When a new organisation is formed, it often starts small.
The company is known as a startup and it’s in its first stage of operations.
Over time, Founders or Owners hire people around them and start to expand. Teams are recruited, services grow and processes and systems are created.
However, there’s a point in the lifecycle of an organisation where a lack of structured communication is evident.
Owners realise information and communication is not flowing efficiently and they don’t know who everyone in the company is. You don’t all fit round one table, in one floor or on one screen.
I mentor Comms professionals around the globe and have been increasingly working confidentially with startups over the past few years.
I’ve also been advising companies as they prepare for their Initial Public Offering (IPO), which requires concentrated effort and attention to detail from an internal communication perspective.
As a company scales, you also need to scale the culture and communication.
The definition of culture I use is from Deal and Kennedy, 1982: “Culture is the way things are done around here”. What is your culture, or the rules of the game? As you grow in number, do they still resonate?
What behaviours do you have in place inside the organisation to support the culture you’re striving to create? Are those behaviours known by all employees, or just the Founder/s?
Why do startups hire internal communicators?
In my experience, what leads to Comms professionals being hired is the realisation time, money and effort is being wasted due to employees searching for credible, accurate and reliable information.
It’s at this point Founders think about investing in internal communication.
I welcome the move for organisations to invest in professional internal communication. Which you won’t be surprised to read. I love the fact Comms pros are being recruited to set up functions inside fledging companies.
However, the confidential conversations I’ve been having over the past few years have led me to realise there’s a disconnect between expectation and reality.
When a company is starting out, (or when an organisation has been without an internal communicator and has realised they need one), you need to make sure you know what you’re getting into. On both sides.
Being part of an organisation at the start of the journey can be exhilarating. You help define, refine and shape the way communication happens and the way things are done.
However, I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with senior-level Comms practitioners who have been headhunted into startups and then had a difficult and frustrating experience.
So, through this blog post I’m going to share my observations and recommendations. I hope you find them useful.
I spent a decade working in-house and in one of those roles I was hired as a Head of Communications to oversee internal and external communication. I was the first Comms professional the 18-month-old company had hired.
It was a steep hill to climb, starting out with no team, minimal investment and sporadic channels. Part of the reason All Things IC offers mentoring is because I acutely remember what it felt like to be in an incredibly visible role, with no one inside the company with any Comms experience to act as a sounding board.
The advice in this article is from my own experience and from my work today as a trusted adviser to trusted advisers around the globe. If you’re struggling, please do get in touch with my team and I. We offer Power Hours and mentoring programmes and can work alongside you as a virtual extension of your team, however old your company is or however experienced you are.
We also offer half day and whole day desk reviews, where we can review your work, offer confidential advice and constructive feedback. You are not alone.
I know first-hand the need to seek impartial and confidential guidance, and I’m proud to offer this through my business.
What startups need to know about hiring an internal communicator
- What is the business problem you are hoping your first internal communication hire will solve?
- Are you recruiting a senior-level professional? If so, how are you going to support them through resources? What’s their budget? What size will their team be?
- If you don’t intend to support your senior-level hire via resources, they will be working tactically. This won’t be fulfilling for them or you.
- If you are recruiting a strategic internal communicator (e.g. someone who has led a large team), trust their advice. Listen to their questions, they know more than you do about internal communication. It’s why you hired them.
- Who will line manage the internal communicator? Do not make them report into HR or Marketing without direct access to the Founder/s.
- It doesn’t matter *where* they report into, as long as you give your internal communicator the access they need to all people across the company.
- As professional communicators, it’s our business to know our business. Therefore, you need to be comfortable with the fact the Comms professional will be asking questions, questioning why things are done in certain ways and will speak to whoever they need to in the company.
- You need to trust the internal communicator and share information with them they need to do their job.
- If your internal communicator is asking for something, it’s because they’ve identified a business need for it.
- Internal communication is too important to be left to one person, team or department. It’s everyone’s responsibility. This person will not singlehandedly solve every communication problem your company has. Others need to take accountability for the way they communicate too. Including you.
- Respect boundaries with your internal communicator. When you’re a Founder, you’re thinking about the business 24/7. But your people need to rest. If you expect them to be on call 24/7, you need to make that clear and hire in that way. Being “on call” is usually required for external comms and resourced in that way. Crisis situations require your internal communicator to be involved. But unless you’ve specified, they are not on call and expected to respond in the early hours of the morning.
- What support can your internal communicator access? E.g. if you have an agency working with your external comms colleagues, can your internal communicator ask them to assist them too?
- What equipment are you providing for your internal communicator? If you are expecting them to produce channels (ways for people to communicate) in-house, be prepared to equip them with software and hardware so they can do their job effectively.
- How will you be supporting their professional development?
What internal communicators joining startups need to know
- Why are you being hired? What’s the problem they are hoping you will solve?
- Look at the wording of the job advert – how mature is the company’s understanding of internal communication? How do they describe internal communication?
- Ask to see the business plan and anything that lives in the hearts and minds of the original employees or founders. What’s their company story? Where have they come from and where are they heading?
- Whose responsibility is internal communication? What do the Founder/s think?
- If you’re a team of one, will it expand? Who will deputise you when you are on holiday?
- How open are the Founder/s to constructive feedback?
- Who is overseeing internal communication at the moment? Does it sit with one person or a department?
- Who are the internal influencers?
- What is the tone of voice? Is there a culture playbook in place? How can you get up to speed quickly about the company?
- If you are on a fixed term contract, what are the measures of success?
- Comms pros are often hired because you’re a strategic operator who coaches leaders and sets standards. Then when you join a startup, you’re expected to do that, but also everything else too. Expect to work tactically for a while, until you can expand the team. But make sure you prioritise what you work on.
- If you are the first internal communicator and people don’t really know what to expect, you will find yourself repeating things constantly. Document as you go, share your observations and work out loud.
What internal communicators who want to work with startups need to know
If you’re currently working in a company, perhaps you’re in-house at a large multinational, but want to move to a startup, here are some areas to consider:
- Research the company you want to work with – who are their competitors? What makes them stand out from what you can read about them online?
- Glean information from current employees – search LinkedIn, Twitter and social platforms to see who is working there and spot any clues about the culture.
- What are your transferable skills from your current role or area of study into this company?
- If you’re working in a large company, how will your skills work in a smaller/larger environment? What can you offer?
- What does the lifecycle of the company look like from what you can see? Are they seeking funding? Will they be acquiring other companies?
- How well versed are you about commercial issues like preparing for IPO (Initial Public Offering)?
As someone who is an entrepreneur and Founder myself, I regularly read about the world of work through that lens. There’s a whole set of language involved!
Do you know the language of startups? Here’s some to get you started. You can read more via this Forbes article.
- Bootstrapping: when a company has just launched, this stage typically sees investment or funding from family and friends.
- Seed funding: this comes after bootstrapping and is when “angel investors” put money into early stage companies.
- Funding rounds: these may have letters against them e.g. Series A, B etc. This is when venture capital firms invest.
- MVP: Minimal Viable Product – a basic prototype of a design or idea. Think about Dragons’ Den/Shark Tank style pitches when people have a prototype of their product or service – this is an MVP.
- Public company: this is when a business is open to public money, and could list on a stock exchange via an Initial Public Offering (IPO) or be a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC).