From Plain Tweeting to Scheduled Posting: Buffer's Path to Social Media Domination
The story of Buffer begins in October 2010, in Birmingham, UK, in Joel Gascoigne's bedroom.
At the time, Joel was just a simple Twitter user, sharing links to blog articles, inspiring quotes, or his opinions on various topics. Over his first 18 months on Twitter, Joel gained a significant crowd of followers who seemed to like the content on his feed.
Soon, he started noticing increased numbers of retweets and comment discussions on his posts.
This motivated Joel to start sharing more content and engage in intelligent discussions with interesting people on his news feed. So, of course, this simply meant grabbing his phone, searching for content, and sharing it on Twitter every two or three hours.
If you know how successful web developers think, you probably already know how this story ends. Automation, system and pattern creation and better integration are high on all priority lists in the heads of brilliant entrepreneurs - and Joel was no different! He quickly realized he could be far more efficient with his Tweets if he could schedule them ahead of time - and the wheels started turning!
Ask People What They Want First
While testing a few 'Twitter posting clients', he found they were quite limiting, as he had to set a date and time for each post. All he wanted was to just tweet XY times a day - not to manage a whole scheduling system! The first thing he did was to suggest this to existing apps, but they weren't interested.
At the time, Joel had an old school system - which is just a fancy way of saying he used a notepad to track his tweets. For a coder, that was completely unacceptable. But one night, it clicked in his head: he could make an app to schedule his tweets - by himself!
He had the know-how, so why not? He began coding it right away.
Joel knew a thing or two about startups before the idea of building Buffer, as he had already failed with one. A couple of years before Buffer, he launched One Page, a sales CRM software for small businesses. Although he was trying to do his best by reading a lot of theory and implementing it by the book, building this startup was full of errors. One of the greatest mistakes he made there was assuming what people wanted and just adding features without checking with his target audience.
In the meantime, Joel became fascinated with Eric Ries and his Lean Startup Methodology. He subscribed to his blog and watched his presentations. His previous experience combined with Ries' lectures taught him one thing: if he wanted his tool-building to be used by people other than himself, he needed to check what they thought about it!
And just like that, he caught himself red-handed: coding Buffer already, without checking with anyone.
That's when he took a pause and returned to Ries' lean methodology. He needed at least a minimal product to launch on Twitter and see how people react.
But how minimally-viable should it be?
According to Ries: probably much more than you think!
The 7-Week Long Validated Learning and Product Creation
The first product test was to launch a two-page MVP on Twitter. The first page was a three-step explanation of what Buffer is, while the second page just said 'Hello, you caught us before we're ready', above a short explanation and an email box.
Some people gave their emails, others messaged him privately, and some simply commented with their opinions directly. And just like that, Joel had received his first feedback from his customers, allowing him to check it off the Lean Startup list.
The next step was to find out whether people would pay for this service. Joel added another page in his Twitter MVP with three different bundles:
This gave him a clearer picture of the percentage of people who clicked on paid bundles, and he gathered even more emails in the process.
In October of 2010, Joel began examining his future customers. The analytics were positive, and he was ready to roll it out!
By November 30th, the first minimum version of Buffer was launched for Twitter only - no analytics, no team collaboration - none of the useful features Buffer is well known for today - just raw Tweet scheduling.
So why rush the launch?
Well, Joel found out about a 'November Startup Sprint', where tons of people made a deal to try to launch their startup ideas by the end of November. This date was a cut-off point for him, as he already underestimated the amount of time necessary to build the product, having promised his friends it would be done in a week.
When the due date came, Buffer received some excellent feedback from the Hacker News community - and that was the final boost it needed!
Four days after the launch, Joel made his first $5 on the internet. It was early December 2010, and he had just acquired his first customer. Over the next few weeks, the number of users rose to 100, with some of them choosing the paid bundles.
Doing Things the Right Way
Trying to avoid his past mistakes, this time Joel didn't allow himself to get carried away. Instead of piling on more features to Buffer after the first paying customer, he took a step back.
There was a lot on his plate he knew little about - things like marketing, customer development and product development.
Over the course of 2010 and 2011, Joel joined forces with his now co-founder, Leo Widrich, still in college at the time. At first, Buffer was their evening and weekend project, but they wanted to take a leap towards making it a full-time gig. In May 2011, they hit $1000/mo profitability and decided to drop everything else they were doing to go all-in with Buffer.
Only three months later, Buffer hit 20,000 users, which was reason enough for the guys to pack their bags and move to San Francisco. Buffer had finally become an incorporated company! However, San Francisco wasn't what they expected. It was super-expensive, they were running out of money, and settling their American visas was much more complicated than they thought.
They were on the edge of thinking they failed - when a tiny glimmer lit up their path!
They got into AngelPad, a SF based incubator which literally helped them save Buffer and turn it from a fun project, into a real company with employees - and most importantly, a plan!
How? The answer is the same every time - cash.
One Investment Round Was Enough
In December 2011, Buffer had a seeding round, raising $450,000 from 18 different investors. It took them 150 meetings, 88% of which were rejections, but those 12% pushed them forward.
They took the seeding round cash, combined it with their cash flow from regular purchases from customers, and made Buffer available for LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, with Google+ on the horizon.
By 2012, their visa did not resolve, so they had to pack their bags and move Buffer out from the US. They opened a map and chose a random, but exciting destination: Hong Kong!
US-China-Israel-US Road Trip
Hong Kong wasn't really a piece of cake as they had expected, and they weren't able to obtain a visa there either. So, in late 2012, they prepared to move to the land of startups - Tel Aviv, Israel!
There, Buffer grew into a 7-member devoted team of experts. By May 2013, there were 10 of them, and they had managed to finally obtain US visas. As the rest of their team was on the other side of the planet, and the co-founding duo was about to go back to the US, they made a decision for Buffer to be a distributed team.
This meant hiring more people around the globe for remote work, and it was the turning point for the company: from the improvised group before, they grew in an international business team. Now, Buffer was ready to skyrocket their product features and expand to more networks. On September 13th, the company celebrated their millionth user.
Over the next few years, they built an amazing and very transparent business model. Their yearly revenue saw continuous growth, reaching almost $20 million in 2018.
Today, their product involves helpful features such as:
- Stories planner;
- Shop grid;
- First comment inclusion;
- Custom reports;
- Hashtag planner and;
- Instagram tagging.
They value their employees' private lives and free time, so during the 2020 pandemic, they shifted to a 4-day workweek until the end of 2020. The company also nurtures full transparency, so their paycheck formula and employees' salaries are all public. You know what else is public and left for free use? All of their code - they have a special open source platform page on the Buffer.com website. The story of Buffer proves you don't need a cash cow, nor a million-dollar investment to do amazing things in business. Start in your own yard. Pick a problem you'd like to solve for yourself. Ask other people - does it bother them, too? When you find a 'Yes', you've found your start-up!