What does it mean to have a “startup mindset”?

We’ve always tried to offer as much insight as we can into how we hire at Buffer. With Buffer’s core value of transparency, it feels like the right thing to do.

In the past, we’ve often shared this diagram with teammates working in hiring and with potential candidates, showing the four main components that we’ve grown to believe make for a great fit at our startup.

how we hire at Buffer

Lately we’ve been giving the “strong startup mindset biased toward action” quadrant a hard look to see if we could become more clear and explicit about what exactly we’re looking for, and why.

Implicitly, we’ve always valued doers and makers at Buffer, as well as moving fast, occasionally breaking things and asking for forgiveness instead of permission. Internally (and fairly un-grammatically) we often call this factor “startupyness.”

It all goes back to something our teammate Steven said once that we all really related to:

“Being a part of a startup is like trying to build a bike while riding it.”

startup bike

The “startup” factor was missing from our values

Other tech companies like Facebook have done an awesome job at making this factor a very explicitly stated element of their values:

facebook values

Speed and adaptability are crucial factors for us, too: We all try to be fluid and adapt to any challenges that come our way.

But we’ve never quite had this “startup” factor truly reflected in our values—here’s a look at how they were written until very recently:

As a result, we have often found ourselves providing feedback to those in the Buffer bootcamp to to try and move towards action quickly instead of lingering too long on reading up or trying to understand everything about the Buffer culture from the get-go.

In hindsight, this must have been a bit tough for them to understand, since this philosophy was more of an implicit understanding that wasn’t written into our values or much of anywhere else outside the above diagram.

So what does it mean to be startupy?

As a result, we decided to make a new change to our always-evolving Buffer values to make this element of our culture more explicit.

But first, it was important to understand what we’re talking about when we talk about startupyness, or a startup mindset. Do we mean only people who have previously worked at startups? Or all people who are willing to move fast, fail, and learn from it?

Now that we’re self-managed, it’s become more important than ever to be explicit about self-direction, initiative and moving fast.

Here are some of the bullet points we considered for a potential “startupy” value:

  • When an existing solution exists, you consider choosing it over reinventing the wheel
  • You are mindful of time, not only your own but also how it impacts customers & team members
  • You prefer sensing & reacting over predicting & controlling
  • You are easily able to adapt to change
  • You tend to ask for forgiveness, rather than permission

Can you move fast and still be reflective?

Another big question for us was how a value of “moving fast” would counterbalance with our value of reflection. Were they paradoxical, or could these two work together?

We’d like to strive for both, and Niel reminded us of a perfect example that shows how the two can live in harmony together.

“The 5 Whys process is perhaps a perfect example of how these two values could be mutually beneficial. The reflection creates changes in processes to keep our momentum and lean nature.”

“Bias toward action” > Startupiness

One thing that felt very important for us to keep front-of-mind is that you don’t need startup experience to have a mindset that will work great at a startup.

Anyone can be biased toward action and excited about moving fast, and calling this trait “startupyness” or even including the word” startup” in this value could have had the effect of alienating some candidates who might have otherwise been a great fit.

One of our super thoughtful commenters explained it really well in a comment about the top diagram:

“What I find interesting is that a great match is one who has a “strong startup mindset biased towards action.” I would caution to not be so biased towards candidates who’ve never worked at startups. It’s a catch-22 when you expect someone to have startup experience before allowing them to work at your startup. And you don’t need a startup mindset to be biased towards action. Asking for this means that Buffer runs the risk of turning down a great match because they don’t have the same background as Buffer employees. This could also speak towards and address the lack of diversity in Buffer and many other startups.”

Keeping this in mind, it felt great to focus on the underlying mentality behind moving fast, rather than the word “startup” itself.

Our new values, now with “bias toward action”

A glimmer of our focus on action could possibly be reflected in many of our existing values, from “live smarter, not harder” to  “no ego doer,” but none of them quite spelled it out as plainly as we wanted.

In the spirit of moving fast, we decided to modify our existing value of “Be a ‘no ego’ doer” to create more of an explicit definition of the moving fast mindset we think works best at Buffer.

Here’s a look:

Old “no ego doer” value

old no ego doer

New “no ego doer value”

new no ego doer

Essentially, these two lines are new:

  • You are adaptable and comfortable with making decisions and working in situations of uncertainty
  • You have a bias towards action: Done well today is better than perfect next week

Leo was instrumental in bringing this change about, and here’s how he described it:

“What this new value change means to me is that we’re trying our best to move beyond the many small moments of uncertainty and doubt that we might feel when working on something to instead doing our best to provide more value to our customers as soon as possible. Starting experiments to learn and iterate quickly and making changes with confidence even if they seem tough at times. I feel that we’re doing a lot of these things already and I’m excited to make it more explicit in our values.”

Over to you!

We hope this change to our values will help anyone looking in from the outside understand our way of doing things a bit better and also guide us in our own hiring and feedback decisions a bit more clearly.

We’d love to hear from you have if you have any thoughts on how this change makes you feel!

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Written by Courtney Seiter

Courtney writes about social media, diversity and workplace culture at Buffer. She runs Girls to the Moon on the side and pets every dog she sees.

  • Sylvia

    Cool to see that breakdown of the general concept of “start-upyness” and what it means to Buffer into the basic building blocks! Working in start-up myself, I see the daily bias of trying to stay lean and move fast…I admit that we made a lot of mistakes but we also equally value no blaming and growth so it feels like you inevitably become better and better! To me, it makes sense that if you feel “safe” to make mistakes then you’re more likely to take the risks and are able to improve product/service.

  • Ok. I get it. To me, it isn’t quite like building a bike while riding it. I compare it to being a first time parent. You go into the situation predicting and controlling and the minute your child is here, you’re forced to sense and react. Nothing is ever perfect, but you quickly learn to be more efficient and better today than you were yesterday.

    The only thing I’m having difficulty understanding is how do you measure this when you’re looking at candidates? Or rather, what are some things great candidates have done to exemplify startupyness?

    • Jessica Guzik

      Great question, T! I’d be curious to hear from the Buffer team on this one.

      It seems a bias towards action would be hard to measure. On the other hand, I wonder if a candidate could demonstrate adaptability in uncertainty by explaining a decision she made when, e.g., leadership was lacking; an organization was failing; or no precedent existed for making that kind of decision.

      Perhaps a candidate could talk about her bias towards action by describing something she accomplished quickly but with some reservations. It might be helpful for Buffer to understand a candidate’s thought process when she has to decide whether to sacrifice speed or perfection.

  • Great to see a change to help us better understand the ideal candidate for Buffer. I can certainty see where there a little question of the meaning previously which could have led some to feel they may not be up for the part. It’s great to see that you can recognize when changes or clarification needs to be made to help bring a better understanding to all of us considering being part of the Buffer team. Thanks so much Courtney.

  • Thank you so much for explaining this a bit more, Courtney! Buffer is without a doubt one of the top places I’d love to work some day, but I’ve always been a little concerned about applying because I’ve never worked at a startup before. I love that the mindset isn’t so much that you’ve worked at a startup, but rather, you get things done well, but the point is that you get them done. As Jon Acuff say, “Done is better than perfect.”

  • Thanks for sharing this Courtney, it’s a cool look into Buffer, have admired the transparency from day one. Sketched up a recap for you too :)

    • This is really great, Matt! Thanks for sharing :)

  • Thank you so much for this post.

    “Bias toward action” is something I have been struggling to confidently and consistently embody in my day to day actions.

    Having a set of actionable decision criteria that I can ask at every juncture has by far been the most helpful tool.

    My go-to ‘course correction’/’calibration’ kata has been to ask: “what is the simplest possible thing we can do right now to deliver incremental/iterative value or delight to our customers”?

    It’s a combination of things mentioned, like Leo’s quote “provide more value to our customers as soon as possible” and one of the points on the old “no ego doer” value slide: “You approach new ideas thinking ‘what can we do right now?'”.

    Based on this post, I’ve added two statements from the new “no ego doer” value to the kata:

    Done well today is better than perfect next week

    You ship code the moment it is better than what is live on our site

    I think these help bring even more clarity to the purpose of the question. Thank you for sharing them!

    That being said, this is way easier said than done. In practice, I always find myself asking and re-evaluating: “What is value?” “Is this action just movement, or is it progress?”

    In that regard, I’ve been doing a lot of exploration on how to measure value, progress, and learning. My favorite sources so far have been:

    Lean Analytics: Use Data to Build a Better Startup Faster
    http://www.amazon.com/Lean-Analytics-Better-Startup-Faster/dp/1449335675/

    Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win
    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DGZKVIC/

    The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development
    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00K7OWG7O/

    Software Development Metrics
    http://www.amazon.com/Software-Development-Metrics-Dave-Nicolette/dp/1617291358/

    Agile Metrics in Action: Measuring and Enhancing the Performance of Agile Teams
    http://www.amazon.com/Agile-Metrics-Action-Measuring-Performance/dp/1617292486/

    I would love to know if there are any additional resources I should look at, and I also echo @T.Nichols and @Jessica Guzik’s requests to hear more from the Buffer team on how you measure it.

    Cheers, Martin

  • Jes Kirkwood

    Thanks for sharing this, Courtney.

    I’m curious: How does this hiring preference work alongside Buffer’s operator/editor model? After reading about both, the two seem to conflict. Your operator/editor model appears to value two distinct strengths, whereas Buffer’s preference for hiring people “biased toward action” appears to value the operator over the editor.

    Here’s an example: By your definition, editors love “to go deep in the details and make sure we’re doing things right”. But in this article, you suggest that Buffer prefers employees who move fast (leaving little time for critical thinking) and choose existing solutions over “reinventing the wheel” (leaving little room for innovation).

    I’ve worked for and with many startups over the years, so I certainly understand the need for adaptable employees. It’s a must! But as an editor, I’m sad that your team appears to have a preference for operators over editors. When you have a minute to spare, I’d love to hear more from your team about this.

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