The choices we make when we build startups

We’ve recently reached the point with Buffer where I’ve started to think about a lot of key higher level choices. As a CEO these can be difficult decisions to make. I’ve been taking time to reflect and luckily I also have an awesome co-founder I regularly bounce these decisions off and an incredible team whom I sometimes get together with and have discussions about our direction.

Regardless of all the support I’m lucky to have, these decisions can sometimes be overwhelming to make. It’s easy to feel a lot of pressure due to the potential impact and consequences of the choices. One decision will literally take you down a completely different path than another.

The choices to make when building a startup

It’s interesting for me to look back at some of the key choices which have made a huge difference to how Buffer looks today. Here are some that come to mind:

  • being a distributed team (spread across 16 cities in 5 continents) rather than having everybody in the same city and office
  • not raising a Series A (and having no investors on our board) when the usual cycle came around after our $450k Seed
  • doing retreats 3 times a year (the last two were Pattaya, Thailand and Cape Town, South Africa)
  • choosing to not have a sales team and instead focus on self-serve and word of mouth marketing
  • serving small businesses rather than large enterprise customers
  • establishing cultural values early and being disciplined about living to them

The questionable impact of each choice we make

The interesting thing about all of the choices I’ve shared above that relate specifically to Buffer is that there are examples of companies succeeding by making the opposite choices in each case. It’s incredibly difficult to say that each choice specifically played any role in any success we have had.

That isn’t to say that the choices haven’t changed the type of company we are. I think they have absolutely shaped what Buffer is today. However, if you were to try and attribute these choices purely to success (maybe take revenue as the metric), then I think we could probably be just as successful with different choices.

Ev Williams has a great example of this around the famous Google 20% time and whether we can say that this contributed to their success:

Google is one of the most successful companies ever. Google gives its employees the ability to spend 20% of their time on whatever they want. Therefore, 20% time is a great idea. Is it? Or was Google successful because theyre brilliant engineers who solved the right problem at the right timekilling it despite the lack of focus 20% time causes? I dont know, and neither does anyone else.

Let’s not always try to tie choices to success

One of the best books I’ve recently read around company culture is Joy at Work by Dennis Bakke. Bakke was the founder and CEO of AES which earned $8 billion in revenues and employed 50,000 people. A fascinating detail is that they achieved this with a highly unusual business philosophy and company culture.

One of the core values that Bakke set in place at AES was Fun. His quest was to create the most “fun” workplace ever. In his journey to fulfill this vision, he found that some supported him and others didn’t. Most notably, he mentioned that several board members had been very skeptical of his approaches but supported him a year later when AES had some of it’s fastest growth. Bakke argued that the value of Fun should not be tied to success nor failure:

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

This was a point that took me a long time to understand. If we don’t attribute our choices to success or failure, how can we assess if we are on the right track? I think in this case, the point is that our values should hold true in either case, and we should stand by them.

This is the approach we have started to take at Buffer with our cultural values such as Happiness and Positivity or Defaulting to Transparency. I can’t say that creating a company where everyone is happy is something that will make us more successful, and I can’t say that being fully transparent about revenues, user numbers, salaries and other details helps us grow faster than other companies. These are simply values we have chosen to live by.

Even choices like serving small businesses rather than enterprise customers, or being distributed rather than having a single office are decisions which will be difficult to assess at any time. If we fail eventually, I don’t think we could easily tie it to a single one of these choices, and if we succeed we would be wrong to say it was because of these decisions. I think, therefore, the key is to use our intuition and make the changes we feel are right - both in order to succeed, and also to create the place we want to work.

Photo credit: DennisM2

Coaching and feedback within startups

I’ve written in the past about the evolution of our culture at Buffer. One of the things we started to do at around 6-7 people as part of the culture is that everyone has a 1:1 session with either myself or their team lead at least every 2 weeks. On top of that, I personally have a 1:1 session with Leo, Carolyn and Sunil (the c-suite) every single week.

It’s been pretty powerful to put in place, and it’s something I would very much encourage startups to experiment with early on. I don’t often hear about coaching and feedback processes being in place at startups, and it took us some time to figure out how to structure it, so I hope this might be useful.

How the 1:1 sessions work

We’ve had many different iterations of the structure of our 1:1 sessions, which originated from the ‘mastermind’ format I’ve previously written about. Currently they last around 70 minutes and have quite a rigid structure as follows:

  • 10 minutes to share and celebrate your Achievements
  • 40 minutes to discuss your current top challenges
  • 10 minutes for the team lead (or me) to share some feedback
  • 10 minutes to give feedback to the team lead (or me)

Each of these sections serve a slightly different purpose and combine to create a very productive session. In addition, once sessions like this are done consistently over a period of a couple of months, a momentum builds and we’ve found the whole team has really started to move into a whole new gear.

The 1:1 is for the team member, not the CEO or team lead

You might notice that in the structure breakdown above, it translates to 60 minutes dictated by the team member, and only 10 minutes led by myself or the team lead. This is very deliberate, and in the early days the balance was the other way around. One of the key realizations for me that it should work this way was a great article Ben Horowitz wrote entitled One on One where he said the following:

Generally, people who think one-on-one meetings are a bad idea have been victims of poorly designed one-on-one meetings. The key to a good one-on-one meeting is the understanding that it is the employees meeting rather than the managers meeting.

When you share the structure in advance and 85% of the time is dedicated to the team member, and it is up to them to set the agenda, it suddenly becomes very empowering.

Listening and suggesting, rather than commanding

During the 1:1 session, the team lead will try her best to simply ask questions and maybe share some of her thoughts or similar experiences. The aim really is to help the team member to think about the challenge and come up with their own solution or steps forward that they can be completely happy and excited about.

This can be one of the hardest things to do - to hold back when an idea comes into your head about what the team member could do next to solve their challenge. However, this is really important. If instead of just instructing the team member as to how to solve their challenge, you ask questions to try and guide them to that answer, then you might find your own idea was in fact the wrong solution entirely. This has happened quite a number of times, and has been fascinating to see.

Even if the solution is what you have in your mind, it is a hundred times more motivating for the team member to come away knowing that they came up with a solution themselves, that this solution is theirs and they were not commanded. Galileo explained perfectly why we try to approach it in this way:

You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him to find it within himself.

The power of scheduled time for reflection, celebration and feedback

I think a reason that the weekly or biweekly 1:1s can serve to accelerate progress at a startup, is that it is a deliberate and scheduled session to spend 10 minutes purely for celebrating achievements (something we often forget to be happy about and grateful for), and a lot of time to reflect and make adjustments. Tim Ferriss put this better than I can myself in one Random Show episode:

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.

In addition, having 10 minutes for each person to give feedback to the other is very freeing. The time is set up specifically for feedback, and if this time did not exist it may be hard for someone to share their concerns or suggestions for change within the company. Especially for a CEO, it can be uncomfortable for people to share feedback, so this setup is a way to receive incredibly useful information.

Embracing our cultural value of self-improvement

One of the unique values in the culture at Buffer is to “Have a focus on self-improvement”, and this can be related to your work at Buffer or (often) personal improvements.

In the challenges section of the 1:1s, the discussion may be for challenges within Buffer, or it could be working on your self: for example improving your sleep, pushing yourself to keep learning a new language, trying new forms of exercise such as swimming, or how to blog more frequently.

Do you have a process in place for accelerated improvement and two-way feedback at your startup? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Photo credit: Jerome Carpenter

What are your top 3 challenges?

There are a few key things which looking back I remember I was very bad at. One of them was asking people for advice.

I think a key turning point with this was when we raised funding for Buffer last year. We quickly learned that in order to get a meeting with an investor, we’d need a good introduction from someone they knew. Since we weren’t asking & pitching that person, we realised we should ask them for advice. It was only then that I discovered the power of knowing our current key challenges.

Anyone wants to help you

I think one of the big myths is that people are too busy to give advice, or that people don’t want to help you. The reality I’ve found is that everyone wants to help you, and the key is deciding you want their help, and approaching them with a definite question. People love to talk about themselves, and love being asked about the challenges they’ve overcome.

"Most people don’t get those experiences because they never ask. I’ve never found anybody that didn’t want to help me if I asked them for help." - Steve Jobs

Always have 3 things in mind that you want help with

After I realised that people genuinely want to help, a powerful habit I’ve developed is to always have in mind my top 3 challenges. Here are my current 3:

  1. Hiring. We need more engineers and I’m working almost full-time on that task right now. How do you approach hiring?
  2. CEO role. Now that we’re 7 people and hiring 2-3 more engineers as well, I’ve realised my role is changing a lot. What was the transition like for you from a handful of people to 10+?
  3. Growth. We’re 100% focused on growth right now, and we’ve found mobile will be key. What are the key growth drivers for you?

Having these three challenges easily to mind is super powerful. It means that if I happen to have the chance to meet someone, I can always get a lot of value, and make a good impression. Just yesterday I had a chance to ask someone about the growth challenge. What’s more, smart people who you want to speak with will like it, because I’ve found most successful people want to maximise the time they spend having interesting discussions around ideas, rather than talking about people or events:

"Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people." - Eleanor Roosevelt

How to know what you want help with

In order to figure out your 3 things you would love help with, you’ll need to actually spend time reflecting on what is holding you back. Some of the key changes I’ve made within Buffer have come into my mind during my evening walk, when I spent time with the laptop closed.

Gabriel Weinberg talked about a similar concept in his recent article on why you should avoid working at full capacity:

"I think you have to consciously not work on things, which is always hard to do."

This is one of the hardest things to do as a startup founder, and the easy thing to do is to work all hours and sacrifice your sleep and health.

Go out there with your purpose in mind

Once you’ve figured out what you need help with, and you have it easily to mind, the key is to get out there, take some risks and ask people for help. I often talk about my experience of first landing in the bay area with friends who have had success out here, and we always came to a similar conclusion: silicon valley can truly accelerate your success, so long as you know what you want to achieve. As soon as people figure out what you are trying to do, they will do all they can to help. The pay it forward culture here is very real.

Have you had success in asking others for help? What is the best way you’ve found to make the most of the chances you get?

Photo credit: Karel Seidl

Want to be successful? Be inconsistent

Recently 37signals published an article titled Some advice from Jeff Bezos. This wasn’t your usual advice, and I found it interesting to read and how familiar it felt as I read each next line. The post was all about “changing your mind”. The way I would describe the overall theme, is “inconsistency”. Here’s the key part of the post, paraphrased:

People who are right a lot of the time, are people who often change their mind. Consistency of thought is not a particularly positive trait.

I find this fascinating, because one of the biggest challenges I’ve found as a founder for the last few years is the times when I change my mind, when have a realisation and I become inconsistent on a thought I previously had. This is amplified as your startup grows, because you have users, co-workers and stakeholders who you are in touch with who are there to witness and be affected by your inconsistency.

Success and inconsistency

If you’re part of a startup, I believe that your success might actually be defined by whether you are willing to be inconsistent. This means that actually changing your mind is not just a good trait as Jeff Bezos has mentioned, but “staying consistent” might actually be the reason your startup fails. I think this also probably applies to a much wider context than startups: I think your success might be determined by how willing you are to be inconsistent.

The reason you need to let go of consistency at times, is because as a founder you need to act and move forward without having complete information for each decision:

"Entrepreneurs make fast decisions and move forward knowing that at best 70% of their decisions are going to be right. They move the ball forward every day. They are quick to spot their mistakes and correct." - Mark Suster

Making decisions where 30% of the time you will be wrong is just the pace you need to move at to make progress with a startup. It’s a change from a normal job, where everything is laid out. It also means that when you realise which were the wrong decisions, you’re going to have to make changes - you’re going to have to be inconsistent.

When you’re early in a startup, a founder or one of the first few people to join, you will at times realise that new information from customers or a smart mentor shows that what you were working on for the last weeks or months is the wrong thing to do. The hardest thing now is to accept that and move on to other things. Letting go completely is really tough, but you can’t “keep it going on the side” and expect to succeed. You’ve just got to move on to the next thing you’ll try. If you’re a leader, it can also be hard, because you’ve got to be the one to deliver the news to someone who’s been working and had their mind immersed in something you’re about to ditch. It’s not easy at all, but these are some of the key calls to make.

The inconsistency of my startup journey

If I look back on my journey with startups to where I am today, I cringe with how many things I’ve changed my mind on, with how many things I was super passionate about for a while, and then dropped completely. It causes so many ups and downs, and you question yourself and your ability a lot, but I’ve now realised that this was exactly what I needed to do. In fact, I’ve also had this on my lessons page from the very start of my blogging journey:

I don’t know whether the same lessons will apply to you, but I hope you’ll find my thoughts useful. Take what fits, and tell me what doesn’t work for you: I’m always learning. I’m pretty sure I’ll even contradict my own advice at times as I learn more.

Here are some other examples from my experiences in the last few years:

The study project turned startup

Back when I was at the University of Warwick I worked on a little project, or at least it started small. It was something I did with 4 of my Computer Science classmates, and it soon took over my life and I saw it as a true startup. It was a location based startup on web and mobile, but this was back when the first phones with GPS was released, the Nokia N95 and N82. It was early days.

I ended up at an event and was asked on the spot whether I wanted to join the panel. I said “sure!” and ended up speaking in front of around 50 people. I was asked “where do you see lasyou being in the next 3 years”. I said I would see it expanding from just Warwick and be global, with millions of users. I was passionate, and I wasn’t just saying it, I truly believed we could pull it off.

Fast forward a few months and I’d decided that I couldn’t continue with lasyou, and I moved on to another startup. That time it was a realisation about the dynamics of the team that meant it couldn’t work. I went back on my word which I had told everyone at that event, with such determination. And it’s exactly what I should have done.

Bootstrapping vs fundraising

One of the things I’ve probably been most inconsistent with in my journey as a startup founder is the decision about whether to raise funding or to bootstrap. It’s one of the most widely debated topics, perhaps the most interesting discussion was Jason Calacanis vs. David Heinemeier Hansson on This Week in Startups.

So, I’ve been a huge believer in bootstrapping and still am, we’ve also taken funding for Buffer. With our funding announcement, someone called me out on my inconsistency in the comments on Hacker News, pointing to slides from a presentation here I advocated bootstrapping:

Joel was standing in front of me practically a year to the day in the UK advocating bootstrapping and now he’s suddenly raised $400,000

So why the inconsistency? Well, the answer is quite simple. I gained new knowledge, new information. I spoke with Hiten Shah and some smart folks who had been through YCombinator, and someone who had sold his startup. I had conversations and realised that with the position we were in after 10 months of bootstrapping, raising money made sense. We could move faster by having funds to hire people.

Let’s focus on web. Let’s focus on mobile.

On the product side at Buffer, we’ve also gone back and forth many times in lots of different areas. We focused for many weeks on doing consistent updates to the Digg Digg WordPress plugin, then practically stopped working on it to focus on other areas. We created basic mobile apps, then decided we should instead fully focus on creating a great web experience. Then we decided we were wrong to drop the mobile apps, and we’re now so focused that more than half our engineering effort is in mobile. To some, it looks like we’re very indecisive. However, right now we’re in a better position than ever and there are some super exciting things on the way for Buffer users.

Embrace being inconsistent

My conclusion on the topic of consistency is that it’s not required for success. There is a lot of talk about hard-nosed businessmen needing to be true to their word and never change their mind. I think a better approach is to be open to making adjustments as you learn more. That’s the smarter thing to do. It’s also much more difficult.

I’m glad to see Jeff Bezos mentioning this and 37signals sharing it so openly. I was also glad to see Travis Kalanik, the CEO of “Private Driver (read: not a taxi) service” Uber, stand on stage yesterday at Startup School and announce Uber TAXI, a cheaper, more taxi-like service.

Even Zuckerberg said in an interview from the early days of Facebook that they’d never expand beyond being a college network.

Inconsistency is everywhere when you actually track successful people for long enough and notice the patterns. My failure with a previous startup I worked on for a year and a half was largely that I didn’t change the idea in a big enough way, quickly enough - that I stayed consistent. So go ahead and be inconsistent, it’s exactly what you need to be. Some don’t realise it, and you’ll drive a few people crazy by doing it. You’ll also feel weak and guilty every time you have to tell people you’re changing your mind, but you just need to get used to doing it, repeatedly.

Have you found changing your mind and your path difficult as you’ve learned more? Have you been inconsistent many times? Or do you think you could do better by being more inconsistent? I’d love to hear from you.

Photo credit: Christo de Klerk

Why I'm helping startup founders

Last month I wrote about my discovery that helping others makes me happier than spending the time seeing a movie or doing some other “pleasure activity”. I briefly mentioned that I’ve been regularly helping startup founders, and since then I’ve had a few people get in touch to ask how I do it and, more importantly, why I started helping others in the first place.

It’s true that as a startup founder you have more than enough to do without helping others. However, helping others is something I’ve found to be very useful for many reasons, so I want to share some of my reasons for doing so and why I think you might want to start helping people too.

6 reasons I help startup founders

I enjoy helping people

One of the key reasons I help other startup founders is that I genuinely enjoy helping others. It gets me excited to hear about people’s challenges and about how to improve a situation. Whether they’re struggling to get traction, having difficulties with juggling a startup alongside work, or finding it hard to stay motivated, I get a thrill out of working with them to think of the best steps to take.

A duty to the amazing community

During University I got hooked on the idea of creating a startup. Since then I’ve made many mistakes and learned a lot of lessons. One of the things I’ve been blown away by is the “pay it forward” culture of startups all around the globe. The very least I can do is try to contribute positively to this amazing community, wherever I happen to be.

Do you think I might be able to help you with your startup? Get in touch

Learning about success and failure

We all know that success doesn’t come overnight, and often there are failures along the way. I love meeting people so I can pass on the lessons from some of my failures and at the same time start to spot what works and what doesn’t through other people’s experiences.

A way to experience more startup challenges

There’s simply no way I can experience first-hand what’s involved with all the different types of startups, marketing approaches or technical challenges, even if I build many different startups throughout my career. Whilst it’s never the same to hear about someone else’s learning than to go through it yourself, by meeting other founders you can be exposed to much more and multiply your experience and knowledge.

An outstanding support network

Meeting lots of founders also gives me a fantastic group of people to call on whenever I have a challenge. I might meet an awesome Android developer who needs to chat about struggles of creating a startup such as validating their idea or gaining traction. If I’m having challenges with Android development, I can easily hit them up for help.

Practicing being an amazing advisor

I’ve heard many times before that the investors who succeed are the ones who are very good at recognising patterns. Mark Suster describes this well in his article Invest in Lines, not Dots:

"If you’re an investor looking at dots somebody else may be looking at lines. Meet entrepreneurs early and watch how they perform maybe even at their previous startup. I always ask to meet people before they’re officially fund raising well before actually. It helps me spot patterns."

One of my aims is to be a fantastic advisor, and eventually do some angel investing too. I want to become someone people can call on who has lots of fantastic advice in many of the challenging areas of running a startup. I can only hope to achieve this by experiencing different aspects (bootstrapping, finding product/market fit, gaining traction, raising funding, hiring etc.) and through practicing being concise and useful in short advisory sessions.

Why you can start helping others now

When we were making just $20 per month with Buffer, I had the feeling that I couldn’t help people: I wasn’t successful yet! What I’ve found, however, is that I could help far more people when I was at that stage. I believe you can too, whatever stage you’re at.

Imagine you go to a conference and there’s a big guy on the stage who’s sold his 3rd company for a billion dollars. He’s so far away from the founder sat in the audience who’s just starting with their idea or maybe doesn’t even have an idea yet. The best you can hope to get is inspiration. The worst case is you actually feel stalled by how small the chance of this happening to you is.

With most people I meet, I find that I’m just a few steps ahead or behind. This means the learning is very fresh, the advice is actionable and the results feel achievable. I think this is much more powerful. Even if you’ve just had your idea and are starting to plan the steps ahead, how many people are there that haven’t even got to the idea stage yet?

Have you started helping others, or have you considered it? I’d love to hear about your thoughts and experiences.

Photo credit: Michael Scott