Every mega-company in the world today shares a similar beginning: a great idea. You might have a great idea that you know is destined to be the next big thing. But between your amazing idea and actually being the next big thing lies a long road. And you won’t know exactly what that road looks like until you’re already on it.
As you go through each stage of bringing a small business to life, from ideation to launch day and beyond, you need to move with growth in mind. When will you scale? How will you scale? And how will you remember what came before? How will you transfer all of your ideas to those you hire? How will you teach them to do the things that only you know how to do?
From the first spark of an idea that will one day take the shape of your business to the breakneck pace of a thriving company, documentation is the key to business success. In order to scale yourself and accomplish more, you’ll need to transfer knowledge and information. This requires thinking systematically about how you do what you do and why, as well as writing everything down.
Here are some basic tenets of good documentation, so you can build the business of your dreams.
Document Everything from the Start
Think you’re too small to start documenting? Think again. Your approach to documentation should feel similar to the popular Chinese proverb:
Ideally, you started documenting everything from the moment you first had your great idea. In all likelihood, you’ve probably already had instances where you can’t find the information you need. But even if you didn’t start documenting on Day One, now is a great time to start.
The best time to begin your documentation process is when your business is tiny, perhaps just a founder and one or two teammates. This is the phase where you begin handing pieces off to other people. Starting early will save you from having to backtrack and remember older info, and you’ll have a lot less work to do to get started.
Identify every process with three steps or more, and write them all down. You’ll be amazed by how much time this saves you as the business grows. Not only will your documentation serve as a safety mechanism if someone is on vacation, but you’ll derive the biggest benefit during hiring and onboarding.
Our research into new hire onboarding demonstrated that only 14% of teams believe they’re doing a great job with onboarding. Furthermore, most teams take almost a month to onboard new hires. Now multiply that lost month by every new person who joins the team. Think about how often you’ve repeated yourself with all these new hires. Your onboarding process might be costing you thousands of hours of productivity each year.
Rather than repeating yourself with each new hire, point team members towards your documentation. Suddenly, you’ll find your onboarding process growing more efficient. With carefully documented business processes, you can train your new hires in how to do their jobs in the same way you’ve been doing them.
One of the best parts of thorough documentation is that you can use it as a time capsule of your growth. Both the good and the bad will help you learn. If something is going well, be it intentional or accidental, note it.
Share your hypotheses about why a given project was successful, and share the data you used to measure its success. Document what went right, and find ways to replicate the success. Noting what’s gone well for your business (and how you were able to repeat it) will help you make more refined decisions in the future. It’ll also help you scale the initiatives that perform best for you, enabling you to create a sustainable growth engine.
Conversely, take time to learn from your missteps. If you’re having problems, write them down. Explore why these problems cropped up. As you confront issues, update the Tettra page with how you’ve tackled the issue. This will, over time, give you a troubleshooting info packet you can apply to future roadblocks. You can use this early-stage documentation to create a living history of your business.
Remember, it’s only a failure if you don’t learn from it. Use documentation to help the entire team learn from your mistake. Your documentation will help you avoid making the same mistakes. At a minimum, it’ll help you resolve problems faster in the future.
Codify your culture
You started your business with an idea of how you’d like your culture to look. But the larger you grow, the harder it is to maintain your culture. Excellent documentation can help you create a culture codex that can help each new hire fit in and can grow the culture as your business scales.
Check out a few culture decks to get a solid idea of how to document your culture. We’ve aggregated a number of examples to give you inspiration. We also wrote a guide to building your company’s culture deck. When you create yours, give special attention to your company’s values and mission—they make your company a unique place to work.
Never underestimate how often leadership should repeat these core values. They can act as a North Star to continually realign each part of your company’s growth to make sure it always fits the culture. Make sure you’re storing your culture deck in an easily accessible, central place like Tettra.
Ask team leaders to own and maintain good documentation
Soon, you’ll find that your company has grown large enough to warrant different teams. That’s a great sign of growth. It’s also the point at which you’ll really benefit from solid documentation. Once you start to build out teams, it becomes harder for everyone to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s happening, why, and by whom. It’s also the phase when things can fall through the cracks. Assign a directly responsible individual for each category.
Encourage team leads to think of your Tettra pages as living documents. Once written, they aren’t set in stone. They are always subject to change and require regular review. Some documents will need more frequent review than others; a daily business process or piece of email copy might need to be updated more frequently than a core culture document, for instance.
If each team is responsible for the review, revision, and presentation process, you and your business will benefit in a number of ways. First, it will save work for you and your leadership team. Second, it will give a “boots on the ground” perspective to the documents: The people for whom the documents are most relevant are the people who make the most informed change. Third, and best of all, this practice spreads ownership of the company’s progress. That creates greater employee loyalty and satisfaction.
Share your vision
The larger your company, the more layers of hierarchy you’ll create. You’ll spend less time with each individual on your team. It may become harder to communicate your vision and how you expect to get there.
Over time, communication can become a difficult, fractured, murky process. If you keep documentation at the forefront every step of the way, you’ll never catch yourself longing for the good old days, when communication was simple, because it will remain simple. Sharing your vision for where the company is heading enables every employee to move forward in the same direction to achieve your business goals.
Alignment around Change
Document and share company important company moments. If something big is changing, spend time building a communication plan. (You can even use this communication plan template.) Document the change, as well as other key details, and make this info available in a central knowledge management system.
Consider whether you want to share the changing details of your company’s financial health. In some companies, this means going deep and sharing revenue, expenditures, and cash runway. In other companies, it means staying shallow and just sharing goals and growth. Either way, make information easily accessible to everyone. Knowing where the business is going will make your employees feel trusted, which helps grow their trust in you and the business.
Alignment around Leadership
As you build out functional teams, silos may develop. Use documentation to keep team leaders aligned. You want to keep all levels of leadership aligned as you scale. This means making sure that each team lead is aligned with the CEO’s vision, but it also means keeping them aligned with one another. By encouraging team leads to share their own progress reports, status updates, and goals, you’ll foster greater alignment among your company’s leaders.
No matter where your journey takes you, documentation is the “secret weapon” to achieving your aims. If you’re still looking for a way to get it all done, tools like Tettra can help you document each step of your business’s growth process. A good knowledge management system will help your business scale and help you keep tabs every step of the way.