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Don’t Just Facilitate, Create: The 6 Guidelines of Product at Buffer

The makeup of the Buffer product team is constantly in motion. We’re always evolving in search of the ideal team structure that helps us move as quickly as possible and make the most impact for the community.

I sat down recently and tried to articulate how we’re aspiring to approach one piece of the puzzle—–the Product Creator role. I want to share that with you today and get your thoughts!

As you may have seen, there’s no shortage of writing about product leadership. So this is simply a stab at sharing Our Way. We don’t claim to have figured it out, or even perfectly embody what you’re about to read. But this is a place that feels best for us, so we’re eager to share.

With that said, here’s a little peek into what it’s like to be a Product Creator at Buffer.
product creator

Earn leader status, don’t assume it.

The Product Creator is asked to lead a team of designers, developers, data analysts, researchers and others on the path of making Buffer the best it can be for the community and for the team.

In many ways, the unspoken theme goes something like this: Above all, create products the Buffer community will love, benefit from and happily pay for!

To do that is no small task. The ideal Product Creator has:

  • A rapport with widely varied roles like engineering, design, customer success, etc.
  • A deep internalization of Buffer’s vision and purpose
  • Empathy for what our customers are out to accomplish on social media
  • A sense of how the platforms and the marketing landscape are evolving
  • The commitment to make Buffer better every day
  • A growth mindset and drive to find the highest leverage opportunities available

When all of these things work together, we find that natural leadership is on display.

Don’t simply facilitate, create.

At Buffer, Product Creator is an intentionally unique title. Where some might choose Product Manager or Product Owner, we chose the word ‘Creator.’

Why? Because Product Creators are a key role on the team, not a facilitating role above the team. Said another way, the creator is a fellow maker, not simply a decision maker. They’re ready and capable to move forward at pretty much any step of the process.

A few examples:

  • A Product Creator wouldn’t fully design every piece of a new feature, but they would open up Sketch and wireframe a workflow that clearly communicates the idea.
  • A Product Creator wouldn’t write code for a new report, but they would know enough about charting packages and their capabilities to understand how the choice affects the end result.
  • A Product Creator wouldn’t talk to 20 customers about a research question, but they would reach out to 1-2 key customers per week to have an open-ended conversation about social media marketing.
  • A Product Creator wouldn’t take on sole responsibility for creating and analyzing a cohort analysis of a new pricing test, but they would open a data set and tweak the criteria to better understand the results.
  • A Product Creator wouldn’t write a whole 8-part email nurturing series, but they would do a rough draft of a feature launch email that simply needs some editing before sending to a key customer segment.

Here’s one way we visualize this.

Traditional Product Management:

traditional product

The Buffer Product Creator:

product at Buffer

Prioritize, rather than own.

Ideas and insights come from everywhere: Blog comments, happiness heroes, vision set by Joel and Leo, passionate customers, customer development, data analysis, business development, social network evolutions and more.

All inputs are valid, and we have a lot of them being as transparent (and as curious) as we are.

What matters most is how we unpack an idea and discern the opportunity in it. What’s our current appetite (and need) for core improvements, expanding features and venture risk? It’s the Product Creator’s domain to creatively pursue growth and product improvements, even with limited time and resources.

Encourage pace without demanding it.

Our process is light, so we rely on communication and mutual respect to keep things moving and stay focused.

Many times it’s the Product Creator who feels the pressure and accountability to the rest of the business to deliver the project on time.

This compels him or her to seek out status updates, to ask how we can be more lean, to ask how we can condense timelines, etc.

Take the heat, share the glory.

When things go wrong, the Product Creator seeks to learn and share the mistakes they made along the way. Maybe they didn’t ask for the right audience in a round of research, didn’t analyze the alternatives well, etc.

When things are good, the Product Creator brags on the amazing team that made the project happen. The engineers who hustled, the designers who broke a sweat over each pixel, the data analyst who found the missing link, the researcher who talked to 100 customers.

Learn and keep learning.

Buffer isn’t asking for positive outcomes from every experiment, feature and product launch. Yes, we’re all working for growth, and we talk about those goals a lot.

But our immediate goal is to learn. And keep learning. And then come back for more.

In doing that, we believe we’ll become the best version of Buffer possible and share it with more people than ever.

What about you? Do you have a particular way you’ve found works to do product in your organization? 

I’d love to hear all your thoughts in the comments.

And if you’re interested in being part of our team of Product Creators at Buffer, let’s chat!

  • Braden Allred

    I love this post! Thank you. One of the the things I love about the way buffer does product is that it falls right in line with all the best methods I’ve learned about while I studied it and while I worked on my own startups.
    Furthermore, I love the collaboration and no ego that buffer promotes. Ego destroys moral so quickly and inhibits so much progress. So, it’s refreshing to hear from Buffer the way they are approaching things with an open, learning attitude.

    • Awesome to hear from you, Braden! Thanks for adding to the discussion here. :)

  • Amanda L

    In my Product Manager experience, I found that I excel and happier when I am in the trenches with my team, and not the one demanding deadlines and status updates. When I can grab a marker and start drawing on the whiteboard, along side my team, or help QA a new feature, is when I feel like part of a team. I made the mistake of moving into a Project Manager role with another company, and let me tell, being the deadline nag is not fun. I am now the one on the sidelines, watching my team have all the fun.

    Kudos to Buffer for creating the Product Creator role. More companies should follow your lead.

    • Awesome perspective, Amanda. It is so much more fun this way. :)

  • Awesome piece, Jim! Totally agree on the “earn leader status” part. To build on top of that, we make sure our PMs can clearly describe the game we’re playing (e.g. vision, values, differentiation) and the metrics we use to judge success allowing other team members, independent of the PM, to sort through different ideas and decide which ones are worth acting on. So everyone on the team can answer the questions like “How do we win the game?” or “Is there a better game to be playing?”

    • Hi Vince! So good to hear from you. What a great way to frame things up, too. The PM needs that holistic view, you’re right!

  • This offers some great insight into the Product Creator role at Buffer, thanks! I especially liked the “would/wouldn’t” distinctions. In my career I’ve evolved from front-end dev to customer researcher to product marketing manager and it’s fun to look at a list like this and recognize “I can do all those things, but on a great team, I wouldn’t have to!’

    Jim – what’s your FAVORITE part of the job? What’s the part that you most struggle with?

    Thanks for the article!

  • Florian Schild

    Great post Jim! I loved to get an insight into Buffers understanding of product creating and the role of the product creator. It is awesome that you guys are so open-minded about it and share your experiences.

    I can fully agree to the above mentioned points, the picture summarizes it quite neatly. In my opinion the product manager / creator needs to be embedded into the other teams and not standing and working isolated from them. So, an integrated approach like the one you are describing is the perfect way to do it.
    We try to follow this example here as well and I try to follow this approach as closely as possible. For me, one of the key problems is the prioritizing issue, since there are so many opinions about what is important and what is not. So, to dig into this and find out what are real key issues is always a big challenge.

    It would be great to hear more about how you handle different aspects of the process, maybe even some examples. I love to read the entire Buffer blog and it is such a refreshing way to look and talk about things. Keep up the great work!

  • Karyn Lathan

    I love the way Buffer works. Transparency, Teamwork, and Creativity… a winning hand.

  • Really love the insight provided here – the job description of this position is definitely augmented by this post. You should link the two!

  • @jimhitch:disqus Great description as I had no idea of the role of a product creator. From a customer stand-point, it’s neat to see how much goes into this so when I see Buffer at the front-end, it’s a really polished user-friendly product. I like the easy, user-friendly part. :)

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