Inspiring Stories of Remarkable People.

Leo Widrich failed at football to build one of the world’s most transparent companies

USA  /   /  By Manuel Gruber

INTRODUCTION

Leo Widrich wears a permanent smile on his face. He is the cofounder of one of the most-loved social media apps on the market – 700,000 people use his Buffer service each month. The app is helping lots of companies with marketing and Leo himself has demonstrated how successful marketing can work. Together with Joel Gascoine he founded the Buffer app in 2012 and shortly after they both quit university and moved to Silicon Valley. Since then their path has taken them around the world in a blitz of success.

The boy from Melk, a quaint town north of Vienna, originally wanted to become a professional footballer. He was part of the football academy in St. Pölten before injuring his knee at the age of 15 and deciding to train his brain more than his legs in the future. After finishing school in Vienna, the young Leo was motivated to move abroad by his fellow students, who had dreamt of Harvard and Cambridge from a young age.

Leo decided on Warwick Business School, one of the leading economics universities in the world. It was there that he got to know Joel Gascoine. Gascoine was working on social media management software for which Leo started working an hour a day doing marketing. Working on their own project quickly became more exciting than any lecture and a one-hour-a-day job became a full-time job, so much so that the pair decided to quit university and move to Silicon Valley. It took 7 weeks for the first users to start paying and 400,000 euros was from business angels only a few days before their money completely ran out. The size of these figures was no guarantee of a visa either, and their search for a permanent home took them first to Hong Kong and then to Tel Aviv.

Nowadays Buffer is one of the leading social media apps and the company behind it has advanced as a shining beacon of entrepreneurial culture. The company works with a fully remote team from more than 25 countries and just recently shut down its only physical office. Total transparency and a positivity policy are just two principles, that make Buffer an outstanding company. Leo became a prototype of a digital nomad, who achieved to build a company that would give him the freedom to live this lifestyle to the fullest.

INTERVIEW

Tell me about your background. Where do you come from? What did you want to become as a child? Was there any inspiration for what you do from your surroundings, parents or other people?

I grew up in Austria, in a small, rural town called Melk. My biggest passion growing up was sports and I started playing football when I was 5. Until I turned like 15 or 16 that really was the only thing on my mind and so I tried to become a professional. I think the most important thing that sports taught me is the idea of training, which sounds really simple I know! At school you could start at the last minute and still succeed but in sports that doesn’t work and I really learnt that. You need to work hard and train every day to be successful. I try to take this philosophy forward with Buffer.

I went to university in the UK and then dropped out to join my co-founder Joel and start Buffer. At Buffer we build social media management software; we help people schedule, analyse and publish to all their social networks. I think originally the passion was just to be free, to have something that allows us to participate in the world instead of just being in school and having people tell us what to do. From the very beginning, the idea was not to be creative, we just wanted to do something in the real world! You are young and feel you want to contribute to the world instead of just taking or consuming, we wanted to create and give something back. That was how I got started with Buffer and I have been doing it for the last four years or so.

Everything you say, as well as the way you lead your company, is about freedom and a kind of non-authoritarian approach. Where does this come from?

Looking back it’s actually quite ironic. Joel and I felt like we wanted to be free and do things in a crazy, unique way that many people were keen to tell us wouldn’t work. Luckily we figured we were our own bosses and could do whatever we wanted and were able to make enough money from Buffer to live off. As Buffer grew and we started to hire people, we recognised that we hadn’t quite extended the freedom that we had achieved ourselves to the people we hired, which is so ironic because we wanted so much to escape. Being at a company for a long time and being told what to do stifles your creativity so we said to ourselves, “Why can’t we just give everyone the same freedom that we wanted to have?” That was a big part of the inspiration to achieve self-management and to let people live their life without telling them what to do all the time. Another part was purely to do what’s right. Is it right to tell people what to do or is it better to let them be what they want to be and let them contribute in their own way? I think that’s a different approach. There’s also a book called Reinventing Organisations that really helped work out the concept whereby people can really work on their own without asking for approval all the time.

LEO_WIDRICH_BUFFER-4566

It also has to be strongly dependent on which people you hire.

Extremely important! The way we hire is also very different – we say weird. Sometimes if people don’t get a job with us, they ask for feedback on how they can improve in the future and I’m always a little reluctant to say anything as what gets you hired at Buffer won’t help anywhere else! You really have to fit in to our culture; we have a set of values which we believe in and we try and go to find people who aspire to live their lives by this values. I say it’s weird because people ask us, ‘Don’t you want to find the best programmer, the best marketing person?’ and we’re like, “Sure, the person needs to be skilled enough to contribute to the company but that’s not the most important part. The most important part is that they are aligned with our values.” Two of our most important values are positivity and transparency. Some people see this and think, ‘That’s nice’ but we try to take it to an extreme and really live our lives by it. In order to run a company in this way, you need a special set of people – not always special talented but special in that they’re aligned to a core principle.

Was there a certain moment in which you decided to quit college?

Yeah, there was. I remember it really well. I’m sort of surprised looking back at how confident I was about that decision. I’m proud of my younger self of being that bold and even right now I’m like, ‘I’m not sure if I would do that right now’. I was in my third semester at uni and cruising along when Joel came to me with Buffer and I asked if I could help on the marketing side – just 30mins a day with the social media stuff. I got sucked in so quickly that within a few weeks I was just day and night working on Buffer. It was much less of a conscious decision, rather just the flow of life that I ended up in. I wasn’t even going to lectures anymore, I was just writing articles to get the word out about Buffer. It kind of became obvious that it was my calling in life but I was still cautious about it. People think it’s cool to say, “I quit uni to do this”, but I took more of the Mark Zuckerberg approach and first took a year out to try it and see if it was something for me. Luckily, in that year we raised some money and we got a significant amount of traction and paying customers. After that it was easy to stay with the company and not go back to university.

Leo Widrich Buffer

Two personal questions: Where does your passion for travelling and now remote working come from? and ‘How did people around you react when you said, “I’m leaving the country!”’

I really hadn’t travelled a lot – I didn’t board a plane until I was 16 or 17. The fact that I’m so remote now is not thought out, it’s more of an accident. When I was in the UK we heard about Silicon Valley as this mythical place where all the startups were and so we just went there on a one-way-ticket. What we didn’t know was that we needed long-term visas to stay there and we didn’t manage to get them. So we were like, “We can’t stay here, where should we go?” We had just raised some seed money and weren’t so financially constrained anymore so we brainstormed South America and ended up in Hong Kong. From then on remote working really started to take hold of us. Afterwards, as the company kept growing, we knew we couldn’t ask people to come with us between Hong Kong and Tel Aviv, it was too much, and so we came up with the principle that you can work from wherever you want as long as it’s good work!

About how people responded: my parents didn’t go to university so having a son who did was a big deal for them and me dropping out was hard for them to hear. I say you have to have a kind of parent management, i.e. I needed to talk to them and make them understand. Sometimes it’s not parents raising kids but the other way round! The fact that I took a year out rather than quitting straight away helped me a lot with them but even when everything was going well and it was clear that I wasn’t going back, my parents weren’t sure whether it was a good idea. In their eyes I was still off gallivanting around the world so I had to tread lightly and maybe hold some information back from them to stop them worrying.

Was there a will to go out in the world because you hadn’t travelled until you were 16 or 17?

I think I always had this sense of freedom and although I didn’t know it back then, travelling is one of the best ways to live that out in life. I quickly got hooked on travel and now I know people everywhere. I used to think Hong Kong was a crazy place very far away but now I realise that the world is very small. The uncertainty of going to a new place is still filled with adrenaline though and I think travelling is definitely an exercise in freedom.

What was the most remarkable high point in your time with Buffer? Was there a complete ‘wow’ moment?

There is one moment that I distinctly remember. The site went down and users couldn’t access it. We got an email from someone that said that they were furious. It said, ‘I can’t use the site, what’s going on? I can’t run my business.’ It’s the worst thing for a website and yet when I read that, I was so grateful. I read the email and realised, ‘Wow, because Buffer isn’t working, someone else can’t run their company. That’s amazing’. For me this is truly the essence of creating that other people value, they need your product to get by in life. I felt the true connection between the customer and our creation and a real sense of meaning to our work. Of course we tried to help him as soon as possible too!

 You created Buffer using a lean startup approach. Do you think this was the right way to go?

I think one of the things we learnt was that the lean startup method tries to be as scientific as possible but this isn’t always the best way. When making a decision you still need a certain intuition as only looking at data won’t always give you the best result. At Buffer we try to not only understand what the customer wants but understand the problem the customer has. It’s only a very small distinction and it took me a while to learn. Through this and the lean startup approach, I feel we tap into people’s behaviour more than their wishes, which change so often. This interpretation of the lean approach is very useful I find.

With all success that has come in the last 4 years with Buffer, are there low points to what you do?

I’m in a very reflective stage right now about my life. I’ve been travelling and doing what I want for the last few years and something that I’ve neglected is to build a close circle of friends who I can really connect with. It’s great to travel so much but it can get lonely too and you don’t have the chance to build up any really meaningful relationships with anyone. I’ve been reflecting on this and I’d like to improve it – maybe stay somewhere for a bit longer and build up a group of truly close friends.

Another question related to travel: Do your employees need to be travellers?

That’s a great question. I like to ask in interviews if people like to travel – they don’t have to say yes but I’d like to see how open-minded they are. I kind of learnt not to force travel onto people. You know, I’m a single guy, 25, no responsibilities, no commitments except working for Buffer and not everyone is in that situation. We now have employees who are married with kids and can’t jet off around the world. I’ve been really humbled listening to other people’s life stories and so I now know that travel doesn’t have to fit into their lives the way it fits into mine.

Coming to the total transparency approach. In a more global sense: Do you think it could be important for the global economy and could solve the problems of people not feeling connected to politics or economics?

The way I’ve started to think about it is: I’m trying to find the right balance between doing what is right and letting that be the message in itself. Just doing whatever I’m doing and not needing to say it’s the right thing to do and that everyone should do it. I believe that transparency is really helpful for a lot of things, for gender and equality for example. Equal pay, trust, loyalty – a lot of things come with transparency but I understand that it’s not the right thing for everyone. Some people come to me and say, “I like the transparency, I’m going to do that as well!” but it might not fit into their company culture; they might be hurting people more than they’re helping them. I hope that I’m an example and can say, “This is what happens if you’re transparent and let people decide things for themselves” without trying to force it on people. Hopefully I can inspire them to become transparent rather than force them to do it.

Are you a political person?

No, I don’t think so. I have huge respect for politicians because they have to please all the people all the time, which is an impossible task. At Buffer, I have the luxury of building a product for one certain market segment and not for everybody. I don’t have to worry about childcare for 3-year-old nor about senior citizen’s homes. I can pick and chose whereas a politician doesn’t have this luxury.

If Arnold Schwarzenegger came up to you and asked you to become a politician because he liked your values would you think about it?

Possibly. There’s always a chance but right now I’m happy to be building up Buffer and want to keep going with what we’ve started.

Show us some love

Is what you’re doing now, mostly writing and thinking about how to go on with developing Buffer your true passion or have you found anything besides that that really drives you? Or did it become your passion with all the success?

I think it’s more the second. I encourage people to find passion by being at the intersection of three things: what they’re good at, what they like to do and what they think the world needs. Although some of these things might be out of your control, this is undoubtedly where you’ll do your most fulfilling work. I personally see that there is a need in the world for the type of company we’re building and the more I see this, the more I start to really enjoy what I do. This is what has become a passion for me. And so I really enjoy that element and I feel that that’s definitely become a passion for me.

What inspired you to take your positivity approach?

There is a book called How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie and in the very first chapter talks about how he tried to simply start smiling at people. When you actually think about it and try it, it’s fascinating how simple and powerful that really is. Just go out and try to consciously smile at people for a day. I think that’s what really got me excited about the idea of choosing positivity as a something proactive and not something that simply happens to people.

The other thing that got me going was Buddhist teaching. I discovered Buddhism when Buffer wasn’t going so well and I found myself not being as happy as I might have been. For me, happiness and success were clearly still linked but this cannot be the case. I remember I googled ‘who is the happiest person in the world?’ and there is apparently a Buddhist monk who has had his brainwaves scientifically analysed and it has been proven that he is the happiest person on earth! The neuroscientists were baffled by his brain activity and that’s when I really realised that positivity and happiness is a skill and a habit and not just this elusive and vague idea that most people have.

After all that you’ve experienced, what would you advise your younger self to do differently?

That’s a good question. Right now I think that with my sports background, I always tried to force everything, to train hard and create the right conditions for success. In the early phase of Buffer this was especially important so I wouldn’t completely take it away but I’ve also learnt that forcing everything isn’t ideal. It’s good to be proactive and give yourself direction but you don’t have to take it to an extreme or try to be a radical. I’m not saying I’m completely like this but I have seen that moving more in the direction of letting good things happen would probably feel a bit better. That’s what I’d say to him.

So you’re still very much pushing yourself?

I think so, but I’m getting a bit better. Nowadays I can go out for a night and not be super focused on work. I can enjoy a glass of wine whereas I never drank alcohol before as I thought it was integral to my success. I’ve loosened up a lot but am still probably way more extreme that most people would prefer! I’m working on it though.

How do you feel about the Silicon Valley philosophy? Do you think it’s a good thing that this Silicon Valley is inspiring people in startup scenes around the world and iconizing people like Elon Musk?

What I’ve learned is that it’s not quite the right method for me anymore. I used to believe that it’s all about work and success but if you asked me now, that’s not what I would choose anymore. I still want to make things happen and I still enjoy the fast pace action of it all but not at the expense of family or relationships anymore. I feel that Silicon Valley is moving in this direction as well and the idea that working smarter not harder is spreading, like Ricardo Semler or what we are trying to do or the Zappos approach, slightly different models of approaching work than what was considered normal. I’m glad they exist and make an impact and hopefully they inspire some people and balance things out.

You said you could imagine settling down somewhere for a little bit longer. Where springs to mind?

I’m going back to Santa Cruz after this. I still enjoy California a lot but somewhere outside of San Francisco, so Santa Cruz is very appealing. There’s the beach, lots of sun and it’s remote enough to have it’s own feel yet I can still be in the city quickly if I need to be. That’s the first thing that comes to mind now but if you asked me again in two weeks maybe I’d say something different!

In general, where do you see yourself in 10 years?

(Laughs) Great question. I think I’m generally trying to move my life towards a more relaxed situation where I don’t have to rush through things and feel pressured to work. I would like to see myself as very open-minded and in tune with what I’m doing and what I’m feeling. I would like to be able to meditate freely, be more patient and be part of a community. The best way I can put it is being in sync with time and the people around me and not rushing and moving so fast. I know it’s a little bit vague but that’s what I’d like to be doing (laughs).

Would you quit Buffer if there were an opportunity?

We had a big opportunity to quit Buffer last year as we received a big offer that we had to really think about. I think I would have made over 20 million or something like that but it didn’t feel right for us. There’s an article by Derek Sivers that I’ve come to enjoy, and also one from our mentors Shaaa from Kissmetrics, which say that you should sell when you’re done and at this point I’m not done with Buffer. There may be a point where I feel that I’ve done all the things that I wanted to do and now it’s time to do something else but that’s not yet. It’s one thing to say that I’m not done with Buffer without an offer on the table but having rejected one, I feel a bit different and feel more motivated to go on with our future plans for Buffer.

Additional Information:

Leo recommends to read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

Photography: Manuel Gruber

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About the Author

Manuel is a filmmaker, journalist and the CEO of DREAMA TV. He is passionate about travelling, photography, guitars and motivating people to follow their dreams.

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