Talk to a Tykling: Martin Buhr, CEO

Martin Buhr Tyk CEO & FounderTalk to a Tykling – getting to know Martin Buhr, CEO

What does it take to turn a side project into a global business with a staff team that spans 31 countries? Or rather, who? 

In the case of Tyk, founders Martin and James had a vision of connecting every system in the world. They’re on track to do it and have a whole team of Tyklings on board to make it so. 

But what does Martin get up to now that he’s running a global empire rather than simply tinkering with the tech? Read on to find out – our latest Talk to a Tykling interview reveals all! 

What does being in charge of Tyk involve?

It’s not what you think! I don’t run from meeting to meeting, telling people what to do. Of course, there’s a certain benefit to living on the other side of the planet to our headquarters, in that I get a lot of the day to myself to do deep work. I can be extremely productive because nobody interrupts me. So in the mornings I can spend some time with the kids, get them out the door and then sit on my laptop and get a whole bunch of stuff done. 

The kind of stuff I’m working on has changed over the years. When we started the company, my day-to-day used to be really technical – lots of code, debugging and support. All that multiple hat-wearing stuff that small companies do. Lots of new business work – that kind of thing. 

Now, that’s transitioned more to looking at spreadsheets, considering proposals, thinking about at things, writing expansive documents and strategy positions… essentially spending my time in Google Docs and Excel. 

The kind of stuff I think about these days is different too. I used to think a lot about what the product is, where it’s going and what features we need. Now it’s more of a strategic view – where are we going, where does the rudder need to point? I have to point the ship in the right direction and trust the team to get the detail right, because they’re closer to it and they’re better at it than I am. 

That strategic part about where we’re trying to go with the company used to be just me and James trying to figure out what to do. Now we have a larger board, a chair, investors and more stakeholders coming on board every day. It’s no longer about making unilateral decisions to do X or Y; there’s a lot of consensus-building and making sure we have the right kind of buy-in from really senior folk. That’s particularly important for a remote company, as you can’t just go into a meeting room and hash it out. You need to let things boil. 

I also spend my time obsessing a lot about our culture. The bigger you get, the less close you become to the people you’re employing. I used to interview almost everyone, until we hit about 30 or 40 people and then they were suddenly hiring their own folks – all I really had to do was sign the letters! So there are now people that work at Tyk that I’ve never met in person and some that I’ve not even met over a video call. To them, the CEO is just this weird voice on a conference call or an avatar on Slack, living out in New Zealand somewhere. That’s a very strange phenomenon, so a lot of the time we’re thinking about our work culture. 

People really enjoy working for Tyk. At least, that’s the feedback I’ve been given! And every time I hear that it makes me really happy that folks come to our company and say, “I love working for this company.” But the only way we can make that happen is to maintain this strong, supportive, kind culture. And with 120 people across different countries that becomes hard due to the sheer scale of the business. We’re a very multicultural team, with people from all kinds of backgrounds. We push hard on diversity and equality. 

When you create an organisation that operates in that kind of environment, it’s not like a traditional office, where you have lots of people who happen to come from different environments all entering the same physical space. Because there’s no physical space, you’re kind of borrowing some space from where each member of your team is. So you’re in their context; they’re not in yours. 

I’m German, for example. I moved to London and found that there were cultural differences in how people there and in the UK more widely saw the world. Things people say, the words they choose, the jokes they use… all these cultural artefacts come from being a long-term UK resident. It took me a really long time to get into that. That’s completely alien to someone coming into that culture from another country. Why is everyone obsessed with tea? Who or what is Monty Python? Or Benny Hill? Or Chelsea Football Club? There’s a huge amount of detail and nuance there to learn. 

When you physically move to another culture, the onus is on you to try and understand what it means to be in that space. You’re the guest, in essence. But the remote business is very different. And Tyk is truly remote first. A lot of start-ups say they are remote first but then only hire in one country – we hire globally. Africa, Turkey, Germany, France… pick a country and we’re probably there! 

For those folks, coming to Tyk means joining this melting pot of people, so we need to find some kind of common ground or core values that everybody can agree on but that don’t bring in any weird cultural contexts and create that sense of alienation that can arise simply from coming from a different background. That’s hard. Going for lowest common denominator when it comes to policies just leads to an anaemic culture. So I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can do things better, how we can be kind, how we can make sure that folks understand not just what it’s like to work for Tyk but what it’s like to be at Tyk, so that when they interact with others, they kind of bring that with them. 

Which is a very long way of saying that I obsess about behaviour – without being a micro-manager! 

Why and how did you build Tyk on the principle of radical responsibility?

I lived in London when James and I started the company. I lived there for 15 years; it’s where I got my degrees. So I consider myself a little British! And my mum does hail from the UK, actually. 

Anyway, James and I were on the brink of officially founding Tyk and I just said to him, before he signed, that if my wife (who comes from New Zealand) were to get pregnant then we would move to New Zealand. That pretty much set the tone – we needed to make Tyk a remote company from the start. 

When we started thinking about how to make the company grow, one of the things that came up – half by accident half planned – was this idea that we can’t micro-manage people. We’re not there – we have zero control or power over what they do. So it’s useless trying to. 

You don’t want pretend authority. You want people who want to work for you and who willingly take on the jobs and the roles and the responsibility and really own that. Originally, I codified it with an awful quote from a terrible movie called The Chronicles of Riddick, where there’s this whole culture of creatures where, “you keep what you kill!” So that’s how we initially framed radical responsibility! It meant that if you pick something up and work with it, you must see it through to completion. If you don’t, you’re letting others down. 

That started off as meaning a lot of permission and a lot of responsibility to get stuff done. It’s now evolved into really thinking about any kind of work you do – if you put your name to something, say you’ll get something done, show up to a meeting, code something, design something – you need to be sure that you don’t affect people down the line. It’s a butterfly effect. The company is getting bigger and bigger, so a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can stop someone from doing a presentation in Singapore or from launching a product in Atlanta. 

That’s a horrible malaphor! The idea is that there’s a chain of responsibility even when you don’t have a boss or colleagues looking over your shoulder in the office. When you can just switch off Slack or switch off email and disappear off the network, you don’t have those reinforcing criteria that force people to act. So in many ways, you need people to have to want to act independently and make things their responsibility. 

We have a social contract for that – we’ll give you all the time in the world, all the holiday you need, there are no timesheets, you don’t have to work 9-5, there’s no clocking in and out or even minimum work hours. However, you are completely measured on your output. If you don’t produce, there’s a problem. If you do produce, we don’t mind how you work, as long as you don’t let others down. 

It means that Tyklings get a lot of freedom. It’s fantastic for working parents and those with young children, or for people with really obscure hobbies that require them to spend most of the day huddled in the garage! It means that they can do all the things they need to and still work, still be productive and contribute to the company. And that is radical responsibility – do what you want, just make sure you get it done!  

How have you recruited such an intelligent and empathetic workforce?

We’re really careful about who we hire. Everyone goes through a culture interview towards the end of the process. They might be the highest-performing rockstar engineer, but if culture interview determines they won’t really fit – for example if they’re a bit narcissistic or lacking in empathy or just not experienced at working remotely – then that’s a real problem for us. 

The other thing we do is really encourage people to behave in a kind, empathetic, thoughtful way internally. We really lean into all of the softer things. Toxic masculinity is brought about by fathers disregarding their own emotions. If a company disregards the emotions of its founders and its people, then it forces a work culture that makes people feel that they have to internalise a lot of that stuff. The only way we can make radical responsibility work is to ensure that people have the freedom and feel safe enough to come to me or to their line manager and say, “Look, I’m having a really bad day, I’m feeling down.” And we can just tell them to take the day off, to take care of themselves. Being kind, being nice, being supportive, not coming down hard on people if they mess up or ask stupid questions… it’s all part of embracing the fact that life is hard. Shit happens. 

It helps that the work we do isn’t timeline-based. We’re not journalists; we don’t have to make midnight deadlines. We not designers or marketers whose jobs rely on getting a campaign out by Christmas Eve. We can release the software when we want to. We don’t need those psychological barriers that come with timelines – we can move them. It might not be great, but it’s not the end of the world. It’s just a piece of software. 

That can take a lot of pressure off, including a lot of the pressure that people put on themselves. It’s about encouraging people to do their best while also feeling that they’re allowed to fail. 

The other side is giving people second chances when they mess up. We have a dictum at Tyk that says there’s no such thing as a stupid question. Our software is so complicated and there’s so much to it and so many different ways of using it that we have people who’ve been working for us for three years and they still don’t fully understand everything that’s going on. It’s important that we understand that. It’s always a learning experience – so there aren’t any stupid questions. Just ask – be brave, not afraid. 

A lot of that comes from the top. I can’t speak for James, but I like to think of myself as a bit of a progressive, left-leaning hippy. I would like Tyk to be a revolutionary workplace, that changes how things are done. Our context allows that, and James and I can push those values through the company – we try to be kind, to be good, to think about what’s right and to think about it deeply. We try to inspire others to take a similar approach and they then inspire others to do the same. 

I believe that if you shine a light inward, it shines out. Meaning, if you take care of the team, the team takes care of you. We have to ensure that our teams are comfortable, that they feel good and that they are happy in what they do. 

We tend to hire people who have side projects and hobbies because work isn’t life. Work is something you do to live. Life is the stuff you’re passionate about. If you’re an astronomer or a woodworker or want to found your own start-up, you have something to hold on to and to anchor to that isn’t somebody else’s mission. We want our team to embrace their own passions and do more of them so we give the permission and the leeway to do that. That means those who work for us have the option and the freedom to do something that is their own, that isn’t just Tyk. Tyk is a workplace, not a lifestyle! So it’s ok to treat it as such. 

We see Tyk as a stepping-stone. People who work for us will move on and do other things. Of course they will. What I want is that employers will see that someone has worked at Tyk for a few years and know that means they must be good. The same way you look at people who used to work at Facebook, or Google, or Amazon. We want that pedigree. 

We have a couple of cultural values that we try to live by. One of the biggest is not taking yourself too seriously. I try to lead by example on that. During the first lockdowns, for example, I wanted to help cheer people up a bit, so we had an initiative called ‘quarantainment’ – essentially a Slack channel to share ideas for entertaining children during lockdowns. That evolved into me recording a series of shorts – The Tyk Show – where I was a presenter of a late-night panel show doing silly skits. I dressed up, made silly jokes and put them online internally. I wanted to give people something to laugh at. 

Over the years I’ve had to let go of so much – product, code, being really close to the interview process… the one thing I have to keep pushing on is culture and wellbeing and what it really means to work at Tyk. 

Ignoring the whole global pandemic issue, where do you like to be based during the working day?

I work from home – my office has a library of old books. I collect them. Some of my oldest are more than 450 years old. I have some first edition Dickens, some second edition Pope… I spend a lot of time at antique book fairs. I became obsessed with collecting books after reading Fahrenheit 451. I have my own library catalogue – they’re all indexed and tagged. 

I’ve also got a telescope in my office, which I bought recently. We’re lucky to live somewhere that doesn’t have a lot of light pollution. 

Plus a guitar, which I’m terrible at playing. I thought I would teach myself at some point but I suck at it. 

Then my latest hobby is 3D printing. I’m slowly but surely building a server system. That’s my mini project at the moment. I tinker a lot. 

Most of the time when I’m doing stuff that involves talking to people, it’s in my office. If I’m doing deep work, then I do that in here too. The rest of the time, I’ll be upstairs on the couch, working from the iPad, usually with some music on. 

I’ve got a three-year-old and a four-year-old at home, so my office is my quiet space. It’s very easy to get buried in work and hide but when you work from home you need to blend that with family life. I remember reading about how Stephen King used to shut himself away writing and drinking whiskey for hours and pretty much ignore his family, until one day his wife had had enough. She gave him an ultimatum which led to him giving up the drink and the drugs and creating an attic office with no door, where he could write but where there was also an area for the kids to come and play. My wife is quite understanding – she does take the kids out a lot! 

I do let the kids in my office – they can prance around in here while I’m working or on a call. As long as they don’t touch the expensive books! The most expensive ones are on the top shelf, where they can’t reach them. 

I’m lucky that I can do quite a lot of my work from my iPad or my phone these days – I don’t need a big setup to get stuff done. I can do emails and Slack from anywhere. Although I still want a keyboard if I’m working on a big report! 

Can you give a two-minute history of your life before Tyk?

I am an international brat. My mother used to work for a big hotel chain so travelled from country to country as almost an ambassador for the brand. I was born in Frankfurt, Germany, then moved to Abu Dhabi for a couple of years before moving back to Germany, this time to Munich. 

Next my mum and I went to Bulgaria, while my dad stayed in Germany as he had a business there. He commuted until he gave that up and joined us fulltime. This was Bulgaria back in communist times. 

We moved from there to Botswana, where I spent four formative years. Then I spent my teenage years in Edinburgh, which was a massive culture shock. When I watch Mean Girls, I completely get it!

From Scotland we moved to Portugal, where I finished high school. Just outside of Lisbon – in Cascais. 

Then I moved to London to go to university. I did an undergraduate degree in psychology at Goldsmiths University of London, then a Master’s in international management at King’s College. I failed my stats course though, so I had to wait a year to finish my degree and in that time I started a business. 

I moved back to Portugal and ran a web design business. It didn’t do too well but it paid some bills. And I started a company around hiring remote freelancers over the web – like an early Elance. It was denominated in euros and I built a really complicated ranking system so that you could easily compare work types across all of the different contractors. It cost me a lot of money and didn’t make any money – but I did learn a lot! 

At that point I moved back to London and got a job there, working at a publishing company for in-flight magazines. I looked after their website and intranet and did some of their IT stuff. It was interesting and pretty intense. 

From there I moved to being a project manager at Reading Room, where I was interviewed by a woman called Amanda. She hired me and that was where I met James. And by the time I left Reading Room, I had married Amanda!  

My next move was to LBI – Lost Boys Incorporated – where I worked as a creative tech. After a bit over a year, I wanted something a bit less corporate. 

So, I ended up working at a Lucky Voice karaoke bar. They had a huge software stack as they had the bars, an app, a website, a streaming service. I worked there for a couple of years and really enjoyed it, and also met someone there who I ended up hiring at Tyk. 

And this is all part of how Tyk came about. While I was at Reading Room with James, I started another start-up – a load-testing website. I designed it and tried to turn it into a business, and it did actually make a bit of money. And then I redesigned and rebuilt it and found I needed an API gateway. I couldn’t find one – so I built my own. And then I shuttered the load-testing service and open sourced the API gateway, which got loads of traction. 

I was still working at Lucky Voice but also having conversations with James. One thing led to another and we got our first client and our first seed investment. I quit my job and James and I went to Texas in pursuit of a client (that we never actually closed). They paid for us to go out there and James rented the most ridiculous car – because when you’re in Texas you need a big car, right? – and we were driving back to the airport in it when he told me that once we got home, he was going to talk to his wife and then quit his job. I was floored. That was one of the best days of my life – he was putting all of his faith into this thing that we’d started. It was really cool. 

So we quit our jobs and started the company. I was still in London for a while, then when my first son was born, my family and I moved to New Zealand. Tyk at that time consisted of three people working in a basement. Now we have three offices and 120 employees. It’s been a weird journey. 

How big did you imagine Tyk would become when you first founded it?

I’m not sure! At the time I thought that a company with 20 employees and that made some decent money would be a win. I think James was more ambitious – and still is! 

How do you make the COO/CEO relationship work when you’re half a world away from each other? 

James and I like each other and respect each other. We also understand what each of us is good at. James complements a lot of the stuff I’m not good at. It’s a good relationship as we both add value. 

In terms of managing that relationship, we have weekly catchups for our close-knit exec team, plus James and I have regular calls. We’re always chatting on Slack too. 

Because we work in very different operational areas of the business, we can be quite independent. But at the same time, we’re always bouncing things off each other – always asynchronously, of course, because of the time zone difference. 

We used to have Tyk retreats where we flew the whole company somewhere (although COVID has killed that for now) and those can help to really cement the relationship further. James and I used to meet up a conferences and events too. 

It’s a good buddy relationship. We get along. I’ve got a huge amount of respect for James. 

What do you do to ensure that Tyk operates in as environmentally friendly a manner as possible? And what future plans do you have in this respect?

Ah yes, carbon footprints. Unfortunately, the carbon footprint of a person living in New Zealand is usually pretty high. It’s not because of our lifestyle. We live a pretty green lifestyle – my wife and I are both pescatarians. She does it for the ethics; I do it because of the carbon footprint of meat. I have two children and it’s hard to look at what they’re going to inherent, environmentally speaking. So, I try to repay that debt by not eating meat. I miss ribs so much! 

The reason our carbon footprint is high is because of the flights. Pretty much wherever I’m going involves a 12-hour flight. So I now only usually do two trips per year – the retreat and then a long business trip where I tie together a whole bunch of stuff. So I’ll visit my parents in Portugal, go to a conference somewhere and do as much as I can before heading back home. We now have enough employees that often someone who lives closer can go on my behalf. 

In terms of running the company ethically, we’re building a corporate social responsibility programme. We take ethical standpoints on certain things, wherever we can, and try not to judge people. 

As a remote company, our carbon footprint is thankfully pretty low. We’re paperless. We try to avoid in-person meetings and travel that’s not necessary. We have offices for meetings, for accepting mail and for legal reasons but we don’t expect our staff to work from them, unless they particularly want to. Some people operate better in an office and some don’t. But we do try to keep our travel down and keep things sustainable. 

You employ staff in 31 countries. Do you speak any languages other than English? 

I speak German – I learnt it from birth, so I speak it as a proper, bilingual second language. I speak Portuguese extremely badly. I did learn it while I was there, but only enough to get my order right in a restaurant or make sure my taxi driver didn’t rip me off. It was funny – I didn’t speak the language very well, but my accent was flawless, so people assumed I was a local. 

At some point when I have the time, I’m going to learn Maori. What’s amazing about New Zealand is that once you’re a permanent resident and pay your taxes here, you can vote in the elections – no taxation without representation. So I feel that, if they’re going to adopt me and let me live here and let me vote, I should culturally embed myself. So I want to learn Maori. People like us are called pākehā – the foreigners, the white people – and not a lot of them learn Maori. The kids do, but they kind of learn it as a side thing rather than becoming fluent. Kind of like the Brits learn French but never really learn it. 

Where does the name ‘Tyk’ come from? 

I’d been wanting to build a product called Tyk for a long time – since before the gateway existed. Back when I was running the load-testing website, I decided to write a service integration platform. It was going to be hardware-based and I was going to call it Tyk. The plan was to sell different sizes of machines with the software on them, kind of like Google Search Appliances. 

I wrote all this stuff and learned a lot about service-oriented architecture but it never really went anywhere. But while I was looking at that business, I found a domain name – It was a three letter, top-level domain name and I knew I had to buy it, even if I never used it! And then as time moved on I began to think about calling the gateway Tyk and making it open source… and that’s how it became Tyk. It was very random! 

Is there a pain point in the tech sector that you would love to be able to solve? 

What I’d really like to see in the tech sector is the end of this ‘bro culture’ – that whole Silicon Valley attitude of, “Hey bro, let’s crush code, man!” There’s already a lot of movement against it. It’s a mentality that used to be very widespread five or six years ago and, while we’re moving on from that, there’s still a huge amount of misogyny and sexism in the tech sector. 

I think the biggest issue is having more representation on the technical side. It’s so hard to find female engineers – you have to go looking for them. If I want to hire a shit-hot coder, there are thousands of men who will line up for the job but almost zero women. It is starting to change, with more women getting into STEM, but they’re just not represented enough in the industry yet. We’ve tried so many different tactics – we’ve rewritten ads, posted to specific events, attended events aimed at female STEM applicants… but there are just none there. That’s actually one reason we’re so focused on our culture being so inclusive. 

That means that most tech companies are run by and managed by men. And that’s not great. I’d like to see that change. 

My mum was the breadwinner in our family. She had to wear the shoulder pads and be called a ball buster in order to do what she did back in the 80s. She was a victim of all this toxic bullshit masculinity that you still see today in the tech industry – how is that still a thing? My mom was born in the 40s; how aren’t we further forward?

That’s what I’d like to fix, if I had a magic wand – I’d make there be greater gender diversity. Tech is such a pointlessly gendered sector. 

What has been the single biggest highlight of your work at Tyk so far? Or your proudest moment? 

There have been a couple of really big moments for me. One was when we landed our first big enterprise deal. It was just me and James back then. I was on my laptop and the email came in late at night and my jaw just dropped. I was over the moon – that was an incredible moment. 

Then there was our first actual hire – our first employee who we interviewed and who came and sat with us in the office. That was a pretty big moment. 

And then one moment that has the most impact for me is when we have a retreat and I show up exhausted after a 20-hour flight somewhere. Not only do I see all the people I’ve already had the pleasure of meeting, but I also get to meet a whole bunch of people that I’ve never, ever met in person but who all work for Tyk. It’s always a weird moment in terms of appreciating the company’s growth. 

Last Christmas, we flew all of the staff in the EMEA region into London for a party. Then we did the same thing in Singapore for the APAC team. James filmed the office in London, which was full for the first time. He sent me this video and it hit me that we actually have a real company full of real people – not just this Slack environment that we usually exist in! That was very cool.  

What’s been the hardest challenge so far? 

A few years ago, we hired a temporary finance director to clean up our financial modelling. He did a load of due diligence, then sat the board down and told us we were going to run out of money in six months’ time. So James and I had some long and very distressing conversations about our options. 

We actually managed to get through it without losing any Tyklings, with a lot of skrimping and saving and minimising costs. It was a long slog. Of course, we’re incredibly fiscally responsible now, in terms of our investments, our policies and how much money we have in the bank. But that was a very dark time. I felt like we’d let the whole team down. Thankfully we’re a long way past that point now. 

What are your three favourite podcasts? 

I don’t actually listen to podcasts. But I do subscribe to The Economist, because you can listen to all of their articles and I don’t have time to read them. So that’s usually while I’m in the shower or on a long drive. And it means I don’t have to watch the news (because the news is awful). I feel like I’m at least getting some kind of balanced reporting, with a degree of integrity. 

I also subscribe to The Institute of Foreign Affairs. They release a quarterly journal full of interesting essays, often by top tier American politicians or people in thinktanks. It strikes a good balance between Democrat and Republican views. It’s all about foreign policy advice and the larger, geopolitical, multilateral approaches to governance. I find it really interesting because this stuff actually affects me, as I run a business in multiple countries. But I also find the reasoning and the thought processes that underpin policy decisions fascinating. They make me feel more enabled and prepared for making decisions within the business. You can listen to the essays as well as read them. They provide some really interesting insights. 

Which three books would you take to a desert island with you?

Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks is one of my favourite science fiction books of all time, but not one of his Culture novels. I have a first edition of that here – I found it by accident in a bookshop. I wouldn’t take the first edition to a desert island though, just a copy! 

I’d also take Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. It’s a soul-destroying novel – it will leave you in tears. It’s one of those novels that is just so devastating but also so beautiful by the end. The book was so huge that everyone asked Flaubert who he based Madame Bovary on, and he famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” The impact that book had on me… it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. 

So I’ve got corny sci-fi and a classic. For my third book, I’d go for something that I could mine for content for a very long time. The one book that I feel I could really go into again and again, in order to really understand it, is Moby Dick by Herman Melville. It’s a great book but it’s such a difficult read. There are these endless chapters where he’s describing how best to skin a whale while at sea, or what to do with the blubber. There’s a whole chapter of him sleeping in his bed and dreaming of his mother – or what he thinks is his mother – holding his hand. There’s all this beautiful imagery. It’s really lovely. 

Although if I wanted more entertainment, I’d probably switch that for The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons, who was inspired by John Keats’ unfinished poem to write this really bizarre sci-fi series. So it would be a toss-up between those two.  

How do you switch off? What do you do when you’re not working? 

I used to read but I don’t have time for that so much anymore. I’m reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature at the moment. It’s fascinating to understand the brutality of times gone by. 

To switch off, I tend to obsess about projects. I’m building a server rack and a CNC woodworking machine right now. I also design software here and there, but I try to get away from the computer and do more physical stuff. I like to make things.