Buffer team Cape Town
For me, one of the most exciting parts of the culture we’ve developed at Buffer is our international retreats.

Three times a year (for now) we gather the whole company together. Previously, we took a team of 10 to Thailand and we’ve just returned from our most recent trip to Cape Town, South Africa with a team of 16. Buffer covers all the expenses—flights, accommodation, most meals and fun activities.

Here are some of my biggest learnings on the benefits of our time together on these retreats.

Truly getting to know each other

There are an incredible number of benefits which come from us being a distributed team. At the same time, it means that if we don’t arrange retreats, we would never meet each other.

It still blows my mind that we can have someone join the team and work together (very effectively) for several months without meeting in person. With chatting all day via HipChat and video calling frequently using Sqwiggle, we even get to know each other very well.

However, there’s something magical that happens when you meet in person. In a retreat setting it’s even more powerful. We have casual meals together and do activities on off days. We can learn about what makes each other tick and what our true passions are.

Cape Town IBZ

It’s also an opportunity to reinforce the 10 Buffer values that are so important to us as a team and to share the story of our journey so far. In Cape Town, we had team get-together to discuss Buffer’s past as well as future. Here’s Leo and me telling the story of Buffer:

Buffer story

Once you return home (Buffer team members are spread all across the globe), the conversations you have with team members are enhanced. You know the tone of somebody’s voice and the way they approach problems and discussions. You read their emails differently. This changes things, and is why we’ve found retreats to be not only a fun part of our culture, but an absolute necessity.

Live and work smarter, not harder

As a company, one of our values is to “live smarter, not harder.” This means to think about what affects how well we work and try to optimize to be more productive. It means that almost always, working more is not the answer. We’ve had a number of occasions where we’ve been at full capacity and feeling overwhelmed, and after a brainstorm figured out how to do more without spending more time or working through lunch.

In our “live smarter, not harder” value in the culture deck, we have the following point:

You choose to be at the single place on Earth where you are the happiest and most productive, and you are not afraid to find out where that is.

It’s our belief that environment can fundamentally affect how happy and productive we are. As an example, I think the people you surround yourself with can change who you are and what you achieve.

We do retreats so that everyone has the chance to experience new cultures and grow more open minded.

Sunil Cape Town

Often team members will travel for some weeks around the retreat or stay in the location beyond the 10 days we spend together. I think this is great for people and helps Buffer as a whole.

Choosing not to live a deferred life

“And then there is the most dangerous risk of all — the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.” – Randy Komisar

One of my favorite things about doing retreats is that we’re choosing to travel and have these experiences right now.

Cape Town sunset

The concept of the deferred life plan is something I discovered from Randy Komisar, and it really resonates with me. Often travel or moving can be something that you delay for many years. It’s easy to convince yourself that the only way to travel or explore is to work for 5 years and then take 6 months off between jobs. At Buffer, anyone can travel or move anytime. It’s hardly even noticeable.

This is important because as a startup we want to move fast and make decisions as soon as we see that they are necessary. Whether it’s killing a feature which is not getting much engagement or introducing a new support channel, it can be easy to put these things off. Especially big changes like adjusting our pricing or making salaries completely transparent, it’s easy to stay where we are and avoid change.

We try to weave this notion of doing what you love and what you’re passionate about and believe in, right into the culture of the company. Retreats stretch us and remind us that we can do whatever we want, even travel 25 hours across the other side of the world. Once you’re there, you realize it wasn’t that big of a deal, and you can push yourself in so many other ways too.

We get an insane amount done together

When we go on retreat, it’s not a vacation—although it’s as fun as one. We work together for a week and then we enjoy some awesome activities at the weekend—like jet skiing or visiting a tropical island. Here’s a look at the team before we set off on a safari in South Africa:

safari team pic

We’re still figuring out the exact right setup and schedule for retreats—in fact, that was one of our team discussions last week. So far, hacking together has worked very well and become a key part of retreat week. We’re inspired by how Automattic do this and have scaled it:

“From our very first meetup of 8 people all the way through to last week’s at 122 people, we’ve always spent a good portion of the week co-working on projects and launching them at the end of the week.”

Retreats are some of our most productive weeks of the year. At our last retreat in Pattaya, Thailand, we built most of Buffer for Business and launched it just a week later. In Cape Town, we launched Buffer for iOS 7, opened up our equity formula to the public and worked together to protect our customers from the Heartbleed bug, among other projects.

working and playing

To hear more about how Leo and I think about retreats, you can watch this brief Founder’s Chat video we recently recorded (at the airport on the way to Cape Town!) about the concept:

Do you do company retreats? Where do you go? What have you found is the key benefit?

Want to be part of a Buffer retreat? We’re looking for people to help us provide support and build awesome features for customers. Check out our openings →

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Written by Joel Gascoigne

Joel is the founder and CEO at Buffer. He is focused on the lean startup approach, user happiness, transparency & company culture. Say hi to him anytime @joelgascoigne.

  • Jon Lay

    Really cool to see that you guys are also trying to replicate what Automattic are achieving with their ‘retreats’ – I’ve read similar things about how well those have worked for their remote team and helped them build their culture.

    Definitely seems that the benefits from bringing a remote team together for a few weeks are pretty indisputable. Having done 2 big trips of our own (6+ weeks each), plus another 3 or 4 smaller ones, the biggest question for us is trying to scale it as we grow (and the team gets older, too). Playing around with that sweet-spot of location and duration is next on our list. It’ll be interesting to see how the trip dynamic changes along with the team members involved.

    We actually posted a blogpost about our most recent trip to Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong last week, too: http://hanno.co/logbook/helipads-durian-monkeys-websites

    • Courtney Seiter

      Wow, sounds like y’all had quite the experience! Thanks a ton for sharing these travelogues and insights. Truly fascinating!

  • Kerry Scott

    It looks like you have a pretty young, healthy group there. How does this work for employees who have small children, elder care responsibilities, disabilities, or other things that make lengthy international travel difficult? Are they left out of the company bonding, or do they just…not work there? As your company grows, how will you find more accessible ways to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to bond with coworkers?

    • Courtney Seiter

      Hey Kerry, love this question! That’s actually one of the topics we took the opportunity to have an “all hands” meeting about during this most recent retreat. We definitely want to make sure these bonding experiences are accessible to and feel great for every team member. We didn’t make any decisions during the retreat but had a very productive discussion. I’m sure we’ll be sharing more with you soon about any changes we come up with!

      • Donovan Hutchinson

        I’m very interested in any follow up from this question. Taking 3 weeks each year is very exciting, but does have an impact for those with young kids.

        • Hey Donovan! Thanks for the nudge here. So far the team has felt that the ability to make your own schedule for 48-49 weeks a year is a pretty good complement to 3 weeks of travel, but we are still having lots of conversations around retreats. We’ve also been exploring the idea of having families come along on some retreats if they’d like to; our next retreat in Iceland will be our first experiment there! Really happy to share how it goes!

          • Donovan Hutchinson

            Hey Courtney, thanks for the reply. That makes sense. It’s a fair compromise. The Iceland sounds great though, involving families is a lovely idea. Buffer sounds like an amazing company to be part of :)

          • CWS

            I think there should also be a distinction between young kids and babies. If you have a 3 yr old and a 15 month old, like I have, you are talking double diapers, wipes, LOTS of clothes, powder, teething medicine, (stroller??) and the list goes on. It’s just not everyone getting their own suitcase.

            We pack the car up full with necessities and things we need just to go to the beach for a day much less a week. It takes more time than you think to just get out of the car and get the kids in the stroller. At this point you are really slowing down the whole group and that wouldn’t be fair to everyone else. So that would be a concern for the rest of the Buffer team.

            The other concern I would personally have is that if I am in South Africa or Iceland I want to be sure that I can have reasonable contact with my wife and kids and in case of an emergency, within a reasonable distance (and time) to get home (if necessary), which would not be the case with international travel. New York City, Florida or something like that wouldn’t be much of a deterrent. Nothing is more important than your family and their welfare. Also what about retreats during my son or daughters birthday? I wouldn’t miss those for the world. Those times you never get back. What about anniversaries? Curious how you guys schedule everyones personal time around the retreats.

            I have thought about applying but if the travel is required (and I do understand the need for it) then that would be a deterrent for me.

            Just thought I would lend my thoughts :)

  • Love this concept – I’ve just found it to be a little difficult to pull off with an entire team. What happens to the product itself while everyone is away? For example, when you have customer support/sales questions, etc.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Hey Justin; great question! Most of our “regular work” continues while we’re on retreat together – it’s not a vacation. The change is that we get to work together, and have some fun in off hours. :)

  • Brooke

    I can’t agree with this more. I previously oversaw a large team in Asia – and the few weeks a year I spent with them in the same room were some of the most creative and productive of the entire year. It’s also nice to see that you put a value on building a tight team – even when you’re all working remotely.

    Thanks for the Sqwibble mention – looks interesting!

    • Courtney Seiter

      Thanks, Brooke! What a cool experience that must have been!

  • I think this is so amazing! I have been working in social media for 3 years now. I don’t know what I would do without those real life connections with the people I work with. The support we give each other needs to go beyond a computer screen from time to time. As a work-at-home mom, I find that creating work-life balance is so important! My husband and I both travel for work. We also have found ways to support each others’ professional goals while still being family-oriented. Any attention or time away from my boys better be worth it! As I am looking to take my career to the next level in 2014, my goal is to work at Buffer! I use to be a psychologist and switched to social media 3 years ago. Buffer would be the perfect place for a psychologist turned social media guru to work!

    • Courtney Seiter

      Glad you enjoyed reading about our retreat! Yup, connection is the most important element–whether online or in person. :)

  • This looks like fun! Thanks for sharing these behind-the-scenes moments from the retreat.

    Quick question: since all of you are in the same location at the same time — how do you all handle the around-the-clock support issues that are normally covered by a distributed team in various time zones? For example, during the weekdays do you all work in different groups with different shifts, as opposed to all together?

    I’m just curious. :)

    • Courtney Seiter

      Great question! This can be a bit of a challenge since we’re talking with folks all around the world. There’s a bit of time-shifting of hours going on, and for this trip there were a few folks who were still in their “Buffer bootcamp” and thus weren’t yet eligible to go on the retreat. So the team was still a little distributed, just not nearly as much as normal!

      • Ah, I see — that makes sense. Thanks Courtney :)

  • SF Native

    Not sure if it’s your adherence to Buffer Values in hiring practices or a combo of factors – but diversity appears to be a little lacking on your team. Like many tech concerns, it seems the idea of “culture fit” might be engendering an extremely narrow view of what kind of person is best to hire. Perhaps the 11th Buffer Value could be something to do with seeking diversity in backgrounds, opinions, world views? Is that idea perhaps at odds with one or several of your OG 10 B.V.s?

    • This is a great question. It’s something we’re trying to be pretty conscious about. At the same time, we are simply going through every application and understanding the culture-fit one-by-one of each person. I have no reason to believe our 10 values are at odds with diversity. The exciting thing about the values is that there are people from all corners of the world who live their lives by the values already. In many senses with people across 5 continents and over 15 cities, we are already a rather diverse bunch. I’m excited for that to continue :)

    • I see, so Whites Need Not Apply, is that what you’re saying? Of course it is. Diversity is BS.

  • Do you still work when you’re on trips? I mean… work in the same routine? Guess not! Then how do you cope with ongoing work?

    • Courtney Seiter

      Yup, we do a pretty full week of work during our retreats!

  • Agnes Dadura

    Well, it is clear that Buffer’s culture is amazing, I hope your example will promote remote work around the globe, because that’s a model I really like. Anyway, you should meet up in Taiwan next time, especially you have team mates here. This is a place I’ve chosen to live in :-)

    • Hi Agnes! Thanks for your kind words! We believe really strongly in remote work, too. If we can provide any resources to those considering it, that would be great. Taiwan sounds amazing! I’ll definitely make sure to put in a good word for it!

      • Agnes Dadura

        let me know if you’d need help in organizing it :) I’ve been here for 8 years, so I can offer lots of advice :)

  • Janny

    Hi How long do you usually go out for retreat?

    • Hi there! We usually work in the retreat location for a full work week (M-F) and then hang around for the weekend to have some fun together. It’s not uncommon for some team members to stick around after the retreat or arrive a bit beforehand to get in some exploration time on their own as well. :)

  • Andrea

    I love y’alls blog posts. I’m the travel coordinator for a small distributed startup that gets the whole company together for similar retreats a couple times a year. As we continue to grow, it’s becoming more of a challenge to find a good location for our retreat that has solid wifi and accommodations that are big enough/within our budget. Do you have an employee who organizes the retreats, or do you use an outside company? Do you have any tips or resources (or more blog posts) for organizing company retreats? Any favorite locations?

    • Andrea if your team is interested in Thailand by chance, I’d be honored to help create a fantastic experience for you guys if you’d find it useful – see more at heroicescape.com

    • Hey Andrea! These are all great questions! I wonder if this post might help out a bit? https://open.bufferapp.com/inside-buffer-retreat/ It’s got a bit more detail about our retreat process and the tools that we use. :)

  • This is awesome Joel. I’ve been hosting retreats for the last year now in Costa Rica and Thailand, and I find they’ve been hugely impactful for everyone who has participated. It’s humbling and exciting to get such consistent, fantastic feedback, and it creates a unique environment to brainstorm, to get a bit of a break and a relax, and to rejuvenate those motivation juices! If you guys ever want to come out for a spectacular time in Thailand, please let me know – I’d be super happy to help craft a customized retreat for your team – heroicescape.com

    • Hey Cody,
      Wow, what a cool job you have! Thanks so much for the offer; we’ll keep it in mind. I have a feeling we might get to Costa Rica one of these days…

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