This interview is part of the fifth issue of Featuring, a newsletter on the intersection of love and money. Read more and sign up here.
From cave drawings to Snapchatting, the way we communicate with each other has changed a lot. With that, new tools and rules of etiquette have emerged and evolved to help us talk to and understand each other better.
Leo Widrich knows the importance of good communication. It’s what helped him grow an audience of over 2 million registered users for Buffer, an application he co-founded with Joel Gascoigne in early 2010, that helps manage social media using a single tool. It’s also how he is able to collaborate and work with Buffer’s team of 56, who span multiple countries and continents.
We spoke with Leo about the early days of Buffer, his thoughts on what makes a great work environment, and what he sees as the future of communication.
Tell me the story of how Buffer first got started.
With Buffer, the idea was to help people manage their social media efforts in a super-simple way. We help you by scheduling your tweets, Facebook posts, and so forth, analyzing how well you’re doing on Facebook compared to your Twitter posts, and let you do that from anywhere on the web or mobile.
Initially, it was spelled ‘bfffr’ —a B, three F’s, and an R. (This was when the Dribbble’s of the world were coming out.) I was in my first year of university and Joel [Gascoigne] was working at another company, working on this idea in his free time.
Joel really wanted to explore building a product that generated revenue; his previous company wasn’t making any money. He launched Buffer and tweeted about it, and within a month he had a hundred users. That was really great validation. It was the first time he’d made any money on the internet. At the same time, Joel also felt that he needed to grow it.
We started chatting and I offered to help with the marketing side of things. I was in my first year of college, so I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just learning on the go. I made a Twitter account and we discovered the power of content marketing through writing our own articles. That was the main thing I did for our first year. It helped us scale Buffer to a point where we were able to raise some funding and hire a team.
Tell me more about creating content early on.
Initially we approached various tech publications, and asked them to write about us, but (unsurprisingly) no one replied. We were too small and our approach probably wasn’t all that great. That was a good lesson to learn early on. We realized that we could be writing about ourselves—more of an accidental discovery than an intentional plan.
We started to blog about what Buffer does, which seems very self-congratulatory in retrospect. Then, we tried blogging about what we learned from Buffer: how to help people with social media, when are good times to tweet, what is the right length of a tweet, how to grow your followers, and so on. People had a ton of questions, especially when social media was in its early days.
We discovered this amazing non-intrusive approach to communicating with your audience that really connected with them. We weren’t trying to sell anything. We were giving away valuable information. If people discovering those blog posts found it interesting, we figured they might want to check out our product, too.
You continue to have a fantastic blog. I saw that you write a lot about transparency and how Buffer operates its business. Was that a conscious shift? Or was that something that just fell in line with everything else you were talking about?
We started sharing everything very early on. When we were small, say 100-200 users, no one was very interested. But we kept sharing and at some point people were like, “Wow, you guys are big now. It’s crazy that you keep doing that.
But we kept sharing because it made us reflect more on what we were doing and we felt that it was the right thing to do. Why should everyone have to go and learn the same lessons over and over again? Everything down to our salaries are transparent. It removes so much inequality [within the company]. There is no genderism, politics. That discussion does not exist.
We’ve found that the more we shared those things—from how we run the company to salaries to scaling—then the better able we were to find the best people to grow our team. Those people were reading our blog and wanted to work for us.
We started writing about that, too. How do you grow and how do you hire a team? It’s amazing because we shared so much that it became content marketing for hiring as well. People come to us and they know more about our company than the companies they work for. What they’ve read about us makes them want to work for us.
I love that; now at Buffer you head up operations, right?
I still hold the title Head of Operations, but do some marketing, some product, and also focus on data insights and customers. No one reports directly to me. That’s another interesting thing we’ve done—we work without managers now.
The idea for no managers came from how we see people working and enjoying their lives. One of the big questions Joel asked early on is: what makes a job fun? What really makes a job fun? It sounds like a very trivial question, but it’s hard to answer. Ping pong tables? Probably not.
Joel came across this book called Joy at Work. The book had this line that explained how people have fun at their jobs when they’re in control. I thought that was an amazing line. So, if people need to be in control to have fun, but you have managers, that means people are not in control. The manager tells us what we should do. You have to give people that control.
A big reason that Joel and I started our own company was that we didn’t want to listen to anyone. We’d had teachers, parents, and everyone telling us what to do for a long time. With Buffer, we had the chance to be fully in control, but ironically we didn’t extend that control to the people we hired.
After that reflection about what makes a job fun, we found this amazing book called Reinventing Organizations which really breaks it down—how you can actually turn your company into a place where everyone truly enjoys to work because they get to decide what to work on. That led us to getting rid of managers.
How does communication work in an office with no managers?
Communication is a really, really, big topic for us because of how the Buffer team is distributed—we don’t actually have an office.
We have a physical office, sure, but there are never more than two people in here. Our team is about 56 people, all over the world. We have people in South Africa, Europe, Asia, the U.S., and in South America, so communication is really interesting when we’re in different time zones. It has to be a lot more intentional.
I run into the challenge all the time where I want to ask a person a question, but they’re sleeping. So, being intentional about what you want to share and how you want to share it with others is really important. You have to schedule those calls and send purposeful emails.
Since a lot of things happen over email, facial expression is not always there. You need to over-communicate your emotions. Are you excited about this? Are you not so excited about this? You need to make some of those things more explicit than you would otherwise. I think that is also the cause for the general trend of internet culture using emoticons and gifs– to convey emotions and to make a conversation feel more alive. I think it’s another thing that we have found to be super important for our team
How did you and Joel begin thinking about what type of internal culture you wanted?
Originally, the culture was just the values that Joel and I brought from our own lives. A lot of businesses focus on measures of success like growth or speed. We focus on happiness. We believe happiness is something you can actively work on, like playing the violin in the morning. There are things that you can do to live a happier, more fulfilling life. We wanted to make that part of the company. 50% of our waking time is spent at work, so that’s one of the best places to practice and live out those values and work towards happiness.
We put our values together, and also took a lot from the book How to Win Friends and Influence People, the mother of all people-skills books, full of time-tested advice by Dale Carnegie, first published in 1937. That book had such a big impact on my life, and when I look back at the person I was before this book and then afterwards; I’ve actually turned around my life to be a lot happier, and make the people around me happier, too. The people on our team also helped—and continue to help us—shape those values.
You publish everything from salaries to the emails between you and your investors on your company blog. Why do you think that’s important for companies to have this level of transparency?
I think it’s important to differentiate between why it’s important and what the benefits are. Both Joel and I feel that being transparent is simply the right thing to do. We’re not hiding anything and we’re being honest. It doesn’t always benefit us. The best example of this is when we got hacked and 400,000 accounts got in the hands of spammers, who tweeted weight loss spam through those accounts. Five minutes after we found out the accounts had been hacked, we sent an email to our entire user base letting them know what happened. We said, “We got hacked and we don’t know much more than that, but we’re telling you and we’re working on it and we’re going to keep you up to date.”
That was one of the toughest moments for the company, but we still stuck to the value of transparency. We kept updating everyone and eventually everything got sorted out. Even though the reasons were terrible, people were cheering for us from the sidelines.
The hack was a mistake from our side. We should have had better security. At the same time, we were like, “Hey, this is what’s going on, it’s our fault, and it’s our mistake. We are really sorry. We’re trying our best to get it patched up again.” It really created trust from our users, and they were like, “Well, no matter what happens, I’m going to trust that you guys will do the right thing.” I think that benefit is priceless. People don’t forget how you’ve treated them, especially in those moments where it not necessarily the easiest thing to do.
Speaking about being an open company, where do you think Buffer can continue to improve?
There is so much room for improvement. One thing we’ve been working on for the last few months is how we give and receive feedback. All feedback for members of our team, both positive and negative, is shared transparently through an internal tool. It’s like a stream, like Facebook, or a news feed, where you can see all the feedback that’s going on. Things like, “Thanks for helping me work on this,” or, “Hey, I really think you are running late on this project—what’s going on?” We call it Feed Forward (as opposed to feedback), to actually help you improve the next time.
That process exists to not let anything build up. As soon as you notice something, you have the option to share it, report it, and put that out there. I think getting that right is really, really important.
How do you see Buffer evolving to help people communicate better?
One of the things we’re working on right now is a better timing algorithm to help you publish your Tweets and Facebook posts at a time when we know your followers are going to see those messages. We have something in beta right now and we’re tweaking it to try and improve what people share at what time.
With Buffer, we also help people format their content. Timing is obviously important—if I post it at 2:00 a.m. and you’re sleeping, then you might not see it. But, it can also be the way I format something for my audience. If, for example, I just tweet a link with the headline, you see hundreds of those a day and might just skim over it. But if I add a personal comment about why this link has really touched me, why I think what’s in the link is valuable to you, you’re going to be much more likely to click.
How do you see the way we share and connect with each other evolving?
The future of communication is intention. Right now, we’ve given up the power of who controls our communication. Our phone buzzes all the time. We’re bombarded with notifications from emails, text messages, chat messages, phone calls, the web, applications, and more.
A big part of what I believe is going to be needed is this idea of mindful communication. Extensions like Gmail Pause get close to that and let you pause your email, so you can choose when you want to receive new ones. It lets you remain focused without interruptions.
How can we make interactions more mindful? Can we queue up all your messages, so that you only receive them once every twenty minutes when you want to check them? These are just a few ideas, but there’s so much potential for making all our communication more intentional and mindful.