We talk with Carolyn Kopprasch, the Chief Happiness Officer at Buffer about their incredible culture built on transparency and self-improvement.
Jacob: Hello, everyone. I’m Jacob Shriar, Growth Manager at Officevibe. And today, I’m so excited to have my guest with me, Carolyn Kopprasch who’s the Chief Happiness Officer at Buffer. Carolyn, thanks so much for being here with me.
Carolyn: Thanks so much for having us.
Jacob: Awesome. Seriously, so excited to chat with you and learn more about Buffer. Buffer is so well-known for their company culture, one of my favorite companies. I follow the blog religiously, realistically. We use Buffer, the product, everyone on the team. Incredible product, incredible company. I could keep going for days.
But let’s just start first. Maybe high-level before we go sort of deeper into some of the questions. So really, just, honestly, high-level. What’s it like to work at Buffer? What’s the culture there like? It must be so amazing.
Carolyn: Thanks. It is amazing, it is. So one of the most relevant pieces of information about our culture is that we’re a distributed company. So we have people in various states in the United States and also Canada and Central America and Europe and Africa. So that plays a really big role in almost everything to do with our culture.
Yeah, we have… it’s sort of based on that. That you don’t want to live a deferred life. That’s kind of where all of this came from. From Joel, our founder’s concept of like, “Why should I work 9:00 to 5:00 in a building and then save up to travel someday? I should live wherever I want to live now, I should travel wherever I want to travel now.”
And so, it’s a very sort of live where you’re going to be the most happy, do the things that are going to make you the most happy and continually improve yourself. That’s kind of the whole concept.
Jacob: That’s awesome. Yeah, it makes a ton of sense. Actually, that probably relates perfectly to the thing that I guess you guys are the most well known for, which is transparency. Your, I guess, insane commitment to transparency. We’ll talk much more about transparency because I have so many questions around that.
I guess the only way that a distributed team can really work is when you have really true transparency. Otherwise, just so much stuff gets lost in the communication. You can’t have someone, like you said, in Africa, when they’re going to obviously miss a meeting.
So you’ve got to be able to log all these things. So I’m sure you use a bunch of tools to collaborate, communicate, keep everyone in the loop, etc. Actually, let’s just start like that. Can you maybe tell us about some of the different tools that you guys use to kind of chat and keep everyone in the loop?
Carolyn: Yeah, absolutely. So we say that our real office is HipChat. Everything happens in HipChat. Or at least a large percentage of things happen in HipChat. And so, that’s a great tool because you can talk one to one, but you can also have big group discussions. That we have a main room and then also, the customer happiness team has a room, and then the engineering team has a room, and design and so on. So a lot of conversation happens there.
Although we use e-mail a lot as well because HipChat tends to be somewhat real-time. Whereas e-mail is important for people who aren’t awake during your time zone. So HipChat and e-mail, huge. And we also use a program called Sqwiggle. Which is a video program that is made for remote teams to see… so you can see each other.
And the concept is, I understand it, is it’s supposed to mimic being in an office with people. So it has on your screen, at all times, there’s like a just a window, like a Brady Bunch-style window of all the faces. And you can see who’s at their desk and who isn’t. And it just takes screenshots; it’s not a live feed. But you can just click on them and talk.
As if we were in the same office, and I was just like, “Hey, Jacob.” You would’ve heard me. It’s kind of supposed to be like that. It removes the concept of ringing and answering and that kind of thing. So we use that constantly as well for just like, “Hey, how’s your morning going?” To, “Did you ever get a reply to this e-mail?” To, “Let’s have an hour-long group meeting.”
So those are kind of our few main communication tools and then we use Hackpad to take notes for all meetings. So that’s a really great resource as well because you can sort of collaborate in real-time. You can both be typing on it. It’s akin to a Google Doc. And then, the history of all meetings is always there, so you can always check and see what’s going on.
Jacob: Very cool, great. We use Sqwiggle also at Officevibe. One of our co-founders actually lives in Miami and we’re based in Montreal. So, of course, we literally need Sqwiggle to communicate with them. And actually, I’ve done a culture talk with the founder of Sqwiggle, Tom Moor, who I know also played a part in Buffer’s founding as well. But we’ll chat more about that offline.
I want to ask you about your job title because I think it’s so cool. “Chief Happiness Officer.” Geez, like I secretly want to change my job title to that. It sounds so awesome, honestly. I want to know, first of all, what that means, what you do on the day to day? Tell me really more about what you do and what your responsibilities are as Chief Happiness Officer.
Carolyn: Sure. So the happiness team is the customer happiness team. But it’s just a lot easier to say “happiness.” So the whole happiness team is sort of in charge of keeping customers happy. And that is mostly inbound, naturally. We answer e-mails and tweets and that kind of thing, live chat. Write some documentation to help people through common questions, that sort of thing.
But it’s some outbound. It’s trying to understand, reaching out to people who have this number of errors or trying to understand, “This person canceled, but they still had this much money left on their account. How can we work with them or give it back?” Like all that kind of stuff.
What they also do is obviously take a whole lot of information about what we hear from the customers and turn it into useful to-dos for the engineering team. Because, naturally, they have a lot of really great ideas for things that customers may not have even thought to ask for. But there’s a huge piece of development that comes from listening what customers are saying.
And we’re really lucky in that we have an engineering team and a product team that is super customer-focused. So they love the feedback and they want to know what bugs people are seeing and they want to fix them and they want to hear what requests people have.
I think they’re really talented at hearing the questions that we get and turning them into what the customer really wanted. I forget who originally said this, but I love the expression that, “Customers will ask for a 3-inch drill bit, but what they really want is a 3-inch hole.” Right? So I think that’s a particularly awesome skill that our engineering team has.
So we say, “People want drill bits.” And then they go, “Okay, let’s figure out how we can get them holes.” So that’s a really fun piece of our job as well. Because it’s not just talking to customers. It’s also translating that information to the rest of the company.
So that’s kind of an overview of the happiness team and then I just lead that team. There’s nine of them now. I’ll just check real quick. So what that means is that they’re very self-sufficient. Obviously, you have to hire really motivated and self-sufficient people for a remote company. But it’s helpful to have sort of one person talking to them.
And we have a meeting every other week to talk about like what their challenges are and celebrate achievements and make sure they’re not blocked in any way and that kind of thing. And I also do the hiring for my team and I play a role on some of the product development stuff as well. Just trying to speak for the customers. So I do a lot of sort of just listening to what customers are saying and trying to understand the tags that we’re getting in Help Scout and use user voice as well in trying to put all those pieces together. And hopefully provide some useful information for the product team.
Jacob: Yeah, that’s very, very cool. And I find it’s kind of interesting because it really ties back to sort of a good company culture. It really ties back to a good company culture and really having employees that sort of care about the mission and the vision of the company.
I’ve worked in environments before where the support team is totally separate and let’s say the product team is totally separate and they don’t like each other. And so it makes the support team, or the happiness team, let’s say, their job much, much harder. So it’s really important to have everyone in love with the customer and really wanting to make the best experience for their customer.
Everyone in the company–product development, CEO, etc.–sharing that vision really, really… anyways, you get it, you know what I’m talking about.
Carolyn: You’re saying it really well, though. It’s very important. For happy people.
Jacob: Definitely. Let me ask you a question about the transparency. Like I was mentioning, you guys are pretty well-known for the, I guess, level of transparency that you go to. Even things up to people’s salaries, if I’m not mistaken. Which seems kind of crazy in my opinion.
So I’d love to just ask you to kind of elaborate on that a little bit. Talk to us about, I guess, the transparency there. And I guess just talk about what’s that like to have really everything just so out there in the open. I mean, there’s got to be some pros, there’s got to be some cons, I’m guessing, too. If you want to take a few minutes on this one, maybe just talk about the transparency at Buffer?
Carolyn: Sure. Yeah, this is a big one. So if I’m going too far down any direction, feel free to tug me back. Because transparency, yeah, it’s a lot of different… it’s sort of the base of a lot of the decisions that we make.
Let me just back up a little bit and say we have ten values. But our top three are always choosing positivity and happiness, transparency and a focus on self-improvement. So those second two are really, really related.
So our transparency has sort of an outside focus and an inside focus. So, internally, we have complete transparency around things like e-mail. So everybody sees every other group’s e-mail. So I can also access the engineering team’s e-mail if I want to. They can see what’s happening in the Happiness Heroes’ world.
That’s partially, as you referenced, to do with being remote. You don’t just walk by somebody in the hallway and say like, “What are you working on in here?” You have to be a lot more intentional about finding information that you’re looking for and e-mail is one really great way to do that. Because you don’t necessarily have to read everything, but if you want to know something that’s going on, you can go check it out.
And that’s sort of from the business side. On the personal side, we also have a focus on self-improvement. And it’s kind of hard to do that without transparency. So we talk very openly with each other about the things that we’re working on. Some of them are skills, like learning piano or learning lessons. And some of them are a lot more personal, like trying to treat your spouse differently, or something a lot more sort of character-based.
So we talk about those. And then we also wear a Jawbone UP. Everybody on the team wears one of those. And we can see each other’s steps and sleep so that we can sort of base our conversations around our self-improvement efforts. Because more exercise and more sleep is kind of the universal human truth of improvement. There’s almost nobody in the world who could do with less exercise and less sleep.
So the transparency is important there, too. Because you might say, “Oh, I noticed that you didn’t get that much less sleep last night. How can we help?” Or, “Is there anything going on?” “Maybe try taking a bath before bed.” However, that turns into conversation, the transparency really allows that to flourish.
That’s all from sort of the inside. And then, we also have very transparent towards the rest of the world practices as well. So, yeah. We have completely transparent numbers. So Joel, every month, publishes a blog post that includes our revenue, and our return, and our cash in the bank. Basically everything.
And the reason for that is because he really loves… one of Joel’s, our CEO and founder’s, biggest passions is helping other companies that are sort of starting out or have questions. And a lot of these things, it’s really hard to do real research on. And so, he wanted to help other companies that were going through this and say like, “This is what we pay our customer support team and how it compares to engineers.”
If that’s the question that you had, now you have real data out there. And you don’t have to necessarily like bully or get your CEO friend drunk so that he’ll tell you… it’s hard to ask questions like that and they can be very secretive. And it can be very uncomfortable.
And so, what he always believed in was sort of serving as an example of not necessarily how to do it right, but just one way that one company has approached it. And what has sort of happened with all that is that it’s a little bit like we’ve crowd-sourced our big decisions. Because we still have… Joel and the rest of the team still make the decisions. But we get really amazing input from other people who wouldn’t have necessarily been privy to the information and wouldn’t have been able to share really great points and thoughts.
And so we’ve made big changes based on… we have their salary formula and our… even the amount of equity that people have. All that’s public and people have asked some really great questions and given some really great advice.
And so what was originally just sort of keeping ourselves honest and helping other people has interestingly turned into a really awesome advantage for us as well.
Jacob: That’s so cool. Honestly. Wow, that’s really incredible, honestly. You mentioned before that you’re involved a little bit in the hiring process, at least on your team. I’d love to really learn more about that. Any sort of cool tips or tricks that you can share with us about how you hire? What are maybe some key things you look for? Some key things that sort of stand out to you? Any advice that you can share I think would be great.
Carolyn: Sure. Yeah, so I handle a lot of the hiring for my team and then I sometimes interview people on the other teams as well. Yeah, I think what’s interesting about hiring for Buffer is that culture fit is, first of all, the most important thing. So even if you’re the absolute best at your job, if it seems like you might not have the same values as we do, or even if you do but you’re not totally on board with transparency, or you feel a little bit weird sharing your self-improvement efforts, or any other number of things that are pretty important for you to be happy with us, then it wouldn’t be a good fit. So, regardless of skill, culture comes first.
So most of the time, we don’t even look at, really, resumes. I mean, it’s great if you have some experience in customer service for my team, for example. And obviously, for the engineering team, you have to have certain skills. But I’m much more interested in your Twitter feed and how you present yourself to the world as opposed to just necessarily how you’re presenting yourself to me when you’re applying for a job. So kind of public persona is where we get most of that information, much less from a piece of paper that says that you graduated with this GPA or whatever.
So that’s probably the advice I would give, is spend much more time looking at the types of things that you share and if that seems like it’s in line with Buffer’s culture, spend more time on that than maybe the resume.
But, yeah. The way we do this is we just have several e-mail addresses and then people just e-mail us there. The process is that you would go through an interview with me and then an interview with Joel and maybe one or two other people on the team depending on how fast you’re trying to move and anything like that.
And then, we have a 30-day trial period. Excuse me, 45 days. It’s a big round number. It’s 45 days, and so it’s about six weeks of just making sure that it’s a really good fit after the hire. So you’re totally a contractor. There’s absolutely no guarantee either way.
So it’s really great for us because we get to say, “This feels like a really good fit or it doesn’t.” And it’s important for the other person, too, to really get a feel of what it’s like to work at Buffer. And maybe they don’t want to share their stats or their sleep, or maybe their spouse doesn’t want to share their sleep, or whatever it is.
Or maybe you realize you are not that happy working remotely and you want a bustling office environment and that kind of thing. That’s really useful for the candidate as well to say, “Okay, I’m really on board with all of this crazy stuff that this company does.” So, yeah, at the end of 45 days, if it’s a great fit, then it would be an official hire or so. It’s kind of an extensive process.
Jacob: Yeah, that does sound pretty extensive. It sounds cool, though. It sounds like, I guess, a pretty smart way of doing it. And actually true story. Technically speaking, I found my job through Twitter. This job right here.
So really, I totally agree with what you said about kind of understanding how to present yourself. I’m very conscious about sort of how my Twitter feed looks, how my Facebook page looks, how my LinkedIn presents itself.
I actually have… if you go to JacobShriar.com, it’s like an online CV. That was a big part of kind of making myself stand out for this job. I’m actually meaning to change that page, but either way, it’s served me well up until now, for sure.
That’s great. I’m just curious, are there any sort of things that you do maybe during that 45-day trial period or maybe right after in terms of, let’s say, onboarding and kind of welcoming the new people, let’s say, onto the team and getting them fully integrated? Do you have sort of a, at Buffer, like a sort of well-oiled onboarding process, or not really, or…?
Carolyn: Not really. So one thing that’s interesting is that at previous jobs I’ve had, the things that you need to know in support are relatively the same throughout time. A bug that exists now will probably still exist in a month and so you should write it down somewhere so that new people who come on board will learn it.
We even found that to be too useful because things change really fast and that’s a similar reason why we try not to do too much online documentation. Because you take screenshots and you invest all this time and money and energy into saying, “Click this button,” and then the growth team does an experiment and now they find it’s a different word or something.
So similarly, for my team, especially, for the customer happiness team, it’s more of just a dive in and sink or swim. But we will have you doing real work on your first day. So you’ll answer e-mails on your first day. As an engineer, you’ll ship a code. As a designer, you’ll probably change something that a whole lot of people will see. So that’s kind of a fun way to do it because you don’t spend the first week training. You would very much be diving in.
There was one other thing I was going to mention that just slipped my mind. Yeah, I can’t recall. On the first day, you just basically jump into the HipChat room and say “Hi, I’m here.” And start doing work.
And one thing for my team is that you have to be able to sort of jump right in and you can’t be going “This is Buffer and here’s what this button does. And here’s who we are.” That slows the process for training down so much that what we have found to be a successful strategy is just to hire people who already are really extensive users.
So on day one, they know what that button does and they know the answer to that question because they had to change their time zone once. That kind of thing. So that has been sort of a really awesome hack or tip or trick or whatever. Is to really hire from our community. Especially because those people tend to be more familiar with the culture as well.
We used to advertise jobs on… what’s the one? I keep wanting to say… Hacker News. We used to always advertise these jobs all over the place. Where we thought people who might like to work for Buffer would be. But we realized that a lot of those people weren’t actually Buffer users. So now we just have our logo inside the actual application that says, “Buffer” and then says, “Is hiring.” So if you click that, then you get to the “Jobs” page.
So that’s a lot more effective. Because instead of random people being like, “Well, this looks cool. What are you guys all about?” We get people who really know about our story and who we are and also, what all these buttons do and they can help customers on the first day.
Jacob: That is so smart. Wow, what a great idea. Really well done. And just going back to what you were saying before about the lack of documentation because the product is always changing, I totally agree with what you said. I used to get in fights all the time at some of my last companies because people would want me to make basically video demos of products. I mean, that’s a nightmare.
Could you imagine? You change one thing, the whole video is shot, right? You’ve got to re-shoot, it’s a whole thing. It saves you a bunch of trouble to make it much more lean, much more agile. You’ve got to be thinking with that mindset of really, “If we had to change this in ten minutes, could we do it?” Right? You can’t make something that’s sort of that stuck, let’s say. So very, very cool stuff. Honestly, Buffer, incredible company.
Carolyn: We find a lot of this stuff the hard way, I should say that. We tried a lot of things that didn’t work. You’re only getting the rainbow version of this, of everything that has worked.
Jacob: Classic. That’s how it always is, in all honestly. Let me ask you, are there any sort of other, I’ll say, cool initiatives that you guys do there? I know it’s tough with remote teams.
But let’s say, for example, besides the Jawbone and the… I forget what else you said. But the Jawbone and the other thing that you guys all do. Any other sort of cool initiatives to sort of promote wellness or increase engagement, or measure happiness or anything along those lines that you can share with us?
Carolyn: That’s a good one. The thing that often goes hand in hand with the Jawbone, if you’re looking for the other perk, I guess, is we give everybody a Kindle and unlimited Kindle books. So if you ever want to read anything. Not just work-related, but like fiction… a lot of people get fiction for reading before bed and that kind of thing. So, yeah, that’s something else we do just to encourage.
Because reading is sort of another one of those universal human truths. It’s almost never bad to do more of that. Especially because sleep is more important, reading before bed is often correlated with falling asleep and yadda, yadda.
But in terms of other initiatives. I don’t know if I would call it an “initiative.” But just working remotely and having people sort of manage their own energy, and time and hours, and schedule and tools has been pretty successful.
Some people really like to get up at 5:00 in the morning, like our CEO. And he would work from 5:00 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon and then go to the gym. And some people want to start working at 11:00 and work till the night.
So that’s been pretty successful because instead of feeling like they have to… aside from being online at certain times for certain meetings which is kind of unavoidable, I guess, people generally manage their own schedules. It’s nice to see because people will try different things, too.
Sometimes, they’ll say, “I used to be a night owl, but maybe I do want to start waking up an hour earlier.” And there’s a whole support network of people who talk about that. So yeah, that works really well. Some people work from home, some people work from co-working spaces. Just kind of whatever is going to make you the happiest and have you do the best work.
Jacob: That’s awesome, yeah, that sounds so cool. My last question for you before we go is a bit of a tough one, but I feel like I’ll ask it anyways. No company is perfect. As much as I can sit here and talk about how incredible Buffer is all day, no company is perfect. So I’d love to ask you, what do you think are some areas in terms of the culture that you think could maybe use some improvement?
Carolyn: That’s a good one. I’ll have two thoughts. The first one is that… so we get together a few times a year to three to four times a year all as a company. And it’s really obvious when we’re all together that being face to face is really valuable.
So one thing that I’m really aware of is that… so I do work in San Francisco. There are four to five of us in any office, at any given time. We try to make it so that there’s no advantage to being in the San Francisco office. But I don’t know if we have done that very well.
Sometimes two or three people will be having a conversation over the table. And then we’ll realize like, “Oh, wait, let’s re-have that entire conversation in HipChat because there may be other people who have thoughts on that.” Or, you know, that kind of thing.
But then you’re off to lunch and you’re waiting at a red light and you have a continuation of that conversation. I don’t think we do that perfectly.
And so, when I started at Buffer, I was in Nashville and I was remote for about a year. And so, I really remember that feeling of, “Oh, I don’t remember that conversation.” Because it didn’t happen online.
So that’s one thing that I think we could still work on, is really making it… I don’t know if you could ever capture all of the advantages of being in person online, but I think we still have a lot of work to do on that front.
We’re getting together in New York soon. And our most recent gathering was in Cape Town and it’s really amazing how much work gets done there, and how two happiness heroes will be talking about a bug and an engineer will be like, “Oh, I just did that. Sorry, let me fix it.” And that kind of thing is sometimes hard to recreate online.
Yeah, that’s one thing that we’re always trying to figure out is to make remote in place feel really comfortable and part of the team. I work from home a lot, but occasionally, I’m in the office and I can feel it when I’m there. That’s one thing, I think that we’re still working on, is figuring out how to really nail that.
And there’s a lot of really awesome examples out there, automatic, that makes WordPress just totally remote. Basecamp, formerly 37Signals, is remote. And so, we read those blogs and learn a lot from those guys and gals.
Yeah, I still think it’s still sort of a developing world of remote companies. And it sounds like you guys have… do you experience any of those same challenges?
Jacob: Well, it’s funny you mention that. Not necessarily me. Because I’m actually in the office in Montreal. But I know for sure that our co-founder, Jeff, who’s in Miami. He works in a cool co-working space, it’s like he works in a really nice space, but he’s not here with us.
We don’t talk about this all the time, but I know for sure that there are moments where he probably feels pretty lonely. There are moments where, like you said, whether it’s company happy hours, or different conversations that happen here with the team that, unfortunately, he doesn’t get to experience.
He comes up to Montreal every now and then. But obviously, not as often as he would probably like to. Yeah, I mean, it’s a struggle. It’s important… I think you said it very well. It’s just important to be mindful of that and really… I have to keep reminding myself. Instead of turning to the left and having a chat with this guy, might as well type it in Sqwiggle. Or get on Sqwiggle, like you said, start a conversation with him right away. Start a conversation with the guy next to me.
It’s almost like a laugh because me and the guy sitting next to me, I’m having a conversation with my webcam and I could just turn left and then we could have a chat. But in fact, it’s important that we kind of stay online and do it that way out of respect for Jeff and making sure that that team dynamic is still there, right?
Jacob: Okay. I think we’ll end it there. But honestly, Carolyn, I just want to thank you so much for taking some time to chat with me. This is so cool. Buffer, I’ll say it again, an incredible company.
Carolyn: Thanks so much for having me. This is a really awesome series. I’m excited to listen to some more of them and continue to learn from the people that you’re talking to. So thank you for doing this and for including me.
Jacob: Wow, geez, so nice of you to say. Great conclusion. Yeah, take care and hopefully, we can do this again sometime soon.
Carolyn: Sounds good. Thanks so much, Jacob.
Jacob: All right. Great. Bye-bye.