This Tech Founder Runs His Company Between Surf Sessions in Hawaii

This Tech Founder Runs His Company Between Surf Sessions in Hawaii
Image credit: Chris Delorenzo
This story appears in the June 2016 issue of Startups. Subscribe »

By day Joel Gascoigne works on the Hawaiian island of Oahu as CEO of Buffer, which netted $8.25 million last year from sales of its social media marketing platform. By night, the venture’s cofounder, Leo Widrich, is performing his COO duties on the other side of the world, in Vienna. 

How long Gascoigne will stay in Hawaii or Widrich in Austria is anyone’s guess, since the two founders, like the rest of their roughly 80 employees, have the freedom to live and work anywhere. The result is a company whose employees work from coffee shops, home offices, coworking spaces and yes, even beachside lanais, in places like Cape Town, South Africa; Stockholm; and Silicon Valley, where the company is based, if in name only.

“It’s totally open. We don’t have any concentration of roles in one place. Some of us are quite nomadic,” Gascoigne says.

That’s completely by design. In 2012, two years after launching Buffer, and following stints in Hong Kong and Tel Aviv, Gascoigne and Widrich found themselves in San Francisco, faced with a decision: go the traditional route with a central brick-and-mortar headquarters office or continue to work remotely, as they and their half-dozen employees had been doing. They discussed the choice with mentors and fellow entrepreneurs.

“We wanted to make sure there was not an advantage to being in one office and no disadvantage to working outside an office,” Gascoigne recalls.  

Four years later, Buffer’s social media management app has surpassed more than three million users, vindication for the founders’ commitment to an untested model for building a business. That model “was very polarizing,” according to Gascoigne. “A lot of people said it wouldn’t scale. We still hear that a lot, in fact.”

It takes a certain breed of self-motivated employee to thrive in a distributed environment, Gascoigne admits, which is why Buffer uses a 45-day trial period for new hires to see how comfortable and effective they are with the firm’s virtual office and videoconferencing tools such as Google Hangouts and Zoom. So far, though, scaling up hasn’t been a problem; Buffer’s workforce grew from 30 to 70 in the past year alone, becoming a diverse, multicultural employee group whose varying perspectives have helped build a globally appealing brand. What’s more, having people in virtually every time zone means the company’s development and customer service operations never go dark.

Gascoigne isn’t sure how much longer he’ll call the Aloha State home (he currently divides his time between Hawaii and New York). But what is certain, he says, is the viability of the distributed workforce model. “It has become really easy and possible to work this way,” he says. “I really feel like our method is the future.”

Read about more unconvenal decisions that paid off here.

Edition: December 2016

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