When you're first starting a company, communication is the least of your worries. If you have less than 10 or so people, everyone knows what everyone else is doing (and if they don't then they can just walk over and ask them).
Things start to get a little more complicated after that.
At most startups I've seen, once you get to 15 or so people you enter a period of time where everyone still wants to know what's going on everywhere, but the amount of information about what's happening slowly starts to exceed what any one person can know.
This is a dark time, characterized by two things:
- The email explosion: Expect to receive tons of emails a day, as the old "just include the entire company on this" starts to overwhelm things.
- The tools explosion: People realize that they're overloaded, so they start to look for tools to make life easier. Unfortunately, everyone now needs logins to and needs to know how to use Basecamp/Asana/Jira/Trello/etc.
I think that a big part of the problem is that the creators of these tools don't think about how the tool is going to grow with the company as it grows. They write their tools to do a good job managing one project, and don't stop to think about how that's going to scale up.
Github is a great example of a tool that solves the communication problem around software projects. I don't use Github just because Git is better than SVN, I use it because the toolset they've built around it makes it super easy for me to see what my team is working on and to communicate with them about it.
It's (almost) just as easy for me to put one project on Github and see how it's progressing as it is for me to watch twenty projects (or more).
Tom Preston-Warner, Github's CEO and co-founder recently said:
We focus a ton on communication in this company. And all of the tools that we build are really about enhancing communication; that’s what GitHub itself is all about. It’s about enabling communication between a broader set of people than would otherwise be efficient.
It's great that they're thinking that, but their product is still too technical for most people to use.
Hopefully over time they (or someone else) will be able to build up a suite of tools that lowers the bar on powerful, scaled-communication to a level that anyone from a developer to a salesperson to a janitor can use to see both what the company is doing and how they're doing it (and to dig in if necessary).
For now, if you have a growing startup and communication is getting harder, I suggest doing two things:
- Remind people to really think about the number of people that they're sending emails to. People have a natural desire to get all of the emails in a company, but if someone really doesn't need to be included then don't include them.
- Avoid a tools explosion like the plague. Encourage people to experiment with new tools, but be ready and willing to throw away bad ones. Just because someone started a Trello board doesn't mean that Trello needs to be a part of your company forever.
All of that said, I still don't think that there's a great answer here (yet).
If you know about a great tool for scaling communication in a growing startup please let me know about it in the comments.