example, you would do well to set down a blogging schedule and aim to publish a post every week or every month regardless of circumstances.

28. The Teaching of Buddha

“People naturally fear misfortune and long for good fortune; but if the distinction is carefully studied , misfortune often turns out to be good fortune and good fortune to be misfortune. The wise man learns to meet the changing circumstances of life with an equitable spirit, being neither elated by success nor depressed by failure.”

My co-founder Leo and I discovered this book, essentially the Bible of Buddhism, when we were on vacation together in Hawaii. We found it in the hotel rooms and we ended up taking it around the resort with us and discussing the wisdom and stories over lunch. It was fascinating.

There are some religious teachings in the Teaching of Buddha. At the same time, there are just as many philosophical teachings and stories that would be enjoyable for anyone to read.

29. Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel by Rolf Potts

“there is still an overwhelming social compulsion—an insanity of consensus, if you will—to get rich from life rather than live richly, to “do well” in the world instead of living well.” - Rolf Potts

One of our core values at Buffer is Live Smarter, Not Harder, and includes the following subpoint:

You choose to be at the single place on Earth where you are the happiest and most productive, and you are not afaid to find out where that is.

Travel is something we've found to crave and seek out within the team, and the fact we're set up as a distributed team gives us all a lot of freedom to explore the world.

Vagabonding is one of the best books out there to think about travel in a whole new way. Rather than going to places for just a few days and cramming in seeing all the sights, it suggests that if we can we should spend weeks or months rather than days in a place. That way we can get to know the culture and people or even become part of it.

I've been lucky to do this several times (I'm originally British and I lived in Hong Kong for 6 months, San Francisco for 2 years, Tel Aviv for 3 months and Cape Town for 2 months, all within the last few years). I feel like it has opened my mind and made me a much better person. Mark Twain put this better than I can:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”

30. Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard

“we find that the optimists have an undeniable advantage over the pessimists. Many studies show that they do better on exams, in their chosen profession, and in their relationships, live longer and in better health, enjoy a better chance of surviving postoperative shock, and are less prone to depression and suicide.” - Matthieu Ricard

The author of this book has sometimes been called the "happiest man in the world". He is a French Biochemist turned Buddhist monk and has been in a unique position to merge science with mindfulness and meditation.

The underlying theme of the book is that happiness is indeed within our control, and is much more a skill than something that simply happens to us.

One of the biggest revelations for me in this book was the way that it linked happiness with altruism, asserting that there is an undeniable correlation and that helping others can provide a much more lasting satisfaction and happiness than pleasure activities such as watching a movie or enjoying a banana split. This was something I had intuitively when I got into helping early stage founders, and reading it in this book made me recommit to helping others as a way of life, which in turn makes me very happy.

Another twenty powerful books

I originally intended this list to be 30 books. Here are some of the ones I struggled exclude from the main list, which made me choose to make this a list of 50:

  1. The Best Service is No Service Venture Deals by Bill Price and David Jaffe
  2. The Snowball: Warren Buffet and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder
  3. The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership by Bill Walsh
  4. Lean Customer Development: Build Products Your Customers Will Buy by Cindy Alvarez
  5. The Saint, the Surfer, and the CEO: A Remarkable Story about Living Your Heart's Desires by Robin Sharma
  6. Extreme Trust: Honesty as a Competitive Advantage by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers
  7. The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz
  8. Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters
  9. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  10. Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard
  11. Bigger Leaner Stronger: The Simple Science of Building the Ultimate Male Body by Michael Matthews
  12. The Year Without Pants: and the Future of Work by Scott Berkun
  13. Zhuangzi: Basic Writings by Burton Watson
  14. The Obstacle Is The Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday
  15. Complete Calisthenics: The Ultimate Guide to Bodyweight Exercise by Ashley Kalym
  16. Leadership Is An Art by Max Depree
  17. Taiichi Ohno's Workplace Management by Taiichi Ohno
  18. The Mastery of Love: A Practical Guide to the Art of Relationship by Don Miguel Ruiz
  19. You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment by Thich Nhat Hahn
  20. Turning the Mind Into an Ally by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

What would you include in your list which I missed here or haven't come across? I am always looking for reading suggestions and would love to hear your thoughts.

Photo credit: Ginny

Why we have a core value of transparency at our startup, and why the reasons don't matter

Written on 21st September, 2014 Comments

Since the beginning of Buffer, we've always shared all of our learnings and failures. Over time this developed into a more defined goal and principle as part of the values of the company.

Since we defined our value of transparency within the culture as "Default to Transparency", we found many things within the company that we weren't being completely open about, and we put them out there for the world to see.

We've generally found that we are sharing a lot of things which are somewhat taboo or at least unusual to be shared publicly. As an example, here are some of the current numbers and things we share:

  • 1.7m users have registered for Buffer.
  • 165k users are active on a monthly basis (shared at least one post).
  • We have 28k paying customers on the Awesome or Business plans.
  • Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR) is currently $4.35m. We're generating around $360k a month.
  • The team is 24 people, spread all across the world.
  • We have a strong focus on culture-fit and sometimes it means firing great people who have different values.
  • That means Revenue Per Employee is around $181k.
  • All our SaaS metrics (LTV, churn, etc.) can be seen at our Baremetrics dashboard.
  • We share the salaries of the whole team in this spreadsheet. My salary is $175k.
  • We've raised $450k in funding and investors own around 14% of the company.

Why be so transparent?

For us, transparency came quite naturally. Myself and Leo always felt very comfortable and excited to share our learnings. It helped us get more feedback about decisions and it was a way to help others who are getting started.

We weren't always as transparent as we are today, our openness grew as the company expanded. We had a vision to continue becoming more open and we've been lucky to find people to join the team who encourage more openness rather than warning and being hesitant about potential downsides.

In the recent months, I've been asked many times why we would choose to be so transparent. If I'm completely honest, it's not something I had given all that much thought. I think being transparent is a little like creating a startup: if you focus on the downsides, you'll probably just never do it. At the same time, I wanted to have good answers and it felt responsible to give it real thought.

Here are 4 benefits I've seen for transparency:

1. Transparency breeds trust

One of the business books that's had a large impact on me as I've started to grow a team is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. It's a leadership fable which explains five dysfunctions that often exist in teams, and how to solve them in order to become a more effective team.

The first of the five dysfunctions is "Absense of Trust":

In the book, the author describes it as follows:

"Trust is the foundation of real teamwork. And so the first dysfunction is a failure on the part of team members to understand and open up to one another. And if that sounds touchy-feely, let me explain, because there is nothing soft about it. It is an absolutely critical part of building a team. In fact, it’s probably the most critical." - Patrick Lencioni

Lencioni goes on to explain that being vulnerable amongst teammates and being comfortable having debate and conflict is critical to building trust.

For us, we've found that transparency is another great way to build trust in a team. If all the information about everything that's going on is freely available, that helps everyone to feel completely on board with decisions.

Based on my learnings from the Five Dysfunctions of a Team, I believe the following to be true about transparency in relation to trust:

Transparency breeds trust, and trust is the foundation of great teamwork.

This trust extends to customers, readers of our blog and anyone who interacts with us on any level. We believe that being open helps us to build trust and share our reasoning for the features we have, our pricing, what we blog about, and many other choices.

2. Transparency helps with innovation as a company grows

One of the interesting (and exciting) consequences of growing from a few founders to a 20+ person team and beyond, is that the innovation and decision making has to become distributed. It is both a challenge and a joy for me that I will most likely not be the one who figures out our next biggest product improvements and innovations.

That's where transparency comes in. As you grow and you expect your team to make the same decisions you would, they need to have all the details that you have. Keith Rabois put this really well in an article on First Round Capital:

"if you want people to make the same decisions that you would make, but in a more scalable way, you have to give them the same information you have" - Keith Rabois

3. Transparency leads to greater justice

Another key benefit we've seen, which wasn't necessarily our reason for transparency, is one which Whole Foods cares deeply about: eliminating unfairness and inequality.

We have a formula which determines the salaries of everyone in the team. It has a number of factors such as your role, experience and location. As an example, one factor the formula doesn't have, is gender. When you determine salaries in a more ad-hoc way or through negotation, I think a lot of inequality could creep in.

John Mackey, co-founder and CEO at Whole Foods said that with transparency "any kind of favoritism or nepotism is seen".

4. You open yourself up to more feedback

By practicing transparency, we've found that we get much more feedback on our decisions. For us, we try to take in all that feedback and make adjustments based on it. For example, when we shared our salary formula, we had a lot of comments from people mentioning to us that we weren't paying high enough salaries for people in the San Francisco Bay Area, so we made an adjustment to the formula. Now we're in a much better position to attract new team members in the Bay Area.

It's great to get this feedback. It can be a challenge: we've tried to work on ourselves and grow a team which enjoys and embraces the feedback we receive. As we grow, the feedback has increased too, which will become an interesting aspect to handle. It's one of the reasons we have a large customer happiness team and strive to provide great customer support.

In truth, we don't have a reason for our transparency, it's just one of our principles

One of the most interesting business books I've recently read is Joy at Work by Dennis Bakke. Bakke was the co-founder and CEO of a large US energy company called AES, which reached $8 billion in revenues and 50,000 employees. They operated in a highly unusual, decentralized business model and they had a core value of Fun. In his book, he argued that it is dangerous to tie benefits and reasons to your core values.

"I kept saying that our values were not responsible for the run-up in our share price and should not be blamed for any down-turns in the future." - Dennis Bakke

Bakke explained that as soon as you tie your values to performance, it means that you will question them when you hit a tough patch of your journey.

For us, we believe that transparency at its core is honesty, and it's a value that we want to live by no matter what.

It seems that it is very important that you determine good values if you choose to take this approach. For example, your methods should change a lot. Your principles or values should rarely need to be altered.

All that to say, despite all the benefits we see, those are not reasons that we are transparent. They are nice side effects, and there are downsides too, and we are happy with both aspects.

I'd love your thoughts on our approach to transparency. Drop me a note in the comments and I'll try to respond. Also, if you are striving to build a company in a more transparent way too, get in touch! I am keen to surround myself with people who are also embarking upon this adventure.

Photo credit: Farrukh