Deep Dive

Building with the same online marketing strategy for 13 years

Published on
September 9, 2023
Contributors:
Matthew Gira
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13 years ago, the first iPad was released in April. Instagram was released in October. The company, Buffer, started their content marketing. To this day, Buffer is still focused on content marketing at a whole new level.

No focus on paid ads. No focus on big press releases. No flashy social media posts. Just quality content for 13 years.

Buffer is an online platform that helps marketers schedule and manage their content marketing efforts. It’s become one of the market leading tools for social media managers and they’ve done this without having to worry about VCs (well, not any longer at least…, more on that below)

Before jumping into how Buffer has grown to be a company making over $18 million per year, let me introduce you to the founder of Buffer: Joel Gascoigne.

Joel before Buffer

Joel Gascoigne was born in the UK and spent most of his childhood in the city of Sheffield. He spent three and a half years in Japan, struggled a lot in high school, and was a big online gamer.

Joel’s interest in online gaming led him to start learning more about programming and web design. Eventually, Joel was building websites for clients and graduated college with a degree in computer science. The gamer that became a software developer feels like a pretty common trajectory. So far, no big surprises.

While in college, he met someone that would help him create his first startup: OnePage.

The concept of OnePage was that it was a single web page for all of your online identities and contact info. It was very similar to About.me according to Joel.

He worked on OnePage while working his full time job as a software developer. He even negotiated working only 3 days for them so he can spend more time developing OnePage and other projects.

Things seem to be going incredibly smoothly at this point…right??

Then all the mistakes and learnings happened. Joel and his co-founder worked on OnePage for a year, had lots of fights, and lived together in a cheap place filled with cockroaches. Eventually, his co-founder left OnePage and Joel continued to work on it for a bit.

OnePage would grow to 10,000 users and Joel continued to run experiments inspired by The Lean Startup concepts by Eric Ries.

While Joel was running experiments, he was becoming more active on one particular platform: Twitter.

Joel would share articles that he thought were interesting and as he grew his following, he was meeting more and more people on Twitter. However, he needed to post more on Twitter to start more conversations and that’s where Buffer was born.

The start and early beginnings of Buffer

Joel continued to experiment with Twitter and launched Buffer on November 30th, 2010 out of a Startup Sprint project. He tested people’s interest in Buffer with something that could take you 30 minutes to do: a two-page website. One page with three bullet points of how Buffer can be helpful and the second page being a page to sign up for the email waiting list.

Once Buffer officially launched with only the ability to schedule your tweets, Buffer had its first paying customer within four days.

Joel felt the momentum. Buffer started to attract more customers, but not enough for ramen profitability (enough to pay your living expenses). The product of Buffer was good enough and as Joel puts it, “when the signal is there that the product is good enough, shout about it!”.

About a month or so after the launch, Joel brought on a co-founder, Leo Widrich, who would spend all of his time marketing Buffer in the early days. When Leo joined, Buffer had a total of 100 free users signed up. Within 5 months or so, Buffer had over 100,000 free users only using what is now called “content marketing”. Still to this day, content marketing is the primary channel of growth.

At this point, there’s a lot different stories we cover, but here’s a short list of all that’s happened to Joel & Buffer since starting in 2010:

  • Buffer raised ~4 million in total to eventually buy investors out in 2017 (more on this in the key takeaways!)
  • Joel & Leo have competing visions and Leo eventually leaves Buffer
  • Grew the team too large and had to lay off 10 team members of a 94 person team
  • Joel experiences severe burnout and takes 6 weeks off
  • Joel’s hardships at Buffer eventually take a toll on his relationship, now marriage

Every bullet point could have been a 1,000 word story.

Buffer Today

Today, Joel & the Buffer team are leading the way in building in public and with transparency. They even have a dedicated section on their website to transparency. It’s filled with Buffer’s past and current revenue numbers, salaries of team members, and metrics of how healthy the team is at Buffer.

According to their website, Buffer is making over $18 million per year and according to Joel, continues to grow using primarily content marketing. They’ve tried getting press and paid acquisition but according to Joel, “we’ve really not figured that out yet”. It’s pretty impressive to build Buffer to a company making over $18 million per year with one strategy of growth. Those that say “content is king” are feeling good reading that.

Key Takeaways

Stay focused on the long term

Buffer wasn’t Joel’s first idea or venture. It was at a minimum, the 3rd venture, that Joel ever started. The previous ventures weren’t long term for Joel, but the learnings that Joel came with in each helped Joel build Buffer.

One of the key learnings from these previous ventures: the importance of profitability.

Joel and the team at Buffer decided to buy out their investors because their financial model wasn’t one that fit the VC model. Buffer was profitable, but being profitable isn’t necessarily the goal for VCs. It’s typically to get an exit in a 10 year time frame and Buffer seemed to be thinking beyond 10 years.

Joel saw this as such a core value that it seems to have been a key difference between him and Leo and a big reason why Leo left Buffer in 2017. It’s also why Buffer hasn’t accepted an acquisition offer.

Instead of thinking in a 10 year VC timeline, Buffer is able to think beyond only money and make decisions that make people and learning a bigger priority.

Experiments are always happening

Throughout interviews and posts, Joel consistently talks about The Lean Startup concepts and how they’ve used them at Buffer. Buffer started as just a simple landing page to get their first customers without a single line of code written.

Buffer continues to run these types of experiments. They experimented with a flat hierarchy at one point and The Lean Startup concepts are still used by Buffer when launching new products.

The pro tip: Always be experimenting. Big and small.

Personal life matters

Joel shares a ton about Buffer and he shares some key personal moments for him at times. He talks about how he dealt with severe burnout and how the stress he was feeling deeply affected his relationship with his now life partner.

Joel consistently comes back to how he wants to build Buffer to be a company that is built around him and his team’s life, not building life around work.

This has led Buffer becoming a company that has a 4-day work week, measures how healthy their team is, and is fully remote (before it was cool/the COVID-19 pandemic)

If you’re building a venture, build work around life, not building life around work.

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