Startup Lesson 3: Build Your Onboarding Program from Day One

When we started StackAdapt four years ago, our onboarding process was much like many other startups’: "Bring your own laptop… Here is your desk… Please shadow this guy.” It wasn’t until a couple of years in that we realized we were doing it wrong. Of course, employee onboarding, like many things, is always work-in-progress, but here are some tips for avoiding the mistakes we made in the early days of welcoming and educating new staff.


Welcome people right

The “everyone meet X, X meet everyone” doesn’t work even in a small setting. Spend time introducing everyone around the room. At around 60 people we still walk around the office introducing all new hires.

When we were a bit smaller, we would gather around in a circle to tell the new hire about who we are, what we do, and something fun about ourselves. It gets harder to do with more people, but I will attempt to push it at least within a team. Another thing we will try during the next cohort is “ice-breaker” games. We have never done this before, so I will report back on how it goes.  

Here is what our new hires find on their desks on their first day (we’ve beefed it up even more since this photo was taken):

Things like a bottle of wine or a T-shirt cost next to nothing, but the gesture goes a long way. I regret not having started even a leaner welcome package from employee #1.


Standardize your technology

It is likely that you will start with BYOD (bring your own device) to save costs, and over time, gradually switch to buying all machines for new employees to make sure everyone’s productivity and experience are consistent.

In the early days, as a bare minimum, create a one-pager that explains the software you will be using and how it’s used (or where the support documents can be found). Having employees learn new software on their own wastes hours better spent getting to know your business. 

As you grow, have all the necessary software pre-installed.


Start a knowledge base

 Finding answers in an organization can be painful, so it’s best to lay this foundation early with a centralized information hub. Document your templates, scripts, processes, and how you sell, and communicate the location where this basic information can be found. A shared document or a basic wiki will do the trick.  


Invest in training

 I am shocked by how long it took us to recognize the importance of a consistent, thought-out education process. We were bringing people onboard to build and sell a product without a deep understanding of the industry, our vision for the company or even the product itself. It’s a scary thought.

The impact of poor education can be huge – anything from misguided product features to employee productivity and retention.

Currently, every new hire goes through two weeks of onboarding to learn about every single function in the company – sales, customer success, QA, business intelligence, engineering, data science, finance etc. We also realized that we weren’t spending nearly enough time educating new hires on the company’s purpose, product vision, and cultural values, and now have time blocked off for these topics as well.

Now that we have a consistent education system in place, here’s what our cohorts’ first week looks like:  

If you are a small startup you may think you don’t have the resources to commit to training, but you do. Here is a hack: resist the urge to onboard people as soon as possible. Even if you have one person joining, schedule onboarding to only happen every two weeks. Maybe two weeks in a classroom is overkill for a small company, but commit at least two days to intensive training. Have an agenda, resources for self-education, and go as far as preparing a small quiz for extra encouragement :)


Random onboarding hacks:

  • Assign a mentor who the new hire will learn the ropes from
  • Assign a buddy (assign a person at random to get lunch with the new hire)
  • Ensure all new hires take notes, otherwise nothing is remembered. Buy them a notepad and a pen already!
  • Don’t bother recording videos of the training. If your startup is moving fast, all the information will be useless in a month’s time. Plus, watching videos is so impersonal!
  • Invite a new hire to come have a beer at the office or join any of the events even before their official start date



This article is by no means an exhaustive list and we ourselves are still learning. If you have more awesome ideas – send them my way via email vitaly (at) stackadapt (dot) com or on social. Thanks for reading!