What’s up, everybody? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com and you’re listening to the Indie Hackers Podcast. On this show I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and I try to get a sense of what it’s like to be in their shoes. How did they get to where they are today? How do they make decisions, both at their companies and in their personal lives, and what makes their businesses tick?
Today I’m talking to Joel Gascoigne, the founder of Buffer. Joel, welcome to the show and thanks for joining me.
Thanks, Courtland. Really excited to be on here. I love Indie Hackers and everything you’re doing. I’ve listened to several different episodes of the podcast. Great information being shared. Hopefully I can share some good stuff as well.
I’m really excited to have you here as well.
Buffer is a social media platform. It’s used by hundreds of thousands of businesses, including mine. I use Buffer every day for Indie Hackers. You started the company in 2010 and since then you’ve gone on to grow your revenue to close to $18 million annually, which is pretty amazing. Could you tell us a little bit about what Buffer is and why so many people are using it?
Thanks. Yeah, absolutely. Buffer is a social media management platform for small businesses. Our big focus along the way has been social media publishing. So we help customers to share content on social media, sharing Tweets and Facebook posts. There’s a bunch of functionality we have, to let you schedule those posts or do everything you need to, to share the right content at the right time.
We also have products that let you do analysis on the impact of your effort there. We have a social analytics product called Buffer Analyze as well. We have a social customer service product as well. We’re really passionate ourselves about providing really great customer service, so we have Buffer Reply which helps you to engage your customers, your audience, and respond to them in a timely manner on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks.
We started in 2010, we have had a mixture of being profitable and raised some funding as well. As you mentioned, we’re pretty much right at $18 million in annual revenue. We’re about 70 people right now and we are profitable and generating about $300, $400 K in net profit per month currently.
That’s a ton of products. I think one of the cool things to me about Buffer is that you’re not just putting a lot of time and effort into innovating on your products, but you also put a lot of time and effort into innovating with your company itself. You’ve experimented a lot with hiring, with having an entirely remote, distributed team, with being transparent about revenue and salaries, not having managers, etc. You were trying out a lot of this stuff before it was cool. Six or seven years ago. Why do that? Why not just follow the established playbook for how to build a company so you have more energy to focus on your product and your revenue growth?
That’s a great question, and thanks. It’s been a fun journey. I think it comes from, “Why do a lot of people start a company?” They often start a company because of certain experiences they’ve had in the past, or they have certain things where they want more freedom or more flexibility. Those things were all true for me.
I had a previous bad experience being at a company that I worked for. I was only working part time for them, so the impact on me was not too great, but they essentially went bankrupt and a lot of people lost months of pay. I lost a little bit of pay through that as well, but I didn’t come out too bad. But there was really a lack of transparency around that whole situation, and it left me feeling like, “Wow, if everyone knew the situation we were truly in, maybe that whole company could have pulled together and got through that.”
That’s just one example, and then I also always dreamed of generally more freedom to travel and do certain things. So those are all things that personally, for me, went into, “I’m going to start this company and try and bring about those things.”
Then once you actually get into it, that’s where it gets hard. Because maybe you get investors on board or – the general normal way of things is probably to focus far more on the growth aspects and the customer, the market, the products and things. That’s great, and we have a huge focus on that. But we’ve worked pretty hard to attain the other aspects as well and try to innovate and experiment and question the norms and say, “How should things be? How could things be better?”
I really believe that the way businesses work today, there’s a lot of layers and layers of different ‘the way it’s done’ type things that just build up. That’s the result of what we have today for a lot of companies, how they’re run. We try to break apart those things and question and say, “No. How should it be now?” We often say within the team that we’re striving to create a workplace of the future. So what would a workplace of the future really look like, and can we experiment and push ourselves and try things? Some things work out, some things don’t. Generally with this goal towards also innovating on our culture and workplace and creating a really positive and inspiring, inclusive, productive culture that everyone is excited to be part of for the long term.
I really like what you said about reacting to the experiences that you’ve had in the past, and also living up to the goals that you’ve had for yourself and for Buffer, for creating a company that you actually want to work on. I think every entrepreneur when they start has some vision of what they want their life to be life. They have some actual goal that they’re striving for, and there’s something about the difficulty of the journey itself, where it’s easy to lose sight of that. You end up building a company that, five years later, you look up and you don’t even like working there.
You’re doing things that you don’t enjoy doing. It’s so easy to do that, so I have a lot of respect for the fact that you’ve been able to make a lot of hard decisions and build a culture that, for better or for worse, is what you wanted it to be.
Thanks. Yeah, I appreciate that. I think it’s really important for founders to, once in a while, just stop and reflect and question. “Are you still staying true to some of those things?” Maybe those goals change over time. That’s fine, too, but I think it is important to take a step back from time to time and say, “Are you still enjoying this, showing up to the work of this place and being part of this?”
Also, something I’ve done a couple of different times in the journey is just to try and extrapolate out the current trends of where the company is heading and say, “Where are we going to be in a couple of years from now? Is that a place that I want to – am I going to enjoy waking up in the morning and being part of that and working there?” At times, sometimes it starts to drift in a direction that is no longer aligned with those goals and values and things that you have. Then it’s time to make some changes. Sometimes those can be tough.
Trying to predict the future is an under-rated activity. Not many of us spend time thinking about what life’s going to be like two years from now. It’s not easy to do and get it right. But it’s worth trying to do.
Anyway, going from zero to $18 million a year in revenue is a pretty significant journey. Let’s start by talking about you and what you were up to before you started Buffer. What was it like growing up as Joel Gascoigne and what are some of the things from your childhood that have influenced the person that you are today?
I’m British. I grew up in the UK and I was in a city called Sheffield for most of my childhood. I think it’s the fourth-largest city in the UK, somewhere around that. It’s about an hour from Manchester. I grew up there for most of my childhood other than three and a half years where I lived in Japan as a child growing up. From the age of about four to seven.
So that had a pretty big impact on me. I made some friends and I went off to Japan and lost touch with a lot of them and had new friends in Japan and new experiences. My parents kind of threw me into a Japanese nursery and school. I had to learn Japanese from scratch. Then had friends, and I had certain experiences.
I got bullied for being a foreigner. They have a word in Japan, gaijin. I got called that quite a lot. I had so many of these experiences. Then we came back to the UK and had to try and make new friends and reconnect with friends. I obviously was not happy with my parents making me leave all my friends in Japan as well. When I went back on it in hindsight, ten or twenty years later, I realized how powerful that was for me and how awesome that was. It’s a very special part of my life now, Japanese, being able to keep up language in some ways and things like that. So that’s one thing.
After that, growing up, a couple of interesting things. I think I generally had a good childhood, but I also had some challenging parts of it. I’m a pretty extreme introvert, and I struggled a lot in high school and generally in education settings. I personally believe that, back then at least, and I think it’s still the case, education systems are really designed against introverts.
From the moment you get to school you’re in a classroom of 30 kids. It’s a group setting. It’s not great for introverts. Then once you finish a couple of classes, you’re in your free time and everyone is just hanging out with each other. So you can’t really also get any time.
I think I didn’t understand it at the time, and this is a really big struggle. Over time I’ve learned a lot about myself through that in terms of my being an introvert and what that means, and managing my energy levels and being able to recharge by having time to myself and things. I definitely struggled with that. I was super drained, at times on a daily basis. I got bullied and had some fights and things just due to that, which on reflection was really just me being socially drained and struggling in that environment.
Interestingly, for me, when I think about that, that is also what led me to online gaming being a big part of my life growing up. Because I would have these experiences at school and then just go home and – this whole other world and other friends and things that I would enter into. That’s where a lot of my joy came from, in some of those years that I had challenges. I think around ten, eleven years old I got into video games and stuff. All through childhood really, but especially around ten, eleven. I had got a PC and would play Age of Empires and some games like this, then started playing them online.
I met some people, in chat rooms and lobbies and where people hang out and set up games with each other and just chat and things. I’d just hang out there and meet people and then, there’s teams that form, there’s clans. I joined one of those and eventually ended up starting my own one of those. So that’s one thing that I remember. I was 12 years old and I had this clan that I started. There was 50 people in it at one point. I looked back on it years later and thought, “That was an organization.” We had trials of the game where you had to beat someone else in the clan to become part of the clan. It was a lot of really interesting things from that.
That’s where I first started to learn about programming and web design and things as well. After a while, I realized that it would be really valuable for the clan to have a web site, to be able to share news and communicate and things like that.
Then at one point I was like, “It would be useful if the people in this team could actually sign in to this web site and we could have some private communications going on as well.” I had someone that was another key person in the team. He learned PHP and I started learning PHP from him, learned it, and then before I knew it, I was like, “I kind of like full stack web developer” before that term was even being used. I really got into that and loved that. So then I started building web sites for others. I had clients. That’s kind of some interesting key aspects for me of growing up.
That’s such an interesting path to take to get into entrepreneurship, because I had a similar path where I played a lot of online games, ended up creating a guild online, needed a web site, needed to program it. On one hand you’re playing a game, but on the other hand you’re getting all these skills with managing a team of people and all this tech where you’re trying to build web sites. You have all the same jobs that anyone really does at a normal company. So I wonder how many founders have had a similar path.
I know you started at least one company before you started Buffer. What’s the story behind that and what are some things that you learned from that experience?
I had a startup before Buffer. It came about because I went to university to college and I graduated. I did computer science and by the end of it I knew pretty clearly that I wanted to try and make something happen.
So I got a job as a web developer, and I specifically was able to negotiate to only work three days a week for them, and had these two days a week that I would be able to try and make something happen myself. Really it was three days or even four days a week. Sometimes I would work the weekends on my own projects.
The key idea, my project that I worked on before Buffer, was called OnePage. We talked about it as kind of like your business card in the cloud, slash single web page for all of your online identities and contact information, so if anyone knows about About.me, it was essentially that kind of concept. I had a co-founder for it, someone that I met at university who was also really into tech entrepreneurship.
We worked on it together for about a year, and I learned a ton of things. Made all the mistakes, of having the idea and just building it without checking if anyone else had that problem and things. Me and my co-founder at the time realized there’s a few ways that we didn’t work well together. We had a lot of fights and challenges and things. We were living together, just to save money. We were in this super-cheap place that was cockroaches around, just bugs and stuff. It was pretty bad. Living together and having some of these issues sometimes as well was really interesting.
We were both really passionate and wanted to make something happen. We had a level [ph] of a few wins, showing it. We managed to get a little bit of grants funding from – there was a government program for new businesses. I met some great mentors through it as well.
One of the key things that happened was during that project, that startup, I also discovered The Lean Startup concept. So it was actually Eric Ries’ blog Startup Lessons Learned that I came across before he was doing a lot of speaking, or well before the book. I came across his blog during that time and I got hooked immediately.
Every blog post, I was wading through it, and I’d cite it and I would comment and things. I started to really internalize those Lean Startup concepts and realized that I wasn’t using them very much [Laughter.] for the startup. By the end of it, I think I was pretty well equipped. I don’t think I could have done Buffer without having gone through that experience.
Let’s talk about the early days of Buffer. What made you decide to start this company, and how did you come up with the idea at first?
I had worked on OnePage for about a year. Me and my co-founder decided that it didn’t work that well between us, so we separated in a sense, which is a tough thing to go through. Ultimately, I was left with continuing OnePage. Now I had this bit of pressure and freedom, and a sense to change it up massively. So I immediately pivoted OnePage and I was like – we’d actually got about 10,000 users. I felt like there was some value there, people that I could try and see if there’s other problems they have and things.
I ended up experimenting with a way to scan business cards. I got it all working with Amazon Mechanical Turk and stuff. It started to get really interesting, and I was more and more trying to embrace The Lean Startup concepts, which are a lot harder to do in practice than when you read about it. So I started doing these experiments. Then I found that the margins were just so bad, with business card scanning and things. I wasn’t that passionate about it, but it was a natural shift from what OnePage initially was about. I did that for a few months, and I think it was during that time that I had - probably the two years prior to that I had been using Twitter a lot. More and more.
And I think it was during that time that I had – probably the two years prior to that, I had been using Twitter a lot, more and more. And by that point, I’d maybe reached about 1,500 followers. And I remember maybe around 800 followers, it just started to get really fun for me. And that’s the point, I think, where if you share something, then people will reply to it and there’ll be a conversation or there’ll be some kind of engagement on it.
So I just started using Twitter more and more, and I was sharing a lot of the learnings and blogposts, The Lean Startup blogposts and that kind of thing that I was coming across. I started doing a lot of sharing content on Twitter at that time, and just showing my experiences and numbers things like that as well.
And that’s kind of when it all mixed together into this perfect storm of, “OnePage is not really working. I think I’m ready to do something else different from that.” And then I was really getting into Twitter and seeing the potential of Twitter, because it was still pretty early at that point.
And that’s basically where I had the idea of Buffer was like, “I’m sharing these articles regularly. And I want to do it more, because the more I do it the more people I’m finding that I’m able to meet from this.”
And I’d actually moved back to my hometown at that point. And I was kind of – I was in either my hometown or Birmingham in the UK – I think it was in Birmingham in the UK, but it was not London where there’s a real startup hub. And so in some ways, I was using Twitter to try and meet people who were in that city, but maybe there wasn’t actually any startup events. So it was a way to kind of pull these people out from the woodworks, like let’s all try and talk about what we’re doing here.
There was a point where I was like, “Oh, this is a problem I have. I would actually like to share a lot more (inaudible) articles and things that I’m coming across.” But I was reading my content in one or two different sessions in the day; maybe in the morning, in the evening, using Google Reader at the time. So I would do this reading in five minutes – only 5, 10, 15 minutes of reading in the morning. And I would find a bunch of articles that I wanted to share on Twitter, and then I started sharing them. And then I realized fairly quickly this is not great to just blast my Twitter following with five or 10 articles in one go.
That’s the point where the idea came basically was: I can easily build just a little scheduler like cron task too. Let me just put these – instead of putting these tweets and me doing it on Twitter, let me just put them into a database, and then have this schedule thing that would just pull something out of a database and share it once an hour instead so that I could put 10 things in there and they would get shared every hour or every two hours instead.
But it is worth noting that at that point, I had a little bit of burnout or just from the experience of OnePage, where OnePage I’d really said, “This is a startup.” I was like, “This is a company. It’s going to be big.” We didn’t charge any of the users anything. We were trying to get funding, had some meetings and stuff, and it didn’t really work out. And also I had this experience with a cofounder, who I’m still in touch with; a really great guy, but it just didn’t work.
So I was a bit burned, feeling it from those two things. So with Buffer, I was like, “I’m not going to make that mistake. This is just a project. It’s a little thing. I’m going to charge users if I can. I’m going to try and be really disciplined to do it in The Lean Startup way. But this is just a project. I’m not going to make it bigger than it is or needs to be initially.”
So at that point, I’d run out of funds from this grant that we had. So I had to start getting web development work again. So I had two clients. I was actually working five days a week for the client, so this was really something I had to just fit in in the sides.
Despite that, you ended up going from really having no idea at all, to having the idea, and then having paying customers in something like seven weeks.
And I asked people on the Indie Hackers forum if they had any questions for you, and David Lawson asked if you remember how you structured your day back then and how many hours you were putting into development and marketing and what that process was like of going from nothing to your first paying customer.
Yeah, it’s a great question. So I think it was definitely an interesting, somewhat of a struggle period to find the time in the day and things. I think there’s a few interesting things that come to mind from that period of time. One is that I think the success in making it happen within seven weeks is very much down to the lean startup concepts, because I tried to be super disciplined with those. And it’s what helped me to stop coding after the first couple of days of the excitement of having the idea. And actually, I questioned myself like, “Is this something that other people would get value from, is this something that is a true problem, would people pay for it?”
So The Lean Startup concept has helped me, kind of forced me to stop just building, which is what’s comfortable and easy for me, and start having those conversations, start doing marketing to get those conversations and things. It wouldn’t have happened as fast if I hadn’t taken that approach.
And also the other thing that has helped me to really be very thoughtful about cutting down scope: What is really needed and what is the goal? And I think with The Lean Startup concept, the goal was this idea of validated learning, learning more about whether your assumptions are correct, “Is this idea going to work?”
And so I basically threw out a bunch of things that were not needed like changing your password. And some of these things a framework might just do for you now, but back then I had to be questioning all of these things.
And even the payment process initially was literally just a PayPal button that let you start a subscription, but none of the process of – it didn’t even email the user that it had received a payment. It didn’t even change their account to be a paid account. So sometimes people were left for hours. They’ve started paying me for this product, and their account is still on the free plan.
But all of those things were, “Why work on that, making that process really great, when I don’t even have the first customer yet? Let’s get the first customer and then do that.”
Do you remember your exact process for how you found your first few customers, and what those conversations were like when you tried to convince them to pay for a very early Buffer?
Yeah. So this is a question that sometimes people ask me. “How should I market, how do I get people to my landing page” or whatever. And I think in some ways, I look back and think, “I was lucky, but I it was the right thing for the product.”
So essentially, Twitter was my channel for that. So I was lucky; I had been using Twitter for a while. I had 1,500, maybe 1,700 followers by that point. So I had enough people on there that I could actually share something and get a few people to visit the website. But also it was the right channel, because this was literally a product for people sharing content or doing marketing in a sense on Twitter. So it was just kind of a blend of look and the right thing anyway. But that was how I initially shared and then got people visiting the website.
I also just wanted to touch on the other part of the question that you mentioned before, which was structuring my day. So I remember, initially, I would do my work for clients in the regular hours. I would basically wake up, do my client work from 9:00 to 5:00. Those were the hours I billed. And then in the evening, I would work on Buffer.
And that had mixed results. I think sometimes I had enough energy and passion to do bits of work. But actually, over the first couple of weeks of that second-week period, I think I found pretty quickly that I was pretty drained from the day of working on other stuff that I didn’t end up actually getting that much done on Buffer.
So one of the things that I did, which worked really well for me at the time, was I flipped it around and I started getting up early. So I’d wake up early and work on Buffer, and I had all the energy. I had to sleep a little bit earlier, but I would get up and do at least a couple of hours on Buffer in the early morning, and then I would work on client work.
And the client work was not too challenging for me. It was building websites, whereas I think Buffer was way more challenging because it was totally new, trying to be disciplined about The Lean Startup, trying to do marketing stuff and different things, or things that I didn’t really have any experience about.
So I think it was really valuable for me to switch that around, be fresh in the morning for that. So that’s at least something that worked well for me and was probably a pretty big factor in making it happen in seven weeks.
What are some of the biggest milestones that you hit in those first few months or maybe just few years of working on Buffer?
Yeah. So the biggest early success was – so after the seven-weeks process, I’d been having conversations with a lot of potential users and customer during that time, and built up the confidence in myself like, “Oh, I should build this” and getting enough validation that people were saying they would use it; some people were saying they’ll pay for it; and then launched it. And when I say “launch,” it was a very, very basic product at that point. It would only work for one Twitter account and things like that.
But yeah, launched it, and the first huge win was getting the first paying customer after three days of launch. That was a huge moment for me, and it’s kind of funny to look back on because that first customer basically started a $5 a month subscription on that day. And so I literally only got $5 in my PayPal account, but that was just a momentous moment for me. I was jumping around the room in excitement.
And it’s funny thinking back, because I was doing website, web development client work and making way more than that in a week. But I think it was the fact that it was recurring revenue and it was from a product. So that was a big step for me was moving away from charging for my time and charging for a product. And that was just so clear to me at that moment. It’s like, “Wow, this is big. I’ve achieved something I’ve been striving for for a long time.”
So that was a huge win. Then first-month revenue was $20 in total. I had three more paying customers, and the rest of the month it was a very, very small amount of revenue in the first month. But it was kind of like a slow burn. So I was still doing client work for several more months, and then my cofounder Leo joined me in about maybe a month, about a month or month and a half, two months after I’d launched. And so it was just three, four months after I’d started.
And it was right at the point when I was realizing that I needed to balance my time between marketing and development, and it would be easy for me to keep developing the product further. And that’s easy for me; that’s what I know how to do. But the fact that I had these four paying customers made me realize, “There’s something here. And even in this very minimal form, it’s valuable enough that these four people have decided to start paying. So if that’s the case, there must be a lot more people out there that would also have similar problems and be able to get value and pay for it.” So that was when I decided, “I need to actually start focusing on marketing in some ways.”
And I started doing it myself for a few weeks, and then that’s when Leo just got in touch with me. We’d known each for a while from university. We always had different projects that we’d worked on individually. And he just checked in. I think we were chatting on Skype at that point and he said, “How’s it going, what’s going on?” And I said, “There’s this new project, and it’s actually starting to work. I’ve got some paying customers, it’s pretty exciting, but I need to manage my time.” I still didn’t have much time at that point. So he said, “I could do some marketing. Maybe I can try doing some of this.” And we started off very lightweight, but he jumped on board and it worked really well and it was great.
So the next big milestone was really, I’d say, Leo figuring out that marketing side. And so he did a bunch of different experiments, different channels and things. It was really just him trying everything. And we figured out that – now you would call it “content marketing.” We basically figured out that was a huge opportunity and driver for us.
In the first month, I mentioned we got these four customers. We had about 100 free users sign up overall. And then over the course of the next five months or so, Leo and his efforts on content marketing helped us grow to 100,000 free users and revenue of about maybe high-thousand dollars a month or something like that.
And one of the big milestones within that was the moment that I could start to drop my client work. I distinctly remember having $1,200 a month as a huge milestone of that’s when I could start to pay my rent from this and start to drop that work (inaudible). So those are some of the early milestones in the first year.
And you guys still do a lot of content marketing today. You guys write a ton, you publish a lot of transparent stats on Twitter, you’re constantly talking about what’s going on in your business. How has your strategy for reaching new customers and getting more people onto Buffer changed over time since the beginning?
Yeah. I think we have a lot more channels now. We figured out a lot more things. We really have a full marketing team now reaching millions of uniques a month and things. So it’s really grown a ton over time. But the core principles are still there and still alive and well in our strategy today, and those were put in place pretty early on.
It was really about helping me deliver great value upfront and be generous with our knowledge and insights, and then getting that audience in from that and driving the signups.
And it goes hand in hand with having a freemium model as well, making it really easy for anyone to just sign up for free or start a trial of one of the paid plans for free, and then kind of – we’re driving this big audience, and then we want to have a fairly wide top of the funnel to let people come in and try it out as well.
Are there any things you guys have tried that just didn’t work at all?
Yeah, we have tried a bunch of things. I especially remember early on, we were trying so many different things before we even landed (inaudible) content marketing, where we were trying to reach out and get press, and that just fell flat on its face. We started to figure some of that out a bit more over time. We’ve also tried paid acquisition, and we’ve really not figured that out yet. So that might just be our own lack of skills there and things, but we’ve tried that multiple times, and to this day we do very little Facebook ads, Google ads, and these kind of things.
One thing that sets you guys apart is just how transparent you are. You are one of the most if not the most transparent companies that I know of. You share how much revenue you’re generating, you share how much you pay your employees, you share your customer churn rates, and things like that.
How do you think about being transparent? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages, and why is this something you choose to do?
Yeah, thanks. It’s definitely one of the most kind of fun aspects for me. And I think it really just came from a place of having a desire to share these things and feeling like that’s the right thing to do. It just made sense to me to be open about as much as possible, even from the very early days.
And it’s actually interesting that in some ways, it relates directly back to the product, which was – initially, I was sharing a lot on Twitter about my own experiences and ups and downs and things. And then in the first year of Buffer, when we started to have some of that success, I was sharing on Twitter even – this is back in the early part of 2011. I was sharing the numbers like number of signups and revenue and these things.
And I think there was a moment where me and Leo talked and said, “Should we do this? No one else really does this.” But we just felt like this is a really good thing to do. And I would sometimes meet with founders, and I found that if I just shared everything about Buffer, they would (inaudible) and maybe share some numbers about their company. And we would just have a far more fruitful conversation where we could help each a lot more.
And then over time, I think we started to recognize the huge power of that for the team and for customers, especially in terms of building trust. So we found that by being really open and transparent in the team about all the things going on, when we’ve raised funding rounds, we basically made every email viewable for the whole team. We’ve had acquisition offers; we’ve shared them fully and shared our whole thought process, and a bunch of different things.
And then we’ve had tough moments. Buffer was hacked and we shared it really early with customers before we even knew the full extent of it and things, and so it also extends to customers where we’ve had tough times and we’ve generally tried to be very open and transparent along the way about everything.
And I think that’s built up this trust and this really kind of tight-knit customer base who are right there with us whenever something challenging does come up for us. And that’s pretty hard to scale and maintain at scale. And I think that’s something we strive for, and I think we’ve managed to keep some of that over time.
So it was also a big moment for us when we decided to articulate and put into words our values. And we did this around – I think it was in 2013 or so. And when we did that, we knew that transparency would be a value, but we decided to phrase it as “default to transparency,” which is this idea that: Let’s flip it around and say everything is transparent unless there’s a really good reason why it shouldn’t be. That’s what triggered us to share our salaries transparently, and a lot of other things came from that moment forward, where we kind of put it into writing and said “default to transparency.” It made us question a lot of things across the company and say, “Could we be more transparent about this in order to live fully up to the value?” And so then we started sharing salaries, equity, even more numbers, and things like that.
One thing that keeps a lot of founders up at night is that many of us are building on top of other people’s platforms or building on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, and Buffer is no exception.
How do you think about mitigating the risk that comes with building on other platforms, and have you ever had any big scares?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I would say it would probably be up there as one of the biggest risks to Buffer, so I think about it a lot. Obviously, we are built on top of – we’re largely built on top of Facebook and Twitter at this point, and that’s what we provide products to help customers to make user of those platforms for their small businesses.
And there’s definitely been some interesting twists and turns in the journey of these network APIs. Twitter has had a bunch of different changes (inaudible) their API along the way and Facebook as well.
I think that one of the ways I think about is – there’s been changes along the way where I know that if you think back to Twitter in 2011, 2012, 2013, there were so many Twitter clients that you could use to actually read tweets and things. And today there’s very few third-party Twitter clients. And I think even there’s new API challenges and things going on right now, I think, that might impact even some of the last remaining Twitter clients.
I think that one of the challenges you have to think is: How do you really align yourself with those platforms if you’re built on top of them? That’s something we’ve strived really hard to do. And I think the fact that Buffer in the early days was more about contributing content to the platform rather than consuming and reading tweets and things, that helped us to be aligned more with the platform. Because obviously, with their ad-based model, they need to kind of have that control over the consuming of the feed.
And then also I think there’s always these opportunities to really push the boundaries of what the network allows through the API. And (inaudible) even more recently, to take another example, is Twitter made some changes to their rules around automation and stuff. And so in some sense, you could say, “Buffer is – isn’t that what it’s for, is for automation, so wouldn’t that have a huge impact?”
But actually, what we found is that in the last few years, there’s some other startups that have kind of pushed the boundaries for that automation within Twitter and let you really just, say, upload some content and we’ll just continually share it on Twitter for you, or we’ll just continually share content from your blog, for you, and things.
And we had a lot of request for this kind of thing over the years. But we never went too far with it, and I think it’s just about you want to have your own stance in addition to what the network might allow.
So I kind of visualized it as: The network gives us these boundaries of APIs of what we can work within. And we always try with Buffer to be not pushing to the edges of those boundaries, but just sitting within it and having our own stance on things. That’s helped us a lot along the way where we never push too far with automation, and now they’ve changed the rules around that a little bit.
And then the other thing is, of course, just having really good relationships with them. So we are an official Instagram marketing partner. We have a good relationship with Facebook. We have contacts with people we can speak to there. We go to the Facebook conference each year; similarly at Twitter. And we also for a couple of products, which (inaudible) pay Twitter for data access as well. And so there’s a number of different things that we do to try and be well-aligned and be a good partner to those networks. But it’s still a key factor.
I think these days, it’s actually interesting. I’ve spoken to some other founders where I’ve always felt like if maybe we weren’t on top of Facebook and Twitter, maybe it would be a lot less stressful and things. But then I talk to other founders, which are essentially not necessarily built on top of anything, but you always have your struggles and your challenge and things. So I’ve spoken to many founders that have just as many other challenges, so it’s just which challenges you end up with.
I brought this up earlier, but you guys have a wide range of products that you’re working on, not just one. How do you maintain your vision as you expand into new areas? And how do you decide what products to build and whether or not to do new things versus doubling down on what you already have?
Yeah. I personally find vision to be very interesting. I think that it’s important to keep refreshing vision and having a clear vision to work towards, especially as your team grows. That’s extremely important for the team to understand the vision, be bought into it, be part of defining it in some ways, but also guiding them with a vision.
But I would say sometimes I think there’s this idea that you need to have this huge, grandiose vision from day one and it can’t change at all. And I think in some ways, the vision shouldn’t change that frequently.
But if I’m totally honest, when I started Buffer, my vision was: Can I build a product that I can work full time on and not do (inaudible)? And so that was a pretty strong vision for me at the time. It was one though I was very passionate about. It’s not really a vision that a 70-person team that you are paying full time (inaudible) to be working on something could really get excited about.
But I think today, we just see this huge opportunity to expand further and provide more value, and kind of bring the Buffer way of doing things, both in terms of marketing and product and customer service. We believe that we strive to create great products and provide better-than-expected customer service and do it with really genuine and generous marketing.
We saw this opportunity to expand, and so about two years ago we really started that effort, and about a year ago we’ve really kicked it up a notch. So Buffer has really been one product for most of the journey, and today we have two separate products that are both very early stages. So our revenue is 18 million, and one of these products generates about half a million of the 18 million. And then the other product is brand new and is generating about $500 a month in revenue right now.
So very early stages, but the overall approach is I really am keen to maintain the quality that we have. So we want to have a high-quality product, but we also want to provide overall more value to customers and solve more problems for customers. We’re choosing not to have one product and one suite and bring everything into that, in one dashboard and things, because we feel like we will not be able to maintain the quality of the experience if we do that.
So we’re kind of creating – we want to strive for multiple best-of-breed products and really be mindful about when we expand and what we add in and things.
So Buffer recently became profitable, but not for the first time. How important is profitability to you compared to growth, and what are some of the steps that you’ve taken to ensure that Buffer can become a profitable company?
Interestingly, I think in many ways, profitability is just built into the DNA of Buffer. So right from the beginning with, I mentioned, OnePage, this previous project that I had – OnePage I tried to raise some funding and failed and things, and it was never generating any revenue. And then Buffer day three, having the first revenue come in, it was really a change of mindset from thinking, “Maybe I can get investment to fund my ability to work on this” to saying, “I’ve tried that and it failed. And I don’t have the track record, I don’t have the expertise, I don’t know how to do that. So I’m going to have to build something that people pay for. That’s the only way I’m going to be able to work on this full time.
So really just started off with that DNA. And then over time, we had this opportunity to raise some funds, and we did that. And we’ve done two rounds of funding, and both times we’ve been profitable prior to the funding round. So it’s kind of been like the default of profitability; raise funding, and that puts us into a state of not being profitable for a while; and then working our way back to profitability. But it’s also been a lot of learnings around taking investment and the implications of that that’s also led me to feel that, actually, in the long run now, I’d rather keep profitable and that will allow us to actually experiment more and really take things in our own path and our own direction.
Yeah. Being profitable opens up such a world of possibilities, where you can go in pretty much whatever direction you want. Whereas when you’ve raised money and expanded your team, your only two options are to focus on either getting back to profitability so your company won’t die, or to focus on raising another round.
You’ve mentioned a few times how in the early days, you were following the lessons from The Lean Startup. Do you still follow those practices, and how do you think about becoming a better founder and building a better company, and what are some lessons that early stage founders can take away from what you’ve learned?
Yeah. So in terms of The Lean Startup practices, we really try and still apply those today. And interestingly, I think a lot of people think about The Lean Startup for engineering or product, and I think it applies much more widely than that. So we generally try and take this philosophy of: What’s our ideal outcome and what are our assumptions, can we validate that in a small way, and then expand it out.
And so I think it’s a very cost-effective, kind of lean way to just run a company. And I think over time, obviously, more people have joined the team. And my role switched from being kind of a practitioner of The Lean Startup to being a coach for The Lean Startup and the team. And that’s a role I’ve really enjoyed, and I think we’re seeing some great results from that, especially in the last year or so. And so then that allows me to kind of – it’s also a step to then a slightly higher level and think about some bigger things of what’s the big vision or strategy and working with all the different areas and things.
But it’s still very much alive and well. This new product that we have that’s generating $500 a month in revenue feels in many ways like the beginning early days. There’s a few differences when you already have a product and you have a company and it sits within that. So in terms of distribution, we have this big advantage of existing 80,000 paying customers already and a lot of free users. So that’s not really our challenge anymore. We don’t have to go crazy about the content marketing and stuff like we did in the early days for this new product that we have.
So we actually kind of have to stop the distribution and control it in some ways, but we still need to be very disciplined about The Lean Startup concepts. And we’ve launched that product at a very early stage (ph) and things.
Cool. Well, it’s been great having you on. Is there anything else you’d like to say, or could you tell the listeners where they can go to find out more about what you’re working on and what you’re doing at Buffer?
Yeah, absolutely. So you can find me at Joel.is. That’s my website, so Joel.is. And also on Twitter, @JoelGascoigne. My username is just my full name. And I have my email on my website and things, and I’m always happy to hear from others that are trying to get something off the ground. I’d love to help with those things, and you can also just ask me anything on Twitter as well. So I’d love to be in touch.
And the other thing is we are growing the team and we’re doing some fun stuff at Buffer as well. So of course, I would really love to hear from anyone that might be interested.
But thanks so much, Courtland, for the time and the great questions and great conversation. It’s been a lot of fun.
Thanks so much, Joel.
If you enjoyed listening to this conversation and you want a really easy way to support the podcast, why don’t you head over to iTunes and leave us a quick rating or even a review? If you’re looking for an easy way to get there, just go to IndieHackers.com/review and that should open up iTunes on your computer. I read pretty much all the reviews that you guys leave over there, and it really helps other people to discover the show, so your support is very much appreciated.
In addition, if you are running your own internet business or if that’s something you hope to do someday, you should join me and a whole bunch of other founders on the IndieHackers.com website. It’s a great place to get feedback on pretty much any problem or question that you might have while running your business.
If you listen to the show, you know that I am a huge proponent of getting help from other founders rather than trying to build your business all by yourself. So you’ll see me on the forum for sure as well as more than a handful of some of the guests that I’ve had on the podcast.
If you’re looking for inspiration, we’ve also got a huge directory full of hundreds of products built by other Indie Hackers, every one of which includes revenue numbers and some of the behind-the-scenes strategies for how they grew their products from nothing.
As always, thanks so much for listening and I’ll see you next time.