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Company Culture

Why We Prioritize Hiring People Who Use Our Product

When we wrote previously about how we hire at Buffer, one key component was that everyone we hire have usage of and experience with the Buffer product.

new buffer

That’s still the case today.

In the past we have asked folks to use the product for at least 2-3 months consistently before we would consider them for a role. This feels a bit limiting, and discounts the fresh perspective a newcomer to a product can bring.

Today we are a bit more flexible with this requirement, though we would definitely expect that a candidate has spent a good amount of time exploring the product and would be prepared to talk about the positives and challenges of their experience with Buffer’s tools.

I thought that this might be a great opportunity to share more widely about why we prioritize hiring people who use our product. In short, there are 2 key reasons to this:

1. It’s highly motivating and fun to work on something you use

The first reason I think it’s so important for people to have a clear and good understanding of what it means to use Buffer is that it simply makes working at Buffer more fun.

If you are building and improving something that you yourself enjoy using and that solves a need for you, it instantly creates a more motivating environment. It’s exciting to ship something new that you yourself have tested and can put to use for yourself.

Another side of this is that it reminds you that what you’re building is valuable. Whenever I’m using Buffer myself, without forcing myself to do so, I’m reminded that this is something that makes my life easier, and that gives me confidence to keep working on it.

2. It helps us create a better experience for our customers

If you know what it’s like to manage your social media accounts with a product like Buffer, I also think you have a more empathic understanding of what’s the best solution for our customers. When Joel initially had the idea for Buffer itself, he had discovered a problem and solved it for himself. It brought him a lot of joy to both create a product to solve a problem he himself had, and also discover that many others out there had the same problem and could now benefit from the solution. In the same way, every single person who is part of the Buffer team discovered their need for a tool like Buffer from many different angles, and it is quite special that we have all come together based on our love of social media and need for the functionality the product provides.

It’s a way to relate better to others who have the same problem as you do, aiming to grow and manage their social media presence with us. The line “be the best user of your own product” is something that I keep coming back to in order to truly build a world class experience.

I think this applies to all areas of Buffer across the board, whether that’s the happiness team, the marketing team, community, engineering or product:

  • For the happiness team for example, they can start answering questions and helping customers on day 1. If someone is brand new to the product, then they’d need to spend the first few days, if not weeks, of bootcamp in training. This way, they already know the basics and can start helping customers immediately. Of course they still learn a ton in the first 6 months, so I don’t mean to imply that it alleviates the need for training. It does make onboarding Heroes a lot smoother and better sets them up for success in that role.
  • The Buffer blog for example, is partially successful I believe because we’re using and experimenting with Buffer the product itself so much and sharing all our learnings there. Out of all the people on the team, Courtney and Kevan are likely the most proficient Buffer users because of that. It’s one step beyond “eating your own dog food”. What we’re showing with our blog is the success of usage of our own product, which is the best testimony for using something that one can find.
    • I have the same feeling for Moz for example – their blog dominates keywords on Google, like “Google algorithm”, where they rank above Google itself. That blow my mind and make me think…well, if I ever use any SEO product, I better use theirs.
  • I think I’d like to contend the same is true on the engineering and product side.  There is just so much to learn when starting at Buffer, (how to remote work, how to communicate, how to self-manage, how the code base is structured).  Knowing the product, how it and the API works ahead of time has made it for one less large thing to get comfortable with for the engineers.  I feel like knowing the product sets us up for success because we’re all thinking of the many different ways we’d like to see Buffer personally grow.


Internal discussions on whether it’s the right thing to do

Although this is something we’re firmly focusing on right now for our opportunities to join the team, we have on quite a few occasions had internal discussions on whether this is the right approach.

After all, there are tons and tons of amazing companies out there that work without that mindset—in fact, it’s not even possible in many cases. Take any enterprise software tool, for example: It’s almost impossible to use it yourself as an individual. And yet, clearly someone can be excited to work for that company.

Even at Buffer, that is partially the case. Our metrics show us that some of the most engaged customers (meaning, those that take the most actions inside the app) we have are brands, startups and small businesses managing their social media presence with us, as well as social media agencies.

We also have a lot of individuals as customers who find Buffer helpful, although I wonder whether we bias ourselves towards that particular group with this setup.

And vice versa, if we’re not focusing enough on the features that these other types of customers would really need, since it’s not something we ourselves need.

Someone who hasn’t used Buffer at all and is still excited about working with us might have a more unbiased way of looking at things, without being attached to focusing on Feature A compared to Feature B.

We’ve been discussing this a lot internally too, bouncing back and forth on it a few times, so getting more insights from anyone reading this would be great.

I’d love your insights as to what you’ve found to work best at your company and which direction has helped you the most!

Note: A big thanks to Joel, Courtney, Carolyn, Kevan and Sunil for helping with drafts of this post and making valuable additions. 

  • I think it’s a great thing to prioritize. By having a stake in the product itself, through using it in a personal capacity, you’re far more likely to want to see it succeed. Not only does further success mean your company grows, but you also benefit from your own use of Buffer every day. Having people that love your product when they come in seems far easier than teaching them to love it as you go.

    It’s much the same reason that I participate in the discussion on new features and suggestions for Buffer through UserVoice, InVision, social, and elsewhere. Any way I can help make Buffer better benefits my personal use in addition to everyone else. It’s great to feel like you have a part in making it better for all of us.

    • Thanks for your though here, Ben, and all the ways you help us make Buffer better!

  • FireKicker

    So we can assume that every employee at Buffer with the exception of the founders had used the product for that length of time before the first hire was made? Impressive.

    • I know I used Buffer for years before I came on and lots of teammates have similar stories. :)

      • JonFuchs

        Very cool!

  • I understand how this decision can be reconsidered often. As you said, it’s not a clear advantage as you probably exclude interesting profiles because of this requirement. As I see it, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. As long as you’re managing to hire top people for every role, why change?

    But on the other hand, while I’m sold on the importance for marketers and support heroes to be engaged users of your product, I have more doubts when it comes to developers, and possibly the product team. As you stated, when it comes to the product, someone with a fresh view on things may turn out to be very helpful. And sticking with your decision will bar this from happening for sure.

    This brings me to this: have you considered (or perhaps tried) having a mixed rule? Making it a requirement only for certain roles, and giving other ones the opportunity to discover the product during the hiring process… Who knows, it could even be turned into a step in the hiring process, where candidates who already know Buffer would have an advantage, while still leaving a possibility for fresh users to shine with great recommandations… But that’s a suggestion I came up in 5 minutes :)

    • Great thoughts here, Thibaut! We generally tell strong candidates who don’t have a history with Buffer that we’d love to have them check it out and get back to us after a bit if it still feels like a good fit. :)

  • Cal Bachand

    I think it’s important because it gives applicants the time to not only learn about Buffer the product but about Buffer the organization as well. Some might see the salary and awesome perks and apply right away without even considering if they are the right fit in a self-managed, fully transparent company. As we’ve seen with Zappos, not everyone is ready to go teal! :)

    • Great point, Cal! It’s super important to be really clear on both sides!

  • This is a great discussion, Leo. I’m a product guy and have used Buffer on/off since 2011, both for myself as well as with businesses I’ve worked with.

    I’m actually interested in working with your team as a Product Creator. If I wasn’t familiar with the software, however, I wouldn’t hire me.

    While the viewpoint of someone who hasn’t used the software is usually helpful for stirring things up, I think it’s also unlikely that person will become a fan of the software and begin using it like the super fans already do. That new person would still be catering to themselves, as much as they would try not to.

    For that outside perspective, I’ve always gone directly to the customer and asked them what they think. That’s the best kind of outside perspective you can get.

    The view is different from the perspective of a business using Buffer than it is for an individual. I’ve played with Buffer for business and was in the software much more often and very strategic about what I shared. When I use it personally I’m just sharing things I think my friends would also enjoy and I don’t think much about it. If my queue gets empty for a day or two it’s not a big deal. I never would have let that happen for a business.

    Personally, I’m on the free plan where if I were using it for a business I would definitely be paying for it.

    I’d stick to your guns and continue trying to hire people who have used Buffer for a while. They’ll be building software for themselves which translates directly to your customers.

    • Thanks for the honest thoughts here, Justin! Makes a lot of sense!

    • Great points Justin. Although, I would like to add that bringing in an outsider can still be beneficial. For instance, that outside perspective, to me, is always valuable. The insights gleaned from someone who isn’t always stuck in the trenches can really help and give a great perspective. You can correlate it to how Sean Parker helped Facebook, and he wasn’t even eligible to use the system at the time! I’m obviously speaking from a consultant perspective, having spent the initial part of my career at an IT Consultant firm.

      The way I would go about bringing in someone who hasn’t used the product before would be contract based. Utilize them to fulfill certain tasks or issues to be solved, and then evaluate afterwards. If they become champions and users of the product then you have a viable candidate to bring on full-time if they accept an offer. If not then it’s still a win-win. You’ve gained some perspective and have gotten help as a result.

  • I agree that team members should be users because you can then understand the people you’re doing this for, and you can relate, and communicate/help better. However, that’s not always the case, so whether someone uses your product or not, they have to understand why it matters and how it helps.

  • Hey Leo, thanks for sharing this! Personally, I think that a user might be more passionate with his/her work around the product than someone who has not used the product before. Nevertheless, there are likely to be many other factors that would matter too such as understanding the culture and abilities. So like the venn diagram above, matching all the factors would be a great match and not meeting one of the factors does not mean the candidate is not worth a consideration :)

    (Just a slight typo in the article. The link for “our opportunities to join the team” is missing a full stop :))

    • Hey Alfred, really appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this big topic!

  • Many great ideas happen during off hours and it’s important to always have the products you are working on in the back of your mind. By hiring people that are passionate enough about the product to also use it is a great way to ensure that happens :)

    Another reason why buffer is a great product, thanks for the great article!

  • I was going to say “stick with what works” … then I read @davoult:disqus’s comment. He raises an excellent idea in evaluating the “must use Buffer” criteria across different departments.

    Even so, I am inclined to vote that the most qualified applicants are Buffer users – whether personal use or in working with other companies / brands. There are costs associated with on-boarding, and their experience mitigates some of that. Walking in the new employees’ shoes – understanding the product from the get-go can give them a little more confidence. That greater understanding they have when they participate in those first discussions / meetings just might result in some ideas and suggestions!

  • Leo, this is amazing article again! Thanks for that. I personally think it is a great idea to hire only those who use Buffer constantly for a set period of time, because not only they show respect and interest in the job opportunity, but also they show how they use it, they may get in touch with your support to see how your Heroes respond and also they may notice your awesome blog and all the useful and inspirational posts.
    For some it may mean they’ll have to wait 3 months to be considered as potential employees, but for job like this with absolute freedom, it is worth spending some time to learn more about the product, the team, to read few books you guys recommend, to spend some time educating yourself from all the blog post you produce and to get familiar with all of you as you are extremely changing the world how we should work and form organizations.

  • Rob Abis

    Hey Leo, thank you for sharing your thoughts and opening up the discussion to Buffer community. ; )

    I agree that “it’s highly motivating and fun to work on something you use.” By requiring the Buffer usage, you are stating that motivation and fun as a highly-valued part of the company culture (see Buffer value #1). I think this is something that probably holds your finely-tuned company culture together so it makes sense to require this.

    However, maybe more of the point is that the candidate be on board with the broader idea of improving productivity in people’s digital lifestyles. I think that someone who regularly uses other productivity apps like Pocket, Evernote, or IFTTT, is probably someone who might truly love and appreciate Buffer for what it does for others even if they might not be users of it. My suggestion would be simply ask about a candidate’s’ digital productivity workflow in the application process!

    • Ah, this makes a lot of sense, Rob! Great thoughts on focusing on “overall digital productivity”!

  • I absolutely agree that it’s important to use your own product. This is especially the case when it’s so consumer-friendly (it can get challenging with enterprise tools, but even then it should be a priority). My company (Canvas Solutions) does internal beta testing first, which helps work out a lot of kinks before customers get to join in.

    While it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy that the features you build cater more towards individuals, which in turn will attract that type of customer, I’d say it’s still paramount that your connection with the product/service is strong. Everything will feel far more authentic and relevant that way. I do see potential for Buffer to help companies manage their social media accounts too, so perhaps trying out some more enterprise features could attract an additional user base.

    I’m a big fan of diversity, which would include the fresh perspective of someone who is newer to Buffer, since they will likely notice and experience things differently. My company takes data collection (mainly in the form of paperwork) mobile and to ensure we’re hiring the right kind of people with an understanding of the service, we always have applicants build an app from a copy of a paper form. It’s a quick and easy way to see how they think through the process, which gives insights into their critical thinking as well as curiosity. While most hires are pretty new to Canvas since it’s mostly a business solution, we’ve also gotten some who were using Canvas at their previous organization, which has helped us improve on many fronts.

    One last note – the link for “our opportunities to join the team” is missing a period after the www. Took me a few clicks to figure out why the link was broken!

    • Thanks SO much for these incredible thoughts! And for the heads-up; I have fixed that broken link! :)

  • It makes perfect sense to require candidates to use your product. Most companies, not even just startups, would like candidates to use their products and may even provide incentives for doing so. I work for a bank and associates get certain incentives on bank products. I think this practice is a win/win for everyone involved.

    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.

    • This is a great observation and one that I’ve been thinking on a bit myself. I totally agree that “you don’t need a startup mindset to be biased toward action;” I’d hate to see this bias us towards specific types of candidates with a certain background. Maybe there are ways to evaluate an action-focused mindset that don’t involve “startup-iness” at all!

  • Ganga Panneerselvam

    I first started using Buffer because you guys have this criteria to join your team! That’s how I discovered Buffer and really fell in love with your team support and the product. So I would assume this condition of yours will bring together people who love the product and who will be happy working for you. I would love to know if this works when you are scaling big. So will wait for your learnings on that

    • Ah, makes a lot of sense! Excited to let you know how it goes as we grow!

  • Makes sense to me! In most of my time as a freelancer looking for work, my rule of thumb has been to start off applying to companies I use/am familiar with. Those are the companies I’d be most excited to work for, and in some cases, I already feel like part of the community. I’ve probably gotten at least half a dozen gigs that way, and generally prefer it over sending in my resume to a company I don’t know. If I apply to a company I’m not familiar with, I’ll at LEAST try out the service before sending in my resume.

    • In most of my time as a freelancer looking for work, my rule of thumb
      has been to start off applying to companies I use/am familiar with.
      Those are the companies I’d be most excited to work for, and in some
      cases, I already feel like part of the community.

      Completely agree :)

    • What a great way of putting it, that you already feel like part of the community! Love that. :)

  • Emily L

    I agree that hires should have a familiarity with the product but respect that outsiders asks questions with fresh perspectives. I still think you can hire people with experience who are open to hard questions and drastic change. I, for one, find myself energized with (surmountable) challenges that come with a requirement to learn something new. Once I was given an edition I had to create, market and distribute without having deep experience in the process. It wasn’t entirely unfamiliar, but I was fairly green. Even with a few bumps in the road, it was a resounding success. I attribute that to being incredibly motivated by the learning process, believing in the marketability of the product, and having the resources to find the information I needed. Consider it an extension of Buffer’s values to live smarter and focus on self-improvement by hiring knowledgeable and elastic minds and allowing your teams to continue stretch and educate each other on why they might be advocating for one feature over another.

    • Great point, coming at things with a fresh perspective can be very powerful!

  • I agree with @Justin Lukasavige. Also, I would put that if someone is interested at joining a Buffer’s business model company, it is worth setting that usage term.

    Not only because the points @Leo Widrich has raised such as incorporating a sense of what would make it a better product in terms of features and etc…

    It appears to me that it is also a great opportunity for serious candidates to be and to demonstrate proactivity towards using buffer and learning about it consistently.

    Therefore, in the end of the day it seems to me that the real resonance with the company culture – which seems to be very rare In the tech startup world (in my view) – will drag serious candidates to perform what they need to be in the “right center of the circles’ intersection” next time they apply.

    Warm hugs!

    Mathias Luz

    • warm hugs right back at you, Mathias! Thanks so much for your thoughtful reflection!

  • Since I’ve discovered your ‘open’ blog, I’ve been reading about your approach with a great deal of interest.

    I’ll share something that this reminded me of. When I worked for a high end lodge some time back we prioritized getting all our staff to experience the activities we offered, and from time to time put up staff in a room as full guests to give them the “through the eyes of the guest” experience. Considering the price of the rooms, it was a considerable expense to the company to give our staff this experience.

    The fact that you can get this for free in your industry is something I’d view as a big advantage.

    Of course, the other thought in the back of my mind is, it’s always worth entertaining exceptions. If someone used Buffer for one month, but in every other way shouts out “perfect fit” to you, why wouldn’t you compromise.

    • Wow, Vernon, the lodge sounds like a great place to work! I love the way that exercise created empathy and allowed everyone get that great customer perspective!

  • Followed this post off LinkedIn (where I follow your company). A few thoughts on the topic.

    First, I do consider it important that employees know how their products work, even if they have no direct, frontend use for it. Good ideas can come from anywhere, and it’s a savvy company that recognizes that, and sets up to intentionally encourage it. That said I don’t believe that knowing how the product works before you start the job should be the sole barrier. It may be one of several, but on the balance, if that’s the only reason you’re excluding a candidate, you could be missing out on someone who could revolutionize your business and vault you to the next level. Context is also important to consider. If your product targets businesses, then the main source for employees are those who work for your customers, and customers can get kinda tetchy if you continually poach their staff. If your product targets individual users, it may be more appropriate to expect a candidate to have some foreknowledge, but again I think you hamstring yourself if that is your gating issue. For those reasons, you may want to consider it a plus -even a high plus, but not a show stopper.

    Second, I have found that many companies who are struggling to find qualified staff, have built false barriers to admission they may not recognize. The current popular term for this is Unintentional Bias; for those who don’t already know this term, it means you are unaware that you only hire people who look/act/think/share the same background and experience as you, and you lose out on the fertility that comes from having a diverse staff. Consider those companies who insist only on hiring candidates with college degrees, and think about who they would never hire by doing so. Albert Einstein was a college dropout, and Michael Faraday never attended college (nor the equivalent of high school) at all. Not every drop out is going to be an Einstein, but if you never meet them, how are you going to know who might be? Even Google has decided to drop that requirement for many roles, but lots of companies stubbornly cling to their bias, believing it nets them better candidates, only to complain that they can’t find any.

    Then there are the companies who require candidates have X years of experience in their industry, thinking that they won’t have to train people to understand local terminology or business practices. By doing so, they end up screening out people like me. You see, while I focus my career around 4 core competencies (business analysis, programming, data analysis and report development… with a little strategy thrown on top from time to time) I make it a point NOT to work in the same industry twice if I can help it. Why do I do this? Sticking to my core allows me to continually develop skill depth, while changing industries feeds the need to learn something new. That means I can bring the fresh perspective of an Outsider, while maintaining focus on the type of work I most enjoy. Rather than growing vertically and tracking towards management, my goal is to grow my career horizontally and deliver value to organizations by helping to drive change. Actually, I discovered Buffer precisely because I was researching media tech/marketing start ups as a possible target for my next job, as they seem to have all the interesting data these days.

    Third and finally, I believe it would help to recognize that Buffer may not be for all users, and may unintentionally limit your candidate pool in specific disciplines, as well as missing the opportunity to find out why some folks don’t use it (and how to reach them). It is important to recognize that not everyone in tech is all over social media. For example, I know one high end HPC Architect who’s never set eyes on Twitter or Pintrest, barely checks his LinkedIn, only uses Facebook to keep tabs on out-of-state family, but is heavy on Slashdot and StackExchange. With myself as another example, I tried Buffer and thought it would have been a great help had I found it when I was doing an experimental blog, but not so much for my every day use. While I like to think I am a fairly typical user of social media, I found Buffer doesn’t quite get me where I want to be. I am a high volume Facebook user bordering on compulsive, a moderate LinkedIn user, and a very sporadic Twitter user at best. Much of my sharing is done from mobile, and although the material I post to each stream is different (“don’t cross the streams!”) in tenor, it is essentially impulse driven. I rarely schedule posts. Half of my Twitter followers and one third of my LinkedIn connections are also on my Facebook, so I try not to inundate them with too much repetitious stuff. What I really want is a tool that plugs into my Chrome and Mobile Chrome for 1-touch broadcast sharing that can be adjusted on the fly: pop a window, let me enter my comment, check box the sites I want to share this post to, when I hit OK format it for each site checked, with no further interaction needed from me. A tool like that would make my social media interactions much easier!

    So there are my two cents. I hope it gives your team some useful ideas on how you might think about hiring differently.

    • Pauline

      Ditto, I could not have explained it better. I think Buffer must be an amazing place to work at, especially in terms of the values and culture! However, I am not a social media guru and only post to Facebook when I feel like sharing with my friends – so I don’t need a scheduler for that.
      The past few days I have been using Buffer just so that I can apply for a job at Buffer :)

  • I think it really depends on the role someone would take on the Buffer team. It makes sense for someone like a Product Creator, Happiness Hero, or Engineer to be familiar with it already so they have a better understanding of how to develop, code, and respond to the needs of the customers.

    There are other roles, however, where an outside perspective can be helpful. I worked for a non-profit last year where most of the employees were participants of the mission trips they organized. I, however, had never been on a trip with them, so I had a completely different perspective. As the social media manager and a member of the marketing team, this was actually quite helpful, because it meant that I could market to a broader range of people because I didn’t view the trips through my own lens of personal experience, but rather through all the potentials it could be.

    Definitely a very interesting discussion!

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