On Tuesday night, in conjunction with ChewTheFat, MarketInvoice sponsored a talk with founder and CEO of Buffer, Joel Gascoigne. Buffer is a tool that simplifies the process of posting to social media, by scheduling tweets and minimising links. It’s a powerful time-management product that offers useful analytics too, with a daily user base of over two and a half million.
But what makes Buffer so unique in an already saturated market of internet businesses and social media start-ups is not its product, but its ethos. The culture and set of beliefsGascoigne has ingrained in his company’s DNA, centring around the concept of ‘transparency’, has in recent times generated more buzz than the Buffer service itself. By publishing their salaries online, in full, for all to see, Buffer have been both praised and chastised for championing their “default to transparency” philosophy. Other practical implications of following such a doctrine include a completely open feedback loop amongst their employees, who are free to work in whichever country or continent they choose, and a transparent email system in which all members of a team receive any emails sent between individuals within that team. The hope is that such clarity breeds trust amongst one another, the constructive betterment of the individual, and that the “snowballing” of issues into “big revelations” can be avoided.
As expected, such radical ways of operating a company were of much discussion in the room, and Gascoigne was happy to answer questions alluding to the complications of working under such an open ethos. “It creates many challenges” he said, and admitted that to an extent, the “culture becomes bigger than the product”. Ultimately however, Gascoigne was keen to stress how such transparency helped to create a “natural vision” for the company – through self-management, and bringing your “whole self” to work. He cited Frederic Laloux’s book ‘Reinventing Organizations’ as the inspiration for such values, in order to create this “vision” for his business that wasn’t top-down, but manifest itself naturally. The Buffer philosophy facilitates this evolution – employees are honest about themselves and their colleagues, not afraid to offer criticism, or admit their own mistakes. It’s this “transparency” that encourages that honesty, and fuels the organic vision of the company.
Even Gascoigne admitted that such clarity had its limits – “we are emotional beings” he said, and it’s “really hard to be completely rational”. That’s why totally transparent feedback “didn’t quite work”. It seems where to draw the line is hardest question of all – for some, fully public salaries are just too much. But where Buffer is inarguably impressive, no matter how you feel about increasing transparency within a business, is this sense of underlying positivity that drives the entire company. “The first value is positivity” says Gascoigne – not only is it the most important, it’s been there since day one. Gascoigne recalled a chat with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, in which the online shoe vendor wished he’d put his own values down on paper before they reached a hundred staff. It was clear how much the Buffer founder learnt from this advice, Gascoigne making sure his own business’s philosophy was ingrained from the beginning.
Whether the entire room was convinced by the Buffer way was unclear, but Gascoigne was a fascinating and insightful speaker. His story is extraordinary, from 11 year old online gamer, to leading start-up thinker, and it was great to hear exactly how Buffer came about. Since then, he’s turned down four major acquisitions and in his own words, “life changing” money. Rarely do you find a CEO so committed, that even the thought of an exit was never an option. This commitment really manifests itself in the Buffer ethos.
Many thanks to ChewTheFat & 3Beards, WeWork and of course, Joel Gascoigne, for such an insightful evening and some tasty refreshments.