*This is a guest post by Teresa Hammerl*
During the fireside chat people were able to ask questions (on sli.do and face to face) about the $60m startup, the no-managers culture at Buffer or how to stay transparent while growing your business. The fireside chat was moderated by Thomas Schranz (Blossom.io). After the offical part Leo answered even more questions (yes, there were A LOT of them). He also brought some Buffer stickers and shirts all the way from San Francisco.
Let’s start with one extra question we asked Leo the day after the fireside chat took place:
Buffer makes money by awesome people paying for the Buffer paid plans to better manage their Social Media accounts. The most popular subscription is the Buffer Awesome plan at $10/mo together with the Buffer Business plans starting at $50/mo. Together they make up the total revenue Buffer generates.
Here’s where the fireside chat started:
We are a social media management tool. We help people to publish, schedule and analyze their posts when they post to social media. To Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+. We help individuals to do that, we help companies do that.
Where are we now? We’re about 30 people across the globe. We’ve just recently closed a funding round. The company has validation at around $60m dollars. That’s a short overview.
At the very beginning of Buffer I was more like the intern. So I started as the intern at Buffer at almost exactly 4 years ago. I was going to university in the UK. It was a business school. I went to school there, I was a first year student, second, third semester and I was trying to do stuff like build a startup, build different products. Whenever you go to college, whenever you go to university there’s ideas that are all about doing stuff.
I wanted to build this feedback system to give feedback to your professor. I felt like there wasn’t enough of that. That sort of didn’t work out but I had a great mentor at that time and that mentor was Joel Gascoigne. He helped me and he was building another product at that time called OnePage. He was helpful whenever I was trying to get my own projects off the ground and I was always asking for help. How does this look? How can I work on this? How can I build this. I’m not technical, I hacked things together with WordPress and stuff.
Joel himself was building this thing on the side called Buffer. It was actually spelled with Bffr at the beginning. So it was like a completely different spelling. We were chatting on Skype one day and I was probably asking for help on some stuff I was working on. And then I was like “How is it going on your side” as I remember he was trying to build this side project Buffer and he said: Buffer is going great, I’ve launched it last month. We have 100 users now and 3 of them are paying.
And he said: I’m so excited. This is the first time I’ve made any money on the internet. Like 15 dollars. You know what? I think this is working. I think Buffer is working. I think I should do some marketing.
Joel is technical, great engineer and I said: Wait a second, I think you need to build some stuff, maybe I can help you on the marketing. I got involved in that. Sending some tweets and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was 19, 20 years old at that time. Over time I got lucky and it started to work.
It started to do better and better and I was able to pull in some new users through the so many things that I’ve done. Through writing blog posts, doing content marketing, getting PR and over time Joel was kind enough to invite me on board full time. That was really amazing.
I wrote blog posts and articles all day long. I wrote for different publications. The Next Web and Mashable, later on for Time Magazine. That was really my role. Marketing, trying to get new users, go and get more costumers and it also turned into doing PR. We have a new feature: lets make TechCrunch write about us!
Over time I moved more to doing a lot of hiring, a lot of leading some smaller teams, helping the marketing team, also working in product teams. Doing customer development.
Then I started to be more in a managerial role and then very recently we removed all managers again in the company. So I’m no longer managing anybody and I’m doing my own thing again. I’m actually not quite sure yet what I’m gonna focus again now. I’m trying to use Christmas to think about it. But I’m excited about working on product development, customer development. So possibly building a new product that compliments Buffer.
Also I came back to writing and content marketing. So the last two weeks I started to write more again. I started to do more blogging. I think that’s something I am very passionate about as well.
Yeah. My salary is 163 000 Dollars a year. Our revenues last month at Buffer were 420 000 Dollars. We publish everyone’s personal salary online. We publish our revenues online. When you pay for a subscription for Buffer we have 10 Dollar subscription, 6 Dollars of that 10 Dollars goes to salaries. One dollar goes to hosting and we actually break that down completely. So transparency is a key part of our culture where we try to put everything out there. And the reason why we put everything out there is actually very simple.
The reason we make things transparent is we think it’s the right thing to do. There’s no benefit, we don’t do it to get press. We don’t do it to get people to join our company, to sign up for Buffer. We don’t do it for anything. We just think the best possible way we can develop ourselves as people is by making the company as transparent as possible. There were some amazing side effects of what we started to do.
When we published all salaries online I think in that month we had 4000 people wanted to work for Buffer. People were saying I know more about your company than about the company I’m working for right now. What really happens when you are that transparent is that we build trust. Hey, I’m telling you all the things about me already! You know how much money I make, you know how much money the company makes, you know where your money goes when you spend money with us. So I’ve not told you anything about me, but I know everything about you already. This makes me feel like I can trust you. This guy doesn’t want to hide anything. This company doesn’t want to hide anything.
We also focus on a lot of other values within the company. One of them being happiness and positivity.
There’s 24 hours in a day. 8 hours you sleep or you’re supposed to sleep and then probably another 8 hours that you work. So out of your waking hours there’s 50% that you spend at work or at your job. And not making that the most fun and enjoyable environment didn’t make sense. So we said “Hey, let’s try to do everything that we can do!”. One of the things we do for example is we pay people to go on vacation. The reason is the more fun you have the more you enjoy your work, the more rest you get, the more we believe you do great work.
You can look at our culture online.
The idea is we wanna build a great company, we wanna do great things, but we also wanna proof ourselves as people. We wanna be a better person when we wake up tomorrow and because we work at a place for 8 hours a company is the best place to help you do that. A lot of times we do those things to proof ourselves outside of work. We go home and then we spend an hour or two hours at the end of the day when we are already tired to read up on things and do better and maybe learn new things. It sort of didn’t make that much sense to us.
So we tried to build a lot of that things right into the culture and the workplace as well.
For example every email we publish within the company gets cc’d to a list. So any email I send to you when we are working together anyone else in the company sees as well. Everyone knows everything that’s going on in the company. But that brings you need to digest a lot of information every day. So a lot of things that you don’t work on you read and you see and you need to go through. So there is all of a sudden all this information available to you. Not just the emails. Everyone can see our bank balance within the company. You can see all our legal documents. Sometimes you feel overwhelmed. So the idea is that not to hide some of these things but to put it out of people’s faces.
Transparency is about when you want to see something then you have the chance to look it up. So this is one of the things that we found.
We were very lucky on two things on regards to that.
The first one is that our investors are great investors. They cheer us on and they have great thoughts for us.
The second thing we’ve been lucky about is the only control over the company lies with Joel and myself. So our investors don’t have any say in any of the decision making within the company. We do have a board. The board is just Joel and myself. It’s actually funny because sometimes we get emails saying this probably need board approval. And we are like “Yeah, the board approves it.”.
Reading a lot of emails. We go through all of them manually. Almost the whole company is involved in the hiring process.
It’s making a lot of decisions. Often a lot tough decisions because you need to turn a lot of amazing people away. We are actually in the middle of exploring whether we can help other startups that want more people and need great candidates that we can’t take but we feel like “Hey, we have to turn you away but we still think you are amazing. Here are five other great companies that I think you might wanna look at!”.
We could actually. But we don’t right now.
There’s this great book Joel discovered. It’s called Reinventing Organizations. I can highly recommend it. Generally we think about companies not as organisms but as machines. So we say this the machine and there is the boss that needs to motivate people and pull the leader. The book says we use all these analogies like put your foot on the gas and move the needle. That’s how you operate a car. But a company is not really a car. It’s made up of people. We hire from all over the world. So people can join us from wherever they are. They can work from wherever they want to work from.
Why should we tell people where they need to work from? When we grow up and go to school, go to collage we all work differently. Some people go to libraries study, some people work from home, some people do study groups and then all of a sudden everyone needs to go into one room and sit at one desk. So this didn’t make sense to us.
We said: “Why don’t you just work from where you wanna work from?” There are people who work from Taipei, they work from Australia, they work from South Africa, they work from places in Europe, they work in the US, they work in South America. You find a place where you enjoy working from, from a coffee shop, from at home, from a coworking space like this awesome space and you do great work.
That’s kind of how we started and the way it actually started is that Joel and myself were actually a little bit lucky. We were in the US, we raised some money, we raised about half a million dollars from investors there and then two days after the round closeup where the money got to our company’s bank accounts our visas expired. And then the US didn’t want to give us any new visas. So with this bunch of money we left and ran out of the country. And we said like “Hey ok, we gonna go, where we gonna go”. We didn’t really wanna go back to where we grew up, we wanted to travel the world. So we went to Hong Kong. We lived in Hong Kong for a while and then we moved to Israel – to Tel Aviv. I lived there for a while. And what was interesting all that time Buffer was growing we needed more people and realized that we can’t move people around to Hong Kong, Israel… So we said: Why don’t you just work from wherever you wanna work and we’ll work things out with you.
That’s how this distributed team came about.
I think this brought a lot of energy. People can work at home with their family. They can see their kids more.
There were some changes from the beginning but they didn’t change that much. So I sometimes feel like my story is a little bit boring because I’m almost like this lucky punch.
So a pivot from product perspective we didn’t have that. We did social media management just for Twitter at the very beginning. Now we do it for multiple networks. We made one change where we were focused on costumers. We wanted to be like Evernote. So many people use Evernote and Evernote is kind of saying “we have millions of users” and lots of people paying and we wanted to have that as well. Just $10 a month.
What we found is that actually, for Buffer, the value increases for large companies where they have like 10 people managing their social accounts. We can help them, we can simplify things. That was one discovery that we had.
We called it the quiet pivot. Which I thought is a great fitting name for it.
Normally in an office, if I would work with Thomas, I tap him on the shoulder and say “Hey, here’s what’s up”. And now we are like both in it. With a distributed team you have to send an email and then five hours later someone wakes up and reads it and then acts on it without you being present. So in general that is the structure a lot of time things tend to actually not linger that long and especially if people are excited to work on something they jump on things when they find them in their inbox.
We also have regular sync ups, we have meetings, we use this great software called Sqwiggle. It takes screenshots of your face every minute and you can have this place of people and you can see everyone online. It’s almost like a true virtual office and you can click on people, just chatting with them and these sync ups give us the feeling everyone is online right now.
There is always some overlap as well. So we might schedule our sync ups if we wanna chat, if we wanna brainstorm in your evening and my morning. Maybe I have to get up a little bit earlier and chat with you and you might stay online an hour later. And maybe you start work later and finish work later. And that’s kind of the beauty.
You can make up your own time and there is no one looking over your shoulder. We trust you that you enjoy what you do.
So that is kind of how we solve the timezone issue.
There are some moments where you feel everyone needs to be together. That’s very rare. I would say like once every six months. We do try and get a Google Hangout going where we try to get as many people on the call because we need it but those things are actually rare.
Work life balance: So we have a number of other things that help us. So if you are by yourself all day, don’t see anyone, maybe you work from home it kind of can feel like “hey, there’s no one around me”. So what we do is everyone in the company is paired with one other person every day for one week. And you chat with them for about 20, 30 minutes and you talk about what are you working on and what’s your personal improvement for that week or for that month or whatever timeframe you pick.
So every week you have different people. You get to know the whole company and you get to know them more in depth. Because we can’t take the whole company for one evening to go and grab a beer together.
We do another thing. Once a week you are paired up with one person and you chat with that person. You talk about your achievements for the week, you talk about your challenges for the week. And you give each other feedback. And that’s another great opportunity to support the social needs that we all have.
And the third thing that we do is that we do retreats. So about every five months we meet together. The whole company in one place in the world. So it sort of doesn’t matter where in the world because it’s far for someone and close for someone else. So for example we had the last one in New York, the one before was in Cape Town, South Africa, the next one is gonna be in Australia end of January. We had one in Thailand, we had one in San Francisco. So we meet for ten days and we all work together and we sort of try to bond. That’s the time where we get to hang out and people are able to go a bar, do some sightseeing together, go to the beach together and we really get to know each other. That’s actually really important for us.
I used to be always very scared of that question. The reason is: I don’t know the answer. We recently changed the company a lot. The company is completely self managing and because of that I no longer have the power to tell anyone what to work on. I cannot say you work on this feature now!
Which makes this question much more enjoyable to answer for me is: I don’t know!
It’s gonna be something cool.
The short answer is: You don’t control. And you don’t manage. One of the things I find fascinating is that every day all of us make big decisions. We decide where we gonna live. We decide you we gonna marry. But then people work into companies and then they can’t make any decisions. No. People can make decisions. People are smart. People are gonna talk with each other.
So we believe it doesn’t need to be managed. People are smart enough to start manage themselves. To be smart enough to look around. On what is everyone else working in the company? Where can I join? Maybe I can start something new and get other people to join me.
So right before I came here I was working on this. I was working on what is our feedback system going to look like because now you don’t have a boss but as humans we still wanna know how well we’re doing.
I don’t know if you’ve heard about this room. You sit in this room and it’s completely soundproof. So you hear nothing. There is no kind of like actual acoustic feedback. And apparently the longest a person has ever managed to sit in this room is 45 minutes. Because people go crazy. They don’t hear any noises. They feel like what’s going on. And it’s kind of similar to that in companies. If you never hear how you are doing. No one ever tells you if you are doing good, if you getting proof. If no one ever tells you that you are sort of good you go mad.
What we plan on doing is that we have a feedback process that is peer to peer. If I’m working together on a project with Allan. So for example we doing both customer support and we say Allan is doing 10 tickets a day, I’m gonna do 10 tickets a day. And then two weeks in I’ve only done one ticket a day. And then Allan will say “Hey dude, what’s up? You’ve only done one ticket.”. He’s gonna try and help me understand that I need to do my 10 tickets.
What’s really important with that feedback process that we’ve learned is to create a safe environment. To not negatively criticize people or blame people or hurt people. But say “Hey, is there something going on in your life that I should know about? I’m sure you want to do the 10 tickets. Maybe there is something I can do.”. Creating a safe space is actually the biggest challenge to give each other feedback. So Allan can’t fire me, he just wants to help me. Learning which words to use is really important. Telling someone you suck at your work or there is a thing you did yesterday, I feel there is a small thing you could change. That is a huge difference.
I’m been going through a phase of kind of exploring this idea of growth. It’s been fascinating. At the very beginning of Buffer I was that kid that dropped out of college and I thought I gonna grow this and this will be huge. And every day I will wake up and see how much money we made. Grow bigger, get more customers, page views.
And with change of the company structure that the company is self managed everything came about. So I thought to myself: Why grow?
Why every day wake up and try to get more money and make it bigger and bigger? So the question is: Where does it stop?
What we really wanna do is live the best lifes we can. Do the best we can to everyone around us.
So what if I start my day with thinking about how can I make this product better? How can I solve this problem better? Simply through that growth is gonna happen as a side effect.
— sektor5 (@sektorfuenf) December 22, 2014
— Andreas Klinger (@andreasklinger) December 22, 2014
Pictures: Teresa Hammerl
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