HR processes and documentation for startups

Processes take away the subjectivity in decision-making. And since HR is about dealing with people, subjectivity can be a dangerous thing.

Most startups make the mistake of thinking that they will handle the HR activity on a case-to-case basis in the initial stages, and implement the processes when they are ready to scale.However, when you are growing, there is never enough time to plan, test, implement, rework and finalize processes.

The ideal time to build any processes, even for HR, is when starting up. Processes need not be complex and multi-layered. A process is nothing but a well-thought of way to deal with any situation or activity.

Some of the processes, and therefore the documentation related to the processes, which a startup should define at the beginning of the journey are as follows:

  • Interviewing and evaluation: Working out a process which allows you to interview people with a well-defined objective and evaluation criteria is critical. It also helps provide a template for valuating the candidates, and helps narrow down the choices.
  • Compensation package: A well-designed compensation package not only reflects a professional approach, but also helps employees feel good about their offer. In fact, a well-designed compensation package can also lead to cost savings for the startup. Consult specialists like PlugHR for a startup consulting package.
  • On-boarding an employee: On-boarding an employee is the process of welcoming a new employee into your company. Especially for the first few employees, it is important for you to have a one-on-one on-boarding program. Define a process covering the following
    • A welcome talk/presentation that outlines the vision and aspirations of the company – help the employee feel great about the decision to join
    • Explain the processes that may be relevant, including the areas in which processes that are yet to evolve
    • Present their business cards, and a nicely drafted welcome note
    • Ask if they have any queries and questions
    • Give them clear KRAs and directions on what they are expected to do and what they will be evaluated on
    • Finally, introduce them to the rest of the team highlighting some of their key strengths
  • Performance measurement: This is directly related to the process of setting clear KRAs or Key Responsibility Areas. The performance measurement system should be directly linked to the compensation review mechanism.
  • Feedback and regular interactions: Set a process for regular ‘all-hands-on-deck’ meetings where the founders should share the process, or lack of it, every month. If the progress is not as per plan, this forum should be used to explain how you are planning to adjust the plan so that the company is back on track. This should also be the forum for getting people’s feedback.
  • Exit interviews: One critical aspect that is ignored in most startups is a formal exit interview. When a person is leaving a startup, asking the reasons for the decision can be very informative and instructive in understanding the gaps between perceived expectations and perceived reality. This can be useful in either – the founders setting things right if there were any gaps, or in communicating the expectations right, in case the gaps were perceived rather than real.
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Operations planning for startups

You would have often heard VCs and experienced entrepreneurs say “Ideas don’t mean anything. It is the execution of that plan which makes a good business case.”. Hence, often VCs will be willing to invest in a simple concept with high-quality teams with great implementation plan, rather than weak teams even if they have a great plan.

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Good execution and operations management is a lot about making sure that the many moving parts of the business are in sync with each other.

Most entrepreneurs underestimate the competencies and skill sets required for a venture to be implemented. They detail out the product/concept/service but do not spend adequate time in detailing out the operations plan. It is critical for the entrepreneurs, or the people planning the operations for the startup, identify, discuss and debate every single aspect that will need to be planned for  good implementation.

For example: A startup planning a chain of coffee shops across the country does not need just great coffee and snacks making skills. In fact, that may be the least of the worries in creating a great coffee shops chain.Creating a coffee shops chain will require the following competencies.
  • Real estate management
  • Franchising
  • Brand identity
  • Pricing strategy
  • Marketing
  • Supply chain
  • HR, legal, finance
  • Training
  • MIS
  • Cash management
  • ROI & capacity utilization
  • Facilities management
  • Processes
  • Standardization
  • Org structure
  • Vendors

Admittedly, startups are unlikely to have the full team to manage operations efficiently. However, planning does not require resources…. Investors invest, based on your PLANS for the future, whilst understanding that your current mode of operating is only due to resource constraints.

Especially for startups with a B2C concept, which could have rapid growth, it is important to plan for scale BEFORE the venture is ready for scale. It is almost always impossible to hack together the resources, processes, infrastructure and other elements to scale up quickly… these have to be built well in advance in most cases to be able to scale up smoothly.

What do you prove in pilot phase?

At the pilot phase, or a concept test phase, it is critical to define very clear what is going to be tested and what the parameters of measurement would be. Many of the parameters could be qualitative as there may not be enough data to do a quantitative analysis. But identifying what and how it is going to be measured is critical.

Below are a few things that are tested in a concept test stage/pilot phase:

  • The concept – the power of the idea itself: One of the key things to evaluate in the pilot phase is whether the idea or concept has appeal among the target audience. While research is one way of gauging customer/consumer acceptance of the concept, customers or consumers actually buying/using is a stronger demonstration of the appeal of the concept e.g. for an e-commerce venture selling real gold & diamonds jewellery online, the pilot phase may want to check if customers actually buy jewellery online
  • The business model: Even if the concept rocks, how good and practical the business is will make or break the business case. In many cases, it may not be possible to check the business model in its entirety in the pilot phase. But at least it would give some indicators. E.g. for a company creating advertising platforms on college campuses, the pilot phase may check on whether the revenue split between the company and the colleges is being accepted as they had anticipated or are colleges asking for more or are they not allowing advertising on the campus. Also, things around the business model could be tested in this phase e.g. ‘How long does it take to close a sale? Who decides the pricing – the college, the advertiser or the company?’
  • The assumptions: How good your business case is and how close to reality it is will be entirely dependent on the quality of your assumptions. One of the critical things to test at pilot phase are the assumptions. e.g. For an e-commerce company, the assumptions around conversions from clicks, cost of customer acquisition, average ticket size, repeat purchase rates, etc. are critical factors to be tested.
  • Understanding operational challenges: Actually implementing on the ground highlights some challenges that you would not have anticipated in your planning. These learnings are critical as they help plan resources, processes and infrastructure that would be required to manage the operations. 
  • Testing processes and operational capabilities: As the startup scales up, the dependence on processes will increase. Else scaling up will either not be possible, or will be inefficient. A pilot phase is a good time to draw some basic processes and observe the operations to understand what these basic processes should evolve to.

How important are processes for a startup?

Processes are important even in a startup. However, many entrepreneurs tend to begin operations without even the basic processes, with the assumption that as they learn the dynamics of the business, processes can be formed. In fact, many entrepreneurs feel that processes are too restrictive and are meant only for larger, complex organizations.

However, process need not be complex. Processes are nothing but a standardized way of doing a particular activity or handling a particular situation. In fact, rather than slowing down an organization, processes actually help the startup become more efficient as the basis of decision making is pre-decided as a process. Once some effort has been put into creating and defining processes, founders or leadership team then does not have to get involved in the day-to-day operational level decision making as these can be easily be delegated to the team and monitored through clear measurable goals, milestones and reviews.

In fact, it is at the beginning of the journey that entrepreneurs are likely to find some time to think through the processes. If the startup starts picking up speed and growing, it is always almost impossible to ‘make’ time to invest in processes as at a growth stage there are too many other tempting aspects of managing growth that seem more important.

When you company is growing is almost always the wrong time to plan for growth. You have to plan for growth to the next level when you are at a level below. Else, you will always be in the operational challenge of managing operations instead of driving growth.