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The Top Reason We Haven’t Sold Our Startup

We’ve been lucky at Buffer to receive a number of acquisition offers along our journey so far. When I mention this to people, a key question that often comes up is “how did you decide not to sell?”

The earliest offer we had for Buffer was not long after we had started, and it felt fairly easy for us to say no, simply because we felt we wanted to see where further our current path leads.

In many ways, the reason we haven’t accepted an acquisition offer is in order to continue on our path.

why we havent sold

How much more learning could you have if you keep going?

However, after we said no the first time, we noticed something quite incredible happen. In the months that followed, we had several brand new learnings and experiences about growing a company.

For example, after our first offer we soon established the values of the Buffer culture, chose to commit to being a distributed team, and I found myself in a position where I needed to learn how to let people go. These were all priceless business and life experiences. Learning to fire people was not easy, but I feel very thankful to now have this experience.

This is one of the most important considerations for us now. If you sell your company, you will sacrifice future learnings. Of course, you will learn many valuable things as part of a new company. A framework I have created in my head for this, however, is to think about when I will have the same opportunity again.

When can you get back to that same level of learning again?

If you are 2 years into your startup and have found traction, and then you sell your company, when will you next be 2 years into a startup? When will you be able to experience the learning that happens in the third year of a startup? I think that doing a full cycle and selling a company will be valuable, and I like to think that with that experience I could perhaps grow a company faster in the future.

However, it will still take some time. In addition, you will likely work at the acquirer for a couple of years. For me, in this scenario, I would expect to work at the acquirer a couple of years, then it might take a year to find a good idea which can gain product/market fit, and then you have the 2 years to reach the same stage.

So, all-in-all, if I sell my 2-year-old company, it could be 5 years before I am able to next experience the learnings that come in the third year of a startup. We don’t have many 5-year periods in our lives to wait to have another chance for incredible experiences.

The second time we turned down an acquisition offer, we grew to around 15 people and started to feel like we went beyond a product towards an actual company. Many new learnings came with this, like thinking about how to structure a company with more people, and the true importance of culture.

And interestingly, the most recent time we chose not to sell, we have found ourselves on a magical journey of removing hierarchy and managers, embracing self-management and striving to create a truly fulfilling workplace where a foundation of trust and freedom means that everyone can work on what they are passionate about.

Focusing on learning and experiences rather than money

why we haven't sold quoteMoney will come and go, but experiences and learning are what I define as true wealth. This is why we try to frame a decision of whether to sell around the opportunities for learning and experience in each path.

Our advisor, Hiten Shah, asked us perhaps the most simple and useful question when we discussed the topic of selling with him:

“Are you done? No? Then don’t sell.”

Sometimes founders may be tired, lacking the motivation they once had. Maybe then it can make sense to sell. We’re not done yet, and I’m excited to see where this path leads.

  • I can certainly see why it’d be tempting to sell. It’s easy for people to say they wouldn’t take the buyout offer and criticize others for doing so, but most would change their tune if they had the cartoon-style bags of cash sitting in front of them.

    It’s awesome that you haven’t done so. There are so many lessons to learn and so many sweet new thing to build at Buffer. You can’t guarantee any of that will happen if you sell your startup. Staying with it offers so many opportunities to create even more amazing things. I’m really looking forward to seeing what you and the Buffer team do in the future. :)

  • msl_007

    I’ve seen similar (yet different) services bought out by other companies and then the original product hardly exists. So much so that it wasn’t useful anymore. How is that good for the original customer base?

    You guys are pretty much the only service I’ve paid for long-term, so hopefully I would be grandfathered in after a major change. But it would still make me nervous.

    And as you’ve so eloquently described, it would not be the same for you guys either.

    Keep up the good work. Marketers and bloggers thank you daily.

  • Sylvia

    I think you guys are currently and will continue to be game changers for all start-ups! What truly sets you apart is “striving to create a truly fulfilling workplace where a foundation of
    trust and freedom means that everyone can work on what they are
    passionate about.” Keep going! So inspiring to see this level of transparency from a company!

  • Paul Tucker

    Excellent: “Money will come and go, but experiences and learning are what I define as true wealth.”

  • Grant Heimbach

    Hi Joel, thank you so much for always sharing! I’m so grateful to learn about what you all are doing at Buffer and inspired in my own life by it.

    I’ve been curious, are there any sources that you use to keep learning about Teal organizations, other than Reinventing Organizations or The Decision Maker books?

    I didn’t know if you have taken some courses, read other books, visited companies, talked with CEOS, read certain blogs, followed people on Twitter or had any other companies in mind that you think are really “nailing it” when it comes to operating as a Teal organization.

    Thanks again!

  • Jason Richmond

    I really enjoyed the insight into your decision to keep working on your start up versus selling. I am a big supporter of being able to work in a fulfilling, trust worthy environment that places an emphasis on working on your passion.

  • Merci Joël. Excellent article. Très intéressant ! Philippe

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