The quiet pivot

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

The original vision

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

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

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

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

What we learned attempting our original vision

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

Growth slowed, conversion rates dropped

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

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

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

The benefits of freemium

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

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

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

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

The valley of death

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

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

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

The new vision for Buffer

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: takasuii

Taking time to reflect

It’s been a while since my last blog post, and I’ve recently been pondering why that may be.

It’s not that I’ve been doing less than when I was regularly blogging, it’s in fact quite the opposite. Since the last post we’ve hit some incredible milestones with Buffer including going through the AngelPad incubator here in San Francisco (and raising a little funding), bringing my great friend Tom Moor on board and hitting 50,000 users.

The key reason I believe I’ve not been blogging is that whilst progressing along at a fast pace with Buffer, I’ve stopped taking the time to reflect.

The benefit of reflection

I started this blog around the same time I started building my latest startup Buffer and in many ways I think they have both hand-in-hand helped me to grow very quickly over the last year.

When we first arrived in San Francisco, I remember meeting new people and often they’d recognise me from my blog. I’ve even been interviewed on CBC radio as a result of a blog post I wrote.

I attribute a lot of this success to taking time to reflect on my current thoughts and whether I’m happy with how things are going. It was only when I was reflecting on things that I’d have thoughts to blog about and that I gained these benefits.

Looking back, I’ve also always felt very relaxed when I’ve made the time for reflection. I think Tim Ferriss puts this very well:

"It is important that you pay as much attention to appreciation as you do to achievement. Achievement without reflection on what you have and the gratitude for that is worthless."

When do you reflect on things?

When I had a consistent sleep ritual involving going for a 20 minute walk before bed every evening to disconnect from the day, these walks were where I did a lot of my reflection. I believe these 20 minute periods of reflection allowed me to clear my mind and ingrain thoughts which would turn into action.

I think that reflection is of varying importance for people, depending on your personality. I’ve personally found it to be very useful, and I’ve found that I like to reflect more than others might.

When I was in Birmingham in the UK, I lived in a single bedroom apartment and I had plenty of time to myself for reflection. I then went to a drastic opposite situation when I moved to San Francisco. I spent a period of time sharing a room and sleeping on an air-bed. Part of the key to having time to reflect is to acknowledge changes to environment like this and making time to reflect.

Making time to reflect

I’ve therefore decided that I can’t continue on without taking a few moments every day or two to get away and reflect on things. I think this will trigger more inspiration for blog posts, and I hope to get back into the same regularity I once had. Besides, I now live in Russian Hill and there are some amazing views for when I go and take a walk.

Do you take time regularly to reflect? Do you think it helps? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Photo credit: Fabiana Zonca