May we suggest...

Joel's Posts

To Plan or Build? Balancing the Two in A Startup

A while back, I met with a great founder who’s really hustling. We spent some time discussing his idea and I shared some of my experiences with Buffer.

When we’d almost finished our 30-minute meeting, he had one last question:

“Plan vs build. Where do you stand?”

I thought it was a fantastic question. Clearly it’s not a binary choice, yet I think it’s also good to ponder which of the two you should focus on.

What does it mean to plan?

I believe planning is an essential part of making progress. I think there’s no way you could dismiss it. If you have a startup idea, or if you have an idea for a new feature, it would not be productive to start building without spending some time deciding what work is involved, how the idea should be approached and some of the milestones being aimed for.

That said, from my experience of building startups I now think the focus should be firmly on building over planning. I think a good ratio of building to planning would be 95/5 or even greater.

The daily standup

As an example, a daily standup has become a common and important ritual for teams. One of the widespread principles of a daily standup is a 15-minute duration:

“Keep the meeting to 15 minutes or less. Minds wander and focus is lost if the meeting continues beyond this time frame.”

If you think about the ratio 15 minutes equates to in an 8 hour day, it is around 3%. I think this is perfect.

Brainstorms at Buffer

As Buffer evolves, we wouldn’t get very far without the time we spend planning. Often we say to each other:

“Can I spend a few minutes brainstorming what might be best for me to work on next?”

Other times we’ll brainstorm the next steps for a specific feature, or thrash out the technical details of how something should be implemented.

However, we’ve found that we have formed a culture with a focus on acting with incomplete information, and a bias for progress over discussion. When we brainstorm, after around 20 minutes one or more of us in the discussion will feel itchy to move on from the brainstorming and get back to building.

What does it mean to build?

I’ve come across some seriously smart people who decide they want to build a startup. One of the things I see people struggling with the most is getting out of the planning phase.

To start building takes real guts. To actually put something out there, to ship something, that’s scary. It’s terrifying because it then becomes real. All the plans are tested. However, we all know that “shipping” is what we must do to achieve great things.

“What you do for a living is not be creative, what you do is ship.” – Seth Godin

You can’t learn by planning

A quote I keep coming back to, and find myself repeating to many founders I meet, is the following by Matt Mullenweg:

“Usage is like oxygen for ideas. You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something youve created until its out there.”

This is something we try to embrace at Buffer. I truly believe you can’t learn a lot by planning. You’ve got to ship it and see the results.

The surprise of data

Until you start shipping regularly and thinking about everything in terms of how quickly you can get usage and test your assumptions, it’s easy to imagine that things will often go to plan. The crazy part is, in my experience, the more likely case is that things won’t go to plan.

Here are two examples of data that have surprised us in the past:

  • In a version of the Buffer browser extension popup, for which we conducted user testing, we found a key feature was completely misunderstood by 90% of users.
  • We built an MVP of a weekly email feature, aimed at being sent to all users. We manually calculated results which would later be calculated by an algorithm and found that the results were only good enough for us to email 40% of users.

What can we do right now?

In both of the above examples, we were lucky to have created a culture of doing things lean. What this means is that we don’t feel invested in something when it fails, and we can quickly make decisions about adjustments to work towards great results.

As a result of doing more of these quick lean validation activities, we are increasingly asking ourselves “what can we do right now?” whenever we plan a new feature or significant change that has untested assumptions.

How do you feel about planning vs building? What is the approach you take with balancing the two activities? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • Ryan Vanderbilt

    I like the amount of awareness you all have for this. It’s one of those things that can easily get out of balance. I love to read and learn as I know you all do, but at times I have to keep in check the amount of ‘input’ vs ‘output.’ Thanks for the post and thoughts Joel!

  • Ian Robins

    Great post Joel and a really interesting debate. I tend to agree with you in terms of split. Planning is important to capture your focus and priorities. This shouldn’t be something that consumes lots of time. I’ve found capturing key goals and associated key tasks with owners useful for this. It helps provide clarity on what’s important to achieve over a particular timeframe.

    Nothing beats actually shipping something. You learn so much from getting something out there, gathering data and feedback to help shape improvements. The build, review, learn approach creates greater insight to refocus priorities and goals so everyone feels a sense of direction and track progress.

    Keep up the good work!

  • Rob Abis

    Interesting. Thanks for sharing Joel ; )

    I think the fact that you are able to only plan 5% of the time and spend the rest of the time building, is a true testament to the culture you have built as a company. The way you have Buffer setup as a organization you are able to “feel” things and just go with it; building and shipping quickly. For a more rigid company, it’s probably a lot harder to get the ball rolling, harder to retract from things that they’ve built and didn’t work, and the costs are probably higher in doing so. There are also managers who will hear about how much they cut into their budget, etc. Like you mentioned, most people are not comfortable with acting with incomplete information, but it’s so woven into your culture that it works for Buffer.

    On the other hand, I think that one benefit of spending more time on planning is that it can build anticipation, both for employees and customers. Some companies like share their plans and build some anticipation for the next version of their product. For example, new features for Adobe Photoshop are typically shared well before the next version is out and they generate some free press and build some anticipation in their community. I also think that employees, if they truly support the planned milestones, also enjoy the anticipation that can be built with planning.

    So maybe the right balance of planning and building depends on your product, culture, and organizational structure. I agree that most companies probably spend too much time on planning, but it’s also something that’s probably too ingrained into their culture and hard to get away from.

  • Manoj Kariappa

    THINKERS(Planners) are Productive if they keep thinking 95% of the time.

    OPERATORS(Doers) are Productive if they keep doing 95% of the time.

    For Stability, Scaleup, etc., both should Coexist.

    CEO/VISIONARY/ARCHITECT has to be Visualising/Creating ‘effective’ PRODUCT/Biz Model Evolution, 95% of the time.

    COO just implements Visionary’s Vision by ‘efficient’ PRODUCTION/DELIVERY Processes/Value chains.

    Right now, BUFFER needs 95% DOING..

    When somebody/Competitor changes the biz model and offers all of BUFFER features FREE, and SELLS VALUE differently,

    BUFFER will need 95% THINKING/PLANNING to Evolve a NEW Biz Model/PRODUCT/PERSONAS.

    For PROACTIVE(LONG TERM) VISION, both should Coexist throughout. Getting Caught in a new wave UNAWARES costed my client his company(500 employees, 40 million Dollars Revenue and 200M networth, became -160million, in debt. Because, it had 955 Doers, who didn’t know ‘What to Do/DELIVER ?

    BALANCE of both is Key to the ‘STRUCTURE’ and ‘CULTURE’ of Booming Corporations.

  • Paul Hayward

    I think this is a very simple and easy set of thoughts on a start up on the Internet , but i think you should mention that in real ground level physical business start ups that this does not work and is no way advice in starting a real business. Plus i think you are trying to teach how to suck eggs !

  • Paul Hayward

    Planning v Building is totaly the wrong direction ,, using old 80s techniques of brain storming and new stand ups are a load of crap. If you dont know whats going on in tour company every hour of the day then you will lose it !
    Never get bogged down by so called new management techniques ! Just know your business and employees and just have a meeting for half hour every morning with “free talk” to understand what your business is doing and how your employees feel about you and your management .

  • Paul Hayward

    Good luck to you Joel, you are a young guy who has read the wrong things and will one day realise.

80,000+ social media marketers trust Buffer

See all case studies