The start-up landscape has exploded since the turn of the 21st century, forging new economic models whose taste for uncertainty and adventure has become the norm.
But while success stories, failures and ingenious growth-hack hits permeate the media, there has been little investigation into the inside workings of these young, ambitious businesses. Though we are familiar with the corporate cultures of Google, Facebook and co., there is notorious secrecy around the real goings-on inside Europe’s bigger start-up factories. While large enterprises learn from the flat hierarchies and innovation hubs that fuel Silicon Valley, there has been little research into how the thousands of upcoming start-ups across Europe actually communicate and operate internally, and even less research into how leaders value and implement links between internal communication, culture and success.
My recent research investigated where internal communication and questions of culture feature as start-ups grow. The consensus was that, generally, planned internal communications and deliberations on culture and values are not present in start-ups until deemed necessary. Unfortunately this critical point is often revealed through misunderstandings, mis-hires or communication chaos where the purposes of emails, scrum meetings or Skype chats become confused. Nevertheless, leaders acknowledge the need for earlier, proactive consideration of how internal communication can ease their future growth. Start-ups require awareness of how instrumental good communication is to running a business smoothly. If some guidelines and values are not already in motion, chaos is likely to ensue when team growth and investment become a reality.
A question of culture?
As communicators, we recognise that people are core to a business and that good communication and culture are closely linked. Especially in small and intense environments, it is particularly critical that each member be committed to the cause. During early start-up stages, business models change frequently, forcing re-thinks, re-designs and new directions. Seed and start-up phases impose hectic operational obligations on founders, making questions of team, people, culture and communication all too easy to neglect. Intangible factors may seem superfluous alongside concrete budgets, product launches and technical details, and are easy to push aside until they become problematic and confidence is already on the wane.
Start-up founders have a diverse variety of backgrounds. In this respect, there is no standard training nor indeed specific experience required to become entrepreneurs. The beauty of this is the shift in expectations and norms in the world of work. In the face of disruption in marketing, product and remote work, it is more important than ever that dynamic start-ups do lay down, define and express their cultural and communication values as early as possible.
“Good communication and culture are closely linked."
Having spoken to a number of founders about their own experiences, I have compiled a handful of simple solutions that will ease future communications for start-up founders. These are cost-free basics, which can bind together good teams and carve clearer directions for businesses – and should also be useful for venture capitalists, consultants and advisers working with start-ups.
Five communication and culture imperatives for every start-up founder
1. Define some, any, values. Values could be to treat each client equally, to respect others’ quiet time or simply to be the best. Even if the product is still in development, founders can channel their own personal values into those of the brand and company. While cultures cannot be simply created, they grow from basic, common beliefs. Knowing what these beliefs are means communicating basic values in informal or written ways to incoming employees. Of course, values can change and evolve, but bearing a future vision in mind will help recruit people who share the same passion and fundamental beliefs.
2. Live an appropriate culture, avoiding the clichés. Free drinks and table tennis are overused stereotypes. Consider offering perks that fit the company and your values. Childcare support or self-development days may be more attractive to more experienced employees, for example. This also applies to communication methods. Is a scrum meeting, a formal lunch or a drinks evening most appropriate to your product and people? When and how do employees communicate what? Having a loose set of guidelines proves useful in avoiding misunderstandings and annoyances – and prepare well for team growth.
3. Recognise each employee’s dynamic and critical contribution. Having some defined values is essential to ensuring new employees share a passion for the company and have the soft skills to fit into the team. Especially when teams are small, each new member will bring in new mannerisms, humour or skills, changing the workplace dynamics. When ten new people arrive all at once, how could this change? An awareness and conscious evaluation of individuals’ contributions will help ensure that team spirit is directed toward a positive culture. Consideration of how, when and why people communicate with each other is, again, so important.
4. Have a practical internal communications strategy for growth. Ultimately, start-ups should be growing – quickly. It’s essential that leaders have next steps in place for managing communication as the team grows even beyond ten people. Researching and introducing project management tools early on and recognising that small-team practices simply won’t be feasible when 40 are on board. How can the basic company values be transposed onto the growing team? Be realistic, and think big so that processes of expansion and enhancement do not upset basic structures.
5. Most importantly: take responsibility. Though many founders may have escaped corporate environments for a more relaxed workplace, it is only in rare cases where teams work successfully under no authority. One or more of the founders needs to clearly take responsibility for the core of communications, to create an internal brand voice to be channelled through employees’ work. Along with conceiving values and product, responsibility must remain at the heart of the company, not be outsourced to marketing. Founders from any discipline who embrace this responsibility will soon learn that well-managed internal communication is an interactive tool for fostering ideas and receiving feedback.
These guidelines will help empower founders as leaders and help drive more focused teams, better recruitment and harmonised workplaces – tailored to the product or service. It’s perhaps the perfect creative exercise for founders to take a break from number-crunching. As quickly as apps and technology may be evolving, communication and culture is a human phenomenon with much exploration potential – especially for the start-up landscape.