The Paradox of How Bugs And Downtime Can Be An Opportunity

May 29, 2014 3 min readOpen
Photo of Joel Gascoigne
Joel Gascoigne

CEO and co-founder @ Buffer

Often if I give a talk or I speak with someone about getting their idea off the ground, the topic of how solid the product should be comes up. In particular, people very frequently wait far too long before launching.

One of the key learnings for me with Buffer was that the impact of problems people have and downtime they experience are directly tied to how we, as a startup, choose to handle it.

In fact, downtime is an opportunity to make people love you more than they did before you went down Let me share some examples for why this is the case.

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” – Charles R. Swindoll

As Buffer grew from a few hundred users to tens of thousands in the first six months, we hit some scaling issues—in particular as a result of my lack of experience in scaling MySQL (as an aside, we’ve since moved to MongoDB). I quickly learned how to optimize queries and which indexes to add. I often needed to resize the single Linode instance Buffer was hosted on. As a result, there were times of both unexpected as well as deliberate downtime in the early days of Buffer.

One of the most remarkable things we found during these periods of downtime, was that if we were super responsive on Twitter, we could actually gain some very loyal Buffer supporters.

The scenario would be that I (or later, Tom and I) would be hard at work fixing the issues, and Leo would be 100% focused on responding to Tweets within seconds. What we found, which is very counterintuitive, was that in some ways by being down, we had emerged in a better position afterwards than we were beforehand. This insight helped us to be much calmer about downtime in the future.

Bugs make you work harder and improve faster

I’ve found that some of the hardest stages of creating a new startup are those early weeks or months when you’re racing to get your product ready for initial launch. You’re trying to decide how polished the product should be, and how many features you need to include.

Through my own experience and speaking to other founders who have launched products, I’ve found that we almost always say we should have launched sooner. The thing is, when something is live, that’s where all the learning happens. Until you put it out there and get real usage, you’re sat in the dark coding and have no idea if it will work.

I would even go as far as to say that you should “push it live” even when there are still a few bugs or it doesn’t look perfect. Once it’s out there, you’re going to fix them faster, and your users will find and tell you about problems you had no idea about.

Doing this is a nice hack to increase your productivity: I’ve found that when I did this especially in the early days, I always had a great to-do list and was compelled to work away at the items. Essentially, the product will improve much more quickly than if you work quietly in stealth mode.

Startup teams must be able to conquer challenges

One of the things that is often said is that startups are inherently a process where there is a massive amount of uncertainty. Members of the Buffer team know that we can change our minds about even fundamental aspects of Buffer literally from one day to the next. It takes a certain type of person to be able to handle this kind of environment.

With this uncertainty, often those involved with a startup are faced with some fairly pressurized situations, whether it is downtime or figuring out and fixing some critical bug quickly. I think these times are really the ones where, more than anything, the team needs to remain optimistic and positive.

Therefore, any bugs or downtime that comes up create yet another opportunity to practice these traits and in some cases to find out who can see those situations through while remaining calm and productive.

We’ve often found at Buffer that we look back on downtime and those times where we were up all night figuring out how to get Buffer back up and realize that in those few hours, we learned a massive amount. In that light, we don’t wish that those scenarios hadn’t happened.

Leo and I talked a bit more about this paradox of bugs in a recent Founder’s Chat. Have a look:

What are your thoughts on the bugs and downtime that comes inevitably with any startup venture? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

P.S. Does this kind of environment sound like a great fit for you? We’re hiring!

If you liked this post, you might also like Idea to Paying Customers in 7 weeks: how we did it and The Habits of Successful People: They Start Small.

Photo credit: Bearden

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