Creating Scalable Communication At High Growth Startups


I distinctly remember the first time I was asked if I had looped in the appropriate people. I wanted to say, “Why? How can everyone not already be looped in?” Between lunch, beer o’ clock, Slack, random conversations in the bathroom or at the printer, how could anyone at a 60-ish person startup not know everything going on in every department.

Then it hit me, I didn’t know what every department was working on in detail, nor had I for some time.

It happens to every startup. Those early months and years where everyone just somehow knew everything they needed to are no more; things begin falling through the cracks and balls get dropped. Everyone muddles along as best they can until tempers are frayed and distrust between people and departments is the norm.

On the one hand, a communication breakdown is undoubtedly bad. But on the other hand, if the communication breakdown is due to rapid growth: congratulations! Your startup is one of the few that made it to the high growth phase. Your startup is going through growing-pains, ‘pain’ being the operative word, but these moments are what strengthen a startup to survive current and future challenges.

No single communication system will work (let alone scale) for every startup, but the following three guidelines form the building blocks for scalable communication that any startup can make its own.

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1. Things Are Never Going To Be The Same. Deal With It.

The most difficult part of modifying communication as a startup grows isn’t implementing changes, but accepting that changes need to be made in the first place. Think of internal communications as the canary in the coal mine: a breakdown in internal communications is often the first sign that the way a startup operated with 30 to 50 employees won’t be the way it operates at 60+ employees.

Accepting that changes need to be made in how people communicate isn’t the same as making those changes, but getting early employees to accept that such changes are necessary is half the battle. Employees that have been with a startup since the early days often have difficulty accepting that changes to how the startup operates need to be made.

Rather than acknowledging that a larger startup can’t function the way a smaller startup does, they either propose band-aid solutions that only prolong the pain or dig their head in the sand and continue to operate as they have always done.

Revising (or more often in the case of early startups, creating for the first time) internal communication guidelines is an excellent an opportunity to show employees that change can be for the better, and that this is how further changes will be made as the startup grows.

If people feel blindsided or that the change was forced top-down, they will resist not only changes to how they communicate, but all future change as well.

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2. Clarify Which Topics Or Scenarios Are Appropriate For Slack And Which Are Better Suited To Email

The majority of startups have two vehicles for written/digital communication: email and Slack. For the record: I love Slack. Some conversations just require rainbow-poop or grumpy-cat emojis. Despite the backlash (or #slacklash) against Slack, Slack or any other messenger system isn’t inherently good or bad for communication or culture. Problems arise partly in how people use Slack, but the bigger problem is that people don’t know when to use Slack.

Slack claims it makes workers more efficient by cutting down on meetings and emails and is introduced to employees as an alternative/replacement for email. If a startup bans email for all internal communications and says to only use Slack, then it’s be easy to know when to use Slack.

But even though many startups have both email and Slack, few have guidelines on when to use one or the other. The result: everyone uses Slack and email differently.

Some use Slack with the expectation that everyone follows it carefully, and if all employees are aware that Slack is the primary method communication, then everyone knows to check it frequently. But, if only some use Slack with the expectation that it is being regularly checked and others use Slack for trivial or non-urgent matters, those who check it less frequently will miss information they shouldn’t and those who do get frustrated that they aren’t getting responses in a timely manner.

How a company uses Slack and how it uses email is far less important than making sure everyone uses both the same way. If everyone knows that Slack is appropriate for non time-sensitive issues, no one gets frustrated waiting for an answer they need urgently.

If everyone knows that any important announcement or topic will also be addressed in an email, people will not feel anxious that they have to constantly check Slack to know what’s happening.

A rough guideline of when to use Slack and when to use email could go like this:

Use email for/when...
-Time-sensitive topics
-The topic is non-trivial
-You expect/need a response

Use Slack for/when...
-Topics unrelated to work
-Casual conversations
-Immediate response is not needed

What’s critical is not how a startup uses Slack vs. email, but that everyone uses both in the same way.

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3. The Work Is Never Done: Any Moderate To Major Change Impacts Communication

Just when you figure out who needs to be in the loop for a project and when they need to be looped in, something happens and you are back at square one. Every time a new role is created, someone is promoted (or laid-off), a department is restructured, etc. communication will be affected.

There are many ways to minimize disruption to communication, but the easiest and most effective that I am aware of is to keep a frequently updated wiki that includes:

-A directory of employees with their main responsibilities and topics they should always be included on.

-A list of any committees, councils, or guilds that states their purpose, members, frequency of meeting, etc.

-Guidelines on when to use Slack and when to use email

-Expectations on responding to communications after work hours and on weekends.

There is no easy way to scale internal communications at a high growth startup, but when done well a startup is all the stronger for it.