The Lean Startup Guide to Employee Onboarding

The Lean Startup Guide to Employee Onboarding
新しい名前でも変わらぬ高品質!HelloSign の名称が Dropbox Sign になりました。

Imagine this scenario: you spent the past week interviewing with a hot new company, met the incredible team, stood out from your competition for the opportunity of your dreams and now the job is yours! On your first day, you walk eagerly into your new office, look around the hip industrial-chic space, you wait and wait, but no one greets you. You awkwardly look for a familiar face, trying not to look creepy, and finally someone turns around from their clickety-clacking on their keyboard and asks “Who are you?!” 

Well, talk about deflated! 

That’s a confession from the employee onboarding dark ages of HelloSign. Of course, the less dramatic part of that story is that after our new team member was greeted by her manager, they spent their first week together training. And they’ve both successfully grown within the company. 

But we really lucked out. Many difficult day one experiences snowball due to lack of onboarding.  We had a strong manager to own training his new team member. But what if that hiccup continued -- no one greets you on day one, then training is an afterthought, and you’re left to “sink or swim.”  With 22% of employees leaving their jobs within the first 45 days of employment, our story could have taken a much hairier turn. 

Here’s the million dollar question: if you’re a lean startup and everyone is already juggling multiple roles, how do you build an effective employee onboarding process from scratch?

That’s a dilemma we faced when we were just a team of eleven, didn’t have a dedicated HR person yet and knew we were hiring fast and furiously. We were a lean team; but it was still a priority to ensure that we set every new person up for success. So here’s what we did and what we learned.

Start with the MVP (Minimum Viable Product)

Just like how you start with an MVP version of a product that includes only the most necessary features and then iterate and improve with each new version, we did the same for employee onboarding. This was our creative solution with stretched bandwidth while still building a successful experience for our new team members. 

So how do you decide on the core components of your MVP onboarding process?

It’s the 5 P’s of Employee Onboarding

1. Personal

Joining a new company is much like moving to a new school.  Sure you want to focus doing the best job in your new role, but there are still all the “new kid on the block” feelings. Our HelloSign family does its best to make sure all new team members feel welcomed.  This starts with a seamless hand-off from recruiting, after an offer is accepted and throughout the first day.

  • Managers, other team members and interviewers reach out by phone or email to welcome our newest team members
  • We give them a warm greeting as they arrive to the office (we’ve learned our lesson!), introduce them to all team members, show them the fridge, snack selection and all office essentials
  • A packed HelloSign tote with a branded t-shirt and other swag is waiting for our new folks, resting neatly next to their new computer on their desks.
  • We host a catered welcome lunch on everyone’s first day where our office manager Juliette is the mistress of ceremonies.  She makes sure conversation is flowing. Then at the perfect moment, she has everyone go around and reintroduce ourselves.  (It’s highly recommended to assign a designated person to “host” the lunch.)

Jechri, a member of our customer support team,  observed a thoughtful and consistent onboarding experience: 

"When I interviewed at HelloSign, I immediately felt the attention and care that's put into onboarding. Those first impressions of company culture, history, and direction were not just talked about during my interviews. It was exciting to see there's a system in place that demonstrated I was part of the company from the start."

2. Purpose

New team members genuinely want to start contributing as soon as possible.  Speedy ramp up and dedicated ownership are even more important on a lean team like ours. Everyone on the team needs to be able to make independent decisions that align with our company approach and support our overall objectives. 

We empower this by consistently explaining how things work at HelloSign and why. 

The focus on “why” also helps us structure the flow of communication during onboarding.  As Simon Sinek explains in his TED Talk video about inspiring leaders “People don't buy what you do; people buy why you do it.”  We start onboarding with the information that will provide most context (i.e. HelloSign company overview, history, our culture and values) then drill down from there. For example, here is the information you’ll need to know:

  • Why we made specific decisions in the past
  • Why our business has grown at this pace, moved in this direction
  • Why we’ve prioritized these initiatives in this manner

3. Partners

We learned quickly that successful onboarding is not a one person job. No matter if you’re the manager, HR person, or CEO, it benefits everyone when new people begin building relationships with their key partners immediately. They get to know the team, get in on the jokes and build camaraderie. It makes getting work done so much easier. For our lean team, this also shares the efforts of successfully bringing someone new onboard.

Tips on building Your onboarding MVP:

  • Involve leadership. Joseph, our CEO, values building individual relationships with each new person who joins our company so we’ve built him into the onboarding schedule. He leads our discussion about company objectives and the metrics we use to measure success.
  • Identify key partners and make introductions right away. In preparation for each new person’s arrival to the team, we identify who their daily working partners will be and set-up brief meet and greet sessions during week one. The purpose is to discuss how the two roles will interact and have a casual opportunity to kick start their relationship.
  • Find internal content experts at your company and ask them to participate in training. Our Product Manager Emil has been with HelloSign since our HelloFax days and he is truly our company historian. He also has strong visibility into all parts of the company since product interacts with engineering, marketing, sales, design and customer support. It's natural for him to lead our company overview sessions.

Colleagues who have worked at big companies as well as startups really appreciate our take on onboarding. Our former Director of Marketing, shared with us afterward: "In my twenty-year career, this is the best employee onboarding I've ever experienced. By the end of the first week, I had an understanding of the team, business, culture, and purpose. I wouldn't expect to have that until after six months at the company."

4. Practical

And don't forget the practical stuff. It’s expected that we remember the on-the-job training since new people wouldn't be able to operate without it, but it can be easy to forget about all the other things that new people might think are “silly questions" such as:

  • HR info: benefits, payroll, how to request vacation time, sick days, working from home
  • Job description and responsibilities: this is the most easily forgotten topic. The employee's manager leads a conversation about the job description, responsibilities, and expectations. We’ve found that it is especially helpful for new people to understand timing for learning. (i.e. my manager expects me to be able to do X or have learned X by end of week 1, month 1, month 3, etc.)
  • Communication styles: do people generally prefer emails, phone calls, IMs, face-to-face
  • Other office norms: our team usually eats lunch together at our communal kitchen tables; catered lunch on Fridays; occasional puppy visits; team building activities
  • The overall breakdown of our HelloSign's products. For example: information and news about our end user product and the latest features of our electronic signature API (like embedded signing)

5. Pulse Check

Whether you are a scrappy start-up or a Fortune 500 company, it’s vital to consistently check the pulse on how your new people are transitioning.  Proactively seeking feedback on our process propelled our MVP onboarding flow from a skeleton framework to the comprehensive experience it is today.

Things That Work for Us

  • Day 1 is a flurry of activity for any new person.  There’s an influx of crazy amounts of new information and naturally there will be questions. That’s why we have managers kick-off Day 2 with a quick check-in about Day 1. It sets the stage for open dialogue and approachability for questions.
  • Joseph takes new people out for coffee at about 3 weeks in.  Another way to establish a reciprocal dialogue.
  • Team Ops (our HR department) checks in at one month with a casual coffee date and asks for feedback about the onboarding process.

The Master “P”

A successful onboarding experience ultimately hinges upon one overarching must have ... preparation! The “5 P’s of Onboarding” made it really easy for us to identify where to initially spend our time.  But without preparation, we would be filled with good intentions and no clearly executable actions.  Then breakdowns, chaos, overall rocky experience for our new people. Instead, preparation gets us all on the same page.  The information we need already exists in the company, it just takes someone to drive the proactive planning and make sure things are ready to go before our new people start.

Our Preparation Tactics

  • We announce the person joining to our entire company
  • All parties involved in onboarding work off a shared checklist of action items including items for IT set-up, HR, managers and our CEO Joseph
  • We discuss onboarding with all key partners for our new team member, then schedule and customize sessions where necessary
  • We pre-define the 1st project and identify resources needed to get started
  • We share a detailed onboarding agenda with the new team member that lists themes and meeting topics throughout the week

Here's a glimpse of our onboarding agenda:

MVP and Beyond

As Joseph mentioned in his blog post, 2014 is the year HelloSign leveled up! Having a well-prepared onboarding process was crucial in building a strong foundation for our scalable growth.  Since we kicked off our first pass at the end of last year, we’ve doubled in size, our team continues to ramp up quickly and everyone embraces extreme ownership.

So what’s next? We continue to iterate beyond our MVP, with all the P’s of employee onboarding keeping us in check!

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