Issue 29

Communication in a startup

Mircea Vădan
Managing Partner @ Activize Cofounder @ClujStartups


Is clear that, as in any other project or organization, "communication" forms the basic of teamwork and human interaction, both regarding founders and users, or other stakeholders. So, from this perspective, I asked myself if I had to start a new startup, how would I do it? What advice would I give myself based on the experience so far? And the answer you'll find below. I got in touch with the startups world almost 3 years now and so far I have been involved in UseTogether (with its spin-off - Momly) and ZenQ. In the same time, I had the opportunity to talk with other startup founders in the local community, but also with others present in the two accelerators that I attended (Launchub and TechPeaks). Internal team communication actually starts before startup. Rarely it happens for a startup to take off with a team whose members know each other superficially. Co-founders are like brothers/sisters and their trust in each other should be extremely high. In addition to this factor, a team needs a match in mindset and attitude. I encountered cases where the co-founders worked well together, but didn't try to understand each other more or to keep in touch as friends; when hard times came, they failed to overcome them, just because they lacked a stronger connection. The larger the team is, the thinner the connections between them get, simply because the time spent with one or two people is divided, for example to 4 or 5 people and inevitably becomes less, so it takes longer to grow roots in this case. At the beginning of a startup, I think the focus falls mainly on strengthening the team and not on product development. If the product changes, it's not a tragedy, but changing a team or a member of it generates a much larger conflict.

To have full confidence from the beginning is like driving a car with your eyes closed. The first weeks/months are exploratory, as a couple learning to dance waltz, one should get to know and feel that partner. I think it takes some time for expectations to be clearly defined in founders minds and then to be spoken. A vesting contract (containing how the shares will be divided and under what conditions they will be given to founders or employees) is a mandatory things to do, maybe not at first, but as soon the collaboration becomes constant . It's a difficult talk, you feel like talking about anything else than that, but if delayed beyond measure then there's no turning back, because meanwhile everyone's expectations grew and are harder to put aside. I went through this process three times and each time I felt anxious when I approached the topic. To have a vesting deal does not necessarily mean the company should be formed legally soon after, so there's no legal complication (unless you want to make it binding by law), but it serves to clear waters and doubts so founders may breathe relieved as they's over it. Be sure that each of them has this topic in mind, but often they wait for the subject to be opened by someone else.

As for online internal communication, I used so far simple solutions: Skype (chat + video), private group on Facebook, Google Hangouts - these are known, everyone uses them and meet basic needs. But once I tried new generation solutions (www.slack.com, www.kato.im, www.hipchat.com), created for team communication, I realized that there are so many useful features: tags, chat-rooms, screen sharing, integration with dozens of other tools on teamwork and team management, all included in the same product.

Lately, the trend of location-scattered teams increases and, rightly, provides greater flexibility, but often we forget about one required condition: the cohesion of the team. It is a very big difference between a team that meets every day or every few days and a team that has sessions/meetings as often, but online. Only if a team is cohesive and already functions well, can maybe try working a scattered as location, for a longer period. Otherwise, over time, enthusiasm and dedication fall, not from ill will, but simply because it takes human connection and online is much more difficult to sustain.

Regarding external communication, moderation in PR activities is a common symptom, especially because founders believe that the product is not quite presentable. Yes, people will judge (some will also give feedback), but it's better than over-protection which tend to show for the startup. Though we can call it "our child", it must go out into the world; the sooner, the better. One danger here is an unexpectedly strong association made in founders mind between self and the startup. Surely, criticizing the startup or product is not a personal criticism brought to founders, so it should not be taken personally. Of course, the founders are responsible for the startup, but should not identify with it; not only this harms the startup, but also affect founders' morale.

Regarding communication with users, which often means a lot of emails on various topics at various hours, sometimes seems a chore, but it's necessary especially with the first few hundreds of users. I remember a few times when I gave attention to a product and started using it after receiving an email from one of the founders. Although I'm pretty sure it was an automated email, it was written so simple and friendly that it left me with the impression that he was writing to me specifically. If I would have received a newsletter, I would have opened it (maybe) and after two seconds probably deleted it. Among all these emails and newsletters, it's much harder to get one's attention through a standard format. Ah, one more thing: make it short, what is more than 3 paragraphs (7-10 rows) is already too long to be read carefully.

Overall, an issue rarely identified related to internal communication and attitude seems to be a lack of focus, both in the product and in the go-to-market approach. So many excellent features can be added, so many niches can be attractive as customers, that the energy dissipates between them and makes the effect in each direction to be lower, so also lower results. A startup, by definition, has low resources and clarity in focus helps enormously to be successful at first, just because it allows addressing an issue or a problem with all possible energy. "Focus, focus, focus!" is the mantra that founders should communicate every day to each other and to their stakeholders.




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