by Tim Jahn on April 5, 2011
Joel Gascoigne is the founder of Buffer, a website that simplifies tweet scheduling for Twitter. He wanted to create a scalable way to generate recurring revenue and do less freelance web development work, so he created Buffer.
I invited Joel here to share the story of how he went from idea to his first paying customer in 7 weeks, and how he kept getting more paid customers after that.
Tim Jahn: For people who don’t know, what is Buffer?
Joel Gascoigne: Okay cool. So Buffer is a Twitter app and what it basically you to do is to spend, you know ten, fifteen minutes and every morning or every few days and, what I do is I read, I read my tech news and if I find say five or six articles, instead of Tweeting them all at once and kind of flooding your followers, and you can just put them into Buffer and Buffer will spread them out throughout the day for you.
So it’s kind of like scheduling but it’s, it’s done in a new way. And you chose the times that the Tweets are going to go out just once and then just it Tweets into your Buffer and the Buffer handles all the scheduling for you.
Tim Jahn: So why did you create Buffer. You were just telling me a little bit in pre-interview about your previous start up and how you were kind of looking for a way to make more, or make some, some income. Go ahead, explain to me why, why Buffer came about.
Joel Gascoigne: Okay, so yeah, so I mentioned my previous start up and I’d been working on that for about a year and a half and I’d been doing freelance at web developing work on the side to fund myself. And it just got to a point where I basically, I wanted to create something that would generate revenue and eventually cover my monthly costs but in a scalable way that I could just you know expand on and, and keep working over time.
I was really keen to build a product that people love and so basically with my previous start up I’d been reading a lot of the kind of Lean Startup concepts. And I decided that Buffer was a great opportunity for me to put all of what I’d learned into practice and apply it right from the start. So as soon as I had the idea, I had the idea with sort of using a number of different Tweet scheduling applications and then, so when I had the idea I decided why I’m going to try my best to you know put into practice everything I’ve learned from all the Lean Startup, all the different articles I’ve read, you know all these articles on how can use and by great people like Eric Ries and Ash Maurya.
And I wanted to just try and put it all into practice and see whether you know it would actually make things you know happen in a better way and let me reduce the time building something that potentially no one would end up using.
Tim Jahn: So you went, with the idea of creating a minimal viable product where you created kind of a, the most minimum thing you could to make sure anyone would actually use it. My question is how did you know when it was something worth launching? Like how do you know? You know you’re building a little bit, little bit, little bit, how do you know when it’s just enough to launch and see if people will use it?
Joel Gascoigne: Okay, yeah that’s, that’s an interesting one. I think for me, I think the best answer for that is that it’s always more minimal than you think. And so for Buffer I basically just tried to think you know what can I cut out of it to launch as soon as possible? And luckily there was actually on Hacker News there was something going on called the November Start up Spence. And so a lot of people were kind of all getting together and saying let’s try and launch something at, in November.
And so I kind of, I decided to use that as my own deadline. And to be honest there was a lot I wanted to fit into the initial, into the MVP and I didn’t — and I had to cut various things out like, like a step by step sign up process and, and various other things just to get it launched on November the 30th. But that was, I mean that was the actual product itself, but I did a number of exercises to validate the demand for the product and, and whether people would pay even before that. So happy to talk kind of talk about that a bit.
Tim Jahn: Yeah, yeah. Explain how you went about making sure anyone was even interested in the idea.
Joel Gascoigne: Yeah, so when I first had the idea, I’m a developer so I just got coding so after a few days I, I just kind of stopped myself and I thought you know what am I doing? I’ve kind of — I felt like I’ve been down that path before and I’ve read all these things about the Lean Startup you know, make sure you validate your, the idea before you get building. So I kind of stopped and I thought okay how can I actually validate that people will want this and potentially pay for it before I build anymore? So how I did that was basically, the first thing I did was to just put up a learning page which explained the whole product. And, and it had, it was very simple.
Just it had the title and then it had step one, step two, step three. Just explain how Buffer would work. And there was pricing and plans button. And the important thing is that the page made it look like the product already existed. And, and then so what would happen is when someone would click the pricing and plans button, it would just take, take them to another page which said “oh sorry, we’re not quite ready yet and we’re working hard to launch soon and put your email in this box if you’re interested in knowing when we launch.”
And so that was the first thing I did and that let me know validate whether people would use, would want to use the product. And soon as I had a few emails coming through from that and I just marketed it through my own Twitter account and that was basically it. As soon I had a few emails coming through that, I then wanted to validate whether people might actually pay, pay for this product. So the next thing I did was to just add, add another page in between those two pages, so then it became a learning, click the pricing and plans button and then it had a pricing page which actually had the full pricing with the different options for the different pricing plans.
And then it would have a sign, it had a sign up there button for each plan and so then it was just kind of adding the step that people had to take before they reached the page saying “oh we’re not quite ready yet.” And then I just let that have that life a week or so and have people clicking through on that one as well and giving me their email. And I had the odd person clicking the page plans.
So, you know it, it wasn’t definite validation. You know it’s just emails. You don’t know whether these people are actually going to pay or whether they would have paid if the product existed. But that was enough validation for me to then think why I’m going to build the most minimal version of this product and see whether it’s actually going to work out.
Tim Jahn: So at that time there wasn’t even a way for me to pay? So if I clicked through and said I want the simple regular plan, there, there wasn’t even a way for me to buy a product yet?
Joel Gascoigne: No the product didn’t even exist yet. It just said “sorry we’re not quite ready” and they put their email in and I saved it to a database and I sent them an email explaining a little bit more about the product and asking for you know any, any comments they had on it.
Tim Jahn: So when did you actually start building the product? Like how, how many emails did you have to tell yourself you had to collect before you said okay this is validated, let’s build it?
Joel Gascoigne: Well like I said I kind of started building it before, before I’d even done this, partly because I was actually partly building it for myself. So, but I’d say the point when I thought you know this is worth going ahead was kind of a combination of a number of emails. I’d say I probably had about 30 emails, not, not too many. But also talking to people really helped me to validate whether people want it. People were, people was like showing that they actually to, to use this product you know. Yeah.
Tim Jahn: Okay, so you had 30 emails. So I mean that’s a, that’s a good amount for having nothing up really.
Joel Gascoigne: Yeah. I mean by the end of the — so that, that learning page was up for around seven weeks while I still build the first version of the product. And I think I had about 120 emails by the time I launched.
Tim Jahn: So after you launched, how many — how long did it take for the first person to start paying?
Joel Gascoigne: It was, it was four days. So that was quite, quite nice, quite quick validation.
Tim Jahn: Yeah four days is pretty quick indeed. How did that feel after the fourth day you got that first person?
Joel Gascoigne: Oh it was, it was fantastic, it — You know, I — the email came through from Pay Pal into my email account and then it, it made a huge difference. It really felt like you know I, this could, this could really work. You know I, I kind of had a number in my mind which was how many I wanted to reach by the point, it’s basically what would cover my living costs. But yeah just that initially one was a huge motivation boost for me.
Tim Jahn: So you came up with the idea, you built the most minimal viable product you could, and you got a first paying customer. What did you do after you got that email from Pay Pal with the first person paying? What did you do next?
Joel Gascoigne: So, it was — I launched it kind of too soon. It was, it was a good quote I think its Reid Hoffman founder of LinkedIn and he says “if you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product of your product then you’ve launched too late.” So I was almost kind of following that philosophy. So there was a lot of little bugs and some of the premium features didn’t actually even work yet, which was another of the things that I did was that I didn’t actually build things until there was validation that I needed to build them.
So I mean even the payment system, I — it was completely manual. So, you know normally you’d have a system where as soon as someone pays by Pay Pal, it would automatically upgrade to their account for them. I didn’t have that. I, I basically had it set up where as soon as I got the email then, then I went into the database and manually updated, up, upgraded their account for them. So there was a lot of kind of tidying up of things, a lot of bugs that people were mentioning. But I mean one of the great things was because I launched so early the users helped me, you know figure out what, what little things I needed to fix.
So yeah a lot of, a lot of general fixes and also little features I hadn’t quite implemented. And then also just a lot of talking to customers, so a lot via email, sometimes on Skype as well, just to try and understand whether, you know the products, whether they fully understood the whole concept, and there was an issue at the start where I hadn’t quite got the pitch right. So it’s, the pitch has changed a huge amount over the last few months. One of the initials things was that people were signing up but they weren’t quite fully understanding how the product worked. And we realized that, the only way we could really realize that is by talking to people. So I noticed people signed up, but they hadn’t connected their Twitter account or they hadn’t added Tweets into their Buffer.
So I just got in touch with those people and said you know “we’re trying to improve the sign up process. We’ve noticed that you, you’ve not connected your Twitter account. Can you think of anything that we could do to make the process better?” so yeah a combination of fixing things and implementing things that hadn’t been done yet, and also a lot of talking to customers.
Tim Jahn: Yeah I noticed when I signed up for Buffer I got an email that, that first welcome sign email that you get from signing up for any web service, but it was, it stood out to me because it was from your name, from your email address and it was just from you. So I actually replied back to that email and that’s how we got in touch.
And it’s just, to me it wasn’t even the, a system sign up email. It was almost like you were emailing me personally and saying “hey. Thanks for signing up. How can I help out?” Was that intentional? Did you mean to create that effect or was that just a side effect of the way you set that up?
Joel Gascoigne: No that was absolutely intentional. I genuinely think that other starts, especially the most important thing is to actually be in touch with users. And one of the things I didn’t do too well with the last start up was, I mean we had, the start up had thousands of users, but never really go in touch with any of them and never learned you know what’s going through their minds, how they’re using the product and whether we’re actually solving a problem that they have.
So I worded it, I tried to be very open and very you know inviting and, and I specifically put in the email, you know just hit reply, this is, this is my email address. And also I mean, that one is, that one is automated but I try to make it seem as, as least automated as I can. But for all the premium users that sign up at the moment, even to, to this day, I’m literally emailing them all individually.
So I try and, when someone signs up as a paying customer, I’ll go and have a look at their website and you know see what they’re doing and you know find something that I’m genuinely impressed by and then just try and comment on that as well. And I’ve had people who have emailed me back saying you know I thought, I thought this was going to be automated but I’ve, you know I’m really impressed and that’s just being fantastic. And I think you know you really should go out of your way to do as much as you can to please people, especially at the early stages.
Tim Jahn: Speaking of the early stages — excuse me — we’ve talked a lot about how you built Buffer and, and how you started at the beginning in terms of figuring out how much to build. How did you market it though? You mention a little bit before about your, you had a Twitter following from your previous following and you were on Hacker News a lot. How else did you market it? How did you get the word out there so that you would get your first paying customer?
Joel Gascoigne: It’s interesting. I mean in the first few weeks, maybe the first kind of two months it was literally just, just me Tweeting it really and other people showing it. And we had a few, we had a few blog posts ran about Buffer which I didn’t really have anything to with. They just came across it and decided to blog about it, so. I’d say the first thing is the, once you do hit something that clicks with people and that they really like I think naturally people will tell other people and people will actually write about it.
That was the first thing and then more recently I’ve got some deals with Buffer and he’s doing a fantastic job. One thing we realized we could do is, initially we thought okay, let’s take this to a new level. We want other blogs to blog about us. So we got in touch with blogs and said “do you want to write about Buffer. It’s a new tool for Twitter, nothing like anything else.”
And that, it worked to a certain extent, but then what we realized was there’s actually a lot of blogs out there that have an audience and they really need content, so what we’ve been doing recently is offering to do a full post for them, so doing guest posts on blogs and that’s worked really well because they want good content to share with the readers that they’ve got and they don’t have to do the work of actually putting the post together. And that’s worked surprising well.
Tim Jahn: So you didn’t write up a press release and send out a press release to TechCrunch and all the major tech blogs trying to get a big front page post?
Joel Gascoigne: No, more recently we’ve got in touch with them but I think, I mean one of the things that at the start you don’t really need to get huge press and I think this whole idea of launching with a big bang is probably not the best idea because like I said when I first launched it was, there was a lot that needed tweaking. And definitely the first few months, the first couple of months there was so many little tweaks that we done that probably, well I can see that they’ve improved the conversion rates and the retention rates of people coming back to using it more. And I think you want to separate the day that you launch in terms of the product being ready for people to use from the day that you have a big launch in terms of trying to get this big press because otherwise things could go wrong.
Tim Jahn: Yeah that makes sense especially when you’re building a product like that where you’re purposely making it minimum and then slowly adding on to it over time to make sure people are interested. I mean you wouldn’t want to have a big bang on that first version and then –
Joel Gascoigne: No, I mean to give you an idea of what the first version actually had, I think by the time you signed up we’ve got the ability to have multiple accounts and maybe a few other things. But, oh and team members as well, we allow you to have multiple people add to the same Twitter account now.
But the initial version was literally one twitter account and choose your times and that was it really. The pricing was based on the amount of Tweets they could have in their Buffer. That was it, it was very minimal. Obviously there was a lot we wanted to build on to that. So the traffic is really starting to take off a little bit now, which I’m really happy about. But I wouldn’t have necessarily wanted it to take that much traffic at the start because there was a lot that we wanted to kind of tweak.
Tim Jahn: So what would you say is your one piece of advice for a creative entrepreneur who wants to launch a minimum product and then hopefully start converting people as soon as you did? From your experience, what’s your one piece of advice for them?
Joel Gascoigne: The main thing would be to, if you have an idea, don’t let people tell you that it won’t work. But make sure that you test whether it will work and you can test it whether it will work without building the actual product. So I’d say just start as soon as possible and test it first. Do these, try these learning page approaches. And do that. And I think another thing is that that really helps you because you get little, I think you get little amounts motivation boosts along the way which you really need because it’s such an up and down journey, building a start up, that I think it’s really good to get those little validations along the way. So if you build just a learning page, you get a few emails that’s like oh, that feels good. And also you can find out whether it’s, you know if you don’t get any emails that’s a bigger problem, so you can solve that before you build the product. You don’t want to build the whole product and then get no emails, no one going through the door. So, yeah just I’d say start right away. Don’t let people tell you that it won’t work. But make sure you validate the idea.
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