Essentials for successful startups

Nils Schnell
Apr 4, 2018 · 6 min read

Also focus on the startup process and not just the product

Startups normally have two things in common: They have a lot of potential and they don’t know how to grow in a healthy way as a company. In this blogpost I will write about the steps most startups have to take and how seeking help for processes, formats and reflection can become a huge game-changer from the beginning, before things become too difficult.

In my experience, successful startups grow quite quickly in the beginning and, believe it or not, the primary focus is often on the product only. This focus on the product is obviously really important. But as you grow as a team you should start focussing on the team development and the startup process itself.

The sooner the better

As a startup coach and modern work enabler I like to help startups taking these steps before it gets too tricky. Before you have a bunch of unsatisfied people without a clear direction and without good and helpful processes. The question is: What can you do as a startup in the early stages, when these processes are most crucial? In the following I will present you some options.

Options for startups to grow more healthily

Vision and Mission statement

Develop a clear and vivid vision and mission statement for your startup. Make it crystal clear so that every employee knows the direction by heart. With this you empower your employees to make better decisions in the best interest for the startup. You enable your employees to gain more speed. You enable your employees to become faster and more efficient, improving and iterating on the processes.

Organizational structure

Of course, organizational structure is a big word for a small company. But even there it already makes sense; you want a structure that tackles the challenges and that can grow and develop further. It brings clarity and shows how you work best. A useful tip: if you can’t visualize the organizational structure you have no clear understanding of how best to use your potential! Of course, this structure changes over time and all the time. But by having this bigger picture in mind while you grow makes many things way easier and better to understand, both for founders and for employees alike.

Role definitions

In the beginning of any small startup, it is a few people who do everything. Everything! The roles and responsibilities can be flexible and undefined. Quite soon, as you grow, this stops being efficient. Knowing one’s own scope, responsibilities, expectations and goals makes the work for the individual easier and more impactful. A clear role definition process defines the expectations and solves open questions and blind spots. Especially when you form dedicated teams for the first time, a role definition becomes meaningful. In the end this also helps people to be more accountable for their work — this is, in my understanding, a good thing!

Processes and quality agreements

When it becomes impossible to do everything yourself you need to define processes to increase quality, speed and happiness. Do you test something before you launch it, and how? Do you use the four eyes principle on code? Do you get help from the support team who know the users best? When you define processes and try them out your quality will increase because the processes become more defined and less randomized. Of course, you have to reflect about these processes and learn, adjust and experiment. There is never a process for all needs. But finding out what is efficient and what makes sense helps. The agile can really help!

Formats and meetings

In the beginning, you do whatever needs to be done. However, as you grow it’s inevitable that you will have more meetings. In my experience these meetings are often quite chaotic in the beginning and often only a little helpful. Reflection on the need and a format that suits the need enables you to directly come up with ways to make communication and processes way easier. There are always different needs and problems that you have to tackle, and there are so many nice formats that can help and empower the process itself. Formats such as retrospectives, “post-mortem” analyses, learning formats, development meetings, decision making meetings, “fuck up” exchanges and so on.. The better you define formats to tackle a need, the more you will spend your time wisely. Because the setting is planned, the purpose is clear and the goal of the meeting is defined.

Retrospectives and improving

One of the most important things is to learn as fast as possible to avoid making the same mistakes repeatedly, to share experiences and to have time to discuss how the people feel and how they are doing. This agile approach enables you to sharpen the saw, to adjust and experiment, to learn and to feel safe to fail. All this is crucial for fast growth, development and improvement. No matter if you use the retrospective format or just reserve time for reflection, raising the awareness and empowering people to go into these reflection loops is crucial for healthy growth as a startup!

Internal roles which can have an enabling function

Facilitators are needed to moderate and guide through difficult meetings without being personally involved. In the beginning this can also be a team member who takes a different role for a specific meeting (and makes it transparent). A good choice is to circle this role so everyone does it once in a while. When you grow I can highly recommend to invest in a process/meeting facilitator.

Ideally, team coaches can be scrum masters, agile coaches or just coaches with focus on teams to help them develop processes, structures, etc as I mentioned earlier. . This way, teams get the chance to work better, improve faster and learn a lot about processes, work methods and structures. A team-coach can be there for more than one team focusing their effort on teams who need the most support.

Personal in-house coaches or leadership coaches can help young founders and leaders to grow into these roles, both professionally and personally. This coach should be an expert on personal growth, on tackling tricky questions/decisions and on systemic thinking. Most importantly, these people are there to help you do a better job! Everyone develops over time, though sometimes employees don’t have much time for this development due to the fast change of roles.


Find people for certain areas who already have more experience. Whether it is someone internal or external. That person should have experienced similar challenges, pains, and issues. It would be a good learning opportunity to spar with them, so to speak; be open to the challenge.

Other beneficial factors for startup success

Culture: Focus on the way you want to work with each other and involve employees in this process. Come up with guidelines, boundaries and methods that are beneficial to everyone. Consider doing company-wide surveys to find out if your values and statements are still relevant or need to be changed. Listen to people — they are your most valuable source of feedback.

Exchange with others: There are so many other startups with similar challenges. Go into knowledge exchanges with them. Share, discuss, be open. Don’t start this too late (when problems have already emerged), learn fast and adjust fast. It will save pain, money and time!

Hire well and hire diversely: Find a good mixture that brings something new to the team. Don’t only look for equals; there needs to be a ‘cultural fit’, but that doesn’t mean that you always have the same opinion or approach. You want diverse and constructive discussions, you want people to challenge your ideas. Use the probation period wisely. Keep an eye on progress, give frequent feedback and have an onboarding mentor.

Personal development: Give people the chance to develop. Not only on the job with the challenging tasks but also with training, workshops and so on. There is often basic training that makes sense for everyone like feedback, communication, decision making, goal setting and more. Conferences, meetups and other formats are also a good way to develop further (and to find new interesting candidates for your company).

What we can do as modern work enablers

There are many roles that can enable and support a startup from within the company or externally. Important roles are: Coach, trainer, mentor, consultant, facilitator. Enabler, Mentor, Sparring-partner. We can help when it comes to communication, processes and formats as well as conflicts, problems and other issues. Why? Simply put, it is our expertise. We don’t necessarily need to know your industry that well because our work is applicable to various contexts and if I may say so, universal :-) . So, before you find yourself struggling with the next important step, finding a solution or coming up with important questions, ask for support from those who can enable and empower you!

Best, Nils


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