Want to be a successful startup? Focus on internal communication, now!

December 17, 2015

This is a guest post by Leeni Harmainen.

“Companies are built on communication. It’s not a company without it — just a bunch of people bumping into each other.”

– Miika Kenttämies, Growth Marketer, Yousician

Prepare to read some hard cold facts about internal communication followed by hands-on tips on how to get started. So get yourself a coffee and sit down comfortably.Here we go…

Internal communication, meaning all that hustle, talking, writing, information sharing and discussions you have with your team everyday both horizontally and vertically, directly affect your company’s bottom line results. The efficiency of internal communication influences the effectiveness of change management, company culture, team effectiveness and productivity, as well as the overall performance of your business [1]. When it works, your team members are more passionate about their jobs and have a stronger relationship to your company, they are also less likely to change jobs [2].

“There’s a strong positive correlation between the size of the team and the importance of good internal communication.”

– Mikael Lauharanta, COO Smarp

Without well-functioning internal communication a company will not be able to react to market dynamics, make quick decisions and delegate correctly [3]. This is a mistake made by too many startups. [4]

“In a company that develops fast, as most startups do, it is crucial that people are aware of what happens. This affects both the success of business as well as keeping the great spirit alive. This is all internal communication.”

– Sofia Frisk, Marketing Director, Blueprint Genetics

One of the trickiest parts of internal communication in startups is, how do you make sure your team is able to process the gigantic amount of important information, and how do you do that efficiently [4]. This challenge should be solved sooner than later, as it only grows with your company [5].

Ok, we’re done with the first bit of why is internal communication is important, and why you should keep on reading :)

Concrete tips to make sure you do it right

No more citing academic studies, time for some hands-on tips.

Tools – save time & energy

Pick up the right tools. When you notice e-mail losing its status as a main tool for internal communication, you know your team is doing something right and your internal communication just got a lot more efficient.

Slack – Bye bye internal emails, welcome smart communication. Slack is an all-round communications solution that every startup needs to check out. It is no accident Slack is one of the most popular communication tools used by startups in the world. You can set channels for different topics, start private group messages and pick your favourites from dozens of integrations. Connect your Slack with Twitter, your customer support, calendar or Github for example and get all of your notifications from different platforms to your Slack.

Google Drive – Collaborative working on every device.Sending documents as attachments in internal e-mail messages should be banned. From a wide selection of cloud based file hosting services, Google Drive is especially good if you need to work on files together remotely.

Trello – Efficient to-do and task management. Trello is a good solution for those seemingly endless to-do lists and tasks. Set up boards for different topics (e.g. marketing, sales, production) and add different lists with individual cards that count as to-do’s for each board. You can also tag people on cards to mark tasks as their responsibility and set due dates among many other cool features.

Tip: Don’t forget the countless integrations available for Trello as well. Check out GitHub, Slack and Basecamp for example.

Despite all the great tools out there, it’s also good to keep this tip from Miika Kenttämies, a Growth Marketer at Yousician, in mind:

“…the ability to speak does not make you a good communicator, nor does any other communication tool, be it an app or a megaphone. It’s more important to get the message right before you force it into a medium.”

Yousician is a Finnish educational game development company, which has grown rapidly during recent years. It was listed number 5. in the Technology Fast 50 list by Deloitte in 2015 with a growing rate of 674%. The Yousician team has grown from 17 in 2014 to 32 now.

Process – it’s not a forbidden word.

Startups don’t exactly love processes. However, internal communication needs a few of them to function and to be able to scale with your business.

Office breakfasts – a weekly face-to-face session with your whole team.It’s important to have some quality offline time with your team. Reserve 45min every week for eating breakfast together and going through all current topics. These can be e.g. ongoing projects, internal issues or the schedule for upcoming weeks.

Oh, and why breakfast? Because going through a lot information is just a lot more fun if you can eat something delicious while doing it and it guarantees the team to actually show up :)

Define “responsibility” – everybody should have the same meaning for it.Define and communicate what it means if a person is responsible for something and what are the steps in the process. Who should know about the progress and which communication channels should be used.

Documentation – memos & company wikiMake sure information isn’t only in your head. Life happens and there will become a day when you can’t turn to the person next to you for the info you need. This is why it’s important to have a process for documenting information. Write meeting memos and consider starting a company wiki, where all the essential internal information can be found easily. Remember, having a process doesn’t cut it, you have to follow it through consistently to benefit from it.

Tip: For a great company wiki, check out Discourse!

The existence of processes and how those can be scaled becomes vital when your company grows rapidly. This is a familiar situation for Blueprint Genetics, a genetics company based in Helsinki and San Francisco, which has grown significantly during the last two years to a turnover of 2M€ and from 13 employees in January 2015 to 35 now. Sofia Frisk, the Marketing Director at Blueprint Genetics describes the development as follows:

“When your company grows fast and your team gets bigger it is very easy for people to lose track of what happens – the changes are just so incredibly quick. The “corridor” talk doesn’t happen so frequently anymore and you might notice that no new channels have been developed to meet the changed needs of communication. At this point internal communication needs a new approach with specific roles and responsibilities as well as channels and ways of communicating.”

Reflection – look back on what to keep, ditch and improve.

This one should be a no-brainer. You need to measure and check what works and what should be changed also with internal communication.

Feedback sessions – make this a habit.Gather feedback on how the internal communication in your team is working on a regular basis. Based on the feedback find out if the message you communicate serves the right purpose, if the methods you use are right, and if there’s something that annoys your team members.

Tip: There are many creative ways to gather feedback. You can directly ask what your team thinks about internal communication or you can test whether they are familiar with the information you tried communication internally – if not, there’s usually something wrong with the process, the message or the tools used.

Internal communication has been a key success factor for Smarp, the startup behind an employee advocacy platform. Smarp has grown substantially lately, increasing their Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR) over 7000% since the start of 2014 and growing their team from 6 people in January 2014 to 41 people in December 2015. Smarp’s COO and co-founder Mikael Lauharanta advises startup founders to think about the following:

“It’s crucial to find the happy medium in transparency and openness – how much, what, and when you communicate. You should have regular company-wide meetings, not assume anything, and clearly and consistently communicate your vision.“

In a nutshell

Internal communication directly affects your company’s success.

This is why now is the perfect time to figure out who is responsible for internal communication and its development in your team. Test out different tools, define needed processes and make sure you have a continuous feedback loop for measuring and developing internal communication.

And lastly, don’t ever undervalue the importance of internal communication (again).

About the author:
Leeni works in our co-op, coach company booncon PIXELS, an international Experience Design Studio. During 2015 the PIXELS team coached 41 startups on branding and websites and noticed that very often the problems in these two actually come back to poor internal communication, which is why we invited Leeni to write this post.

Sources:
[1]: Ruck, K. & Welch, M. (2012). Valuing internal communication; management and employee perspectives. Public Relations Review. 2012 (38), 294–302. ;

Sprague, R., W. & Brocco, F. D. B. (2002). Calculating the ROI of Internal Communications. Wiley Periodicals. 2002, Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). doi: 10.1002/ert.10025

Kitchen,P. J. & Daily, F. (2002). Internal communication during change management. Corporate Communications: An International Journal. 7(1), pp. 46-53;

Welch, M. & Jackson, P. R. (2007). Rethinking Internal Communication: A Stakeholder Approach. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 12(2), 177–198.;

Verčič, A., Verčič, D. & Sriramesh, K. (2012). Internal communication: Definition, parameters, and the future. Public Relations Review. 2012 (38), 223–230.;

Robson, J.A. & Tourish, D. (2005). Managing internal communication: an organizational case study. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 10(3), 213–222.;

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[2]: Yates, K. (2006) Internal communication effectiveness enhances bottom-line results. Journal of Organizational Excellence, 2006 (summer), 71–79.

[3]: Saini, S. & Plowman, K. (2007). Effective Communications in Pre-IPO Start-Ups. Journal of Promotion Management. 13 (3–4), pp. 203–232. doi: 10.1080/10496490802308547;

Rode, V. & Vallaster, C. (2005). Corporate Branding for Start-ups: The Crucial Role of Entrepreneurs. Corporate Reputation Review. 2005, 8(2), pp. 121–135.

[4]: Larson, 1989; MacVicar & Throne, 1992; Dozier, Grunig, & Grunig, 1995; Blanchard, 1996, in Saini & Plowman (2007).