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CEO Note on COVID-19: Message #4

Apr 10, 2020 6 min readOpen
Photo of Courtney Seiter
Courtney Seiter

Former Director of People @ Buffer

This team communication regarding COVID-19 is part of our COVID-19 Response Series. You can see all the messages in the series here.

  • Shared: March 26, 2020
  • Posted by: Joel Gascoigne, Founder and CEO
  • Title: An assortment of thoughts on our approach during COVID-19

An assortment of thoughts on our approach during COVID-19

Hi team,

As we come towards the end of another week in this pandemic, and many more places implement stay at home orders, I want to share some of the ways I’m thinking about how we should approach Buffer during these unprecedented times. Before I dive in, I want to remind you that you and your loved ones come first, before Buffer. Please take care of yourselves and take the time out that you need. And with what you have to spare, or perhaps as a way to keep yourself sane and feel a sense of accomplishment and purpose, thank you for everything you’re doing for customers.

Who are our customers?

Something that’s been coming to my mind in a more heightened way than usual times is the question: Who are our customers? Of course in the past year we have set down and given ourselves clarity of our target customer being direct-to-consumer businesses (DTC), but how does that hold up in the current climate?

Personally, I’ve spent a lot more time than I usually do browsing the customer support inbox to try my best to feel connected with our customers and gain some empathy. I want to share a ton of gratitude for the incredible energy and care the whole Advocacy team is putting into supporting customers, always, but especially right now. My overwhelming conclusion from doing that, is that the customers most impacted so far in this pandemic are not DTC brands. Our general approach to focus our attention on serving DTC feels strained, and – I’d go as far as to say –  inappropriate.

In these times, it’s worth recognizing that even with a clear target customer focus, we will always have other types of customers that use, gain value from, and rely on Buffer. These customers need our help right now, more than ever, and we should do what we can to serve them. Therefore, it makes sense for us to loosen our grip on the stance of focusing on DTC above all other customer types. It’s fine for this to be somewhat fluid. Reading through some of the emails with customers, we have people such as Susan, who owns a restaurant and has had to temporarily close it; Nadine, who had to close her salon; and Jayne, who is a freelancer and actually needs Buffer even more right now, but has had most of her work cancelled until the foreseeable future.

Buffer’s purpose

This leads me to a further thought: If we put aside DTC for a moment, what is our purpose as a company? What are we all here to do, to achieve, together?

Even with our strategy based around DTC, there’s something greater that encapsulates that focus. I want to quickly touch on a couple of areas that may provide valuable purpose for us all in these times of uncertainty.

In all the years we’ve operated, there are a couple of clear threads that connect the whole journey, our approach as a company, and the types of customers we’ve focused on.

Firstly, we are all about small businesses at Buffer. Small businesses employ a large portion of most populations, and provide more fulfilling and meaningful work. Small businesses are more nimble and adaptable, and generally drive more innovation. Even in these times, I’m noticing a ton of creativity and a higher pace of adaptation from small businesses vs larger enterprises. For me, supporting small businesses is something that drives me and is worthwhile in and of itself.

Secondly, we strive to challenge sub-optimal approaches to how work happens and how employees are treated. There are a lot of things we do at Buffer that other folks are in awe of, or are simply surprised that there could be a workplace like this. Something I’m passionate about is freedom, for myself and for this whole team. Through remote work, we’ve created much more freedom for ourselves, and we’re now seeing that others are adapting to work in this way too. Beyond that, we also encourage side projects, we lean into opening up about mental health, and we go above and beyond to create an inclusive and supportive environment. These are all things that I believe, if more companies adopted, the world would be a better place.

For me, right now, I’m keeping these two elements top of mind. And the combination is that much more powerful, too. I love supporting small businesses, I believe they drive a ton of value in the world. And small businesses who are also questioning the way work happens and giving their teams’ freedom, trust and respect, are even more impactful. Keeping in mind that those are the people we’re trying to serve right now, keeps me very motivated.

Activities that drive revenue vs activities that serve our purpose

If there was ever a time to put a growth or revenue focus aside, it would certainly be now. I’ve been happy to see a lot of companies take this approach and explicitly state it, and unfortunately I’ve also been dismayed to see many companies and people in power continue to focus on financial maximization.

To take this thought a step further, I do not believe that everything we’re doing right now needs to drive revenue or add to our bottom line. Our goal as a company, after all, is not financial maximization. Our goal is to help our customers to grow and thrive. And right now, for many of our customers, thriving is a tough proposition. Simply surviving is hard enough. Where we can, we should do more to help our customers get through these tough times. If they can emerge on the other side and still have their business, and continue to provide meaningful work for their team, that supports our goals more than adding to our bottom line does.

This is why I connected with Customer Advocates last Friday and immediately brainstormed ways we can provide relief for our customers in these tough times. Many have had their income or revenue cut drastically, and it supports our purpose to help them with relief from their Buffer payments for a couple of months, so they have a better chance of getting through the pandemic. I started first with the customer in mind, with these initiatives, rather than with our own finances in mind. From the perspective of our purpose and what we want to serve, rather than our bank account. Otherwise, there’s a risk that we’re letting the tail wag the dog.

We are, of course, being very mindful and closely monitoring the financial impact of COVID-19 on Buffer. The Data team has immediately jumped in to assess the financial impact on Buffer, of the help we provide to customers. But by focusing on customers first, we were able to immediately put help in place for them, and then in parallel ensure we’re monitoring our finances and allowing that to inform how much we are able to support customers. We will continually assess this and dial up or dial down the help we provide. Of course, financial help is only one type of help, and we should start thinking about other ways we can assist customers through this pandemic, too.

In the long run, I believe that not all of the activities we pursue should need to have a direct revenue impact for Buffer. If everything we do needs to generate revenue, it drastically reduces the ways we can help customers and fulfill our purpose. If instead we are primarily focused on helping customers, in the arc of the long-term, we will certainly be able to capture more than enough value for ourselves, from the value we are creating for others. We’re more likely to thrive ourselves if we put customers first.

People over profit

This brings me to my final thought on COVID-19. The companies that will come out of this with their integrity intact, and in the best possible situation to bounce back, are going to be the ones that put people over profits. This should always be the case, but even more now than ever. I will personally be approaching everything with this lens.

My two top priorities right now are all of you, and our customers. I want us to get through this as unscathed as we possibly can, and I want to come out of it feeling like we helped our customers as much as we could (in balance with our own needs). We’re lucky to be, based on the industry we’re in, more insulated than a lot of other companies, from the impact of COVID-19 and the recession sparked by it. On top of that, we have a significant cushion of profitability.

The Finance team and I are connecting regularly, and I’m grateful for all the work they’re doing to continually assess the situation. We’re currently still in a great spot and maintaining a very strong financial position to get through this. We’ve had three super solid years of profitability to build up to this foundation.

That said, if it comes to it, and we get through this as a team pulling together, taking care of each other, and doing as much as possible for customers; and the side effect happens to be that we have a year without profits, that is fine by me. We will be very diligent in our spend, and no profit is not the outcome we want, but I will choose that first if that means we can make sure we’re doing right by this team and by our customers.

When we look back, that is what will matter to how successful we are able to be in the future, rather than the numbers we achieve this year. Thanks for reading, everyone. We got this. ?

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