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The blueprint for Buffer's thriving remote culture, with Joel Gascoigne


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In this episode of Off Mute, Remote's Chief People Officer Barbara Matthews is joined by Joel Gascoigne, the CEO of Buffer. Buffer is one of the world’s most popular social media management platforms and an all-remote company that sets a high standard for transparency.

Joel shares the story behind Buffer's pioneering decision in 2013 to become a fully distributed company, driven by values like freedom, flexibility, and exceptional customer service. He reflects on how Covid-19 accelerated remote work while also revealing the challenges many companies faced in transitioning, pointing out the differences between deliberate remote work and remote work born of necessity. He provides tangible advice on building connection, community and effective collaboration across time zones with Buffer's 80+ employees in 23 countries. Joel and Barbara also discuss how Buffer's culture of transparency enhances remote work and share examples of ways to be inclusive yet fair.

We also explore how Buffer is leveraging AI, both internally to aid workflows and externally within their product to solve key customer problems like repurposing content. Joel leaves us with some amusing anecdotes about the unexpected perils of distributed work and how he solves tech failures when off the grid.

Episode transcript

Barbara: Hi, I am Barbara Matthews, the Chief People Officer at Remote. And this is Off Mute, the podcast that explores managing distributed teams all across the globe.

I'm joined today by Joel Gascoigne. Joel is the CEO of Buffer, a social media management tool.

Back in 2013, Joel made the bold decision to make Buffer a fully remote company. Pretty unheard of in those pre-pandemic days.

Now, 10 years on Buffer has a distributed team of over 80 employees in over 50 cities and 23 countries around the world, with some even being recognized as nomads.

We'll talk more about how all this works, the company values, and then we'll focus on the product where we'll look at how Buffer is using AI.

I really enjoyed my conversation with Joel and his unpicking, his outlook upon life, and I think you're going to really enjoy it too.

Joel, thank you so much for joining us today.

Joel: Thanks so much, Barbara.

Why did Buffer choose remote work?

Barbara: So, Joel, Buffer is fully remote, and in 2013 you made that decision, which was quite unusual, I would assume back then. Obviously, that was pre pandemic times and the idea of distributed work at the time was pretty much unheard of.

So, just talk me through what led you to that decision and was there a moment in time where you reflected, well, probably when everyone panicked with COVID, that you've made the right decision when you were just fully secure and confident in that decision?

Joel: Yeah, as you mentioned, it was highly unusual back in 2013 when we made the decision that we would be a fully distributed team. At the time, we were kind of using that terminology. At the time, I felt like I could count on my hands how many remote companies there were.

For me, there were a few things that played into that decision for us at the time. One was that we really valued freedom and flexibility. And so, for me, I was going from contract work to my own company, and I think a lot of people start a company because they want a greater sense of freedom than they've had in working for others.

And that was definitely true for me. I wanted to travel. I was in my early twenties at the time, and I wanted to make the most of life. And I started Buffer from the UK where I'm from, but then I travelled to Silicon Valley, and then I also travelled around Asia and continued building the product in the first couple of years.

And this is something that I just came to value so much. And I also started to think, “Why should I maybe be able to have this and not have the team be able to have that kind of freedom as well?”

And then the other really big thing that came into play was that from the early days we've been really focused on the highest quality of customer service. And so, it's just something that we really valued, and we found that we could build that productively much better if we were in really close contact with the customers.

And so, we really prided ourselves on having really fast response times, and great answers to people's questions, like truly solving their problems. And so, as we grew towards 10 people or so, I started thinking, “I want to keep improving this customer service even more and how can we do that?”

And I just found myself thinking that by that point, we already had customers all across the world, so I was thinking, “How can we serve these customers and not have certain customers in certain locations kind of be at a disadvantage in terms of the support quality that they can receive?”

And so, once we made that decision, that was one of the key factors alongside freedom and flexibility. We then grew the team a little more. And when we were around 10 people, our first three customer service team members were across three different continents. So, U.S., UK, Australia.

And we could answer support questions around the clock, and it was amazing. We talked about how the majority of customers would get a response within one hour. And so, I think those are probably two key factors.

And then as we continued in that way, we definitely also found that it was just amazing to meet people from different countries, speak different languages, and learn about different cultures. And that became a really special part of the company that back then, especially, was very unusual for a small company.

Especially, you might have larger companies with multiple offices around the world. But to have a 10 or 20-person company that when we do come together, we're from all these different places, yeah, really magical.

Barbara: And you have digital nomads in your employee base, right?

Joel: We do.

Barbara: Yeah. That's amazing.

Joel: We have a handful of digital nomads right now. I feel like it's always evolving as people go through different phases of life.

Barbara: Life's phases, yes, of course.

Joel: I did it for a couple of years myself and now, I'm a bit more settled. It's a really awesome thing to see people doing that.

How do you find balance as a busy remote CEO?

Barbara: It’s wonderful to be able to give that to your employees. I love it. You're the CEO of a hugely successful software company, you're also a parent and a husband, which are all super important, challenging, and very energy draining roles.

How do you juggle them so that work doesn't encroach into family time, especially working in a fully remote environment?

Joel: It's a great question. And I should also mention that my wife just opened a cafe that she'd been working towards for a couple of years, and she opened it a few months ago, so-

Barbara: It's full on.

Joel: Life is full on right now. This is something that we both talked about wanting to really grab life by the horns and make the most of it. And so, I feel like we're doing that. I don't know if there's a straightforward answer to how to manage it all, but I do have a few things that I think about.

So, at the highest level, one of the things for me that's really important is that with life and with Buffer, I've always taken a very long-term view. So, I don't have an exit plan for the company, I plan to run it for the very long-term.

And I think that just helps me because previously, maybe 5, 10 years ago, I would often have this feeling of like, “I want to be at this place before I do this.” Whereas, now, I feel like I can just embrace being in the flow of life and everything being continuous.

And so, I just really try to take it all as it comes and enjoy it. So, that's kind of at the high level. Tactically, the few things that I've been trying to figure out, one is that I don't try too hard to totally separate work and life, which can be a little bit controversial, I think.

But I think both my wife and I we're running businesses, it's really not possible to stop thinking or just stop working and completely compartmentalize. So, I don't really try to do that.

But what I do try to do is to be fairly organized in my work so that I can feel confident that I know what I've got in front of me, I know what's coming up, I know what I really should be focused on in this hour versus another hour or that type of thing.

And so, that almost allows me to be able to kind of let go of it and leave it if I want to be really present with my two-and-a-half-year-old son for example. And so, that's just something that I've been working on quite a bit in the last couple of years.

I think for me becoming a parent really highlighted that time management is super important. I think I've become more productive.

Barbara: Way more efficient.

Joel: Way more efficient, exactly. And so, now I try and break down even the big projects into, okay, “What's the most granular next steps on that project? And where can I do those?”

And some things I can actually do while I'm with my son and especially, kind of on the home front and housekeeping, just being on top of the dishes and laundry and things like that. A lot of that I can do with him.

And I've found that actually if I involve him, he loves that. He loves to help. He feels like it's just a fun activity for him. So, I've tried to be quite deliberate and that's something I've worked on quite a bit over the last year or so, is figuring out, “Okay, where can I do this thing?”

And then nap time at the weekend is sacred because I'm trying to do a lot of things in other places so that I can actually relax or maybe get a little bit of work during that time.

Barbara: I love the idea of getting him involved, actually. I wonder can I get my eight-year-old involved in laundry or have I left it for too long? I'll have to test that one.

Joel: Yeah, you should.

How is the world doing with post-pandemic remote work?

Barbara: So, I'm sure now you have remote first or globally distributed practices flowing into the DNA of everyone that you have at Buffer. I'd love to know how you felt about the huge shift of the market towards this remote or distributed work after COVID.

Was it more like it's about time everyone caught up? Or were you actually thinking about the difficulty of adapting to remote work on the run and how challenging that might be for the more traditional organizations?

Joel: I think it was a mixture of both of those emotions. For me, I definitely had a sense of, it's about time. We'd been doing it for seven, eight years at that point and we felt so many benefits. And so, for me, I was thinking, “Okay, it makes sense. This is going to force that. It's going to accelerate it.”

One of the motivations for me to even have a desire to kind of grow Buffer is that I wanted more people to be able to experience that kind of working environment. And so, then I had this feeling of, “Wow, so many people are going to get this level of freedom.”

But then I think you start to realize a few months in that you've got these organizations, some large organizations with established practices and culture and habits that are trying to scramble to figure out how it can work in this totally new approach. And so, I think I really saw that chaos going on.

And so, whereas at the beginning, I thought, “Okay, this is just going to accelerate this trajectory we've been on.” And I thought, “Oh, that might just stick, then we might just really cross this threshold.”

I think that's happened in some ways, and certainly, in terms of education and awareness of remote and everyone knows what Zoom is now, and that's useful. But I think in other ways, you could almost kind of plot the trajectory of remote work and say, “Okay, it had a peak, and it came back down, and it's maybe actually accelerated a little bit but it's actually somewhat along that same trajectory. We just had this blip of a wild world event within it.”

And so, I think in that way, something that really started to sink in for me throughout the pandemic going on was, “Okay, there's still a huge opportunity to do this really well and thoughtfully.”

Barbara: But 10 years on for you in Buffer, what is the one piece of advice you would give to yourself now that you wish you'd known? So, for anyone who's listening, if they're starting to build globally distributed teams, what is the one piece of advice that you would give them?

Joel: That's a great question. I would give advice around collaboration and communication, and kind of fostering that connection between the team and just really suggest that you've got to put intentional effort into that.

And that's probably the one thing that even though we've been remote since the beginning, so we really don't have this alternative of like we transitioned into remote.

I think something that's been kind of this continual challenge a little bit is in a co-located environment, you do have the serendipity of people bumping into each other in the office or getting lunch or getting a drink afterward or going out, going for a walk, for a coffee, where a lot of valuable things happen.

And I think that's probably the key thing that I would say to focus in on is really put effort into figuring out how you can do those in the-

Barbara: The deliberate connections.

Joel: Exactly.

How does Buffer’s international team stay connected?

Barbara: So, with that actually, you have over 80 employees in 23 countries across 50 cities, so I've been told. Talk to me a little bit about how you do build that deliberate kind of connection and those feelings of belonging between your team members.

Joel: There are a few different things that we think about. So, at the highest level, I think one of the things that we have really gone into is choosing to be a remote company, and choosing to be fully remote as well. I think that's a distinction that there's a lot of hybrid situations right now.

We just chose to go all in from the beginning because I wanted to ensure that we just break down any of those barriers that we could end up having ourselves in terms of like if you have an office but you have remote work, you're going to already create a little bit of a divide there, and maybe probably some kind of real benefits to being in the office.

And so, that's something that we put a lot of effort into, is that you don't have a significant disadvantage based on where you are in the world. And that's a little bit challenging and nuanced of course because we do have ADT members all across the world.

But we do have a concentration of, not necessarily cities, but certainly, continents North America and Europe by far, the areas where we have the most people. And that's where I think over the years for us, we started to really realise that focusing on fairness does not mean equal.

That kind of concept of, “Okay, what can we do to create a great experience for people in Europe, and also, a great experience for the people that are in Asia where we only have a handful of people?”

And so, for example, we have a monthly all-hands where for a while, we actually did the all-hands twice. We would literally present it twice in two different time zones. And this was our attempt of like, “Let's make it really inclusive for everyone.” But ultimately it still wasn't the same.

It's like you've got less people in the chat and the energy's different. And so, we changed it and we decided we're going to do it once, we're going to record it, people can watch it if it's not a great time for them.

But then we also have, every month, what we call the all-hands hangout. And we do that in the Asia Pacific time zone. And so, it's kind of in the evening for me and most of the people that present will join and then everyone in Asia will join that. And anyone else that can make it, even if it's maybe a little bit of an awkward time will join it.

And we just give them this whole different but almost equally special experience of, “Well, let's talk about the content of the all-hands.” Whereas than the other, in the main all-hands, it's really just all presentation and a bit of chat.

Barbara: Arguably even more special because it's real intimate with the leaders of the company.

Joel: Exactly. So, I just thought I'd highlight that as an example of something where you can be thoughtful about creating that inclusive environment, but it doesn't have to be everything's equal. Because that can start to really paralyze you in terms of what you can or can't do.

Barbara: I like that. Joel, I've poked a bit around your background and getting an understanding of your values, but talk to me about the company values I guess, and how you embed them across multiple GOs.

Joel: One of the most important ones for us is default transparency. So, I think that's something that we found early on was a value, a principle that we wanted to adopt for its own sake.

I think in a lot of ways, transparency, you could think about it as honesty, and it can translate to well, that's going to be better for everyone involved if people are really being honest and candid with each other.

Also being open about all of our metrics, being open with our customers about what we have coming up in the roadmap, these things I think hold us accountable.

So, when it comes to connecting that with remote as well, we found that, oh there's this direct connection here where being transparent helps significantly with being effective as a remote organization.

Because if we can be transparent, it's going to lead us to okay, share decisions that are going on early and often, developments, things like that. And so, that just enhances and improves how remote work happens.

And then there's a number of other ones that I think we have there — show gratitude as a key one; be a no-ego-doer is another one where I think those can kind of break through a little bit of the cultural differences or lead to that kind of acceptance and excitement and understanding of different cultures and backgrounds and conversations around it.

So, I think showing gratitude for your fellow team members, something that we really value, we have a specific channel for it and it's really flowing with gratitude. Just day in, day out people are saying things like, “This person did this awesome thing, thank you.”

And I think connecting that with the focus on being a no-ego-doer, where we really try to be mindful of not attaching ourselves to our ideas and kind of putting aside ego and just being really productive and effective together.

I think that can also be helpful in just the dynamics in meetings for example, where you might have some pretty different kinds of styles of communication and things based on different backgrounds and upbringings.

Barbara: That's great. And is it true that the listeners might want to know this? Talk to me about your digital notepad, and did anyone ever advise you not to do that?

Joel: The digital garden is an interesting concept I came across a couple of years ago where it's kind of going back to the early web of let's share ideas more freely and each have our own space on little corner on the internet for these ideas and put them out there and connect them with each other in the way that hyperlinks were intended originally. And for me it's actually really enhanced my ability to write and communicate-

Barbara: Everyone's aligned with them.

Joel: With the team, and also, share more externally because the overall approach is focused around almost like atomic notes or small units of content where I can just write a little note, and then see where that connects in with this kind of web of other content.

And so, I've been using this approach. I put it on my website because I wanted to just make basically a portion of my own personal notes transparent and sharing that way. But then so many of those notes I found I can then share with the team. I might be writing a memo or writing my thoughts on something, and I'll just share it with the team.

And so, the fact that it kind of goes from my personal notes to my website as kind of a first stop makes it a smaller jump to then say, “Okay, I'll share it with the team, or I'll share it externally on social media or that kind of thing.”

Barbara: I love it. It really makes all other companies who talk about transparency as a value actually get them to rethink transparency as a value because you just really take it to the end degree which is wonderful.

So, let's look more at Buffer specifically. So, you provide a social media management tool for organizations, and the tool itself is very inclusive for global teams. In Buffer, you mentioned that you do a lot around enabling asynchronous work. Have you seen strong traction with distributed teams?

Joel: So, Buffer as a product, we help people to manage and grow their online presence and be active on social media. And so, the product is inherently somewhat asynchronous in nature because you can write the content and then have it go out at a later time.

So, I think in that way, it really helps you to disconnect the creation from the sharing. And in that way, maybe you can do a batch of creation, and then come back later and engage with people on that and be a bit more focused and disciplined.

I think all of this connects well with remote companies where they already have some of these types of habits and practices in place within their own workflows, and how they run as a company.

And so, yeah, we've definitely had a lot of traction, but we've also always been super broad. We're a freemium product, we've got a great free plan. The first paid plan is very accessible in terms of the price.

And so, we have 60,000 paying customers. We have a couple of hundred thousand free users as well. And so, there's a huge breadth to the types of companies that use Buffer and actually, quite a lot of brick-and-mortar businesses as well.

Cafes, restaurants, and those types of things use Buffer because for entrepreneur, small business owner where you wear seven different hats and juggle everything, Buffer's great for that as well because you can maybe spend time once a week doing your content and then have it go out every single day, and be able to focus on the other aspects of your business.

So, I'd say yes, we have had traction with remote and disputed teams, but we have a wide variety of different companies as well.

Barbara: And is your wife a client with her new cafe? 

Joel: Embarrassingly, she's not quite yet.

Barbara: Oh, my goodness. I'll leave that for you guys to sort out.

Joel: No, I chat a lot about it and to be honest, I think she's really doing things natively. She's just focused on Instagram right now, and it makes sense for her I think and-

Barbara: Focusing on building, yes.

Joel: She's posting in the moment. Potentially, we could help more with those kinds of things. But Buffer, I think comes in when you're maybe like a prosumer, it's not really a fully a consumer type of product. It's like maybe a professional.

So, we get a lot of individuals that use it and kind of solo business owners, but they're people that have decided like, “I want to grow my audience, my reputation, my network,” and they're kind of getting a bit more organised about it and I think it's just stunning getting to that point.

But to be honest, so far, she's been really just getting the cafe off the ground and connecting with people directly in person-

Barbara: Getting it moving.

Joel: So, yeah, I think it's around the corner.

What is Buffer’s approach to AI?

Barbara: That’s so funny, hopefully. But it sounds like it's a really integral tool to help companies like you say, provide a voice with audiences.

And Joel, I cannot have a podcast these days without talking about AI, as you can imagine. So, how are you using AI and other new tech at Buffer?

Joel: I think there's two aspects to AI for us. So, here is how we are using it internally in the company. We have a lot of early adopters at Buffer, we have all the different roles: product managers, designers, we have customer support, team members and they're sharing the prompts they're using for ChatGPT for example.

And there's some really interesting workflows. A lot of people are using it to maybe feed something into it and then get feedback on that. So, that could be a product spec or something or some data. You could kind of ask ChatGPT what are some criticisms of this or that kind of thing.

I use it when I'm writing something and then I've got a little part of that content that is clearly something that pre-AI, I would go and research on Google and then try and figure out the answer-

Barbara: And four days later, you pull it into the content.

Joel: Yeah, exactly. And it's something that I don't need to reinvent the wheel on this one. It's like just a relevant part of the content where I need to explain a certain concept or define something. And so, I'll often use OpenAI for that.

Within the product, we've also focused on building in some really powerful capabilities. So, I think one of the things that is really fun about AI and where we're at with it, and being kind of almost 13 years into a company, is that we have a very clearly established set of problems that we help customers with.

And so, then we could really think about, “Well, how could AI help with those problems?” Rather than just thinking, “Oh, AI is cool. What can we do with AI?” We have very real problems that we could very quickly see, “Okay, AI can help with that.”

So, for example, having a piece of content and then needing to shorten it to fit into the character count of a certain network or helping you repurpose the content in slightly different styles for different networks. Maybe it needs to be a little bit more professional for LinkedIn for example, that kind of thing.

And so, we're really just I think scratching the surface, but we already have some powerful functionality to be able to short-term or expand upon your content and change the tone of it as well.

And we also have a section within Buffer where you can kind of store your ideas for future content. And within that, we have an AI kind of assistant that can help you actually come up with ideas for content as well, which I think is another key area where AI can really add a lot of value here.

Barbara: And the key thing is you're embracing it, not shying away from it because I think a lot of people tend to have fear.

Joel: And I've really encouraged everyone in the company, it doesn't matter what your role, seniority, especially leadership, to really be not only thinking about AI strategically in terms of, “What could this change about this function or industry?”

But actually, getting in there and using it directly themselves too and seeing how can this even just add value to my workflows and the work that I do. Because then you get that firsthand insight into AI and you start working with it directly. And then I think you start to have really the best ideas for how to implement it strategically.

Barbara: And it's not going anywhere, so you need to figure out how to work with it.

My final question, Joel, one that I ask everyone at the end of the podcast is, can you think of a time when you've had to deal with a challenge that made you think this could only happen with distributed work?

Joel: It's funny, I think we've been doing remote so long that it's actually a hard question for me to think about.

Barbara: Probably. Yeah.

Joel: I think time zones is probably the key area where my mind goes here, is just that one week of the year where the clock changes, but it changes a week apart in the U.S. versus UK. It always catches us out. There just seems to be nothing we can do to avoid it.

But yeah, meetings seem to be getting confused and things, so that's probably the key thing. I think that there are a lot of unexpected challenges. I personally live a little bit up in the mountains in Boulder, Colorado, and we don't have phone reception here.

And so, when the power or the internet goes out, I'm kind of left completely dark, and it seems to always happen two minutes before I have a meeting. And so, then agonising thinking, “Oh, this person doesn't know that I've lost power, I have no way to communicate with them.”

So, I end up running up the street for about five minutes to a spot where I can get a little bit-

Barbara: Holding your phone.

Joel: And then communicate with them and say, “Oh, I lost my internet.” So, I'm working on a solution for that. But that one's been catching me out quite a bit.

Barbara: Oh, that's brilliant. Great. I love it. Joel, thank you so much for speaking with me. It was great to talk to you. I learned so much. Appreciate it.

Joel: Yeah, thanks so much Barbara. Really enjoyed the conversation and the great questions.

Barbara: Thank you so much to Joel for talking in depth about Buffer. Well, that just about wraps it up for the latest episode of Off Mute. I'm Barbara Matthews, the Chief People Officer at Remote, and we'll be back in two weeks with the next episode.

But in the meantime, please subscribe to the podcast and if you like what you've heard, give us five stars as it helps others like you find our podcast. Thank you for listening to Off Mute from Remote, catch you next time.

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