Co-founder & CEO | Buffer
“It is my belief that working to develop a great remote working culture is an investment that will pay dividends for decades to come.” – http://joel.is/
Joel’s video greeting:
Dialogue Amir Salihefendic (Founder & CEO Doist) and Joel Gascoigne Co-Founder & CEO buffer
Theme: Why Buffer Chose To build Remote-First: Joel Gascoigne
This is going to be awesome.
I met Joel a year ago in Barcelona. He visited me for like a week and I just had a time to pick his brain and learn a lot of stuff from him. Actually like all the years I have known Joel by following on Twitter and just like following his blog.
I think like he’s one of the most knowledgeable remote working leaders. I can really go in deep and actually do like a more advanced talk on remote work. Especially regarding like scaling and issues that you did you taste. Also I mean you have been at this like for many years so there’s also a ton of experience. Also like something I really admire about Buffer and Joe is like the challenge the status quo and the experiment. So he has probably tried most of the stuff that you want to do.
I’m really excited to be here. It’s an amazing setting for this and I’ve learned a lot already in the last day and today. Thanks everyone for traveling from all over and things. So let’s get going. I’m really excited so we will cover different topics.
We have tried to like kind of section this it into like different topics. So it’s not like all over the place. So one of the topics is transparency and Bhava is like radical transparent another is like advantages/disadvantages team culture and workflows and how they have actually advanced over this during the years. Another thing is balance and mental issues. Which I think actually becomes problem as you grow and especially as you work a lot of years in remote work setting.
Also, the future both for like Buffer but like remote work it self. So let’s kick it off like with transparency. So one of the stuff is that Bopha is like ultra transparent. So you can actually see the revenues they make like 80 million per year.
I know that Joel makes like 250,000 per year and you can actually see the salaries of all his people. I need to speak with my finance team because. I need a race. Then they also share all the financial information on like bear metrics.
Everything’s there churn rates customer acquisition revenue all the margins of things.
I mean it sounds pretty insane. Especially like I think internally maybe but like publicly. It’s kind of very strange. So I would actually love to know the story of transparency. Also like how it relates remote setting. Something that you would actually recommend others.
That’s a great one to start with so in terms of a little bit of the history of Transparency at Buffer. So I had a previous startup. I worked on for about a year and a half before Buffer. During that time and also the start of buffer. I really didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know anything really. I just graduated from University in the UK. It was really just a nobody very naïve. I went out and just started talking to people and trying to learn as much as I could.
Soak up the knowledge from others. I just found that. If I would go there and share everything and then I would really get so much more value back um you know. As soon as I opened up they would open up and share their numbers share their learning’s and so that was one of the key things.
I think near the beginning for Transparency and then I was also quite early on Twitter. After graduating from University went back to my hometown Sheffield in the UK. So me and Dom from three nearby places up in the north and there’s really were at that time. It was 2009-2010 absolutely nothing going on for tech startups in that area of the country. So I started going on Twitter and just started sharing a lot of okay this is an article. I’ve read it’s been useful this something we’ve tried.
It worked this something we tried. It didn’t work and again the more. I shared the more. I found that people would become connected and I would meet people that way and I started from network that way. I started a small meet up for technology founders in Sheffield. We had one going in Manchester as well at the time. It really just developed from there and then so by the time starting Buffer. I was already sharing these things on Twitter.
Meeting people that way and it been really the foundation of me building. This network and getting so much value and just felt natural to carry. It forward and then started Buffer and me and my CO-founder Leo. We were talking about you know the numbers a lot and at that point very casually sharing things on Twitter.
We were just and it would always be like this next stage of oh should. We share the revenue that’s seems. I have not seen anyone do that should we do that like but why shouldn’t. We do that not seen why not like what’s really gonna happen. I think there was like a series of those things where.
He said okay let’s try it and then kind of think okay the world’s probably gonna end. When we do this and then and then we shared the numbers and nothing happens and a lot of great things happened as well.
I think it’s one of those things where it’s really easy to think about all the things that can go wrong. All the risks really easy to think about competition. Although our salaries are public you can Google Buffer salaries. We’ve got a spreadsheet and everything’s there. The formula for how we calculate salaries is also public people would say well now.
I know how much everyone makes in your team. I can go and offer them five thousand dollars more. They’ll come to my team and then you know that didn’t happen. So that’s been those things and then about two and a half years into the company we decided, we really need, we should set down our values.
At least articulate the values right because every company has a culture whether. You’re delivered about it or not and so he said let’s try and put these into words and by that point. It was very clear. We asked the team we’re about ten people at the time what should we you know? What would the values be if you would describe the culture and the values right now? How would you describe them and transparency was an obvious one we were already doing it.
It was very natural to us and we decided to phrase. It as default to transparency and that really pushed us to that kind of more of the extreme. We just tried to flip it around and say by default. it’s transparent unless there’s a really good reason not to be. We’ve pushed that limit a few times. We found some things that are good reasons not to be and pull those back. But we really try and push those boundaries there. So after we put those values into words that was when we published salary numbers and equity formula and numbers as well and then we a couple of years later. We were in touch with Bayer metrics which is this SAS analytics kind of dashboard.
It’s mainly for internal use but we got chatting with them and they said how about if as a demo of our product. We made your metrics fully open for anyone. So you can go to buffer bear metrics com and see basically their whole product with our numbers in them. It’s you know meaningful real product numbers.
So things like that there’s just more and more things and we’ve just found it’s been incredible for many different things within the team. Also for hiring and people we have people look interview a buffer and sometimes they come and say I know more about your company than the company. I’m currently working on and so there’s been many benefits. I think in terms of the way relates to a remote.
As well I think when you’re working remotely and we’ve been doing it for about seven and a half eight years. The technologies include improved drastically we started on skype and videos are dropping out all the time. Then we move to hangouts it’s a bit better zoom is incredible now.
But in that technology is improving all the time to make it even easier. But in some ways things are against you a little bit. It’s not the way that’s not the way. It’s being done and things. It’s not what people know and I think it’s much easier never more environment to not have the information you need. You can’t be an office going tap on someone’s shoulder and say what’s this number that I need for this thing.
So that’s been a key benefit. We’ve seen as well of transparency within the team. It really democratizes that decision-making and that power everyone has that information. It’s you can go and find it. So actually something that I think is very interesting is like most of the remote companies are very transparent like induced the only thing. That isn’t public internally for people are the salaries everything else. Like we have two private channels and they are labels like finances and salaries and everything else like leadership discussions everything is public and like maybe.
I think like remote setting actually pushes you to do that and also like it builds trust. So people can trust you more. I just find it fascinating is actually like. It’s not something that we have actually designed. It’s just like something that you evolve into and in some ways maybe remote kind of pulls. It out of you have you really have to start to be more transparent to make remote work in many ways and obviously. There’s different levels you can go to. I’m not suggesting everyone here every company should go out and publish all the salaries of every team member.
But there’s definitely small steps you can take and as almost you know inevitable. Those steps you take are gonna make improvements. So the next topic that’s very related to this and actually like.
We did this like two weeks ago. It’s like salaries and salary formula and especially in a remote setting. I think it’s currently very hot and it’s there’s like many different views of how you should pay remote workers. I would actually love to hear how you evolve your salary form and actually some of the incredible things is that.
It has been done in a public fashion which is usually not the case. We’ve had multiple versions of our salary formula and the whole idea is to have a fully transparent formula for as. It happens to be transparent within the team and public as well. It was transparent internally for about eight months before we made it public.
So definitely good to go through that step but we every version is out. There we’ve got multiple different blog posts about the different versions. Initially it was very basic. We were only about 10 to 15 people at the time and one thing. I would say with the having a salary formulas it’s never gonna be perfect. You’re always gonna have to evolve it. I don’t even know if a formula is necessarily right mechanism but for as it’s something that works.
When you’re 15 people the types of roles the depth that those roles go to. It’s gonna be very different than when you’re you know even 30 people you start adding new different roles in.
So then you’ve got to redesign the system. I think for us it started very basic. So there’s some kind of obvious components for us around role experience level and seniority in the team. Then location is another key factor for us.
Location has been a very interesting one for us as a remote company. I think there’s that whole debate of do you pay based on the local market rates or do you pay something more. We had some people that have been commenting on our blog posts and things over the years saying well are they providing the same value to the no matter where they are.
So shouldn’t you pay them the same. This is a really interesting topic for us one thing. We have found which. It’s been really inspiring really fun for us to be able to move the needle on is that. We are paying some of our team members in we’ve got people someone in Sri Lanka someone in Paraguay. We have people in Cape Town and things and some of these like lower cost of living places often places Sri Lanka.
I think one of the amazing benefits of whom were working that found is that we generally pay quite a bit above market for those areas. Because we don’t want that to be such a huge gap in the team and then by doing that. We found that person. Actually you other people benefits of him at working. They can travel while they work they can maybe spend more time with family and for this person. He doesn’t have to leave his country which is his home. When he loves and in order to try and to go make a decent living and then send money back and not be able to be with his family. So things like that have been amazing as well.
So that’s for us. I think the direction we’re going to think about the next 5-10 years. When you have a fully remote company really location agnostic and probably is moving towards that those the gap. They’re becoming reduced at least for us. I think that’s the direction that we are going and when you’re early it may be harder to pay above market things like that.
So another thing for us is because we have the salary formula and we pay above market. We really have no negotiation because the formula is there we can’t what can we do like. it’s there but the great thing is that the way that negotiation happens a little bit is the people question the formula.
That’s great because it’s fully open. So you can bring that up and share that feedback you can share it anonymously. You can share it individually with us. Then we’ve made a lot of changes based on that. So awesome actually we got really inspired by the recent update. So I can definitely recommend to check it out. This is the salad form like if you want to streamline your salaries and make them like more fair.
I think it’s a great like a starting point and something that’s very related to like salaries and something that we also have discussed a lot internally. I don’t like for you. It’s probably more problematic given that everything is public. it’s basically like how do you promote people. I think especially you know this is something that we could discuss. But if we won’t do It. It’s like if we actually look at a skill level and contribution level inside organizations.
I think actually it’s like not normalized. So it’s like poor alone. So you have like some people that are really amazing and contributed a lot and then you have some people that just contribute a bit. It’s just like the fact. I think so. I would actually love how this works inside Buffer and how you actually think about this.
It’s a good question because I think one of the you know we try and make the salary formula very objective. It’s just there. It’s factual and there’s different locations. We try and base it off numbers for the living costs of each place and things like that. But the kind of experience level and you know what your role is in seniority of you all is. It’s why the one key aspect that is obviously subjective and based on the manager deciding. They hitting that next level and they ready Pro promotion for us.
I think the key evolution in that was we’ve had to become a lot more explicit about what level are you and what does it take to get to the next level. So we’ve developed a lot of career frameworks across the different teams in the engineering team. We have a career framework. We have a career framework in our customer advocacy team. One thing we had to do which an evolution from the first version of our formula. The first version really just had a few different brackets of what experience you are: beginner intermediate, advanced.
That kind of thing and we really had to develop a lot more granularity in those levels and a lot more detail of what it means. If you are hitting it or not hitting that level what the different factors that are involved. I think that’s been the key thing for us in terms of the power law you mentioned. I think I guess that could be said to be true is that you know. Some people may have a much out sized contribution and how do you handle that.
I think again with the different levels you have far as those levels basically translate into multipliers in the salary first. So you could really if depending on the approach you have at your company. If you say okay the biggest country would just have much outsized kind of contribution. You could say well that’s like a 2x multiply over the other people or that kind of thing first.
It’s a bit more of a regular kind of gradient there. So we will switch topics just like briefly and discussed like advantages and disadvantages. Maybe like focus more on the disadvantages and how you handle them. So what do you think is like the biggest disadvantage especially like over the long haul for remote work? What things and solutions do you see we can apply?
I think I’ll take a couple of the disadvantages and dig into those so probably one is on a personal level and for all the team members. I think for us so just a bit of context where seventy-five people and we have no office and even in the biggest like hub cities. I think the most people we have is maybe three or four people even in places like New York and London things.
So there’s really not too much social interaction and that leads to loneliness. It’s a big challenge. I think in a remote company there’s a whole new thing. We don’t have to really deal with before in workplace settings. So that’s been something. We’ve focused quite a lot on over time and try to make a lot of efforts towards that and a lot of it is that you have to be deliberate in a remote setting to have a kind of water-cooler fun spontaneous conversations.
Get to know each other on a personal level. It’s very easy in a company. You’ll know this to have meeting set up for specific. You know bits of work that you’re trying to get done and have no time at all. Because you go into that meeting and it’s set up. It has an you know and a lot of people talk about you couldn’t make sure you have a very clear agenda and have a lot of discipline around the meeting otherwise.
It’s not productive as well I think. It all moves towards like everything has a purpose um you don’t have time to just you know kick things around talk about things. So we’ve developed we have something every Friday. We have I think larva from Github was mentioning similar thing. oh I’m not sure if I’m remembering correctly. But we have what we call impromptu hour.
It’s basically on an open zoom call people jump in and they can just say what’s going on what they was there weekend plans. What are they up to and we have those conversations and a really cool zoom feature that. I’m not sure if you might be aware we’ve discovered recently is and we do that all hands-on zoom as well. So if 75 people all individually dialing in to zoom but you can also do breakout rooms. It’s a feature of zoom where you can with one click of a button say.
Group discussion for remote employees
We want to have everyone split into separate video meetings five people per room and it just immediately splits them off and you can have it so split off and then come back. Sometimes we’ll be you know having. All Hands discussing a particular topic one I’d want to go off and you know. It’s kind of like when you’re in a big room and you have multiple different tables and you say okay tables gonna discuss it and then one person’s gonna come back and talk about it.
So that’s being good as well and I found one thing. I’m an introvert I found the impromptu hours. Were growing and then it got to the point where okay now. It’s a video call of 50 people. I don’t want to be the one to just share my weekend with 49 other people. So the zoom rooms has been really useful for that. We also recently have started to work with a company called joy Abel and they are connecting for everyone.
That is interested in the team and quite a lot of people have taken was up on this. They’ll connect each team member with a qualified therapist and we are providing that as a benefit. So that’s a good idea is I think it’s been really great a lot of people have done it. I think it’s one of those things that you know in different countries is different. It might be more normal it might be a bit of a stigma around.
It but when you make it easy for people and you say here’s. It is here the steps just sign up and I make it really easy and people do it. It’s been really beneficial people. I think another thing as well that we really try to have managers in the team will make sure to have these conversations with team members as well and say how’s it going and trying have a very open communication, open culture around.
That and honestly that comes from it doesn’t work unless the managers do it as well and comes from leaders setting that example. So um you know last year I was struggling and I’ve been working on buffer for almost seven years. At that point hadn’t taken too many breaks completely burned out um.
I was really just don’t struggle and I felt like wow okay. I’m not functioning – well now. I’m not being very productive um. So I basically sent a message to the team and said I’m actually gonna take some time off. I am burnt out and i need to take some time off.
I send that to the whole company and I ended up taking two months off. I was very energized and I came back excited again and burnout. It’s a funny thing because I knew I was still excited passionate about the company the idea everything and the potential of it. But when you burned out you just have no motivation. I just I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to do it when I woke up in the morning. So yeah and I think that was really helpful for the team.
So that’s hard as Leaders. I think you know the image that’s portrayed. You have to you’re superhuman you’ve got the Elon Musk’s and the Jack Dorsey’s you know to public companies no problem superhuman no emotion. But I think that’s a false image and have to break through that I’m especially going forward.
So yeah actually like that could be a great next topic is basic like the balance element and like mental health. Because actually like once you have been into this environment for many years that is going to become an issue. Actually that’s also something that we have seen in duyst is like people like are experiencing exile and anxiety and depression and loneliness isolation.
I think actually did something that we probably need to acknowledge that this is actually a problem in a remote work setting. We need to actually work actively to figure out like how do we actually combat this. I have like myself been into this loop early on in my career. I think it’s very easy to make like very brutal rituals or like daily patterns and just you go in a spiral. Then it just got becomes worse obverse and like you end up you know crawling.
So I would actually love to discuss like how you actually handle these and I think like if you go for 10 years in a remote setting like. You have this at some point like and how do you handle this like on a team level and on a personal level. I think one of the things we’ve done is to make sure everyone’s taking time off and that’s not always that easy. Maybe some of you also have one thing we did is we have a limited vacation.
I can’t have a concept and we found and this has been talked about in the last few years. I think people found like well actually when you put that in place people take less time off because now they don’t want to be the one asking for it um.
It’s easier when you have set number of days off to say okay. I’m going to use those days but we changed. It about a year and a half ago and we changed it from a limited vacation to minimum vacation. I am idealistic I like to change things and question things. I really didn’t want to go to a regular. Here’s your you know however many weeks off.
So I didn’t want to let go of that upper limit. But I acknowledge that we did have a bit of a problem there. So now it’s a minimum our time and the people team in the company is actually checking in with individuals. At certain points throughout the year and saying you’ve not taken much time off yet.
Do you have something planned and that’s been really effective for us. I think that’s really important yeah. I would actually love to hear like. How you think about scaling Botha like? What are the actual limits of remote work? Do you actually have like upper limits or like?
I think like. I love like. I mean if we look at the companies like Basecamp they have based like kept their employee limit to 50. Because they don’t want to deal about scaling the company and even like do. Is like we have actually a hiring freeze right now and we had like four six months because we don’t want to add a ton of people.
So I would actually love to hear how you think about this. It’s a good question you know how far do we want to scale it and will it work to continue to scale is these?
All good questions. I think for me I don’t really set an upper limit on how far. Because I think. I’ve been through enough times now of thinking. It’ll be crazy when we’re 20 people. I mean when I started in my bedroom in Birmingham in the UK I thought wow. If I could at the time I had two clients. I was working full time doing web development work for them.
I thought wow if I could even you know work. If I could just do half my time doing web development and have this thing working on the side. That would be great and then. I was like well if I could work full time on this project. They’ll be incredible so anything you go through enough of those stages and you think. I can never imagine being 30 or being 50 you’re being 70 and you start to realize like.
Actually when you get to the fire point just before that point that you think about a very different way. So I don’t really set an upper limit but. I will say that the pace at which you grow makes a huge difference. We grew from about 30 people to 94 people in about a year and a half. This was a couple of years ago and it really a lot of things broke and it was very difficult.
We’ve got you know where we were in a position where half over half the team were within the first six months or a year. In the company teams didn’t work well. I think there’s a huge difference between growing from you 25 to 100 in one year versus going from 25 to 100 in three years or five years.
I think for at least for me. When you’re doing challenging the existing models and you’re trying to say what is a better future. Let’s not work based on the concepts of the Industrial. Age and you have to work on your product. For your customers you have to work on your culture as well and your work environment and there’s just too much to say keep piling on extra problems. On top without making sure that you have a solid foundation they keep building on to.
So that’s just my personal preference. I know others love that right of just grow and like try and bring in people to fix phones. I mean it is broken all the time even anyway but for me that’s me. I’ve learned as I wanted to kind of pace it. But I don’t see any limit because I think as long as we get that pace right then we can keep adapting and make sure.
It feels great one of the key measures for myself is if I project myself forward two years do. I think I’m gonna wake up and hate this place. I hate doing this work and I have had that feeling a couple of times along the way. That’s the point when you have to make some changes and sail. It let’s throw some things out and put some new things in place and make some big changes and things.
I think that’s really the key way do you think. There is like upper limit of like fully distributed teams like a remote. First all around the world I don’t think so. I think so much has changed in ten years 20 years.
That you can’t even say what will be the case in ten years from now. Even five years from now so the technology is adapting so quickly that I do. Personally believe that like remote working is the future. It’s the way it’s gonna be more of the norm at some point. I think it’s gonna take a lot longer than people might think.
You know five years ago people were saying like in five years everyone will be doing this and here we are and we’re 250 people. So I think it’s taking quite a bit longer. Than people might. But I still fundamentally believe that it is gonna be a much more effective way to do things in the future. I think the technology is enabling us even.
If we are in an office to work more effectively together using remote methods in an office. So I think like I don’t see any upper limit to it and the technology’s gonna keep getting much better cameras are gonna get more wide-angle. I’m excited I mean some of these things feel like buzz words VR and 360 and things like that.
But for us you know we do a retreat once a year and there’s always a few people that can’t make it or they can’t travel. As far or things like that and so even things like streaming it next year. I’m very keen for us to stream all the sessions with 360 video and have a VR headset for the people.
That can’t make it like these are obvious things that like seem a little bit out there right now. But actually in a few years and they’ll be very normal ways of doing things and I think it’s gonna keep about adapting. So I don’t see any limit at all.
I’m actually unsure how many of companies here would be interested in this. But like the thing with buffa is like they have been on very different paths. So one pad is like the Beast. I bet they did like a VC around and then they kind of shift focus and became profitable.
I think this is like very fascinating because most companies don’t do this like. So you either go all-in on either point and that’s it. So I would actually love to hear and also like how is this related to remote work. Because actually like especially like remote first companies. I think it’s probably harder to raise money because ABC’s don’t really trust things. That aren’t proven.
It’s a great topic and so and for some context buffer started out bootstraps. Because I didn’t know anybody investors or I spoke to a few nothing worked out there. So every to the point where the only way. I was going to be able to get it off the ground was to start generating revenue. So started off bootstraps and won one year in and got some good growth. We were just three of us and we went San Francisco.
We went through an accelerated program and we raised a seed round five hundred thousand dollars. We actually raised less than most companies were raising. Someone’s company was going out raising 1.2 million 1.5 million kind of seed rounds giving up a lot more of that company.
So we did five hundred thousand at a five million valuation. So that was about ten percent of the company and then and so when we were already you know have good revenues Before that and then we and usually people say. They’ll the typical amount of time from racing around funding to the next round of funding.
Usually is about one and a half years about eighteen months. People say: you should go so usually you’ve spent your money. By then you need more money and you’re burning cash along the way and things. So but first we actually became profitable after that round of funding.
We three years later we had a million dollars in the bank so we’ve got this five hundred thousand and funding. We grow into having a million dollars in the bank and a few different things came together to enable us to then raise around funding on very good terms.
We raise three and a half million at a sixty million valuation. So it’s only six percent of the company. I think and by that point the culture was very established to be able. You know there was no real risk of saying. Okay we you know remotes in question or things like this. But I think for us we have been kind of on that middle path middle road.
There we didn’t most I think most times when you go on your way the VC round of funding. You’re goanna give up twenty thirty percent of the company. You’re gonna have you know investors on the board now.
We didn’t have that situation and so we really tried to take this middle path. I think it’s been a very interesting place for us. It to be especially with remote working and transparency. I would say and you know reflecting on you take a lassie Github. I think Getlab as well and as many of the companies have grown to quite a large scale. That which have remote companies what I’ve been tending to notice.
Is that they usually will go quite a long time without raising funding. So in those examples they a lot of them gone grow and the revenue is quite far before they don’t. I think it’s because you know you’re doing things in a very different way. Than what’s the current status quo. So the earlier you get investors on board the more you’re gonna probably have a bunch of old white guys involved. That a you know have the ways of working that they used to and they’re really gonna be challenging everything that you’re saying.
So at least that’s my opinion and some of the experiences. I’ve had at times and I think one thing.
I’ve learned over time for me at least is that. I really want to have the flexibility and with the company we want our team members to flexibility. We want to have that flexibility as a company as well at one point in the journey of buffer.
We decided that we wanted to try having no managers. So we for a period of nine months we actually said to all the managers. You’re going to do individual contributor work now.
We changed at all and it didn’t work out. But I think when you’re funded company you has got to keep going every you know. Every quarter you got to get that growth and that’s something that for me.
I think with my work we want to be able to experiment a ton and try things and things fail. So we’ve gone more of the path of kind of becoming profitable really controlling. Our own destiny and being able to make some bold experiments. I want to be able to have a bad quarter. I won’t have one we all to have a bad year and work. Through that and not just be you know picked up and put onto the track you know.
So thank you actually something a bit related to this is that. I think also some new funds are coming up that. I can like more remote friendly. So we know some like indie VC and you mention purpose ventures yeah.
We’ve been working with yeah. So I think like hopefully. They will also try to innovate their models. So it’s like more testable to just like new companies. It’s well I think is worth talking with Dmitry as well um Getlab. Because they are on they’ve got VC funding and going that path and things.
I don’t think you can’t make it work. It’s just that I think we’re at an early stage with you know remote working. Even today compared to when we started you eight years ago things are in a different place.
It’s more normalized now. So I hope I say over time it’s gonna be something that is less questioned. But we boys still on that edge right now. I think for reasons of remote working but also for other reasons of just not having such a binary path of unicorn or fail. I think there’s the needs to be innovation in funding models and the way is starting to be. So I think it’s really positive well.
Thank You Joel. I think amazing answers. I really enjoyed this thanks.
I’m one of you.