Growing Pains: How to Streamline Workflow in an Expanding Startup

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GrowStartups — especially in the tech sector — occupy a semi-magical place in the cultural imagination: we tend to think of them as little workplace utopias, small communities in which everyone wears jeans, lounges on designer furniture, and — somehow — disrupts the market while, at the same time, basking the day away in the glow of their super-hip offices.

But the laxity of the startup environment brings its own set of challenges. Lacking the firm structures and rigid hierarchies of corporate America, startups approach their workflows somewhat casually, especially in the earliest stages of their existences. While this informal approach may work well for a time, as a startup grows, easygoing workflows can quickly turn into outright chaos. When there are four or five people in the office, it’s pretty easy for everyone to keep tabs on one another. When the workforce doubles — or triples — it’s no longer feasible for supervisors to simply keep track of everything in their heads. There’s just too much going on.

And so, startup owners realize they need to inject a little process and procedure into things if they want to ensure that everyone is doing what needs to get done for the company’s success. Unfortunately, this can leave a bad taste in employees’ mouths — especially those employees who have been with the startup from the beginning.

“When you’re a startup, a young company, you want to have that cool type of environment where everything is casual,” says Nicole Culbertson, HR Director of ad-sales firm AdBoom Group. “Then, as you grow … you’re changing processes and adding more procedures, and [it can feel more corporate]. It’s very hard [for long-time employees], because they’re so used to the casual, lax atmosphere that you had before. Sometimes, there’s a little resistance from people who have been there [from the start].”

Culbertson knows this situation well: she participated in AdBoom’s transformation from small startup to what Forbes calls one of “America’s most promising companies.” Culbertson has firsthand experience with the growing pains of successful startups — and she knows a bit about how to overcome them.

Communication and Transparency Are Key

People, in general, are averse to change, and startup employees are no different. They may understand that the company is introducing processes and procedures because those things are necessary for continued growth and success, but that doesn’t mean they like it: There used to be (almost) no rules, and now there are! I didn’t sign up for this.

But the processes and procedures are absolutely necessary, so growing startups have to find ways to get employees on board with them. To do just that, Culbertson says startup leadership needs to be transparent about the new policies and procedures, explaining to employees exactly what they are and why they are needed. And transparency, of course, can only come through communication — lots and lots of communication.

“The biggest thing is communication and making sure that you communicate things well,” Culbertson says. “When you’re bringing in new policies or company changes … you want your employees to still feel they are important and that you’re not just doing things all of a sudden.”

To foster transparency and communication, startup leadership may want to hold meetings with employees far in advance of the rollout of any new policies or procedures. During these meetings, leadership should thoroughly explain what the changes are and solicit feedback from employees. Leadership should also take that feedback to heart. The goal of these meetings is to empower employees, to bring them into the process, and to show them that they are still valuable people who can directly impact the direction of the company.

Two More Challenges to Startup Workflow: Management and Training

Culbertson says that introducing new processes and procedures is not the only obstacle that growing startups have to overcome. Hiring the right managers and training new employees also pose significant difficulties for maturing companies.

1. Management: It’s More Than Just Seniority

Culbertson has seen it happen before: a department grows large enough that it now needs a dedicated supervisor to oversee it, and leadership decides to appoint an employee the manager of that department simply because that employee was the first member of the department hired, or at least has been with the company the longest.

In theory, this seems to be the smart decision: this person has been with the company for a long time, they understand it well, they’ve performed well, so why not reward them with a promotion?

Problem is, not everyone who performs well or knows the company inside and out is cut out to be a manager, and Culbertson has seen many a manager chosen on seniority fail.

Startups can avoid bad management choices simply by making sure that they train people to be managers, rather than assuming that people can be managers simply because they’ve been with the company from the start.

“Maybe the person works really hard, and maybe they just need to learn,” Culbertson says. “So send them to seminars and conferences that can help them with their management skills.”

Culbertson also suggests that leadership really considers the options before choosing a manager from among the workforce.

“[You] definitely [need] someone that has experience and [is] mature enough to be able to adapt to change,” Culbertson says.

If an employee can’t adapt to their new role as a manager, then they may not be the right choice, no matter how much training they receive.

2. Training: Put Processes in Place Early on in the Game

It seems almost trite to say, but it’s worth saying in this scenario: “When you’re onboarding any new employees, you have to have the right people in place to train them,” Culbertson says.

And yet, Culbertson recalls her own start at AdBoom, and how she had to mostly train herself.

This is not because AdBoom — or any other startup, for that matter — was negligent. It’s simply because AdBoom, like any new startup, didn’t have the manpower to dedicate even one person to training Culbertson.

“When you’re [a] young ]company], you don’t have that many people in the departments,” Culbertson says. “It’s hard to take away time from someone’s day because everyone is so busy doing their own work, and if they lose a day, it’s actually a lot. Time is so precious [in a startup].”

But if startups can’t ask employees to take time out of their very tight schedules to train new employees, they can still offer effective onboarding programs by asking employees to document, document, document.

“Everyone is used to working on their own and keeping [things] in their heads,” Culbertson says. “They don’t really think about [documenting their processes] until they’re hiring another person in the department. Then it’s like, ‘If I had this written down, then it would have been easier.'”

Culbertson says that employees should prepare for new hires before new hires are even a possibility by simply documenting their processes, responsibilities, workflows, and so on. That way, when a new hire does enter a department and everyone is too busy to train them, the new hire can access the documentation and walk themselves through “a day in the life at Startup X,” so to speak.

By Matthew Kosinski