The energy in a startup environment can be infectious. You and your team—whether you are just two people or two hundred—are passionate about your business idea and how it will change your customers’ lives. You’re hustling every day to test, develop, hire, fundraise, and juggle a dozen other priorities to move your business forward.
It’s a heady, exciting time full of possibilities. But it’s also a make-or-break period for your company. The decisions you make in these early days will determine whether your startup will grow and thrive . . . or stumble and fall.
Only about 56% of startups make it to their fifth year. In my experience working in startups, I’ve found that excellent organization is crucial to success. By running a tight ship, you’ll lead by example for your employees and set a clear path forward.
Here are 6 of the most important organizational steps to take as you are building your business.
1. Clarify Your Vision
The number one reason startups fail, according to one study of company post-mortems, is not adequately serving a market need.
You may have an interesting concept, but are customers clamoring for it? Are you tackling a big problem with enough people willing to pay for a solution? Is what you are offering a scalable, well-designed solution? Before you do anything else, you must have an idea for a unique product or service that meets this market need and a plan to make it a reality.
2. Get Your Papers In Order
Common mistake founders make is not to set up the proper legal documentation from day one. You may not want to think about what will happen in the worst-case scenarios—if your company faces a lawsuit or if you and your cofounder have a dispute over ownership rights someday—but you need to protect yourself against these types of risks.
Taking the time to do this early on will save you money and hassle down the line.
Ask for recommendations from other business owners you trust, and find a good lawyer to help you formalize important documents:
- Choosing a business structure (a limited liability company, a C corporation, or an S corporation are common choices for startups) to separate your business and personal assets and liabilities.
- Registering your business with local, state, and federal entities and applying for necessary business licenses or permits.
- Signing a founders’ operating agreement, an intellectual property agreement, and nondisclosure agreements.
- Drafting employee contracts and offer letters, as well as onboarding documents and HR policies.
- Filing articles of incorporation and defining corporate bylaws.
3. Optimize Your Workflow
Startups rarely follow a straight path from point A to point B. You’ll inevitably deal with some twists and turns along the way as you shift priorities, keep up with competitors, and adapt to market changes.
But just because you want to stay flexible doesn’t mean you have to embrace chaos.
Successful startups build structured processes that help them roll with the punches, while still staying focused and getting things done.
If this isn’t a natural strength area for you, make sure you hire an efficient project manager or office manager who can keep your team on task. Implement tools to address common roadblocks:
- A project or workflow management system — Use software that allows you to schedule tasks, collaborate with team members, share files, and track projects throughout their lifespan. Compare different software options, such as Asana, Hive, Pipefy, Monday, or Kissflow, to find one that will grow with your business.
- Internal communication tools — Whether your team is working under one roof or distributed, you need to establish a good way for everyone to keep in touch. Many startups have moved away from using email as their primary means of communication, opting for platforms like Slack or Google Hangouts Chat instead.
- Reliable office resources —Give your employees the tools they need to do their jobs well. If you’re not sure what those components are, ask! This concern is especially important for remote workers because they will have different concerns than on-site employees. For instance, your communications director working from a rural area outside Omaha may need help researching dependable internet providers, while your CFO working from your Oakland headquarters is more concerned about developing an invoicing system that promotes positive cash flow. Get input from your team regularly on what gaps to fill as your business grows.
- Social media management — An effective social media strategy is a requirement for any new business, but it can fall by the wayside during busy growth periods. Adopt a social content management platform, such as Buffer, Hootsuite, or Sprout Social, to plan and schedule posts, track engagement, and analyze results.
4. Make Meetings Painless
Staff meetings get a bad rap, and for good reason. Many are long, meandering, and a distraction from the real work at hand. But it is possible to hold quick, efficient, and useful team meetings that allow employees to share updates, address problems, and stay aligned on shared goals.
For streamlined meetings, follow these golden rules: meet only when necessary, and stick to a strict structure.
Some startup teams like to hold daily or weekly stand-up meetings that take no more than 15 minutes. Each team member shares a brief recap of what they accomplished since the last meeting, what they are working on right now, and what obstacles are standing in their way. Figure out how much time each person is allotted, and set a timer to keep things moving.
You can also create digital stand-ups in your internal communication platform, setting up a Slack bot or something similar to prompt employees to add their progress reports to a shared channel. That way, the entire team has visibility into what everyone is working on, but they don’t have to take time out of their day for a meeting.
5. Plan for Growth
Startups often get stuck in “emergency mode,” putting out fires and jumping from one urgent task to the next. This approach isn’t a sustainable model for success, however. You want to be intentional about what you are trying to achieve, so it’s essential to build regular time into your schedule for reflection and long-term planning.
Ask yourself questions about where your business is now and where you want it to go in the future:
- What are our primary goals right now? In the next year? The next five years?
- What does a successful outcome look like for each goal?
- What is our company’s purpose? Has it changed since the last time I checked in? Do our goals still align with our purpose?
- What are our greatest successes to date? Also, what can we learn from them?
- What are our greatest failures to date? Can we learn from them?
- Do we have the right team in place for the next phase of our business growth? What skills and capabilities are we missing?
- Do we have sufficient resources (monetary or otherwise) to reach our goals? If not, how are we going to address that problem?
- What opportunities are worth pursuing in the next year? What challenges will we likely face if we follow through on them?
6. Keep Your Team in the Loop
One of the most thrilling parts of working in a startup is the environment of constant change and innovation. No day is exactly like another, and you’re rarely bored. But ongoing change can also be a source of frustration for employees if you don’t manage it properly.
Does everyone know what the current organizational priorities are right now and why? When you decide to pivot, do you clearly communicate the new plan and the reasoning behind it to your team?
Transparency is key here. It won’t always make sense to involve employees in the decision-making process but do keep them informed about what is happening and why. When employees are invested in the company’s vision and understand their role in realizing it, they will be more engaged and productive.
Running a business is not for the faint of heart, but when you have the right processes in place, you can easily overcome common obstacles. Start with these 6 strategic steps, and make the organization a core part of your business plan—now and in the future.