MVP Onboarding For The 97% of Startups Who Have None

Being a small, rapidly changing startup with no time to do onboarding doesn’t have to mean your employees don’t get onboarded at all.

I meet dozens of startup founders with just a few employees (and even some with 20–100 employees), and the reality is that they don’t have the time, resources, or internal know-how to do onboarding “right” right now. We already know how expensive it is to bring on a new hire, and that it’s even more expensive to have them leave. So, what can we do to ship an MVP of onboarding?

This post looks at some of the questions I hear all the time, and how implementing even the most basic of employee onboarding programs can quickly change your organization for long term and for the better.

I often hear things like:

  • How can we avoid an abrasive “getting-up-to-speed” process for new hires?
  • How can we keep our turnover rate low (or lower it to start with) and retain our best employees?
  • How do we maintain a healthy, welcoming, and supportive environment for all hires, but especially those from underrepresented groups?
  • How can we create processes that evolve as we change?
  • We have no time. How do I get any of this done without taking a day off to write it all out?

Here’s the thing to remember:

The point of onboarding is that it allows new hires to learn the basics easier, better, and faster.

Great onboarding programs cover the smallest topics (from using the copier and kitchen) to larger concepts (employee culture, where to find policies and procedures) and help both new and existing employees adapt to changing environments. Buddies and pair programming can support employees as they learn the context, but it can also facilitate knowledge transfer and reduce employee discomfort.

I wrote about this in Onboarding is Unboxing, but I’ve found that successful onboarding programs all have a few things in common:

  • They let everyone know what is expected
  • They’re designed to allow new hires to arrive ready to be productive
  • They offer open communication paths so that new hires can ask for help or offer critique
  • They are lightweight enough to evolve (read: they aren’t precious)

Onboarding starts with the decision to hire — before Day 1 of work — and rather than ending, it transitions to mentoring.

How many metaphors can I use? New hires, like plants, need a little bit of structure and a lot of love.

By utilizing a learning lens rather than a traditional organizational development lens, you can build onboarding plans with real “teeth” and real value. Helping employees understand the brand, culture, and values in terms of performance means that the work they produce will match their capabilities as well as their requirements. Offering insight into the placement of the position in the organization, as well as the intent and direction of that employee’s services, allows employees to feel grounded and oriented.

It’s true that it does take focus to build a solid onboarding program. If you’re struggling to find time or resources, the best thing you can do right now is to take five minutes every time you’re working on something for a new hire (interview questions, offer letter, work allocation) and put some notes about your thinking and process into a running doc.

I’ve made one up for you here — it’s a Google Doc called “MVP: Onboarding” and it is a template you can use to get started building your onboarding program with no HR and no outside support. Feel free to make a copy and use it freely!

Once your new hire arrives, show them around (virtually or physically) and get them settled (paperwork, desk, laptop, etc.) Then, ask them to write down things they can’t find, have trouble understanding, or have questions about. As they advance, have them start to actually write and tag documentation on things like your software architecture, stand-up process, code review, etc. Trust me — this will pay dividends rapidly.

Trying to carve out ten minutes a week (seriously, make yourself a recurring “onboarding thinking” stand-up for 10 minutes a week) really will pay off.

In fact, it’ll help you hire better, get people up to speed faster, and get your product to happy customers. Building onboarding doesn’t have to mean months of work, or even thousands of dollars. You can be as utilitarian as you like, as long as you’re making sure every new hire you bring on is getting what they need to become self-sufficient. Now, go do it!

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