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The choices we make when we build startups  

Joel from Buffer on the impact of his strategic choices to the success of his company:

They have absolutely shaped what Buffer is today. However, if you were to try and attribute these choices purely to success (maybe take revenue as the metric), then I think we could probably be just as successful with different choices:

  • being a distributed team
  • not raising a Series A
  • doing retreats 3 times a year
  • choosing to not have a sales team and instead focus on self-serve
  • serving small businesses rather than large enterprise customers
  • establishing cultural values early and being disciplined about living to them

He contrasts this with another founder whose controversial values included creating a fun workplace, yet grew the business to $8 billion in revenue:

I kept saying that our values were not responsible for the run-up in our share price and should not be blamed for any downturns in the future.

Which leads Joel to:

I can't say that creating a company where everyone is happy is something that will make us more successful, and I can't say that being fully transparent about revenues, user numbers, salaries and other details helps us grow faster than other companies. The point is that our values should hold true in either case, and we should stand by them.

Values aren't independent to the key choices though. Principled decisions connect values to choices, and speed up decision-making.

For example, when Buffer was hacked, they responded quickly and transparently, and they were lauded for it. Joel refers to Buffer's core cultural values: Happiness and Positivity; and Defaulting to Transparency.

In my experience with Founder-Centric, our startup training business, our consistent values have always been Do The Right Thing, Make Founders Better, Be Intellectually Honest, and Choose Work That Makes You Happy. We started by teaching for free, then when we wanted to teach full-time, we only charged for big workshops. By keeping a free option, we stayed true to Do The Right Thing. But we started to burn out from all the travel, so moved into curriculum design. Choose Work That Makes You Happy. This also made more time for the right workshops, conference talks, deeper research, and making our content freely accessible.

We can navigate our business through various stages because we stay true to our values. This hasn't been simple, because four partners need to agree each time! But each decision is far faster and easier because we refer to what we stand for.

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