Presentation: Learnings from a Culture First Startup



4:10pm - 5:00pm

Day of week:


Key Takeaways

  • Hear how Buffer explored and developed a company culture that allow, among other things, full disclosure of all company salaries.
  • Learn about some of the techniques and approaches Buffer experimented along the way to developing the culture that defines the company.
  • Hear suggestions on how you can go about developing your own company culture.


When building a product, it's important to experiment, learn, react, and iterate to achieve success. To build great team chemistry and culture, the same principles apply. At Buffer, alongside product, we started thinking about team chemistry early on. We crafted our own unique culture and learned a lot through our many successful and failed culture experiments over the past five years. Being a globally distributed team and defaulting to transparency (including sharing every team member's salary online) are just two of the many things Buffer culture is known for. This talk explores some of these culture experiments to illustrate how cultivating and iterating on your own team culture can improve happiness, productivity, employee retention, and overall growth.


You are CTO at Buffer. Tell me a bit about what you are doing there, and what is all about.
Buffer started in 2010 as a social media marketing tool application to help people buffer their posts on social media (to schedule them). I came on board as the seventh employee, focused on Android initially, and I wasn’t the CTO until the next year.
We were 10 people, and we started thinking much more about hiring. At that point, we were just reading a lot. Culture was still in its early days, and we read a few books like Good to Great and How to Win Friends and Influence People. We were knew everyone talked about how hiring is important, but no one talked about how to hire well. We started thinking about culture and talking about it. We said, how can we know what we want our culture to be if we don’t define it? How can we be on the same page?
So in 2013, we defined our values. We had eight values initially. Those values have changed and evolved over time, and we’ve added a couple more.
We look at Buffer in two ways. One is the product that we are building (we have a vision for that). Then we have our culture vision as well. We consider our culture as important as our product. And we have this culture of redefining things, questioning the way things work.
We’ve built a team that is globally distributed all over the world. We have about 40 people in the US & Canada, 25 people in Europe, and then the rest are scattered all across the world (South Africa, Taipei, Beijing, Sydney). When we started, there weren’t too many cultures that we could mimic and model. I think there were only a couple of other companies that were building teams like this. So, we ended up redefining our culture and carving out our own path. That’s the quick gist of what Buffer is doing right now.
For me, I had worked at a previous company before with a culture that was less than productive. They were the smartest people that I had ever worked with before. People who now are doing incredible things individually- very senior people now in different places. Initially we all worked well, and got a lot done. Though we made poor decisions and burned through tons of cash, and ended up not shipping a single product. Zero in revenue. That experience personally shaped my hiring philosophy as well. It’s not necessarily about the technical ability, instead it’s the ability to work together that makes or breaks a team.
As a CTO, I helped grow the team to 30 engineers now (90 people in total). I realized that I can’t just look for the smartest people that I can find. I have to look for people that will work together in this team and culture. It has been interesting to see that some of the people who are our best engineers, don’t have a traditional tech background. Some have taught themselves to code, but have an intense appetite for learning.
What is the motivation for your talk?
I like the track title, Culture as a Differentiator. At Buffer, culture is what makes us stand out, so it’s aptly named. My goal is to expand the bounds of awareness of all of the engineers and managers in the room, and help recognizing that culture is really important.
We are all working on interesting problems and there are some great technologies out there. We can be super great, and we can be experts in those fields, but what will push our bounds further is culture-as-a-differentiator. The best companies have a keen focus on culture. My hope is to maybe talk about why culture has worked for us; and why I attribute a lot of our growth to being focused on culture.
We have around 4000 applicants a month who apply to Buffer, and often tell us they know more about Buffer than their own company.
The reason why we’ve been so driven to create an amazing culture was because we wanted to build a place that we could work for the next 5, 10, maybe 20 years or so. But we know to find a long lasting company, you have to be aligned with that culture. It is not just the technology that company is working on.
In the talk, I will discuss a bit on how we created this culture, how we defined our values, some of the lessons that we have had to learn going through the evolution, and some of our mistakes. I’ll also touch on how to create a positive culture into your organization.
How do you develop a culture? You can’t just adopt Buffer’s culture, right?
That’s exactly what I want to share. We have read tons of books to help define our culture. Every time we would read one, we would try and adopt all those things. We were going through all these swings back and forth with many experiments, until one day we realized that we were unique. There is only one team that has the exact type of people that you have. Culture, while it can be inspired by what you read, has to be defined by you. I can share how we implement our culture, but it’s about realizing that you have to experiment with the team that you have.
What are some of the techniques that you employed?
We defined our values through a survey. We summarized not only our current values, but the perfect company’s values as well. But what do you do once you have defined those? Many teams have defined values--the real power is in how those values are implemented. How do you talk about those values? How do you apply those values?
We have this one value which is ‘default to transparency’. A lot of companies say that they are transparent, but we wanted to push those boundaries. Not just say, we are transparent. When we defined that value, it became obvious that not everything in our company was transparent. We looked at certain things such as salaries, equity, and revenue, and tried to see how far we can go. So we made all of our company’s salaries transparent, not only internally but publicly. Equity as well. You can look up Buffer equity. You can look up Buffer salary. You can see what my salary is.
We wanted to push those boundaries up until a point where we would recognize that we have reached a limit. As a startup, we define our product and its market fit through experimentation, through A/B testing. We applied those same principles to culture. We recognize it’s entirely possible to have your salaries public. I was very scared that day when we did that. We all were scared. There could be legal reasons why this was not a good idea. The one negative reason that I saw was now the competition knew how much they could poach our employees for. We thought of that, and said, if someone was going to be poached from our company, then it means it is a failing on our part. But why is someone leaving? Is it all about money? The culture, the environment don’t count? You can also see this as a great way to weed out people who aren’t part of your culture. And there are other benefits. We never have someone who says they expected to be paid higher after 7 hours of interviews.
What will somebody coming to your talk be able to walk away with?
I hope someone coming out of my talk will start to understand why being explicit about culture is important. It’s the way to solve tough challenges like recruiting/hiring, and having the resiliency as a team to get through those tough bumps all teams go through.
QCon audience is interesting because they have a lot of influence in an organization. Engineers often have more influence than any other role in a company, and can be the main drivers to shape a team and organization's culture.

Speaker: Sunil Sadasivan

CTO @Buffer

Sunil is the CTO at Buffer. He started as the second engineer (employee #5) in 2012 and helped grow Buffer to now 93 people and 10 million Annual Recurring Revenue. Throughout the journey, Sunil has architected the backend infrastructure, led engineering hiring, pioneered Buffer's diversity initiatives, and helped shape Buffer's culture values. To this day, Sunil still believes it's possible to lead and code at the same time.

Find Sunil Sadasivan at


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