Growth brings changes to a startup, but some of the changes may seem to be taking your growing startup in the wrong direction. John Ellis, VP of Technology, Anvl, says one of the biggest challenges their startup faced was maintaining communication and company culture as they grew.
“As a startup grows there are certain hallmarks where communication suddenly gets more difficult,” Ellis says. “Once a team can no longer fit around a cheap plastic table you need to become more intentional about communicating across the room, and once you grow beyond the effectiveness of earshot, you need to think about how you communicate equally across local and remote employees.”
Avoid the Domino Effect that Starts with Communication Breakdown
Ellis says many facets of early-stage software companies will suffer if they don’t maintain effective communication. “Not only does a lack of communication make it difficult to send information to your workforce at large, but it also creates a culture where communication doesn’t travel back to leadership,” he explains. “This creates an insular layer between the vision of your company and the tactics to realize this vision, often creating a very different culture than the one you initially fostered.”
He says that Anvl understood that communication needed to be a priority as the company grew, they were interested to see how much the team had to adapt. “It was interesting to find how radically communication needs had to evolve once the company hit several hallmark team sizes,” Ellis comments. “We observe that employee and product communication strategies needing large changes at six employees, then again at ten to twelve employees, and yet again once you go beyond twenty-five.”
Growing Startups Need to Rethink their Strategies
Ellis points out that growing startups can’t expect processes that may have worked well at their company’s inception to work when the team expands. “Overcoming communication challenges required not just an evolution in existing strategies, but rethinking how we reach out to every team member. We don’t need all-hands meetings with just six people, but we certainly do at twenty. While a single team can remain in step over Slack, you can’t expect employees to monitor sales, support, and engineering channels with similar fervor,” he says.
“As companies expand, they need to tell the stories that provide relevant context behind the work each team is doing. At Anvl we want to be transparent on how the company is performing and where it is going, so team leaders provide regular recaps company-wide detailing both the high points and the low points from the week,” says Ellis.
“Anvl continually evaluates how we are doing with team communication by soliciting honest feedback on an ongoing basis. We are never ‘done’ improving corporate communication, and need to always make sure no one feels left behind,” he says. “By maintaining a culture of transparency, we have found that our team has not only identified that they are part of a larger vision but feel a greater sense of agency around what they do.”
He adds that managers must be intentional about obtaining feedback from their teams so they can be a conduit for information and not insulate groups from each other.
The Benefits of Effective Communication and Transparency
Ellis says when Anvl ensures that everyone is involved and informed, we sometimes make surprising discoveries: “Our safety software is found in a wide array of industries, and every employee has stories of near misses from friends and family that informs how we think about the products we build.”
He stresses that founders and leaders need to avoid the impulse to shield their employees from the chaos that sometimes exists in a growing startup and provide honest insights — in good times and bad. “Building trust means demonstrating transparency, especially during rough patches,” he says.”
Ellis adds, “I believe leaders need to be intentional in setting aside time to genuinely listen, and not in trying to fill silence with their own thoughts and updates. Many times coffee and a bagel will go much farther in unlocking team performance than a grandiose company offsite. One-on-one connections, particularly as your company grows to new heights, are critical to maintaining a culture of open communication.”