Deborah Rippol: Transparency as the core value of Buffer's company culture

Deborah is a People Success Manager at Buffer, a company that is renowned for the way it's revolutionised social media. We all know how vital social media is in the marketing world, with many an influencer agency making the most of the platform, but Buffer has taken a different approach. It is also renowned for the culture that it's fostered at the company, and so we spoke with Deborah on where the future of social media is heading, how Buffer hires remotely, and just what makes their culture so great.

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Today we have Deborah, a People Success Manager at Buffer, with us. Deborah, thank you for speaking with us today.

Thank you.

So... I imagine most of our audience will be more than familiar with Buffer already, but just for those that aren't, can you give us a quick rundown on what Buffer do, and your own role as a People Success Manager there?

Sure. Basically, Buffer is a social media automation tool, it makes it possible to save time, stay flexible, and plan your online marketing strategy down to every minute. So you can, basically, post into the future. So that if you want to post in two days, two weeks, or even two months, that's what we're going to take care of.

We also have other projects that feature the ability to access analytics about your social media presence, and also to manage your customer support, and more fun stuff like that. Then, when it comes to my role, one thing that's funny is that, Buffer is sometimes known for the tool, but also, sometimes more known for the culture that we have, that's synchronous and distributed.

So we care a lot about how we work, just as much as, kind of what we do. My role as a People Success Manager is particularly focusing on things like that... on making Buffer an exciting place to grow, where people can grow their own skills, and can work with people's individual peers. It's all about optimizing part of the teammate life cycle, which is really interesting for me. Like manager development, learning and development and things like that so, it's all about helping the team grow, basically.

Yeah, I think there were two main reasons I wanted to speak to you today. One is obviously because of the tool Buffer... which is, really useful for so many companies around the world. And the second one was, because of the culture at Buffer, which we've heard a lot about. So I want to touch on those two things separately. So, if I start with Buffer, how crucial do you think the automation process is that Buffer allows for companies for their success on social media?

That's really a good question... So, I think what's interesting is that, one of the superpowers that you might hold with social media is the ability to control time. I've seen it for myself before working at Buffer as an individual, I was reading a lot of articles, I kind of wanted to spread the sharing throughout the following week to keep my presence consistent, engaging with people at different hours, that we're more suited for that engagement. So, let's say, if I read a lot of articles on a Sunday, but that might not be when people will be interested with me sharing them.

If you apply that to being a business, and wanted to use social media to reach a wider audience, then the times you might be posting at or, you going to post with them, or the engagement may not be the same one as your free time schedule. Taking the example of a delivery service; it's most likely you want to post something on Twitter or on Instagram, just before someone's lunch break. But, that's probably when you're busy actually, you are running your business.

The thing for me that's really crucial is there, is that the automating & scheduling, it means you're able to post more often, it kind of takes less time for you, and you're more productive, so you can focus on things that are maybe creating more quality content, for example, or working with different times that are not accessible to you.

Yes, sure because, it's so crucial to have a presence on social media nowadays, isn't it, and yet, it's one of the time consuming things a business can do. And if you are a small startup, with a team of just three or four people, it's hard doing your job and thinking about social media all day, every day as well.

Yeah, exactly, and then engaging conversation it's probably what's the most important part... so, I think in the way Buffer can remove  that barrier and allows you to spend more time actually doing that, and engaging in those conversations, as opposed to just spending time being there at every moment, where you think you might need to be.

Sure... and, I've seen a lot of talk and debate recently over the various social media channels. I've seen a lot of people talk about the growth of Instagram with the ease of direct messaging with things like igdm, and maybe the decline of Twitter. Where would you say business should be focusing their efforts focusing on social media at the moment, or should they be covering all platforms?

Yeah, you're right. It's always a really strong debate between the different platforms, and people having their own preferences. It's always a fun debate to be part of. I think it's two main things to it. First off, a business should always be where their audience is so, it doesn't really matter what people would recommend. It's really based on on where your clients are and where your audience is.

So, if you're audience is on Google+, regardless of what people think of Google+ then that's where you should be. Unless you're huge business, whether your audience is on every platform, then we would recommend that businesses start on one or two platforms and just really focus on knowing where people are hanging out, and really can rock on those social media platforms, before thinking of being everywhere. So, specific to Twitter and Instagram, Instagram is a super exciting network right now. It's really all about that audience there. Twitter still has very active community, and we see it with Buffer Chat every week.

We get tons of engagement in customer service that's actually happening on Twitter. So, I wouldn't say that Twitter is dying at all, I think that maybe things are just shifting, and there's more opportunities for these different audiences that can be there, so more Instagram, with image engagement, as opposed to Twitter being more about sharing content. I don't know if that's helpful.

Yeah, definitely. I've seen a lot of talk recently, on businesses saying you should be building a community around your own business. And one such way is with Facebook groups. Is that something you have noticed at Buffer

Yeah absolutely. I think, just generally speaking, finding whatever place you can engage with your customers, is always interesting, like Facebook groups is one.

At Buffer, we have a Slack Community for our customers, and anyone who is interested in chatting with us, really. That's been super interesting. I think we've discovered some really great insights from that, like on what we should build, we have an amazing team member taking care of that, and a lot of our teammates also trying to come in and really bridge that gap between your customers and your team

So be it with Facebook groups, or a Slack Community, or any kind of place where you can have a conversation with your customers, I think you should definitely go for it.

I'm actually a member of the Buffer Slack Chat, and it's really useful. It's hard trying to keep up with it all day, because there's so many messages in there all day. But, it's great because, obviously, you've got a dedicated channel to social media, or writing which is what I'm interested in. So, it's been cool getting some insights into that, actually.

That's awesome, super cool to hear you there. And, yes, there's definitely a great amount of engagement there.

I'll include a link to the Slack group, in the description below, if anyone wants to join. Obviously, Buffer itself just kept growing all over the years, I guess, in line with social media. Do you have any insights as to where the future of Buffer, and maybe even social media, might be heading?

Yeah, I mean, this is just my own two cents on that and my own thoughts but I think it's interesting to see how Buffer has really come from the place where it was, a "one to many" channel, or social media is now becoming more of a "one-to-few" or "one-to-one" kind of channel; like you were saying earlier, it's about the engagement. So, focusing on engaging in conversation, is always started being something we tried to accommodate with, with our products, that I mention.

A good image that our Marketing Director, Kevan, uses often is the idea that, instead of being a megaphone, social media is now more of a conversation. Which I think I might even have treated Buffer as a place to schedule tweets, just that kind of the past way. Now what we want, is less about the timing, sometimes, I guess, especially with newer algorithms, and the timings seem  to not really matter on Twitter. Because, you know that section on Twitter that says, "what happens while you were away", so, it's more about the engagement with the algorithms.

You'll see more engagement on posts that were more high quality, so, where I personally see that this is already going is that, posting high quality content will be more important. So, I think that we are going to try to focus on that, on helping people craft good content, have good images and kind of build those interactions, as opposed to, "what's the optimal time for tweeting?", basically.

Sure. Do you have a recommendation of how often a business should be posting a day... or, is it like you say, you should be focusing more on quality rather than quantity?

Yeah, definitely quality, rather than quantity. And it is tricky to make a blanket statement and, I'm not a social media manager myself... I'd say that, not necessarily a huge amount of time but, we've got some really good articles... I'll send them your way. Our Social Media Managers have done a really great job trying to help people find their sweet spot for them, based on each platform. But I'd say, maybe, less rather than more, and, focusing on having quality content for sure.

Sure. Those article sound great, and I'll make sure to include links to them, below in the description, as well. I guess, moving away from what you guys do at Buffer, if we can come back to the culture you mentioned earlier. If you could explain that a little bit more to us...

Yeah, absolutely. I am very biased about that aspect. I think that's definitely one of the things that attracted me to joining Buffer the most. It was the focus on the culture part. When I meet someone that I've never met before, that doesn't know anything about the Buffer culture, I kind of, start with explaining how the transparency is changing the way we work every day... so, I think that our transparent salaries are definitely a starting point and that's something that we've got good press about, which is super interesting, but, I think just the transparency aspect at Buffer, is something that helps us do things slightly differently.

So, on top of having all the salaries known by everyone at Buffer, and outside, we also have a transparent email system, that's super interesting... for knowing what's going on in the team.

Our transparency is super strong for us, it's definitely a guiding principle. Then, the strong focus on positivity, is one that usually shocks people when we explain. The conversations we have and, how we disagree and how we can go about that. It's super interesting to see how people react to it. I think that's really what makes it quite special for me.

Yeah. It was quite refreshing when I was looking over the Buffer website before speaking to you. Because there is a lot of talk about transparency, like you say, but also... diversity, equality, productivity, happiness, gratitude, personal development...all of the things that keep employees happy and mentally well, and a company working well together. And, I think a lot of companies probably put this on their website, and talk about it, and talk big game... but it's nice that your company is actually doing it, and you can vouch for that.

Absolutely. I mean... no one's perfect, and no company is perfect, and what I really enjoy is the fact that, we are striving for those things, this is really what we want. I think that we all have an agreement that this is what we want. And I think it's such a really good starting point. It doesn't mean that, each of us are perfect, that we have ten values that are really strong for us and it doesn't mean that all of us are good at all of ten of them, or that the company everyday makes decisions that relate to all of them.

But, I think we try, every time we make a decision, to ask our self: "But, how does it relate to our values, would we be okay with sharing that outside?'', since transparency keeps us definitely on our toes, I think.

Sure.. I mean, it's still a learning process, isn't it...? Like you said, no one's perfect. Do you feel like the culture is constantly changing and adapting towards that perfection?

Yeah, absolutely. And more recently, we've really gone back to a place where we now focus. Not necessarily always on the progress of the product, that's something that's important for us, but, more from making it more simple, making it more smooth for customers instead of adding more features. On the flipside, we really focus on the users and the team, and personal growth.

That's great. How do Buffer go about hiring people remotely?

So, that's a really good question! We do hire in the same way we work. So, we try to assess people the same way we would assess them or work with them every day. So we never meet people... we meet people in person, once in a while, but that's not going to be how they work every day.

Most of our interviews are done using Zoom... and we do a lot of things that are written, because, a lot of our communication everyday is written, so that's kind of, how we go about hiring is trying to use the same methods, as we would if we were working with the person every day.

Do you get to meet the rest of the team at Buffer often?

Yeah. We meet about once a year, with the whole team. I try to meet team members as much as I can, as well to, trying to travel the world to see them regularly. It's been super interesting to meet people in person, after working with some of them for a couple of months, never having met them and just talking on Slack, or in Zoom... and then, all of a sudden we meet, obviously it's slightly different. But it's super interesting.

So, do you work fully remotely yourself?

Yeah, absolutely. The whole company is entirely remote. We don't have any offices, we have a few clusters of people that are in there. In places like London, New York... we have a few more folks. But, otherwise, yeah, we're all entirely remote.

So, where are you actually based?

I'm in Montpelier, in the south of France. I used to be based in London, and just recently moved back to my roots, France [Laughs].

What made you make the move back?

That's an interesting question. I think that Buffer really allows us, as teammates, to live where we feel the happiest. And I think after I've spent five years in London, I absolutely love that City... I think that after a while I, kind of realised that, that wasn't necessarily where I felt the best.

The south of France, in Montpelier, was definitely my favorite place in the world. So, I just really loved it. I didn't really had to think about that...if you think, it doesn't matter where I work... where do I really want to go? That was kind of a decision that me to move back.

Yeah, because I'm from London myself and, the rent prices are one thing that can scare people off, right? I think, if you can have the option to work from wherever you want in the world, London is not always the most economic choice to choose.

That is true. We try to pay attention to that with our salary formula, which does pay attention to where people are based, and adapt to that. I think London has a very hectic way of living. I mean, it obviously is, everyone's choice to live one way or another. I think I have found that, for me, it had become a little bit stressful, and not in alignment with how I felt, like how I wanted to spend my days, sometimes.

Yeah, I think that London commute, and everyone running around in suits in the mornings is one of the most stressful things I've ever had to go through. So [Laughs], I try to avoid it to when I can. You've obviously had a pretty varied career history yourself, I saw you've worked with IBM and then WeWork, now obviously Buffer. What made you make that switch between industries, to land where you are now?

I guess the kind of common thread for me, has always been being interested in psychology and HR, so it actually came back to in high school. I was interested in psychology, I discovered HR as a field, and I had no clue at all but, then kind of worked and studied business economics and labour law, and things like that... I guess following the checklist of what a good HR person should be. And then I worked as a recruiter at IBM, while I was doing my Masters. So, that was definitely my goal for me was working in HR, but then kind of landed on something funny, which was, the startup world.

A friend of mine brought me to a startup weekend, which is an event that brings people together to help them with entrepreneurship and, kind of, getting things started. I went to one of those events and got completely in awe of startups, and entrepreneurship, and building communities, so I started working with that organisation, actually. So, that's when I moved to London. It was a bit of a switch, because then the whole HR field was super useful in my day to day work, but still, completely different from what I was doing, helping organise events and stuff. So it was more like me, following my heart with just going, helping entrepreneurship, and kind of building communities in Europe. Then I guess, from there, I stayed for three years, with starting to picking an amazing team of volunteers. It was an incredible experience.

Then moved on to WeWork, as you mentioned. That was more me really wanting to experience a little bit of a high-growth company, and that was super fun as well, because there wasn't much when I joined it, I think I was the first London employee. That was really tricky, because it was kind of like, "okay, we don't really know what we don't know... so let's get it started". Starting from scratch like that, was super fun, as well as being part of a super high-growth company. WeWork was super interesting... and tons of learning as well, in the end, also from an HR perspective. I think going to Buffer was, a little bit like circling back to those two things for me, like, the startup world, but also the HR and company culture aspect.

That I always had in the back of my mind as a thread of wanting to do better there. It's a little bit of a silver lining, that I managed to to get both things working together for me.

Sure, so, would you say your big passion is people?

Yeah, absolutely. Working with people... people and also, there is a weird twist to it, which is efficiency and productivity. Which is very suitable for working at Buffer, but, I've always been passionate also about making things more efficient, so that people can free up what time for themselves, or for their family, or for their pet projects... That's like those two things for me, people, productivity and efficiency kind of sides.

Yeah, I think it's so important nowadays. Because, working hours are increasing at corporate companies, and I think it's good that companies such as Buffer are putting the focus back on work-life balance, and letting people see their families more than they were before, and side projects, and that kind of thing. It's nice to see that shift and be part of that shift, isn't it?

Yeah, absolutely! And being part of a company that really supports that, I feel incredibly grateful for being in a company where this is something that we can definitely share with someone. So we can definitely talk to a colleague and say, "Hey, I don't really feel like I've had much time to see my family these days...", or, "I feel like I really want to focus on that and that...", or, "that project is really important to me".

There is definitely so many discussions that I feel more free to have about my personal life at Buffer, that I just really feel like it frees the whole part of my brain, to be able to share that, and know that we feel supported.

That's great. And it was great to hear more of your own story, and also on a distributed company that is getting it right. So thank you very much for joining us. Was there anything else you wanted to say to our listeners?

No, I think we're all good. Thank you so much George.

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