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OWNER'S MANUAL

Inside a Completely Transparent Company

At Buffer, employees know everything about everyone else: how much they make, what their equity is worth--even how much they sleep.

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Most teens vow they won't be like their parents, and most entrepreneurs vow they will run their start-ups differently than all the "traditional" businesses.

Unfortunately the reality of managing employees, managing cash flow, managing customer expectations--all the stuff involved in running a real rather than gleam-in-your-eye business--tends to get in the way until one day you look around and realize that in spite of your best intentions... you've become your parents.

Here's another in my series where I pick a topic and connect with someone a lot smarter than me.

This time I talked to Leo Widrich, the co-founder of Buffer, a social media management tool that lets you schedule, automate, and analyze social media updates.

It's hard to think culture when you're doing everything you can to create a viable product. After all, a culture without a product is just a bunch of people with similar viewpoints.
Building Buffer as a "normal" start-up was never something that excited us. If you go ahead and start your own company, that's finally the chance to really put all your ideas for how great companies are built in practice.

A few months ago we finally put the first ideas for the Buffer culture into words. Of course culture is a lot more than a slide deck. In the two years we've been working on Buffer we've searched for best processes to make every workday as enjoyable and impactful as possible for our team.

Give me an example.
We recently gave everyone at Buffer a Jawbone UP wristband. It allows you to automatically track your sleep, your daily steps, your nutrition, and a lot more.

One of our key values at Buffer is to work smarter, not harder. Personal improvement is a big part of that, so giving employees a tool that can help improve their sleep patterns is a no-brainer.

A few weeks in it's already had an incredible effect. Browsing everyone's sleep patterns and talking about how to get more deep sleep has an amazing effect on productivity.

People don't mind going public with their sleep habits?
No, and that might be because we've been unusually open in other ways. For example, something that was definitely very scary for us to do was make all salaries public within the company. We created a formula for how salaries are calculated and added it to our Wiki page for everyone on the team to see.

Why? One, we wanted to truly commit to our value of transparency. When we announced it, Joel, our co-founder, emailed everyone and said, "I truly believe that transparency breeds trust, that's one of the key reasons for this adjustment."

Two, it made hiring new people for our team a lot easier and yes, you guessed it, more transparent. In fact we could tell potential employees how much they would earn before we got into any other details. We just ran through the formula and came up with the number.

What about the equity piece? Some entrepreneurs tell the world they're on a $1 annual salary but don't mention the value of their equity.
Absolutely. It's one thing to make salaries public to everyone in the company. Going the extra step to make equity completely open to everyone in the company was next.

We created another formula that determines how much equity each new person on the team will get and why everyone already on the team has what they have. It was definitely nerve-racking again, but today it feels like one of the best decisions we've made.

What else?
Another of our core values is to maintain a focus on self-improvement, and reading books is a great way to develop new skills and ideas, so everyone on the Buffer team can grab any Kindle book they want for free, no questions asked.

We've also implemented a daily personal improvement program. To track it we're using the productivity app IDoneThis: Every day everyone logs what they've done, what they're doing, and what they improved upon.

Here are some recent examples:

  • Four-day streak of getting up at 6 a.m.
  • Back to 10 minutes of consistent daily meditation.
  • Need to do some Pilates. Walking all the steps but still missing planned exercise.

Lots of companies talk about work goals. "What I am working on to improve myself," takes that a personal step farther. Since improvements are shared company wide, it's a great way to get support and encouragement.

Since your employees are spread around the world, general support and encouragement can be hard to come by.
That's why we've started a daily pair call. Most start-ups use a daily stand-up meeting to sync up. With a lot of our employees in different time zones that quickly became impossible.

So for one week two people on the team get paired up and have their own mini one-on-one. During their daily calls they talk about challenges, improvements, and what they're working on.

The pairings are completely random and everyone participates, so people who might not talk that often--like an engineer and a technical support person--get the chance to do so.

It's also a great way to get daily face time, something we can't otherwise easily do since we're a distributed company.

Tell me about something unusual you're doing outside the company.
A lot of people call us crazy for providing great support for a free product. We do our best to provide amazing support for a product whose users are 98 percent free. In fact out of our 10-person team, three-and-a-half people are working full time on customer support.

Giving great customer support for something that is free is great simply because it's crazy. No one else does it so it allows you to truly create a "wow" effect: When users get a response they're over the moon and spread the word.

It might sound crazy, but we see see customer support as the new marketing department. And so far it's working great for us.

IMAGE: Andrew Olney/Getty
Last updated: Apr 22, 2013

JEFF HADEN learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.
@jeff_haden




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