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

4 short stories of our attempts to be lean at our startup

It’s no secret that I’ve personally been hugely impacted by Eric Ries’ work and the Lean Startup movement. Buffer would not be where it is today without his writings and videos opening my mind to a different way of approaching a startup.

For me, lean is completely about building and approaching things in a way which minimizes the amount of wasted time and effort. A startup is a scary adventure to embark upon because there are so many unknowns. It’s different to a service business in that you have no idea whether your product will actually be adopted. As a result, it’s easy to accidentally build products or features which, in the end, don’t resonate as you had hoped.

Being disciplined about approaching things in a lean way is incredibly difficult. In theory it seems straight-forward. In practice it’s super challenging, and we’ve had some hits and some big misses too.

1. The founding of Buffer: going from an idea to paying customers in 7 weeks

When I finished studying, I was completely set on creating a startup. So I did just that, and I made it completely official. I told everyone I was doing a startup, I incorporated the business and we got a small government grant. I built a product and kept adding more to it. In the end, I hadn’t validated that it was enough of a pain point for people, and it grew very slowly.

With Buffer, I took a different approach. It was just a side project, and I was in no rush to call it more than that. I stopped myself as soon as I realized I’d spent a couple of days coding without validating the need. Then I sat down and thought about how I could see whether people need this product, without building it.

I created a landing page which looked just like it would if the product had existed. That’s the beauty of landing pages, they have almost the same flow through them whether the product exists or not. So I could see whether people would sign up for the product, and then ask them for their email at the end of the process.

I had email conversations and a couple of Skype calls with people who gave me their email. I talked about the problem I was solving and learned a huge amount from these interactions. This is known as customer development and I can’t recommend doing it highly enough.

This process proved to be a success. Through the conversations I learned that others had the same problem and were receptive to a solution. That gave me the confidence to build it, and 7 weeks later I had the first version of the product. 3 days after launch, someone started paying for Buffer. We’ve steadily grown recurring revenue since then. February just came to a close and revenue came in at $333,000.

Read more about Buffer’s lean beginnings

2. Creating a brand new Buffer browser extension experience

One of Buffer’s key features right from the beginning has been that we have a browser extension which allows you to very easily share a web page or blog post you’re reading. You can share it right away or schedule it to be posted later to all the key social networks.

Throughout 2012 we saw a huge rise in sharing of pictures to Facebook, and we started sharing more pictures ourselves. We found they did very well and received a lot of engagement. That’s when we had the idea to transform our extension to allow sharing of different types of media: links, text or picture. We wanted to make it super easy to share a picture from the page you’re looking at.

So (and here comes our big mistake) we got to work building a brand new version of our browser extension to allow you to pick images off the page to share to Facebook or Twitter. It looked a little like this:

We spent several months working on this alongside other product tasks, and spent some time polishing the experience. We loved the experience ourselves, we were enjoying using it to much more easily share pictures from the page. Then, we were starting to think about when we would launch it to everyone, we though “maybe we can let a few people try it out first”. We almost launched it to everyone at once, which would have been a very bad idea.

We pondered when we could get some people to test it, we thought maybe we could send an email in the next week. Then we thought, why not do that tomorrow? Or how about we send a Tweet right now and ask people if they want to try it. So that’s what we did, and we got on Skype with people and asked them to share their screen and reaction as we switched on the new extension experience.

The feedback from those screen-sharing Skype calls was shocking. 6 out of 7 people were completely confused about the new UI. They thought the picture tab would let them choose the thumbnail for the link they were sharing to Facebook (you could already choose that in the link tab). The biggest mistake we made was that we knew exactly what we wanted to use the feature for ourselves, so the UI made complete sense to us. It wasn’t clear at all for someone seeing it fresh. The worst part is we could have known this months earlier if we’d just done a few mockups and shown those to these same users.

3. Brand New Buffer: a completely redesigned web experience and new iPhone app

In the Summer of 2012 we started to think about some key improvements we should make to the web dashboard for Buffer. We had accounts listed horizontally and this meant there was a natural limit by the width of the page. We wanted to create an interface that would be more flexible. What started as a simple adjustment from a horizontal menu to a vertical menu became a half year project including a complete redesign, new features and unified web and mobile app experiences and design.

One of the core tenets of lean startup is to have small batch sizes. Somehow that went completely out of the window and we decided that we needed to group all of these changes together. We got hungry for a big splash launch and decided that’s what we’d aim for. We envisaged being on all the tech sites and having a surge of new users.

As with everything, this project took longer than we expected. In the end, we managed to wrap it up before the end of the year, which was a relief.

We were successful in getting that big splash we had dreamed of. We emailed our several hundred thousand users and wrote two blog posts. We were covered by Lifehacker, TechCrunch, Forbes, VentureBeat, TheNextWeb and more. I remember the excitement as I took this screenshot of our Google Analytics real-time where we had 766 people on Buffer at the same time:

It was several months later when we started to truly focus on metrics and growth that we saw the mistake this big launch was. The problem with grouping all your changes together is that it’s difficult to see how each of the individual changes has impacted everything.

From one day to the next, we had reduced our overall activation by 25%. We count a user as “activated” if they connect a social network and post at least once using Buffer. Activation dropped from 51% to 39% as a result of this launch. In the cloud of buzz and signups, we had no idea and no reason to suspect there was a problem. Upon closer inspection, it was even worse. Taking activation for web by itself, it had actually dropped by 50%. The new design and signup flow caused activation the web contribution to go from 24% to 12%:

The only positive finding was that our new iPhone app was certainly a success, almost doubling activation for people signing up from the iPhone app:

The combination of activation decreasing so much on web and iPhone activation increasing made it hard to see there was a problem. It took us several months to adjust our signup flow to bring the activation back up to previous levels. If we had a/b tested and looked at the metrics of the new web experience with a small percentage of our users before going live with it, we could have identified the drop in activation and fixed it before our big launch. We could have had months of higher activation.

The lesson from this for us is to always launch things in small batches, and to measure the impact of everything we do.

4. How Buffer for Business came into existence, and how it became 25% of our revenue in just a few months

Half way through 2013, Leo and I started to think about our vision for Buffer and whether it was playing out in a way we were happy with. Our vision was to be a sharing platform across the web and apps, and we’d made a lot of progress with our Buffer button across websites and blogs, and our iOS SDK inside Feedly, Pocket, Instapaper, Echofon and others. Our growth was still good, but it was slowing.

We had the amazing chance to meet with Jason Lemkin, who is incredibly experienced and sharp about what it takes to succeed as a SaaS company. We had thought for some time about expanding Buffer and having a product focused on business customers. So far, we’d talked ourselves out of it with the common argument that we should stay focused. Jason gave us some of the best and most controversial advice I’ve had, which was to “do everything, just try it”.

We left that meeting excited and decided we might as well move ahead and see what happens. My co-founder Leo took the lead on investigating the social media problems and needs of businesses.

We had two key product ideas which could be attractive to businesses. The first one we were super excited about: a way to allow the whole organization to connect their personal social media accounts and help spread the news of product launches and press releases. We thought it could be huge for marketing departments. Our second idea was an extension of Buffer, to make it work for businesses and agencies with large numbers of social media accounts and team members.

Leo reached out to several existing customers hitting the limits of our $10/mo plan and jumped on dozens of video calls. He asked them about their problems and shared our ideas to see if they resonated. We were so excited about the idea of supercharging marketing by making use of the whole company’s employees, and were surprised by how few people wanted that product. The best feedback Leo had was from a head of marketing who said:

"I can’t rely on employees to do our marketing. It’s a nice to have, but we wouldn’t pay for that alone."

The idea to make Buffer more powerful was a huge hit. People at the limit of the $10/mo plan were desperate to use Buffer with more than 12 social accounts, which was our current limit. We had a lot of pent-up demand.

So we moved ahead on allowing people to use Buffer for more than the current $10/mo plan. We reflected on how to do this in a lean way and came to the conclusion we could do it without any new features or work on billing. We charged them through the feature to create and change a billing plan in Stripe, and put them onto a plan in our admin area that removed the 12 accounts limit. With no new product or marketing, we suddenly had 50 customers and Buffer for Business generated $10,000 in new revenue, 6% of our total.

We then kept talking to these customers and discovered a handful of additional problems we could solve for them and include in a new product, which we launched as Buffer for Business a couple of months later. It’s been a big hit and is already 25% of our monthly revenue.

Let me know if you have any thoughts or questions about our focus on being lean at Buffer. I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

P.S. Like using the lean startup approach to build products? I’d love your help - we’re growing the team at Buffer.

Photo credit: Betsy Weber

Ratio thinking

Something I’ve found difficult to completely embrace, but which understanding has been super important, is the idea that there is a ratio for everything. I’ve started to call this Ratio Thinking, and I’ve found myself describing this to quite a number of people recently.

The law of averages

I think we all understand that we might not get a 100% success rate on everything we do. In fact, in most cases it is far lower. For myself, I think I have struggled to fully comprehend this.

I’ve heard the idea of a ratio for success many times. I think perhaps the best description I’ve come across what Jim Rohn describes as the “law of averages”:

If you do something often enough, you’ll get a ratio of results. Anyone can create this ratio.

Once I fully understood this, it made everything much easier. As soon as I accepted that the whole world works in ratios, that’s when it became easier. Knowing that success happens in ratios allowed me to go ahead and send that email, without worrying about not getting a response, about ‘failing’.

Here are a few examples where I think ratio thinking can help you as a startup founder:

Ratio thinking in marketing

Arguably some of our biggest success with Buffer has been the content marketing we did in the early days and are once again pushing hard recently. In fact, we are currently hiring our first content writer beyond my co-founder Leo, and plan to grow out a full team for our blogging efforts.

I can remember very well many of the conversations I had with Leo. What he did so well was to quickly realize the law of averages and know that to get a single reply, a large number of emails must be sent to bloggers for a potential guest post. This knowledge meant he rarely felt bad if he didn’t get a response. Instead he knew it’s just the way it works.

What is perhaps even more powerful than just knowing about ratio thinking, is that Leo used this knowledge to his advantage. If he wanted to get a single guest article published, he would sit down and send 5 emails. We had around a 20% success rate based on the emails Leo sent.

Once you’ve established the success rate, for example 20%, you can keep working and eventually the ratio will improve. Maybe you’ll eventually get 3/10 instead of 2. Once that happened, Leo was smart and moved on to bigger blogs and pulled that ratio back down to 20%. This technique led us to our first 100,000 users.

Ratio thinking in fundraising

When we finished AngelPad, we started trying to get meetings with and pitching investors. The law of averages really comes into play with raising investment, too.

Overall, we probably attempted to get in contact with somewhere around 200 investors. Of those, we perhaps had meetings with about 50. In the end, we closed a $450k seed round from 18 investors.

Perhaps the most important part of our success in closing that round was that Leo and I would sit down in coffee shops together and encourage each other to keep pushing forward, to send that next email asking for an intro or a meeting. In many ways, the law of averages is the perfect argument that persistence is a crucial trait of a founder.

Ratio thinking in hiring

The most recent area where I’ve found ratio thinking to be useful is hiring. It can take a large number of applicants to find the right person, someone who has the right skills and is also a great culture-fit.

There are so many factors at play here - so of course there won’t be a 100% success rate. Once you accept that, it can make your life a whole lot easier. That was the case for me - I conceded to the fact that I will need to work hard to publicize our positions, and then only a small fraction of the applications would make sense to follow up for interview.

And the ratio thinking applies in the same way for the hiring process as well as once somebody is on board. This stuff is hard, but once again it is simply how it works - the sooner you accept it, the sooner you can thrive.

Have you encountered the law of averages while working on your startup? I’d love to hear about where you’ve found ratio thinking useful.

Photo credit: Peter Renshaw

Dreams come true

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined. - Henry David Thoreau

I can distinctly remember that for the month of December in 2010, and for much of January 2011, I did a lot of dreaming.

Back then, as I do now, I had a daily ritual of going for an evening walk before sleeping so that I could disengage from the day. I had discovered this helped me sleep better. By leaving my phone at home and setting off for my twenty minute walk, I had only my mind to keep myself entertained during the walk.

When I go on my walk, for the first five or ten minutes, my mind is usually occupied by thoughts about my current issues, challenges and tasks, or the highlights or low points of the day. After ten minutes, interesting things happen.

I would guess that for many of us, we rarely go for ten minutes without a task to do, a friend to talk to or a social network to check. I can tell you that in my experience, ten minutes of solitude leads to some powerful thoughts. It is fascinating to observe where your own mind wanders.

In December 2010, I had just launched Buffer and my mind often wandered to the thoughts about where this new side project might lead. Two weeks into the month, I had got two paying customers for Buffer, paying me $5 a month. This was a huge milestone for me, and the thought that kept occupying my mind was: could this ever make enough money that I could quit my day job? Another two weeks passed, and another two people started paying $5 per month. Now I was up to $20 of monthly revenue.

On my walks I day dreamed about the day when Buffer would make enough for me to quit my day job. Since these walks were just before bed, I also often had real dreams about this too. The number I had in my mind for this milestone was around $1,000 per month. On my walks, I remember calculating in my mind how long it might take at the current pace of paying customers joining Buffer. With 4 new customers per month, it was going to take a long time.

Then January rolled around, and things started to pick up. I became more focused and the product was improving fast. Leo had joined me and we were getting customers faster. I kept going on my walks and I kept having the same dream. In the first two weeks of January, we got another 4 customers: as many as the whole of December! We were now making $40 per month. But it was still going to take a long time to make $1,000 a month.

In February, things really started to change. The dreams I was having were starting to feel real, to feel possible. I kept going on the walks, and letting my mind wander back to the dream. By the end of March, I had dropped two of my five days of freelance work, I was just working three days a week and could spend the rest of my time on Buffer.

I felt like I was now working on making my dream a reality. By the end of May 2011 I had dropped my freelance work completely, and in June we hit our $1,000 per month milestone. We were growing rather fast.

I remember that I continued to go on my walks, and at times I would be amazed that this dream had now come true. I could remember exactly the feeling of going on a walk just a few months prior and imagining how amazing it would be to be able to work only on Buffer. On my own project, my own startup. Nothing else. And it was amazing. It felt fantastic.

What struck me, is that it might have been the fact that I let my mind wander, the fact I had these dreams, that made me push ahead during the early mornings and evenings and actually achieve those things. The dreams made me want it, even if I didn’t fully realize. The dreams meant that I had allowed my mind to be taken over by this objective.

These days, things are even crazier. When I stop to take a moment and truly appreciate where I am, I realize that I now have more than I could have ever dreamed of. That $1,000 a month goal is easy to forget. We now make $1,000 in less than half a day and if we don’t then something is wrong. And in a month, we now make a hundred times that original dream.

Now I have new dreams, and they can come true too.

Photo credit: Michael

Want to help your hometown? Pack up and leave


I’ve done a lot of traveling throughout my journey with Buffer. I started in the UK, and since then I’ve lived in Hong Kong and Tel Aviv as well as San Francisco where I’ve now settled for the longer term.

When I was in my hometown of Sheffield in the UK, I became quite involved in the (then tiny) startup scene, and even ran a meetup for startups. The choice to move to a different city was quite a big one, and later the choice to leave the UK completely was a step even further.

I often hear the argument that people should stay in their hometown to help the startup ecosystem. I believe that paradoxically, the best way to grow the ecosystem in your hometown might be to leave it.

I think there’s this myth that the best way to help your hometown is to stick around. I also think there is a misconception that the way to help is to focus on the community, more than on yourself.

Focusing inwards, in order to be able to help others

One of the key things I’ve learned is that you can help a community far more by focusing inwards, on yourself, than you can by spending a lot of time working on the community itself.

"The greatest gift you can give to somebody is your own personal development. I used to say ‘If you take care of me, I will take care of you.’ Now I say, ‘I will take care of me for you if you will take care of you for me.’" - Jim Rohn

Indeed, in a recent post on the gender bias in the tech and startup world, Melissa Miranda concluded:

"The best way to have more women at the top is to climb up there myself."

Kate Kendall, a great friend and a founder I am inspired by and respect a lot similarly mentioned in a recent post:

"I cannot continue to provide for others if I don’t get my own company’s foundation firmly planted. I look forward to giving more again soon. Once I first learn how to ask."

These are some very wise words. The message is clear. Many who have taken considerable steps along their journey are realizing that their best way to help is to focus inwards on themselves, in order to become more and have more to offer. This is certainly the approach I am aiming for, too.

Refreshing your environment and your circle

One of the toughest things to accept as an ambitious entrepreneur is that you are affected by your environment and the circle of friends you have. We have far less willpower and self-control than we like to admit to ourselves.

Seneca wrote in a letter somewhere between 63 and 65 AD that even the most accomplished men are affected by the “crowd” they choose to be amongst:

"Even Socrates, Cato, and Laelius might have been shaken in their moral strength by a crowd that was unlike them; so true it is that none of us, no matter how much he cultivates his abilities, can withstand the shock of faults that approach, as it were, with so great a retinue."

If Socrates himself would be affected by a crowd who did not push him and encourage him, how can we hope to even achieve a sliver of the success he had unless we decide carefully who and what we choose as our environment? Seneca advised in this same letter:

"Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship"

I got lucky myself. Something drew me to Birmingham in the UK, from my hometown of Sheffield. Then, after Buffer reached ramen profitability Leo and I had a craving, a calling to visit San Francisco. After arriving and spending 6 months in Silicon Valley, lack of visas forced us to travel the world and live in places such as Hong Kong and Tel Aviv.

It was through this journey I learned the power of a fresh environment and starting new friendships. With each new place, I had a more specific criteria for who I would let into my true circle of friends. Today, I have much freedom and I am surrounded by people who never judge and always encourage. The difference this makes is something I can’t put into words. Leaving your hometown is the best way to deliberately sever those ties and step into the unknown and the chance of great possibilities.

Finding somewhere to thrive

With an inward focus and a desire to shape your environment in a very deliberate way, I think that if you choose to try and do these things in your hometown, you are very much at a disadvantage.

There is no way I would have been able to develop as much as a person if I had not jumped on a plane to a place where I knew nobody. I love my friends and I love my family, but the truth is that stepping away has helped me tremendously to become a better version of myself, and paradoxically to allow me to help them even more, too.

There’s probably a place in the world that is better for your business than where you are right now. For AirBnB, it was New York:

While at incubator Y Combinator, Paul Graham looked at their plans for Airbnb and asked them the simple question, “Where is your market?”
The founders said that New York seemed promising. To which Paul, gesturing wildly with his hands, said, “Your users are in New York and you’re here in Mountain View.”
The founders were dumbfounded, saying they were in Mountain View for Y Combinator.
Paul repeated himself. “Your users are in New York and you’re here in Mountain View.” After a pause, he added, “What are you still doing here?”

For us, it is San Francisco. We’re a distributed team, but many of the conversations we need to have with startups we partner with and the social networks we are providing a service on top of, happen much more easily when we’re in the same location as the majority of them and can grab coffee face-to-face. I’ve come to agree with what Brad Lindenberg said in a blog post recently:

"I am convinced now that in order to be a player, you need to have a presence where your target market is because if you do, things can happen really quickly."

A lot has happened in my hometown of Sheffield since I left. There is even a startup accelerator there now. If I hadn’t left, I’d not be on a level where I would comfortably and excitedly be a mentor for the accelerator. Would you be able to help more if you let go of your roots and focused on yourself?

Photo credit: Christine Vaufrey