Startup to Scaleup: What We’re Changing As We Transition

By Joel Gascoigne

In the past couple of months, I’ve had a number of thoughts around the growth Buffer has experienced in the last year and some interesting challenges and paradoxes that seems to be bringing us.

I’ve had a number of conversations with people in the team on this and I recently shared a version of what follows with the whole company to get their thoughts. It resonated with almost everyone, and as a result we’ve started to put in place some changes based on these realizations. I’d love to share it with all of you in the community here too — and get your thoughts!

It fascinates me that over half of the team has been part of the team for less than a year. A year ago we were around 40 people — today we are more than 90. This is incredible and is bringing so many new perspectives for us, and helping us move faster to create amazing experiences for users and customers.

One of the things that hit me about this is that a year ago, we were doing things quite differently than we are today. And rightly so: We need to operate quite differently as an 90-person company than a 40-person company.

This path of thinking leads me to reflect all the way back on the first and second year of Buffer, of which only a handful of us were around and can share how that felt.

I’ve come to believe that we need to grow up (scale up) to be better suited to being an 80-, 90-, 100-person company, and simultaneously stay true to our roots in some areas. I believe we can benefit from keeping some of the true startup mentalities that got us off the ground and to a point where we could grow to something bigger.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing for me about this article is that I equally found myself nodding and agreeing with what Julie said about startups, as well as what she says about big companies.

I feel like both apply to us right now, and it dawned on me that we’re right in the transition currently.

In a lot of ways we need to grow up as a company, which will likely mean adopting more structure and discipline and embracing this new ability we have to specialize and reach a higher bar for many roles. In other ways, we still need to be super scrappy in startup mode — taking big risks, acting on intuition and moving fast.

Here’s a little table I created from her points. Again, I love how both sides are balanced, with little judgement:

The early days of Buffer

When I read through the article by Julie Zhuo, I found myself thinking back to the early days of Buffer, and how we’ve grown since then.

It was absolutely true back then that we had one goal: to hit product market fit. That’s all that mattered. If we didn’t achieve it, nothing else would be possible. It’s why I didn’t incorporate the company until we had revenues and got our first $120k in funding. The customers we were going after didn’t care about that, they just cared whether the product solved a problem. As Paul Graham says, “Build something people want.”

Back in the early days, I built the first version of Buffer in seven weeks of evenings and weekends while working full-time. I was the product creator, customer researcher, designer, front-end and back-end developer, systems and data analytics person. And until Leo joined, I was also the marketer and customer service person too. Of course, all those things were done pretty badly, because I’m far from an expert in any of these areas. Yet, I built and launched the MVP in seven weeks, and kept iterating pretty fast. And when Leo joined, between us we fulfilled all these roles for almost a whole year. We ended up growing Buffer 40–50% month over month for the first year of Buffer.

There was so much risk back then. So we had to make bigger bets. We had to try to make a big change every few weeks or even every few days. Small incremental tweaks wouldn’t get us the progress we needed. As a result, there were higher highs and lower lows. The website went down a lot, we tried a lot of stuff that fell flat on its face. It felt awesome and awful all at the same time, sometimes transitioning from one to the other within hours. It was chaotic. That’s where I think a lot of what Julie mentions is so true and so essential for startups. It’s super valuable to be a generalist with good intuition.

Thoughts on product areas and how we structure ourselves right now

I think especially Pablo and Respond are areas where I feel we could be striving for 30–50% month-over-month growth, which may seem crazy, however we achieved exactly that in the first year of Buffer, and we now have the marketing and brand power of Buffer to put to use on those areas (so maybe we can do even better!).

On the other hand, in the mobile apps and the dashboard / awesome plan, which are all more mature and have high usage numbers, I think we could potentially have a higher bar for quality, maybe even thinking about QA. These products have a ton of active users flowing through.

Buffer for Business interestingly feels like it sits somewhere in the middle, where we have a somewhat steady flow of new customers from individual and awesome, yet at the same time there’s a big ‘new product’ feel to it too, where we could be moving faster to crank out all the features we need to be something attractive to larger companies and agencies and unlock the option for us to do sales.

The pace we’re moving at is awesome, based on the setup we have. Everyone is doing great work, it’s just within the model we have. I think the biggest ‘aha’ for me here is that we have evolved our product team structure in the last year and we’ve been striving for the same setup in all areas. We have a product creator, 2–3 engineers, a customer researcher, product designer, data analyst, and sometimes a product marketer. The biggest flaw I see in my thinking in the last year is striving to have this setup for all areas.

What I’m now starting to realize is, we should probably think about the team makeup for an area very much based on the stage that area is at. Pablo and Respond have very different needs than Individual, Awesome Plan and Mobile.

Further reading: Steve Blank on the ‘Company Building’ transition phase

It was Julie Zhuo’s article that really resonated with me and somehow as I let it settle over a few days it felt clearer and clearer. I ended up chatting about it in many of my syncs in the last couple of weeks.

I started to sense that we are right between these two approaches, and that in the last year, we’ve started to really see that some of those ‘big company’ characteristics are what we are starting to actually need. At the same time, I felt like we’d moved away from ‘startup’ characteristics we need for some of our innovative projects.

Then it hit me that whilst Julie talks a lot about the two separately, there’s nothing about how you transition from startup to big company. Then I remembered from my past reading that Steve Blank had talked a lot about this, so I started delving into all his articles:

I also remembered his classic book Four Steps To The Epiphany which has a whole chapter on company building, talking exactly about this transition phase.

A lot of this really resonates. That set of graphs feels to me like it’s describing Pablo/Respond (New Market) vs Awesome/Individual (Existing Market).

Also, the table is super valuable for helping me with the transition I personally need to make as CEO.

This part also felt key:

This evolution requires three actions:

  • Build a mainstream customer base beyond the first earlyvangelist customers
  • Build the company’s organization, management, and culture to support greater scale
  • Create fast-response departments to sustain the climate of learning and discovery that got the company to this stage

A big personal takeaway is how important it is for us to now have clear vision and mission for the scaleup phase, and this is in my personal OKRs for Q1 and I now put this as a very high importance item. It’s something I’ve failed to give the right priority in the last 3–6 months. I have a lot of growing up to do personally to be a great CEO for Buffer as we grow.

Coming soon, I’ll share my thoughts in a blog post on the career paths that have emerged from this change from startup to scaleup: generalists and craftpersons.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. I think this is really important. I’ve spent some time letting this sit with me, and this is the result of that time and reflection and several chats I’ve had with people.


Originally published at open.buffer.com on May 25, 2016.

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