What it's really like to grow a team when you're focused on culture-fit

It’s often interesting to look back and think about how much I’ve learned in the past year or two. Especially areas where I almost had no understanding at all. Company culture is one of those areas. Sure, I had come across the term and I even took an organizational behavior course while studying, but it only really became real for me when I was running a team and it started to grow.

How we became focused on culture-fit

In the first two and a half years of Buffer we slowly grew to 11 people. In December 2012 (2 years in) we were 7 people and I had started to think about company culture. I envisaged we would start to add more definition around what our culture was, and in early 2013 we did so, collaboratively creating our culture deck.

It was right around this time and the few months following where we had quite a lot of turbulence. We realized that as we started to put together the culture deck, a number of our friends we were working with were not completely aligned in living the values. We had to make a number of difficult team changes. Letting people go was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, especially in the cases where they were good friends.

Since then, we have hired (and fired) in a very focused way based on our culture. We also introduced Buffer Bootcamp, a 45 day period for us as well as the new team member to decide whether it feels like a great fit. Everyone goes through the Bootcamp (there are no exceptions) and usually people receive several pieces of feedback. The ratio that’s emerged is that around 70% of people move on from Bootcamp to become fully on board team members.

How the team has grown at Buffer over 3 years

I thought it might be interesting to take a look back at the growth of the team in the last few years. We’ve been running just over 3 years, and we’re now 17 people.

The path hasn’t been completely smooth. For the first year and a half we didn’t fire anybody. In a lot of ways, we thought we had it all figured out and prided ourselves in having never let anyone go. Here’s the reality of startup life, at least in terms of how we’ve experienced it:

The chart above reflects one of my most difficult and important learnings so far with Buffer: that if you want to have a great team and a great company, you’re inevitably going to fire people at times. And I think ‘fire’ is often a strong term (but a correct one) since for us it has usually been a culture-fit decision rather than productivity or a case of someone doing something that would be cause for immediate dismissal (this has not happened in our journey so far).

I’ve since become comfortable that our team growth is much healthier if it looks like the second half of the graph. It’s worth noting that although it looks like a smooth upward trend in the last few months, this is simply because we’re hiring faster. We’ve brought people on and let others go in the same month a number of times. I believe that there will always be people who don’t gel with the team and where it makes sense to part ways. We’ve decided that at Buffer this will be part of the process of creating a team which is super aligned and fun. As Carolyn has put it to me before, at Buffer we’re “birds of a feather”. It’s a place where if you’re a good fit, you’ll feel like you’ve found home.

How has the team at your startup or company grown? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Photo credit: Antoine Gady

Firing myself, again

I've written in the past about how I see the role of a CEO to be one where you are repeatedly firing yourself. Joe Kraus brought my attention to thinking about the role in this way, and it has been an incredibly powerful mindset as Buffer has grown.

It's been fascinating to see how this idea of firing yourself has been reflected not only in the evolution of my role, but also our co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Leo, and our Chief Technical Officer Sunil. I'd say it is probably happening right now for Carolyn, our Chief Happiness Officer, too.

I thought it might be interesting to take a look back on the journey so far and share the times where myself or others have fired ourselves.

When to first think about firing yourself

It seems quite clear to me now that we're 15 people and I've replaced myself a few times, that this notion of firing yourself is one which is very useful to embrace as a founder. As a founder you're always thinking about the whole business, and so by hiring people for your key skill tasks, they can focus fully and do a better job.

I have the opportunity to regularly meet with founders and recently my meetings have caused me to think about when the right time might be to start thinking about firing yourself from the first key skill-based activity you are working on.

First you need to achieve product/market fit

Before any kind of scaling, I think its essential to hit product/market fit. This is the point when it's clear your product works. People are sticking around, they’d be super disappointed if you went away, and youre growing fast. You can feel the potential when you've hit this stage.

To put it another way: until you hit it, your only job as a startup founder is to work on reaching product/market fit.

Keep working on a skill long enough to hire well

Even once you've hit product/market fit, you probably want to keep doing your skill tasks long enough to truly see how useful it will be to have someone else in that role full-time. For your first skill-role, perhaps coding or marketing depending on whether youre a technical or non-technical founder, you will probably not have the challenge of wanting to let go of the role too soon. Most people hold on too long, and sacrifice slow down growth of the company. I certainly have done this myself. However, once you've fired yourself from that first task, for subsequent ones which youre learning from scratch you might want to do them long enough to see the full opportunity and understand the area well enough to ask the right questions when hiring.

Start doing many things at once (it will become chaotic)

As a founder, especially as a CEO, you're probably going to be doing many things at once. You'll at least be thinking about many things at once. My role has shifted from actually doing many things to helping to run many things. As you grow you might find you have a larger impact by becoming an editor and thinking about how the team can move faster, as well as helping to refine some of the details and keep everything moving in the right direction.

As you gain more traction, you will find increasingly many areas of the product and company to stay focused on. New useful roles will emerge which you didn't have to begin with. What's worked well for me is to embrace this expansion and try to handle many of these areas. When everything feels somewhat chaotic, its a great time to think about firing yourself from one or more of the areas. And that chaos is healthy I think. It can be hard, I've had many times where I felt I was letting people down by being stretched in many directions.

You'll start leaving money on the table, so become aggressive about firing yourself

Once you've grown to a stage where youre juggling many different areas and key metrics are growing healthily month to month, you'll start to leave money on the table by holding onto tasks. You'll be doing a less adequate job in many areas than someone else could who is more experienced in that speciality and has an opportunity to focus on the task full-time. It's key to start being reflective about areas of the company for which this is happening. It's then great to start hiring to remove yourself from the day-to-day of some of the roles.

The times my co-workers and I have fired ourselves

I first fired myself in a small way when Leo and I were fundraising after AngelPad demo day in the last 2 months of 2011. We needed to keep our traction going, so Tom had come on board as our first developer other than myself, and we also hired a contract marketer so that Leo could step back a little from the content marketing. It worked well: we continued to grow at a great pace and managed to secure $450,000 in funding from great investors.

A couple of months later, our support volume had grown quite high and Leo had been the one who decided to take it on so that Tom and I could continue building out the product. We soon realized that it was quite hard to manage, and that we wanted to do more than just manage customer support. Its now a core part of the vision of Buffer which is to be the simplest and most powerful social media tool, and to set the bar for great customer support. Thats when we started to grow our Happiness team and Leo gradually let go of support completely, to stay focused on Marketing, PR and Partnerships/BD.

Half way through 2012 while in Tel Aviv, we realized that Android was a huge potential area of growth and so I spent a couple of months learning Android and preparing a new version of our very minimal app which had thus far been developed by someone on a freelance basis. It was a real struggle to fit in learning Android as well as making progress on the actual app, alongside all my other tasks which were less maker and more manager. This is when I wrote my article about transitioning from a maker to a manager. Shortly afterwards Sunil joined the team as an Android hacker. He eventually fired himself from this role, too, and became our CTO.

In late 2012 and early 2013 we started to grow the engineering team further, and I began to code less and less. My key focuses were hiring, culture, investor relations and overall product and growth coordination. About 3 months into 2013 I decided to drop coding and become more focused on product. Stopping thinking so much about technical details helped me stay focused on the needs of the user.

Sunils role evolved a lot in the first half of 2013. Tom finished at Buffer early in the year (now doing great things with Sqwiggle which we use on a daily basis) and Sunil quickly switched over to Web and helped us grow a lot there. We then started looking for someone to take over Android so that he could focus on Web and eventually get into a position of overseeing all of technology at Buffer. In April we made him CTO and Carolyn became our CHO.

The most recent example of firing myself has been to step away from the day-to-day operations on the product side of things. Im still very much involved with setting the direction and being an editor of the product. I try to be one of the most active users of Buffer (I originally built it to solve a pain-point I experienced so this isnt hard) and I often spot things we need to adjust.

Stepping away from product has probably been the hardest example of this concept yet for me. I always viewed coding as a means to create something, but product itself is that creation itself. In December 2013 it hit me hard that by keeping hold of the role I was neglecting to think about the business as a whole, and I knew I needed to find someone to run it within the next few months.

I originally thought we might look for someone outside Buffer to help run product, then I chatted with our advisor Hiten and he planted the idea in my mind that I could ask people in the team to take over different parts of the role. I bounced the idea off Brian, our designer, and he immediately took to it. It only took him a week to be doing a better job of product than I ever was. Oh, and it probably comes as no surprise that were now looking for our 2nd designer.

When you do something yourself, youre not doing it well

Having thought about the concept of firing yourself further in the last few weeks, Ive come to a key realization: if youre doing something yourself as a founder of a post-product/market fit startup, youre probably not doing it well.

The way I see it is that if you are doing a task yourself alongside juggling all the other duties you naturally have as a founder, you have to make compromises. To put things into perspective, the areas weve identified as key tasks at Buffer currently are: Product (web and mobile), Engineering, Marketing, PR, Customer Support, Partnerships/BD, Admin, Growth, HR, Recruiting and Investor Relations. There are probably more, too. As CEO I have to have all these things in my head, and oversee half of them directly. As COO Leo oversees the other half.

With this much to think about, anything Leo and I are doing directly ourselves right now has to be done only partially. We both look for the 20% of the work which will get us 80% of the benefits, and cant do much more than that for everything were working on.

Therefore, as a founder, I think its important to approach firing yourself as a cycle, embrace it and enjoy letting go. You have to be happy to be an expert of nothing.

As an interesting final point, there might be another way to do this. Ive found it fascinating to read Rand Fishkin talk over the last year about the idea of a high-level Individual Contributor. A key piece on this was his article titled If Management is the Only Way Up, Were All Fd. I also found it fascinating that Rand recently stepped down as CEO of Moz and his role is now simply Individual Contributor. I love Rands idea of multiple ways to progress in a company.

Have you experienced your role evolve and the concept of firing yourself? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. I imagine I still have a lot more self-firing to do yet!

Photo credit: Xavier

What no one talks about when building a team: letting people go

One of the things I enjoy most about building a company is to focus on culture, and to think about how we can create a team which is a joy to be part of. A large part of this is creating a set of values and trying to gather people who feel at home amongst each other.

As part of this focus on culture, we have done quite a few things rather early at Buffer. We started to think seriously about culture when we were just 7 people and put our values into words shortly afterwards.

A realization my co-founder Leo and I had shortly after this was that if we truly want to focus on creating a great culture, it is inevitable that some people won’t work out and we would have to ask them to leave the company.

There is very little written on the subject of firing people, and it’s a hard thing to talk about, especially when you are still small. However, one of our highest cultural values is transparency, and for some time I have felt we were not being true to our values by not talking about this.

The journey to the current Buffer team

To put things in perspective here: Buffer is now a team of 13, and in the journey so far we’ve actually let 6 people go. For us, we’ve luckily never had financial struggles, all of these decisions were based around culture-fit. It’s hard work to hire people and even harder to fire people, so a team of 13 feels rather small for the efforts we’ve been through so far. At the same time, this team of 13 is a real privilege to be part of.

Hiring for skills vs hiring for culture

When I started Buffer, I had no real idea what culture is. We grew quite fast, and my intuition was to fill the gaps we had with the most skilled people I could find.

Once we reached 7 people, I started to see the importance of building a cohesive team that works well together and is a lot of fun to be part of. A large part of this is defining the culture and finding people who are a great fit for that culture. That’s when we put our culture into words and created our cultural values.

Once we had put our culture into words, that’s when we started to much more rigorously hire based on the values. In fact, it’s really hard to hire for culture-fit until you have your values in words:

“‘Cultural Fit’ is only a valid hiring criteria if you can accurately define your culture” - Chris Yeh

With our culture in place, we’ve evolved our hiring process and we focus a lot on the culture we have. This means finding people who are positive and happy, with a focus on self-improvement, who have gratitude, are humble and are comfortable with our extreme transparency. We have what we call a ‘Buffer Bootcamp’, essentially a 45 day contract period with 1:1 meetings for feedback at 2 weeks, 1 month and 45 days. A lot of this is to see whether Buffer is a good fit for the person joining the team.

With this more rigorous process, we found that some people didn’t fit the culture and letting people go was inevitable. Surprisingly, the very act of letting people go has shaped our culture more than anything:

"I think some of the core decisions that impact culture are who you let on the bus and who you make sure gets off the bus. The values that determine these decisions really shape your culture. Similarly, who gets rewarded and promoted within your company really shapes your culture. So, it’s the actual every day operating decisions that most shape your culture." - Dave Kashen

Culture is not about right or wrong

Although we’ve let 6 people go, these were all great people and they all did fantastic work. We just realized that they were not a perfect fit for our culture, so it made sense to part ways.

I would even go a step further and say that keeping people around who are not a great culture-fit is one of the worst things that could happen to someone. It has almost always been a mutual feeling when I had the conversation to let someone go: they felt some relief. I even have this quote on my wall to remind myself to think in this way:

"Waiting too long before acting is equally unfair to the people who need to get off the bus. For every minute you allow a person to continue holding a seat when you know that person will not make it in the end, youre stealing a portion of his life, time that he could spend finding a better place where he could flourish." - Jim Collins

Why letting people go is part of the process

I think firing someone is perhaps one of the hardest things you have to learn as a founder. Another key realization for me has been that letting people go is a continual part of growing a great team.

No matter how awesome our hiring process is, it’s inevitable that sometimes the person is not a great fit. Now that we have grown to 13 people and had to make tough team changes along the way, we’ve started to see a ratio emerge. We now know not to be surprised if about 1 in 4 people we hire doesn’t work out. It helps to know this possibility in advance.

"If you are super-scrupulous about your hiring process, you’ll still have maybe a 70% success rate of a new person really working out — if you’re lucky." - Marc Andreessen

This is probably one of the hardest areas of learning I’ve experienced as a CEO. I’ve spent a lot of the last 10 months thinking this through, reading as much as I could about it and getting lots of advice. We’re still at the very beginning, but it is comforting to have got to a point where this is a bit less scary.

Have you had to let people go while building your company? What do you think about the priority which should be placed on culture-fit? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

A special thanks to Leo, Carolyn, Belle and Sunil for reading drafts of this.

Photo credit: Katie Tegtmeyer

Questions I ask myself about working as distributed team

As a CEO I often ponder how I can help the team be as productive and happy as possible. As part of our decision to be a distributed team at Buffer, there have been a number of amazing advantages this has brought as well as it making a fun team to be part of due to the many different cultures and locations of team members. Recently I’ve seen quite a number of articles about remote working, and I’m excited so many are sharing their insights. I particularly enjoyed Wade Foster's article on how they manage a remote team at Zapier and wanted to share some insights into how we do things at Buffer.

The decision to be a distributed team

During the few months I spent focused on the decision of whether to commit to Buffer being a distributed team, I sought advice from many people. Some of the best advice I received was from David Cancel, who I had the chance to sit down with and chat over coffee. His key insight was that in his experience founding a number of companies so far, he has found that two scenarios work well, while one doesn’t work too well. He advised that we either be fully distributed, or have everyone in the same office. David said that the time he had a main office with the majority of people there and only one or two people working remotely, that didn’t work so well.

With this insight and further thinking I made the decision and we became a fully distributed team. We immediately hired a number of people working remotely to quickly balance out the team and ensure we were fully distributed rather than a team in one location with just one or two remote workers. This was an immediate benefit to us especially as a team focused on outstanding customer support, since we quickly covered all timezones.

The delicate nature of a distributed team

The interesting thing I’ve found with a distributed team is that I believe it is a very delicate balance to ensure that everyone who is away from the main base location feels just as much a part of the team. What you don’t want is to end up with a scenario with people feeling like “second class citizens” if they are not in the base where the office is. Jason Zimdars from 37signals put this in the best way I’ve heard:

There are no advantages for people who come into the office, no disadvantages to staying home to get your work done.

I think this a super important quality of a great distributed team, and it is one we consistently keep in mind and something which causes many of the questions and choices around our distributed team.

Questions often in my mind while we grow as a distributed team

As a result of these difficult and important choices to ensure a distributed team works well, I often have some interesting thoughts and questions in my mind which to some could seem petty, but which I believe are essential to get right in order to thrive as a distributed team. Some of these questions we now have a confident stance on, others are things which still linger in my mind. I believe being a distributed team and figuring out the best path is a journey which will last the lifetime of the company.

Is it appropriate to have a base location?

This is a question I spent quite a number of months pondering. During the time, we were traveling the world having been unable to get visas to stay in the U.S. (we have visas now).

In the end, we realized that there are advantages to having a base location, depending on what your startup does. For us, we are in the social media space and we are regularly doing integrations with other startups. It just so happened these startups and the big social networks were all mostly based in San Francisco or Silicon Valley. Proximity to them was a huge advantage in order to secure partnerships.

Is it right to have an office in the base location?

For some time, we avoided having an office at all. By early 2013 we had a team of 9 with 4 in San Francisco. Some felt less productive working from home and coffee shops than they would in an office. We spent a number of months sharing an office with the awesome Storify guys and the team grew a little more, too.

We also started to focus even more on culture, and the whole team started to love the fact that the Buffer way was rather different to the norm. Being part of Buffer felt unique and we wanted to embrace this further by having an office we could call our own. I think most distributed startups have an office: GitHub and 37signals come to mind as good examples.

Another key reason we got our own office is that while a large portion of the team are not in San Francisco, we are planning regular retreats to get the whole team in the same place. The first will be in a month’s time and will be in San Francisco so we needed a sizable office to work together for the 10 day retreat.

In person meetings or everything via HipChat, Hangouts and Email?

With an office, if team members are in San Francisco it can be easy to delay meetings until all team members are in the office. I thought a long time about this and bounced the dilemma off Leo too. The conclusion we came to is that we should always do the thing we can do immediately. If we need to quickly have a meeting and we’re not in the same place, we should jump onto a hangout, even if we are in the same city.

In a similar fashion, we try our best to have a real bias towards chatting on HipChat and sending each other emails even if we are sat across from each other in the same office. By doing this we are really embracing the goal of there being no advantage to being in the office, and it also allows other team members to jump in and share their ideas in discussions.

Should we celebrate getting an office, or keep quiet?

This has been one of the most interesting recent questions I’ve had in my mind. Clearly getting our own office is a big milestone and feels very appropriate now that we are beyond 10 people and we are on a revenue run rate of over $1.5m a year.

We don’t want to shout too much about the office when many team members are not in San Francisco, that didn’t feel too good. At the same time, it is an exciting point to reach with the company. We’ve tried our best to find the right balance with this, however I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have.

What perks are appropriate when you have a distributed team?

At Buffer we’ve had a lot of fun coming up with some perks which are individual to us. We believe that perks are not something you can take and apply to any company. Rather, they need to be an extension and enhancement to an already ingrained culture. With our culture of self improvement, one of our most interesting perks is that everyone in the team is gifted with a Jawbone UP and this triggers discussion around getting good sleep and being active.

Most technology companies pride themselves with perks such as free meals and snacks at the office, as well as ping pong tables and other ways to take a little time out and refresh. The most interesting thing I’ve noticed is that the perks are almost entirely focused around what is provided within an office. A nice exception that comes to mind is Evernote who provide all employees with house cleaning twice a month and also pay employees to take vacation.

At Buffer, our answer to this dilemma is that we try to focus on “everyone included” perks which are not tied to a physical office. We give everyone a Jawbone UP and a Kindle Paperwhite, and team members can get any Kindle book free of charge with no limits or questions asked. In the future I can imagine other “everyone included” perks such as free gym membership and house cleaning.

What if people want to move to San Francisco?

The final question I want to share is a very interesting one: how do you manage having the right balance of people away from your base location of San Francisco if everyone who joins finds that they want to relocate to San Francisco? This is something we’ve started to encounter which I never imagined could happen. So far Leo and I have moved to San Francisco, Carolyn is moving next month and Michelle has obtained a visa to move towards the end of the year. We’re working on a visa for Andy too, who has already visited many times.

Unless we figure out this issue, we will end up with an imbalance and too many people in San Francisco. Other team members will be more likely to feel “out of the loop” and “second class” to those in SF.

I don’t feel like I can force people to stay where they are. As the CEO of a company where we have chosen not to delay happiness, and with a journey so far where we have found a way to travel the world while growing the company 300% year over year, I think it is my duty to help people move wherever they will be happy, whether that is SF or elsewhere in the world. It just so happens that San Francisco seems to be one of the most attractive places to be in the world.

My answer to this one right now is to keep hiring outside the Bay Area. This seems to work well since it is very hard to find people in the Bay Area anyway!

This is a portion of the questions I’ve recently had on my mind and currently are topics I’m thinking about. I feel it is a huge privilege to be able to shape the company and grow a distributed team. I’d love to hear any experience or thoughts you have!

Photo credit: Steve Cadman

Why I'm going to Hawaii with my co-founder

My co-founder Leo and I are headed to Hawaii tomorrow morning for a 10 day trip. I just emailed the team, and I thought in line with one of our core values of defaulting to transparency, it might be an interesting message to share:

Hey everyone,
I think I’ve mentioned to most of you by now that Leo and I are leaving tomorrow for a short 10 day trip to Hawaii.
We find ourselves in a very fortunate position with a thriving business and some solid relationships. At a time like this, Leo and I felt it would be wise to take a little time slightly “off the grid” and ask ourselves the questions “where do we want to take this now?”, “what do we all want to spend our precious time doing, and how can we ensure we’re happy and inspired?” and “how can we really move the needle as we continue on in 2013?”. It is a real pleasure that we can even be at a point to consider these questions.
I am extremely thankful to be able to work with such an amazing group of people, all so aligned with the culture and excited about the product. I crave and enjoy every day working with you all. A lot of what Leo and I will ponder will be just as much to do with culture as to do with product direction, and for me personally this is what makes me jump out of bed every day. I think we have an opportunity here to really push the boundaries in terms of what an outstanding, empowering and supportive culture can be. We can primarily help ourselves and Buffer move forward at an incredible pace, and as a side effect we might attract some interest in the way we do things and be able to impact and help other companies too.
Super excited to report back on what we come up with!
P.S. Leo and I will still be very much active in Hip Chat and I’ll be keeping Trello updated :)

Photo credit: MattW