Write Sh*t Down
In a scaling start-up, chaos is a bug, not a feature
I’m in Bali! Land of the digital nomads, surf instructors, life coaches and reality-fleeting free-spirits. Everybody is an ‘entrepreneur’. Take your shoes off, to enter your favourite co-working space (which, of course, has a pool, but no A/C). All the places here are so superficially eco-friendly, that you could probably rob a bank with a plastic straw. I swear, I saw a girl with an avocado tattoo. It would’t surprise me if people traded yoga lessons for website design.
You take a drive on a scooter, desperately trying not to get killed, on the way to your favourite vegan café. Honking means “Hello, I’m here” not “Hello, f… you”. You buy fuel in vodka bottles (ABSOLUT Diesel, anyone?).
Chaos in paradise (and in startups)
The whole place resembles the chaotic, early days of a startup company. If there’s pig on the street you just wait a little. Part of the road is burning? Just drive by. The 8-year-old driving his scooter in front is a bit slow? Don’t worry. People watch out for each other and survive the chaos. It’s not scalable but it works.
In places like this a little chaos seems to be a feature, not a bug. I guess that’s some people’s mistake when they think about fast-growing internet start-ups. The romantic thought of a bunch of people working in a garage without any meetings, formalities or processes seems intriguing. In the early stages of a company, that chaos might be okay, perhaps even productive. But in a scaling start-up that’s post product-market-fit, chaos and ambiguity will cause problems. Starting a company and scaling one are two different things.
Write or don’t write? That’s the question.
I recently had a chat with a CEO of a growing company, who had had a discussion with his co-founder about writing things down in his start-up. One position seemed to be ‘Writing things down is overly bureaucratic and a waste of time’. Generalisations of this nature are usually unhealthy, but this one particularly evoked my scepticism. Of course, you shouldn’t spend your entire day specifying and planning every minutiae of your start-up’s existence, but skipping the written word altogether would be a big mistake.
I learned this the hard way, by ignoring it. Driven by my urge for speed, and fuelled by a combination of arrogance and laziness, we didn’t write much down in the beginnings of my company RegioHelden. Of course, it backfired and things got ‘lost in chaos’. But when we finally did put a system of documentation in place it scaled nicely to over 300 employees and made the company much faster.
So what should be written down and what’s the best way to do it? Here are 3 things I learned along the way.
1. Meeting agendas and minutes
Did you have the pleasure of sitting in a meeting where people tried to figure out what was said last time about some specific thing to do? It’s a cumbersome, potentially conflict-evoking waste of time and energy. That‘s the sort of thing that makes people hate meetings.
At my company RegioHelden we implemented 2 simple rules
- No meeting is held without a written agenda and minutes/documentation
- When we talked about tasks, these 3 things are always written down: Who does what until when?
“Who does what until when?” — Your ninja question for execution.
It doesn’t have to be a lot of work, if you’re clever
We documented every meeting in asana with a separate project for each recurring meeting. In the days leading up to the meeting all participants were able to put items on the agenda individually, without having to inform anyone.
That meant we always had an updated agenda in advance and everyone could prepare for the meeting. Not one single person was responsible for creating and circulating the agenda, which made things a lot easier. Just think of all the communication needed with other participants, missing agendas when the person is out of office etc.
During the meeting, someone would write down everything that was relevant about a specific task, assign it to the responsible party, and set a deadline. That way, the preliminary agenda for the next meeting would automatically be created during the meeting and the follow-up was easy. This eliminated the need for writing down meeting minutes afterwards.
“The system you use to write down task-related information is far less important than the habit of actually doing it.”
As mentioned, we did all of this in asana. I’ve seen other founders do it in shared Google Docs, Evernote, other task management systems or even just via email. The system you use to write down task-related information is far less important than the habit of actually doing it. And if you do it in a frictionless way on the fly, chances are much higher to establish a habit.
2. Process instructions
Implicit knowledge about ‘how to do things’ is poison. Imagine hiring your first employee and teaching her how to handle customer support tickets. In the early days, it’s pretty straightforward: you’ll teach her on the go, she will ask some questions and you can look into her work and provide feedback.
The problem arises when you hire the next three service reps and they start teaching things to each other because by now, you have something else to do. This is the time when written process instructions and guidelines are crucial.
Checklists and simple guidelines are a good way to store information about processes. Again, in terms of the level of detail, you want to go with ‘as much as necessary but as little as possible’. You don’t want to overcomplicate it and try to govern every little detail (if that were possible, you should automate the process anyway). Go with 80/20 and trust your employees to be smart and do the right thing.
The most important part of the process description is that it’s actually the basis of what people do every day. When descriptions are poorly written or out-of-date, employees will just find a new way of handling the process and dismiss the manual. I’ve seen that happen many times in my companies. So, the key here is to have one person who is responsible (either the manager or another, dedicated person) for the accuracy, brevity and the document being up-to-date.
At RegioHelden, we used a combination of an internally developed process management system, an internal wiki (quickest/easiest), and asana project templates (great for checklists). Again, the tool is much less important than the habit.
Which processes should be documented?
As many as necessary but as little as possible. I’d say that if something occurs regularly (let’s say >10x per year) and is handled by different employees (even just if someone is on vacation) the way to handle it should be written down. Also, processes that have a high potential for failure should be documented. Here are some ideas:
Recurring processes: “Onboarding of a new employee”, “ordering office supply”, “submitting a task/ticket to the IT team”, “optimising a marketing campaign”, “answering the phone”, “monthly financial reporting”, …
High potential for failure: “Setting up a new internal project”, “changes in the product roadmap”, “interviewing a potential key employee”, …
Okay, so far, we’ve covered the basics. Keeping a decision log is more sophisticated.
In the end, your success as the founder is the sum of all the decisions you make. A very successful German Mittelstand entrepreneur once told me: ‘My recipe for success is just that I made a few more good decisions than bad ones’. I’ll never forget that.
“My recipe of success is just that I made a few more good decisions than bad ones.”
Decision-making is a skill that can be trained like any other. What we have to realise is that we’re usually biased to the bone and simply pretty bad at making objective decisions. Moving towards more objectivity is the goal of training your ‘decision muscle’.
One big challenge is that most decisions look very different in hindsight, compared to the time at which you made them. They look much clearer because of all the new information you’ve gathered after having decided.
At the poker table, decisions look very clear once the cards have been turned over. But the outcome tells you exactly nothing about the quality of the decision. This distortion is called hindsight bias. As humans, our memory generally sucks and we tend to forget how difficult it was to make the decision with limited information.
“At the poker table, all decisions look pretty clear, once the cards have been turned.”
One way to eliminate hindsight bias is to keep a decision log and write down how you decided. ‘How’ meaning not the outcome but the decision process itself. Which criteria did you use and how did you come to the final decision? Your memory about this will fade, but the written word will prevail.
When you create a written account of the decision’s qualities at the moment that you made said decision, it will be much easier to calibrate your biases to reality when you look at the decision log afterwards.
Some of the most crucial decisions in start-ups revolve around hiring. What we did at RegioHelden was to create scorecards for potential employees and make notes during the interview process. In this way we could calibrate our hiring skills and learn how to hire better as an organisation in the long run.
But, also your individual decisions as CEO could be logged and revisited from time to time. I do this with my start-up investments and write down bullet points on why I invested or why I didn’t, to review my decision later with more information. Another example is my friend Francis Pedraza: he even publishes his decision log.
Don’t be arrogant or lazy. If you take a little time to write down 1. internal tasks, 2. process descriptions and keep a 3. decision log you’ll be much faster in the long run and create an environment of improvement.
What else do you find worthy of being written down in your start-up? I’m curious 🤓 and hope you enjoyed the content. Now, let me get back to yoga, massages, and dragon fruit bowls 💆♂️🧘♂️. It’s Bali after all!