Keeping information flowing as you grow

Main illustration: Rune Fisker

When a startup is 10 people working together in a room information flows easily and seamlessly. If you have a question you ask your neighbor. If a decision needs to be made it can usually be hashed out verbally.

But once a company scales to tens or hundreds of people spread across offices and timezones communicating with speed and clarity becomes significantly more challenging. Without mechanisms to communicate across teams opportunities can be lost – perhaps your sales reps miss the nuance behind an important new feature customers will love, or your product team will miss critical feedback from your customer support team. All the while, alignment becomes increasingly challenging, and the culture of who you are and how you work is at risk of fading away.

As an operations associate here at Intercom, one of the main things I focus on is organizational communication, which means my job is to keep our internal information flowing clearly and smoothly. Here are some of the successful tools we’ve used – and lessons I’ve learned – as Intercom has grown.

How we share information across Intercom today

We have three main rituals for spreading company-wide news, notes and updates:

  1. All Hands: These bi-weekly meetings alternate between an ask me anything (AMA) with Eoghan, our CEO, where questions are posed in advance, and updates on strategic projects, company goals and business performance. It’s where the detail is richest and one of the rare occasions where we come together as one company to hear the same message, with the same context, at the same time – regardless of office location – which helps to keep the organization informed, aligned and connected as people.
  2. Show and Tell: These Friday afternoon sessions are a key part of Intercom’s cultural DNA. Here individuals share with the whole company the things they have been working on that week, from an R&D team’s latest feature or infrastructure update, to a new marketing campaign or major sales deal closed.
  3. Weekly newsletter: When we reached roughly 200 employees some of the human rituals that helped Intercom feel small and warm like welcoming new hires, celebrating employee anniversaries and announcing office visitors were no longer practical as part of All Hands. A weekly digest that people can read in their own time filled this gap. We use the newsletter to inform and remind employees of important dates, product releases or media coverage of Intercom, share news, and recognize feats like important sales deals and strategic successes.

A weekly Show and Tell has helped build camaraderie at Intercom since the company’s earliest days.

Lessons learned in execution

Here are a few best practices for keeping your internal communications streamlined and impactful:

Be inclusive: As a company grows the range of interesting work will expand exponentially. It’s no longer just about shipping cool features (although this is still vitally important). Some recent topics highlighted at Intercom include sales pipeline optimization, book publishing and event organization.

Having multiple people contributing ideas and content is key to making sure things are as fair and productive as possible. It is also important to be curious about all aspects of your organization because visibility doesn’t always correlate with impact.

Visibility doesn’t always correlate with impact.

Practice patience and persistence: People used to communicating within a 5- or 25-person startup may find it strange or uncomfortable to suddenly need to be more deliberate about sharing their work. Contributors might say no a few times before they agree to write something or present in front of a company-wide audience, and that’s okay! Once a few people agree to share their work and succeed – illustrating the value and importance of this discipline – you’ll start to gain some momentum.

Lean on your subject-matter experts: The most powerful way for work to be shared is by the people who delivered it, in their own words. For example, I can help to shape the message of a change in product positioning so it is clear, but it is almost impossible for me to have the same level of context as a member of the marketing team.

Be organized but flexible: A standard format for communications e.g. a slide deck or writing template is helpful, but allow people to get creative if they wish. This will make it easier to have a broader range of voices represented as different people may want to share things in different formats or levels of detail. The People Operations director might want to take a less formal approach than a finance manager, or a designer might want to put their own spin on the company template or messaging.

Find your tone of voice: We practice what we preach – Intercom’s external tone is the same voice we use to share internally. We believe in making business personal, and encouraging people to be their true, human selves has always worked best in my experience.

Value transparency: AMA sessions with Eoghan, our CEO, are no holds barred with direct questions and candid answers. Questions range from the light hearted, “Why do new employees receive space pens?” to the more direct, “Are we going to compromise on our hiring bar because having someone in a role is better than what we have right now, or will we continue to try find the perfect candidate?

Intercom’s leadership team prides themselves on being held accountable in this way each month. This level of openness requires some encouragement and trust but in our case has resulted in high-level engagement in our mission.

Schedule for everyone: As mentioned our bi-weekly All Hands is one of the rare occasions where we come together as one company to hear the same message, with the same context, at the same time. These shared experiences have a powerful impact, building a sense of camaraderie that is otherwise hard to replicate in an organization that spans multiple offices or includes remote teammates. This means choosing a meeting time that allows the maximum number of people to experience at once. While some of our SF employees may not love the early starts our All Hands brings, it’s more than worth the small amount of pain.

Continuing to move fast and stay aligned as you scale is challenging, but it remains crucial for the success of your organization. These are some of the techniques we use at Intercom to help us continue to feel small, connected and informed as we grow.

However, this an ongoing learning process – we’ll have to continue adapting during the months and years ahead – but the sooner you get ahead of internal communications, the less likely it is that your growing staff are going to get misaligned or disconnected from your mission.