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Change at Buffer: The Next Phase, and Why Our Co-Founder and Our CTO are Moving On

8 min read
Joel Gascoigne
Joel Gascoigne CEO / co-founder @ Buffer

We’ve always done things differently at Buffer. For me, this has always come from a natural desire to question things.

Why base your company and team in a single location? Why is it customary to keep salary information private? Why can’t someone exercise during their day and work unusual hours, as long as it’s a productive way for them to work?

Asking these questions – and seeking their answers – has taken us down an interesting path. It’s been a rollercoaster of a journey so far. We’ve made many mistakes, and thankfully had a lot of success, too. We don’t question things just for the sake of it; we ask “why?” because we fundamentally believe that so much of work could be done better, and feel better.

For much of this 6-year journey, I’ve worked alongside my co-founder Leo Widrich. And for the last 4.5 years I’ve worked with Sunil Sadasivan, our CTO who started as one of our earliest technical team members.

We’ve accomplished incredible things together. We went from nothing to 65,000 paying customers, an 80-person team and over 13 million dollars in annual revenue. More importantly, we’ve found ourselves in the midst of two generation-shaping movements: remote working and business transparency.

Now, for the first time, I’m looking to the future of Buffer without these two hugely meaningful leaders, teammates, and friends. Leo and Sunil are leaving the company in the coming weeks.

Sunil and the C-suite, South Africa
On our team retreat in Cape Town, South Africa: Carolyn, Leo, Sunil and me.

Wavering between two paths

It’s always been a little hard from the outside to “figure out” Buffer. We often describe the path we’ve gone down over the last 6 years as a series of pendulum swings.

We started off bootstrapped, then raised multiple rounds of funding. We experimented with self-management but for now have a more traditional management setup. We’ve waited to hire until it really hurt, and we’ve hired rapidly and recklessly when our views on ambition and growth changed.

Swinging the pendulum can be a healthy and productive way to test ideas and determine the right approach. Indeed, we’ll always want to experiment and allow a certain amount of this.

At times in the journey we’ve simply tried to do what we feel is right: improve the product, cultivate our culture, provide great customer support and let growth be the by-product of the work we do. Other times, we’ve found ourselves totally focused on our growth rate, trying everything we can to increase it, and agonizing about it dropping over time.

At best, this has felt like harmony of complementary approaches, and useful experimentation. At worst, and more often recently, it started to feel more like swinging between two very different kinds of companies.

The future of Buffer

These 6 years of experimentation and pendulum swings have been the best education I could ask for. They’ve helped to solidify my vision for what kind of company Buffer is and will be.

Today we’re recommitting to a single path and a unified vision.

We will be a long-term, sustainable, fully remote team that works hard on mission-driven work. We will be the most reliable social media tool in the market. And we will continue to push the boundaries of transparency, culture and freedom in the team.

We will strive for the kind of healthy, long-term growth that we believe will naturally follow as we focus on creating trustworthy products and providing unexpectedly delightful customer service.

We will continue to be a vocal presence in movements that align with our values, like the remote work revolution, radical transparency, and a focus on diversity and inclusion.

We will create space to build a uniquely empowering company culture (which we like to call “a workplace of the future”) by investing in creativity, learning, innovation, and joy at work.

Why Leo and Sunil are moving on, and what’s next for them

This is the vision I have for Buffer, and this is the long-term journey I’m excited for us to continue to commit to. We’ve accomplished a lot towards this vision in 6 years, and we have a lot more to do. It’s not the only path to success and joyful work by any means, nor is it one I would ask anyone else to commit to if their vision is different.

It’s bittersweet to look to a Buffer future without Leo and Sunil, who’ve had such an impact on our product and culture. But this is indeed a case of differing visions – neither better than the other, just different.

Sunil in Sydney
Sunil leading a session with a few of our engineers on our team retreat in Sydney.

In late July of 2016, we had an executive team offsite that included both Leo and Sunil, and that meeting resulted in the first articulation of this clear vision. We laid out explicitly that we would focus on growing sustainably, slowing down hiring, raising the bar for product quality over shipping frequency, and innovating our culture to create an empowering environment.

This was a vision we all agreed to, but not without a lot of healthy debate. Sunil shared openly at the time that he wasn’t sure he could get fully excited about the path we had laid out. It wasn’t Leo’s first choice of direction either, but he was inspired to see if he could grow into the mindset and make it work.

Throughout the following months, Leo, Sunil and I continued to work closely together. As more time went on and more decisions were made, it began to feel we were misaligned.

Through many conversations, it started to become clear that this path wasn’t truly fulfilling for the two of them, and they had a different approach in mind for building a company.

More often than not, Leo and I leaned towards different ends of the spectrum when it came to decisions like the timing of bringing in senior leaders, whether to continue to raise funding, the balance of work on product vs company culture, and requiring an immediate high bar for performance vs nurturing team members.

Sunil was keen to strive for product quality and great company culture, and he also wanted to do it while we grew the team, hired senior leaders, and aimed for further rounds of funding and a more traditional board setup.

Some of the decisions I was making were hard for Leo and Sunil to feel fully aligned with, and we had many candid conversations about the type of company we were excited to build.

Eventually, it became clear that they did not feel they could be their whole selves with the path that was laid out, or experience the personal growth they were seeking.

Joel and Leo Thailand
Leo and I on a tuk tuk during our retreat in Thailand.

I’m incredibly grateful to Leo and Sunil for jumping on board the Buffer journey so early and with so much risk. They’ve both truly shaped Buffer and me personally for the better. This is a bitter-sweet moment, as we look back on so many years of growth and good times together, but also look ahead to leaning fully into paths that feel natural and exciting for each of us.

What’s next for Leo? He’s planning to start something new, most likely a SaaS product around HR or diversity. He will remain a non-executive board member and advisor to the team. His love for the product and customers, our team and culture, as well as his almost 20% stake in the company mean he’ll always be rooting for Buffer. I’ll be closely in touch and happy to advise him with his new venture. Read more from Leo on his departure and next steps.

What’s next for Sunil? Sunil is planning to take some time to decide his next step. He might create another startup (he was running one before he joined Buffer). He is also considering joining an organization where he can have a large impact on engineering. Meanwhile, he is spending the next few months with Leo to experiment on some product ideas. Read more from Sunil on his departure and next steps.

How we shared the news with the team

Toward the end of 2016, Leo and I had several conversations about the future and took the holiday break to reflect. When we returned in the first week of January, Leo had solidified his decision to move on. Soon after I shared the news with Sunil, he gave me his decision, also.

With a change this big, I strived to balance taking a thoughtful approach to sharing the news, as well as being fully committed to our value of transparency, and not delaying too long. Here’s how we chose to share the news:

  • First week of January: Leo solidified his decision to move on, we discussed and agreed on it
  • Friday, January 6: Sunil shared his decision with me
  • Monday and Tuesday, January 9 and 10: I shared the news with the seven members of our executive team (area-wide leads from departments like marketing, finance, and happiness).
  • Wednesday, January 11: I shared the news with 3 more leaders and, as a leadership team, we finalized plans to tell the rest of the team.
  • Thursday and Friday, January 12 and 13: The rest of the Buffer team heard the news one-on-one, an element that was very important to me in delivering this news. I personally told 29 people, and I was grateful to rely on the team leads for helping inform the others.
  • January 16-25: Over the course of the next two weeks, I spoke one-on-one with almost every person on the team who had yet to hear directly from me. (I still have a plan to speak with everyone, there are around 15 people remaining!)
  • Thursday, January 24: Leo and I visited Collaborative Fund, the biggest investor in our most recent round of fundraising, to discuss the news.
  • Wednesday and Thursday, February 2 and 3: We let all other investors know (71 people).
  • Friday, February 10: We’re sharing the news publicly, with you.

Looking to the future

The clarity of this single, unified vision has already proven so valuable for the team as a whole. I’ll be doing a company-wide All Hands next week to discuss many of the details further.

In addition, we have our next company retreat coming up in three weeks in Madrid! This is perfectly timed for us to spend a whole week as a company discussing and brainstorming what it means to fully lean into the Buffer way from here on out. We’ll be keeping you fully up to date on our next few months here on the blog.

Thanks to so many of you who have been incredible supporters of Buffer throughout our 6-year journey so far. I am completely committed to the long-term growth of Buffer, and I am excited for what we’ll do together to improve our product and company in the months and years ahead!

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I’d love to hear any thoughts or questions you have in the comments!

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