Is Communication Killing Your Startup?

A few months ago, I tweeted:

Lack of communication is deadly for SaaS companies. Internal teams will operate under assumptions when the right systems for communication aren’t set up because assuming and moving on is quicker and easier.

This is especially true for marketing and engineering teams. Marketing teams need to know what product changes are in the works to position the product correctly to customers. Engineering teams need to know more about customers’ buying habits and usage intentions to inform product development.

But communication breaks down because engineering and marketing teams don’t typically work closely together on a regular basis. They may also have different views on product and business development—especially when it comes to prioritization.

If you don’t create and maintain effective communication processes, things can go awry quickly. Teams don’t have the information they need to work together towards a big picture. You can’t build a sustainable business this way.

You can’t grow by working in silos

Engineering and business development teams—specifically, marketing and sales—both want to deliver the best possible tool to customers. They have the same general goal, but their different perspectives are shaped by how they interact with the product:

  • Engineers are internal-facing. They spend time building and editing the product. They juggle inputs from different teams, the CEO, investors, and other key stakeholders—all while trying to code new features and fix bugs.
  • Marketers and sales people are external-facing. They spend time exposing people to and teaching them about the product. They have to get the right message to the right customer at the right time.

To build a business and nail down your objectives, the internal-facing engineering team and the external-facing sales and marketing teams need to communicate more frequently and effectively with one another. After all, you can’t promise customers one thing and then deliver something else.

Nail down communication early on

I felt the effects of poor communication when I was building Crazy Egg. My co-founder Neil and I were both non-technical and worked on marketing and management. In the beginning, we hired a development shop to build an MVP.

Our vision as marketers was a super simple heat map to help customers track activity on their site, but the dev shop built out their vision of the tool, which ended up being too complex and buggy.

We’d assumed they knew what we wanted, but we hadn’t been specific or given them detailed feedback. We ended up having to start over with a new developer.

As a company gains more people, the number of potential communication pathways grows exponentially. Without established processes, it’s almost impossible to make sure all of those people stay in touch with each other.

The best SaaS companies overcome this by being proactive about communication early on. There are three ways a team can do this:

  1. Create processes for communication and get people invested in using them
  2. Set aligned product and business objectives across the company
  3. Create a transparent road-mapping and reporting process that everyone at the company can access

Let’s dive into these three steps and explain how to put them in action to improve communication between the engineering team and the marketing and sales teams.

1. Create processes for communication

Most teams pay lip service to “enabling trust and understanding.” But they don’t actually go the extra mile to put it into practice.

To make this actionable, you have to establish communication processes and get people excited to use them. In order to actually foster trust and understanding around everyone’s varying contributions, people on different teams have to communicate about their workflows.

Here’s what this looks like at a company: At Kissmetrics, communication was one of our biggest growing pains. Over a few years my co-founder Neil and I scaled the team up from two to 25 people across four different time zones. But as we grew, we didn’t take the time to prioritize communication. We assumed that our old methods of long email chains and ad hoc meetings would get the job done.

It didn’t. Neil and I had to micromanage everything because no one could be sure about what anyone else was working on. It created way more work and significantly lowered our efficiency.

Established communication flows are especially important for linking engineering and marketing teams. In addition to the organizational challenges of scaling, these teams have differing work patterns that disincentivize communication:

  • Both engineers and marketers tend to use jargon within their own teams, which is prohibitive to people outside the team.
  • Engineers and marketers break up their days differently. Engineers often break the day into half-days or full days to spend long stretches coding, while marketers and salespeople think of their days hourly to account for meetings and calls.

It takes effort to communicate effectively in spite of these differences. We saw at Kissmetrics that scattered emails and random meetings weren’t going to do the trick. You need to establish processes so that people know where to turn for the right information. To make these processes stick, make sure everyone can commit to and benefit from them. Here are the steps you can take to create communication flows within a siloed team:

1. Write things down. Our biggest communication solution at Kissmetrics was to document the entire team’s workflow around product. We developed the mentality that if it isn’t “on paper”—or in a document—it doesn’t exist. We worked on creating a problem-solution workflow so the whole team knew exactly who was working on what at any given point. We wrote down the final process and communication system, which anyone could refer to whenever they didn’t know where to turn.

2. Get everyone invested in communication. When we were developing a system for communication around product at Kissmetrics, we flew everyone on our team from around the world to work together in San Francisco. Involving everyone in the creation of the process ensured that it would be universally beneficial. Everyone was motivated to use it and make it successful. If you can’t physically get the whole team together to work on a system of communication, set aside a half day or full day of remote meeting time solely dedicated to working together on it.

3. Build relationships across the team around common interests. Communication is easier when people on the team have organic relationships. Spotify encourages this by creating guilds, or groups of community members with common interests. Guilds can be centered around anything from leadership to web development to continuous delivery. The goal is that members of different teams who find common interests will connect and share what they are working on more naturally. Spotify is an example of a company that has built communication processes more around community than hierarchical structure.

These steps will help you enable communication by building a system that includes everyone. Communication happens organically when it’s easy and even fun for everyone to take part. But first you have to create the system that facilitates these relationships.

2. Set aligned objectives across the company

No matter how clear your internal communications structure is, none of it matters if your team doesn’t have aligned objectives. If you’re not working together towards the same things, you scatter your team’s efforts and waste their time.

Here’s what this looks like in reality: At analytics company Filament, startup advisor Jason Amunwa said that he saw mass confusion and lack of productivity when internal teams didn’t have common goals. Filament needed to grow usage across the board to help all customers see the benefits of analytics for their businesses. But the company didn’t set a concrete, shared objective that would help them achieve this.

While the marketing team was focused on getting more customers inside the product, the engineering team was focused on getting more customers to interact with various parts of the product. Marketing was focused on converting customers and getting them to continue logging in, while engineering was motivated to drive deeper engagement to retain the customers.

One of the biggest manifestations of this problem was that the marketing and engineering teams had different definitions of an “engaged user”—and that skewed their goals.

The marketing team defined an engaged user as someone who had:

  • Signed up
  • Logged in three or more times in the last 30 days

Meanwhile, the engineering team was thinking of an engaged user as someone who had:

  • Signed up
  • Installed the code snippet on their website
  • Visited three or more screens in the product in the last 30 days

With different definitions of user engagement, both teams began making decisions that were at odds with one another. The end result: marketing was targeting a completely different user set than engineering was building the product for.

All of this could have been easily fixed with a quick meeting or shared document that described exactly what an engaged user was, and what each team’s goals were.

Here are three ways to define your business objectives and orient your team to work toward the same goals:

  1. Management should set Objectives and teams should set Key Results. Objectives are big picture, like “increase retention by 3%.” Key results will differ from one team to the next, and may look more like “improve product speed” for the engineering team and “create content around specific use-cases” for the marketing team. Make sure your teams are clear on both—and the differences between the two.
  2. Articulate the challenges that prevent each team from reaching their goals. When different teams report on progress towards their OKRs, they should also explain what’s stopping them. For example, the marketing team could have a perspective on a problem the engineering team is facing that members of the engineering team can’t see clearly in their day-to-day workflow.
  3. Use analytics to determine the best way for the team to work towards its goals. Most companies use data-driven decisions in product development, but many are starting to use them for team development as well. Google created an initiative called Google Oxygen that measures management behaviors and team communication. Instead of just using data to determine whether people are meeting objectives, look at analytics to determine when and how they meet objectives. This is important feedback that will give you insight into whether new communication efforts are working.

Setting goals can’t happen in a vacuum. Working towards them may involve individualized tasks, but a company with siloed objectives will ultimately waste time and money.

3. Create a transparent product roadmap

Even with set communication flows and aligned objectives, people outside of the engineering team may feel uninformed about the specifics of product development. This is especially frustrating for team members who work with the product in some capacity, like sales and marketing, but don’t have a window into why product decisions are being made.

Here’s an example of what this looks like: At Zuora, a company that created a subscription management tool for SaaS businesses, the Product Director Nathan Creswell saw how hard it was for an engineering team to juggle incoming feature requests, prioritize them in a way that made sense for the whole business, and then communicate those decisions with the rest of the team. There were a ton of moving parts. He found that in order to make informed decisions and share them easily across the team, a transparent product roadmap was essential.

Nathan helped set up systems where each team could input feature requests and connect the requests to their big picture goals. For example, the sales team logs gaps that they see in the product and then explains how much revenue this product gap is costing the company. Sales team members create reports around this revenue estimation in Salesforce and link them to the feature request. This makes it really easy for both the sales and engineering teams to be aligned on what’s at stake.

Once the requests come in, there are communication systems in place to show people what’s coming up—and why. Executives across the whole company meet with the engineering team to talk about the upcoming roadmap so they can go back and explain it to their respective teams.

Once features are released, the engineering team uses a bunch of different channels to communicate their prioritization rationale. They:

  • Make presentations that can be distributed throughout the company
  • Invite everyone at the company each month to a feature release overview meeting with a PM
  • Update documentation about product features for both internal teams and customers to reference
  • Discuss product updates in meetings with cross-team executives.

The most important aspect is the willingness to have a conversation across teams about the product. Nathan says:

“In the above meetings none of the features would be a ‘surprise’ to anyone. It is important to go to the meeting with ‘strong opinions, weakly held’ as to why the prioritization should be the way it is, but being prepared to also take feedback.”

The best way to create transparency and start a cross-team conversation is to create a clear product roadmap. Here are three steps to do this:

  1. Decide how you’re going to source feature requests. Consider setting up a system for ongoing feature requests—like Zuora’s system for sourcing requests from their sales team—or hosting a quarterly “call” for feature requests. Make it clear that urgent requests submitted ad hoc, outside of the established system, will only be considered pending the team’s bandwidth.
  2. Make timelines clear. Not all requests will (or should!) make it onto the product roadmap. Others will make it but won’t be built for months down the line. Every planned product update should be plotted onto a timeline and made readily available to anyone at the company. It should definitely be written down somewhere—you can do this in the form of a weekly or monthly report. It can also be shared discussion-style in a monthly meeting with team directors.
  3. Tie every update and release back to what’s at stake for the company. All team members across the company should have a way to communicate how feature requests would be important to the business from their perspective. This might just mean adding a note or attaching a report to a request. Then the engineering team should evaluate the request according to: the impact on the customer, the impact on big-picture company goals, and the cost of the update/impact on business metrics. Each of these evaluations should be shared with the company in a powerpoint, report, or meeting when product updates are announced.

A transparent product roadmap keeps everyone in the loop. An organized process for communicating about product updates not only gets everyone the information they need, but also helps keep the product’s development tightly aligned with solving customers’ problems and meeting the company’s needs for growth.

Better communication means better prioritization

Bridging the gap between engineering teams and marketing and sales teams has to start with active and accessible communication flows. It makes setting aligned objectives and building a transparent roadmap ten times easier. It makes it easier to foster trust across the team and maintain motivation to upkeep these processes.

Especially as your company grows, you can’t afford to skimp on communication. One of the worst things about a fractured team is that it means the company’s growth is pulled in several directions. At that point, you might as well be several different small companies with different trajectories, rather than one company trying to accomplish common goals and grow together.

When there’s communication, there is collaboration around setting priorities. Everyone works toward the same goals in the same order, and the company grows faster, together.