CEO Workflows: Joel Gascoigne Of Buffer, The People’s CEO

Since we’re the marketplace for startup tools, we’re keen on knowing the workflows of entrepreneurs we admire — we talk to them about the tools they’re using to do their jobs and how they’re using them. From these conversations the Workflows series was born: To inspire and empower entrepreneurs.

Joel founded Buffer 3.5 years ago, envisioning it as the simplest and most powerful social media tool. Although he has been the CEO during all these 3.5 years, his role has changed greatly over time. What hasn’t changed is his mantra of working smarter, not harder — focusing on how much energy he has, and not on the available time — and his deep concern about people, his authentic human-centred approach is ingrained in everything he says and does.

His Most Important Job as CEO: The Team

When I asked him what he believed was his most important job as Buffer’s CEO, he answered without hesitation: “The Team”. As he told me, the product is important, but if they want to be around for a long time (which, of course, they want), getting the team right becomes the most important thing. The product will keep changing, but the team has to stay.

Since the team represents his most important job, having one-on-ones, coaching and helping people, figuring out how everyone is doing and feeling, and also making sure that each person fits his or her role represents the activities that most of his energy is allotted to. He reserves time daily to catch up with people and figure out ways to improve.

Evernote, his core tool

At StartupKit we’re big believers that it’s crucial to know what your main tool is, and to make sure it naturally integrates into your workflow. The value you get out of the tool has to be greater than the effort you’re putting into using it. As Vlad wrote here, “finding your core tool and making sure that you’re using the best of its kind, is the smallest thing you can do to dramatically increase your productivity and success”.

In Joel’s case, his core tool is Evernote. He uses it to avoid keeping things in his head, to move on, and to stay focused. He makes daily notes on what he is going to work on, and at the end of the day he reviews the list. Being consistent with this habit, he observed how much his role has changed over time: from having mostly coding-related tasks to less predictable things that are coming to him, things related to managing people and catching up with them. As a CEO, it’s very important to consistently keep in touch with you team and, as Joel says it, “it makes a big difference”.

Evernote is also the tool he uses to keep track of his progress on a personal level. He has a weekly one-on-one session with Leo, his co-founder at Buffer, discussing their achievements and challenges from the last week. This session runs both ways, thus allowing them to help each other. Then, they brainstorm for new routines or new goals which get written in Evernote together with the adjustments Joel wants to make.

Joel’s Workflow

Here are the tools Joel is using to do his job as CEO:

Google Hangouts
iA Writer

What’s Important When Choosing a Tool

As you can guess, there are some criteria Joel takes into account when choosing the right tools for him:

  • Simplicity. He doesn’t like the heavy feeling of some tools, preferring to use simple ones.
  • Seamlessness. Tools need to have a clear interface.
  • Flexibility. He likes tools that accommodate different use cases and allow their customers to get creative. Take Trello: the Buffer team uses it to schedule their content, to manage development projects, and even to plan personal events such as weddings.
  • Quick Value. Tools have to offer quick ways of getting value without requiring too much effort to make them work.

Communication, Collaboration and Progress Tracking inside the Team

One specific trait of the Buffer culture is working as a distributed team spread across multiple countries and time-zones. That’s due to their belief that “You choose to be at the single place on Earth where you are the happiest and most productive, and you are not afraid to find out where that is.”

To keep everybody on the same page they use email a lot, and also HipChat, iDoneThis, Sqwiggle, and Google Hangouts.

As counter-intuitive and surprising as it may sound, email works well for them. “If we move away from the email, that communication has to happen in some other place”. They make it work by using several internal email lists such as team, product, crafters, engineers. If it’s an email within the team, they’ll cc the relevant list. For external emails, they’ll bcc it. This way, everybody stays in the loop, and email becomes an extension of their focus on transparency.

HipChat is used for chat.”It’s great” and they like it because they can integrate it with almost all other tools or services they’re using.

iDoneThis helps them feel connected with the team — here they share their daily progress and achievements benefiting of the support of their fellow teammates. Everybody gets to see what the others are working on, which are their struggles and wins.

With a similar scope in mind, they’ve created a practice to weekly pair members of the team to have a Sqwiggle call every day for that week. They get to talk about what they worked on that day and what they’re working towards that week, about self-improvements they’re focusing on (such as sleeping more, building new habits, going to the gym, or improving sleep patterns). At the end of the week, pairs change.

At Buffer, they love Sqwiggle, they use it daily and, probably, couldn’t live without it. But because Sqwiggle has a 4 person limit and it struggles when the Internet connection isn’t that good, they sometimes resort to Google Hangouts for video calls.

Keeping Buffer on Track

In the early days of Buffer, Joel and Leo were dreaming of a big, wide and spread consumer product having around 100M users. They thought that a few people paying for it will do the deal, but things didn’t end as expected. So they turned around and switched to building a useful social media tool for businesses. This decision proved to be an inspired turning point as they grew a lot since doing this shift: now they are profitable and they don’t need to raise any more funding.

In those early days, they did the mistake to focus too much on revenue. As they kept growing, they reconsidered this and decided that their most important key metric has to reflect the value provided to their customers. Hiten Shah founder of KISSmetrics and their advisor, played an important role in this, helping them understand what they need to focus on. For the past months, their key metric has been net active users.

With Hiten’s help, they’ve also built their own growth dashboard because “there are so many different things specific to Buffer we want to dig further”. They broke down active users for the month into five categories, and then analyse which of these segments affects them the most:

  • new activated users
  • retained active users (from previous month)
  • reactivated users (who had gone dormant)
  • churned users (who became dormant)
  • deactivated users (who deleted their account)

First-Time CEOs: Keep Firing Yourselves

Joe Kraus of Google Ventures has been one of those people who inspired Joel in his journey as a CEO. In one of his articles, Joe shares a thoughtful advice:

If you’re a new CEO, what you’re signing up for is firing you over and over again. You’ll never be specialising and you’ll never be the expert. Everyone in the team will be much better than you on individual things. You’re a generalist that has to keep things on track and move to the next thing.

In the early days of Buffer, Joel was the one coding on the web. Then they decided to launch a mobile app so he had to learn Android from scratch. He coded the first version of the Buffer Android app, but after a while he needed to move onto the next thing. He hired Sunil to take care of developing Buffer on Android. Now, Sunil fired himself too.

The same happened on a product level: Joel started off by being the one in charge of it, and now he’s involved on a higher-level, thinking about the next important things to build out, those that have the biggest impact.

Joel’s successful journey proves that if you want to keep growing and build a great business, you, the CEO, have to:

  • Keep firing yourself.
  • Keep moving onto the next thing.
  • Embrace the idea that you won’t become neither the best product manager, nor the best engineer. You’ll be in a transition stage all the time.
  • Hire people better than you, and this is the cool part. It’s useful for a while to be doing things by yourself, but you have to move on and find someone who does things better than you.


This article was also published on The Underdog

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