The right cultural fit for the Bay Area
Leo Widrich is 22 years old and seems to be living the dream of many young web entrepreneurs: The Austrian works from his home office, which happens to be in San Francisco; his co-founded online company Buffer has 500.000 users and is making 70.000 euros a month. So, how did he do it? His intuitive approach to marketing as well as a strict daily routine may be part of the answer.
“Sorry, it’s a bit chaotic in here. But I guess that adds to the story.” Buffer App co-founder Leo Widrich clearly knows a thing or two about marketing. The 22 year old Austrian has made a name of himself for promoting the popular app that helps users time their tweets. We meet up at the apartment he shares with co-founder Joel Gascoigne on a rainy Saturday morning – usually that is Leo’s day off, as we later find out. The pad doubles as Buffer’s office and is located in San Francisco’s SoMa neighbourhood, an area known to house notable web companies such as Twitter, Yelp and Dropbox. With about 500.000 users, Buffer may not be there, yet, but their development so far has been impressive.
Leo Widrich in his home office in SoMa. Photo: Elisabeth OberndorferJust about two years ago, Leo was a student at the British Warwick Business School – the tuition for which he financed through extending his mandatory six months service at the Austrian Armed Forces to a year after leaving high school in Vienna. In autumn 2010, Joel, who was mentoring Leo at the school’s entrepreneurship program and is three years his senior, came up with up the idea behind Buffer and encouraged Leo to join him. “I had no experience and no idea what I was doing,” Leo recollects about taking the role of marketing the product that Joel was creating.
“Growing up, I didn’t have any plans to start my own business. I wanted to do the ordinary thing. Go to business school, be a manager”, he reflects. The entrepreneurship program sparked his interest in the subject and when Buffer was launched in December 2010, he put all of his energy into the startup, skipping classes, turning down ajob offer and eventually pausing his studies – perhaps to join the league of successful college drop out entrepreneurs.
This decision was not easy to explain to his family. “I truly believe that as a child, you have to manage your parents”, Leo states. In his case, this meant assuring them that he would go back to school after some months off working on Buffer – “even though I knew at this point that this wasn’t going to happen.”
Buffer co-founders Joel Gascoigne and Leo Widrich at work Photo: BufferOff to Silicon Valley
Instead, Leo and Joel, in what seems to be an obvious choice for startups, hopped on a plane toSan Francisco to take their product to the next level. “We didn’t know anybody there. But we had this idea we believed in and just held on to the thought that it would eventually work out.”
And it did. In 2011, Buffer was accepted to the three month AngelPad incubator program. “Being part of AngelPad gave us access to a lot of resources and also investors.” Moreover, they met their third team member Tom Moor during the program and got him to join Buffer as a further co-founder and chief hacker. The next step was finding seed stage investors. “That was tough. You get a lot of no’s”, Leo looks back. Taking every chance to talk to potential supporters, he and partner in crime Joel met up with 150 angel investors over the course of two months. Eventually, they raised an impressive 450.000 US dollars from 19 investors.
The three entrepreneurs didn’t have time to spend the money, though. After being in the US for six months on the Visa Waiver program, the Europeans had to leave the country. With no US work permission, they decided to temporarily relocate their office spending six months in Hong Kong and another three in Tel Aviv while their immigration lawyers were working on getting their visas. These destinations, as Leo tells us, were chosen for no particular reason other than the nice weather and intriguing cultures. After living out of a suitcase for almost a year, Leo and Joel were able to re-enter the States this past summer. Now, their office is in their living room.
The Buffer team in Israel. Photo: Leo WidrichA rigid routine
With a monthly revenue of about 70.000 euros and 500.000 users, Buffer is doing pretty well. This in part is an achievement of Leo’s intuitive approach to content marketing through blogging on startup related issues ranging from advice on how to attract customers to managing your own work/life balance and productivity. The latter aspect seems to play a particularly relevant role for Leo, we find, as he talks us through his daily routine. “I get up at 7 AM, do some meditation for ten minutes and then start working on the most important tasks of the day, ” Leo explains. After breakfast, he checks in with the other Buffer team members in the US, the UK and Israel via Skype at 9 AM. Later, he picks up on work again until lunch, hits the gym, heads back to work and ends his regular workday at around 5.30 PM.
It usually doesn’t stop there. On weekdays, Leo is learning the programming language Ruby on Rails from 8.30 to 10.30 PM. He also uses his Sundays to focus on programming, “I don’t have a technical background but I figure it’s necessary to understand programming.” For practice, he is currently building a copy of Twitter. Just before going to bed, Leo ends his routine by picking up his notebook and defining the most important tasks for the next day, which he takes up after a good 7,5 hours of sleep – just the right amount, as we learn on the Buffer blog.
Leo tries to keep his Saturdays off – our interview may or may not be an exception to that rule. His day, in any case, was started with a meditating session at Zen Valley, a centre that used to count Steve Jobs among its regulars, as Leo knows. The meditating seems to pay off: Leo appears calm, positive and focused. If you had to describe this guy in one word, it would probably be just that: focused.
Don’t listen to your parents!
Both Leo and business partner Joel, who he credits as an influence on his daily routine, are aware of the fact that their structured lifestyles are rare in the startup world, which tends to pride itself for not playing according to the rules of the ordinary business world. “I don’t actually know if I’m doing it for my private life or for success. Probably both”, he reflects. It seems that his routine that is planned with – dare we say – almost military precision is only natural to Leo, “I want to do what makes me happy and takes my life further, that’s what I am living for”, he says. Despite his structured daily routine, Leo leaves things open for the future, “I don’t really plan much ahead. Not for more than one year. I can tell you what I’d do with a staff of thirty employees at this stage. And once we get to thirty, I’ll probably know what I’d do with a hundred employees.”
There is a certain calmness and also self-reflectiveness to the 22 year old that makes him seem beyond his years. When asked about his biggest mistake, he pauses for a moment. “I guess that would be that I’ve taken things too personally. But not every rejection is about you. It’s actually egoistic to take everything personally.” Yet, there are signs of youthful rebellion. “The best advice I ever got? ‘Don’t listen to your parents!’ They mostly want you to be on the safe side with a 9 to 5 job.” So much for managing your parents. Regarding his current status within the family, Leo jokes they only realised that Buffer was turning into a serious business, “when I hooked them all up with new iPads for Christmas.”
Not a 9 to 5 job
With Leo and Joel’s strict daily routine, one must think that they are very demanding employers. “Not at all”, the young entrepreneur denies . It turns out the Buffer team is not necessarily hunting for the best talent, but for the best “cultural fit” for the company. “We want people that are willing to strive for more and work on themselves.” Currently, Joel and Leo are on a hiring spree. While Joel checks the technical skills of applicants, Leo sees his role in identifying whether they match the company culture or not. These days, the founders are interviewing around 15 talents per week – not an easy job, according to Leo.
“We have very loose structures. We don’t care when or how you work. We only focus on the outcome and want people to express themselves by working for us.” This is why Buffer doesn’t really have a vacation policy. “Not everyone is OK with our philosophy. A lot of job seekers are looking for a 9 to 5 job.” The recruiting process will keep the young startup with a team of seven busy for a while as they are aiming to employ 30 people in a year from now.
As for Leo himself, he sees that his role in the company has recently been shifting. “I used to be the marketing guy. Now, I’m transforming into business development”, the co-founder explains and frankly admits, “I have no idea what that actually means. I am learning on the job.”
To boost the Buffer brand even more, its two front faces have recently launched a YouTube show called The Startup Life. In the first few episodes, Leo and Joel discuss their daily routines, things that matter to them in life and how to get advisors on board. Similarities to the popular show Diggnation featuring serial entrepreneur and investor Kevin Rose and his friend Alex Albrecht cannot be denied.
Despite being new to the city, Leo can’t see himself leaving San Francisco anytime soon. “There’s this kind of serendipity you won’t find anywhere else”, raves the native Austrian. Rather than promoting competition, according to Leo, the Bay Area startup scene is full of support and a “pay it forward”-mentality. Leo seems to bejust the right “cultural fit” for that.