On internal communication tools for startups

Six months ago, a friend of mine who worked at a growing 30-people startup approached me to ask what tool we use to communicate between departments at Leverate.

Smart guy, I thought. I will never forget the colorful chaos that broke loose when we scaled from 30 to 140 employees in just two years. A headcount of 30 is an ideal tipping point for internal communication to take new forms.

Communication inside Leverate has evolved quite a bit along the years. We’ve been using a good number of tools to manage departments and share stuff cross-department. These tools include email, phone, boards, Slack, ConfluenceWiki, Yammer, daPulse, Google Docs, TFSSharePoint, Trello, Facebook at Work and more. Some of these tools were so beautifully designed, that they downright fueled me with insights on leadership and communication. Others stormed into the company for a one-week-stand that everybody hated.

Left: Trello. Right: reality

Here are some lessons I learned on internal communication in startups:

  1. No single tool can serve all communication needs. If reality hasn’t forced you to embrace different communication tools, I suggest that you force yourself. Confluence is wonderful for knowledge bases, but it’s not an ideal place to shout to all that the company’s sales team did amazingly last month. daPulse is a wonderful place to post casual updates, but it’s outright terrible for building a knowledge base.
  2. The wrong tool usually leads to bad results. Wrong tool is when your sales team’s knowledge is based on 25 old emails that you dig out and send to every new salesperson. Wrong tool is when you meet a client and leave with 6 open issues that require follow ups… and then you decide to manage all internal communication by email. People do that. I did that too. Tasks get forgotten, misunderstood, partially discussed and eventually under-delivered. Clients get pissed off. In the next posts, I will try to suggest what tools you should use to fix that.
  3. Bad results lead to frustrations. At best, people will blame other people (I say “at best” because blaming others sometimes results in discussion and improvement). At worst, people will hate the tools and keep their frustrations deep inside. Funnily, it’s often the person who created the problem (a manager who never made it a priority to build a long-lasting knowledge base) that gets most pissed off.
  4. No tool is perfect, and imperfect tools are OK- as long as you compensate with consistency. Your company wiki is not the world’s greatest tool for publishing releases and release notes. But we made it work- by teaching everyone to use it, and adding a mandatory face-to-face meeting to every release (the “release brief”).
  5. Communication tools signal company culture. Super trivial. In every company, communication is the reflection of the very souls of the leaders. How communication is done signals a lot about culture and leadership. It’s almost tempting to judge the culture in any tech company by how many communication channels exist, how often they’re used and which technologies enable them. Examples:
    • The VP’s who voluntarily share boards and monthly updates with the entire company signal that they are open, confident and accountable for their actions
    • Rich cross-department communication via daPulse signals that you’re an efficient, social and perhaps well-aligned company
    • When people join our team in Hong Kong or Shanghai, I tell them to think 3 times before they send long emails (>5 lines) to the HQ. Email discussions across time zones is a very safe way to build a mediocre culture. This rule helps me to signal my standards for efficiency and team work
    • I also take pride in running my weekly 1-on-1 meetings with Trello, a dead simple tool that records the essential 10% and then calls for 90% human-to-human communication. When I mention it during an interview, I make a statement about my management style
  6. Communication tools also shape company culture. This statement is much less trivial. I’m more about people than tools. I like to think that great culture comes first, and communication tools follow. But I must admit that sometimes the opposite holds: at Leverate, communication tools influenced our culture a great deal. When I introduced an internal wiki into the company and asked the product team to always publish our next releases there, the team started to get more communication aware and more goal-oriented than before. Account management started to check out the release board and challenge the product team. The product team went on to organize pre-release and post-release briefs with the account managers. They became better listeners. Our wiki has created a worm hole between ops and engineering! Which made the company much more customer-centric.

Communication tools signal company culture and also shape company culture. We need to choose more than one, and we need to choose them carefully. But how?

In the next post, I will move on to break a company’s inner communication into several common types. I will then explain how they can (and should) be facilitated with different tools.

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