May we suggest...

Inside Buffer

Competition, Culture and Tough Feedback: 13 Questions with Buffer Founder Joel Gascoigne

Not too long ago, our pals at Product Hunt were kind enough to ask Buffer founder Joel Gascoigne to host an “ask me anything” chat session.

10,000+ words and many dozen questions later, we wanted to share some of our favorite questions and answers with you, too.

1. Joel’s average weekday

Q: What’s your average weekday like?

A: These days I generally have a lot of quick meetings with different people in the team. I’m mainly focused within product/engineering, customer service, hiring and then on the higher level.

My calendar is open to people in the team, and it generally gets quite booked up. I have quick 20-minute sessions to give advice on a specific challenge. I also have one-on-ones with several people in the team, and so I usually have one of those each day too.

Other than work, I try to exercise several times a week too (either strength training at the gym, running, or doing a bodyweight workout at an outdoor gym).

2. Developing Buffer’s culture

Q: How did you come up with the idea of culture in the early days of Buffer and help the employees at Buffer understand the culture? – Adhi

A: I didn’t know what culture and values were when I started Buffer. It’s something that I learned about over time.

When we hit around 9 or 10 people at Buffer, I started to experience first-hand the impact of team dynamics. It was only then that I started to learn about company culture and tried to read as much as I could and watch presentations about it. By that point, a few parts of the culture had started to become clear: transparency, a focus on self-improvement, etc. But we hadn’t put this in to words.


It was right around then that I watched an interview that Tony Hsieh from Zappos had. I can’t remember exactly which one it was, but he was asked by the interviewer: if you could go back and start Zappos again, what would you do differently? He said that they had waited until they were more than 100 people before they put values into words and documented their company culture. If he were to start again, he’d do that from Day 1.

Zappos was the key company we looked up to for having such a strong company culture, so we had no choice: we had to put our values into words as soon as possible. After we did so, it really moved us from the company culture being ad-hoc and left to fate to us deliberately shaping it.

3. Surprises of a successful startup

Q: What surprises you about the experience of leading a successful startup team? – Amanda

A: I think one surprise is how big we can grow and still need to grow more. We’re 70 people now and if you’d told me a few years ago we’d be that many people I would have dismissed it.

Every single person in the team is awesome and completely necessary and not only that, we have another 20 roles we’re looking for people to join us to help us to do better!

Another surprise is how necessary structure is when you grow beyond a certain point, and how hard it is to get structure right. We’ve tried a lot of different things and we keep going with our efforts there.

4. If Buffer didn’t exist

Q: What would you be doing as a career if Buffer didn’t exist? – Jason

A: That’s a tough one to answer—I had several projects before Buffer that I considered startups, it was something I wanted to make happen really bad. A key turning point for me was when I realized it was more about making something work than the specific idea. In that sense, I think if Buffer didn’t exist then I might have found something else that would work. That would be my hope!

Before Buffer, I was a developer for about 10 years, that really was my identity. It’s been an interesting transition I’ve enjoyed to make the switch from developer to running a company and being more of a manager. I guess there’s a chance that my career could have stayed more technical and closer to the craft of programming. I do miss coding sometimes, but for me coding was always a means to creating something, so I love where I’ve ended up and wouldn’t change a thing.

5. How do you deal with competition?

Q: Would love to hear how you treat the competitive threat of Hootsuite and how you plan to dominate the market in the coming years! – Harry

A: This is a fun one, and I know Ryan personally and think everything he’s doing is incredible and inspiring. I think the key is to stay super focused on the user and the customer. We’re trying our best to do that, to understand what they need.

The funny thing about competition, especially for startups, is that it often isn’t the thing that will kill you. I really love this old article from Zoho: “Companies Don’t Get Killed by Competition, They Commit Suicide”— and really believe it.


Especially in the early days, and we fell into this ourselves, I hear a lot of startup founders coming to me and telling me about this other startup that is also building something similar.

But none of it matters—in reality, the problem both startups have is that most people don’t know about either of them! Competition can help to shine light on the market, which is often actually more useful than if you were alone.

6. Challenges of remote work

Q: Could you share any problems you had going remote with marketing and how you overcome them in the early days? – Skippr.

A: I’m not sure that remote marketing was a problem more than remote in general. Here’s some of my key advice for challenges of remote work.

The real key point I would say is this advice I got from David Cancel. He advised that we either be fully distributed, or have everyone in the same office. David said that the time he had a main office with the majority of people there and only one or two people working remotely, that didn’t work so well.

When you have everyone remote, it changes a lot of things. When you just have a few people remote, they can easily feel like second class citizens without full access to information.

7. One hour to solve a problem

Q: How would you spend your time if you had one hour to solve a user problem/need? – Junius

A: My key focus would be on fully understanding the problem/need. I think a lot of us as entrepreneurs jump straight to the solution. It’s hard to actually go out there and ask about the problems people have, and stay focused on the problem rather than jumping to solutions. As soon as you jump to a solution, you’re making assumptions.


That’s why my focus would be on customer development, on asking as much about the problem as I can without getting to solution. Ideally, you want to understand the user’s problems so well that the solution presents itself. This is really difficult, I’m not that great at it and that’s why within Buffer we’ve made it a key focus and have several people in the team full-time working on doing customer development.

If that sounds interesting to anyone, we’re looking for more people to be part of the team to do that.

8. 10 years from now

Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? – Ignacio

A: 10 years, wow. I’ll be 38. To begin with, I expect to still be working on Buffer—I’ll be surprised if I’m not. In that time, I would guess we could easily be 1,000 people. It’s crazy to think about.

On other topics, I expect to have a family, too—relationships are something I’ve not put too much focus on in the last few years while Buffer was in a fragile early stage, however now I am feeling more ability to focus a little on some personal things.

9. How Buffer hires

Q: How many people have been head-hunted by Buffer, compared to those who have applied through a job listing? – Chris

A: We’ve had such a strong focus on culture-fit, and we’ve also been lucky to have created a strong brand around both the product and our company values and culture. As a result, we receive 1,500-2,000 applications per month. Many, many people apply to be part of the team and know a massive amount about us before we start talking with them.

We’ve been lucky to find a way to make fully inbound hiring work super well for us, and we’ve actually struggled a lot with outbound hiring. I think there might only be 1 or 2 people in the team we’ve hired that way, if even that.

I think this might need to change as we progress further, especially if we need to find people with a lot more experience to join the team and be leaders of areas. We’re thinking a lot about that challenge, whether to focus on fully on nurturing people or whether to try to hire more senior people. I think right now we’re leaning towards building a culture of learning and nurturing leaders.

10. Culture vs. product

Q: Buffer has become widely known for its culture, transparency, and overall progressive nature. In fact I would say that the company is more widely known for this as opposed to the product itself. I’m sure this has benefits (such as finding amazing employees), but wonder if it gives you any challenges as well… – Chris

A: I think it can create some challenges also. One is that I think sometimes we end up focusing on the “non-product” side of things too much, when we really need to make sure that is balanced.

Another challenge that comes to mind is that we have created a higher bar for ourselves in terms of how much we share about everything, and that can in some ways slow us down.

A final challenge is that when we share so much, if we then change our minds, we end up with a lot of content out there that might be out of date or worse, might completely contradict our current views.

out of date

11. Balancing positivity and feedback

Q: What’s been the biggest challenge balancing a positive culture and necessary critical feedback? – Andrew

A: I think that itself has been the biggest challenge: to balance the positivity value with being truly honest and giving appropriate feedback.

I think for me it comes down to the difference between complaining and being honest with necessary feedback. There’s a quote from Eckharte Tolle’s A New Earth that helped me to find the line between these things:

“Complaining is not to be confused with informing someone of a mistake or deficiency so that it can be put right, and to refrain from complaining doesn’t necessarily mean putting up with bad quality or behavior. There’s no ego in telling the waiter that your soup is cold and needs to be heated up, if you stick to the facts, which are always neutral. “How dare you serve me cold soup!” – that’s complaining. There’s a “me” here that loves to feel personally offended by the cold soup and is going to make the most of it. A “me” that enjoys making someone wrong. The complaining we are talking about is in the service of the ego, not of change.”

This what I try to aim for—it’s really hard!

12. Something you used to believe

Q: What’s something you used to fervently believe that you now see as fundamentally misguided? – Erik

A: There are so many things. About 9 months ago when we were right in the middle of our focus on being self-managed, I truly believed that leadership, management and coaching were not required in organizations. I’ve learned how very wrong I am.


I still strive for us to create a unique company structure in Buffer and to challenge the traditional structures, but I’ve come to believe that people need guidance based on their experience level and stage within the company, and we lost a lot when we didn’t have that focus.

13. Buffer’s focus for 2016

Q: Noticed that you’re looking at OKRs as something as you round out 2016. What will be some of the aspects you’re looking to focus on for the new year to further drive the transparency, culture and product at Buffer? – Andy

A: We’re still figuring out OKRs and accountability, I’m excited about the steps we’re making there.

I think in terms of transparency, two areas come to mind that we could improve a lot: our product roadmap, and our hiring process. Those are key areas that I think we’re less transparent than we’d like to be.

In terms of culture, we’ve noticed that as we’ve doubled in size in less than half a year, some of the focuses we’ve had have become harder to keep up. One example would be our focus on self-improvement, which has slipped away slightly as a core thing.

In terms of product: a big one will be to launch Respond, of course. Alongside that, we want to keep innovating with our microbusiness/individual Buffer product (free and awesome plan) as well as really building out a solid solution for the medium/large business segment with Buffer for Business.

You can check out every question and answer right here.

Do you have a question for Joel? Share it with us in the comment and we’ll make sure he answers it in a future post!

  • Great article, Joel!! In regards to the continuing development of Buffer’s hiring process, I feel that the checklist questions at the bottom, (such as the Customer Researcher position), are very helpful to an applicant. It seems to me that those questions give a good personal reflection to whether the applicant feels right for the position. Keep up the great work, Buffer!!

  • Michael Jenkins

    What a great insight of the minds at Buffer. I have been following Buffer for some time now due to their way of thinking. All the years I have worked I had shared some of the same beliefs but never heard of a company that implements them.

    When I tell my family and friends about Buffer they can’t believe that a company puts that much time and energy into their employees. I can only imagine how much more successful Buffer is a company due to these.

    It is almost as if Buffer’s values are going back to a time when they cared about their product and those who use it. That’s how it should be anyways but I feel many lose sight of that and just look at the dollar sign.

    I love how you stay focused on fully understanding the problem/need before jumping to a solution. You are so right on this topic, and I think it is hard for some to step back from wanting to fix something immediately and to investigate the root issue instead. So many can learn from this simple, yet effective technique.

    I am looking forward to reading the rest of the interview from the AMA. Thank you Joel for sharing this with us. I always look forward to Buffer’s blogs.

  • @joelgascoigne I’m still completely blown away by your and Leo’s wisdom at such young ages. You do realize that most guys in their 20s are not leading successful start ups they are focusing on bars and having fun. You both are so wise are inspiring. I’m learning so much from you guys and looking forward to learning more. :)

  • Chris Joyce

    Thanks for your responses and sharing your insight Joel, having read through the Product Hunt Q&A as it happened it was clear to see your passion for Buffer, the Buffer culture and the Buffer team.

    It’s great to see your investment and love for Buffer and its team is reaping good reward. The one question that impacts me most is question five, I love the point you make in, as it can be applied to many areas of ones life. Cheers! ?

  • felicia.cristofaro


    Speaking to question two, verbalizing the Buffer culture so soon in the company’s lifetime seemed to do wonders! It has crafted the entire foundation of the company. I love that Buffer has a clear and succinct ten point culture mission statement. It really enforces how much of a priority these values are, and how much of a priority they are within the company. I really respect this bold definition of company culture. I’ve worked at companies where culture wasn’t taken so seriously. I appreciate that Buffer truly does “talk the talk & walk the walk”.

    Amazing approach to problem solving! I love how you advised to “asking as much about the problem as I can without getting to the solution”. I think that’s a brilliant way to ensure that you actually understand the full scope of the problem, before making any hasty conclusions.

    Also, if you enjoyed “A New Earth”, you should definitely check out “The Power of Now”. It’s a moving read! Thanks for sharing!

  • Alex Sabot

    @joelgascoigne Wow, thank you for sharing all of that insight into your journey and philosophy. I do feel that your culture and business model will be what other new business owners will look at for inspiration, much like you did with Zappos. Amazing job! You are making an impact on many lives!!

  • Thank you for sharing this, Joel. I always liked reading entries at Buffer blog, because here has a lot of entries with real statistics and some of them give lots of good advice.

    Here I have two questions for you:
    1. If Buffer initially started outside the US, do you think you would get to have the same success?
    2. What advice do you have for startups outside the US?

    PS: Sorry for my english.

  • Great update.

    I’m curious about something and I’m just going to throw it out there. I’ve noticed that roles are posted, unposted, and then later re-posted. I’m assuming, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that someone didn’t make it through bootcamp and that’s why the role is re-posted. When a role is re-posted is the first batch of candidates automatically considered or must they re-apply to be considered again? For example, the Life Saver role was posted a while back. I see it’s posted again; however, I don’t see anyone on the team who currently holds that position.

  • I can’t believe you’re only 28!! Such amazing (and deserved) success and wisdom for your age, keep up the good work!! I aspire to be as successful and wise in 5 years time (oh ok.. i’ll admit it.. 4 !!)

  • Stephen L. Hoops

    Joel! My question for you is this:

    What sort of skills should I be developing if one of my career goals is to work for Buffer?


  • Man you guys provide so much terrific information. Thank you for that.

    Hiring related questions:
    Q1: If a candidate is interested in more than one available position with Buffer, should they apply to each position separately and simultaneously, or apply to one and include a note of interest in others, or apply for one and then only apply for another if they’re turned down for the first?

    Q2: If an applicant is turned down for a position, can they reapply? If yes, can they request feedback for what would strengthen them as a candidate and how long should they wait before reapplying?

    Product related questions:
    (I’m a little bit behind with my reading of the social blog, so some of this might be covered within other posts, but I couldn’t pin them with a few quick searches)
    On the awesome plan you can queue up to 100 posts per account and on the business plan you can queue up to 2000+ posts per account.

    Q3: How many posts do you recommend consistently maintaining in the queue per account? (Let’s use Twitter as an example if you like.)

    Q4: How far out in advance do you recommend queuing content for a) sharing other peoples’ content and b) your own original content? (For example, would you schedule a Tweet posted today by someone else to retweet 3 weeks from now?)

80,000+ social media marketers trust Buffer

See all case studies