Want Your Startup to Succeed? Learn to Communicate
Poor communication means you risk leaving money on the table, or worse—never even getting your idea off the ground.
About the author
Amy Vaya prepared this article as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.
Startup founders tend to think their most important task is something esoteric, like ‘identifying a gap in the market’, or ‘challenging the status quo’. The truth, however, is rather more mundane.
As a founder, your most important job is simply to sell. You are selling your vision of your startup’s future to investors to raise capital; selling your ideas to co-founders or team members to gain their support; and of course, selling your product or service to your customers. To sell well, you must be able to communicate well.
Unfortunately, entrepreneurs tend not to receive communication training, and it shows. And no, you cannot simply hire someone to do it for you. In the very early stages of your business, you may not have the resources to hire a communication professional. More importantly, as the founder, you are expected to be the greatest champion of your business, and you cannot outsource enthusiasm.
What You Didn’t Learn at School
The path to entrepreneurship is not as clear-cut as, say, becoming an engineer or a lawyer. As a result, you may not have had formal business training, and even if you did, chances are your course did not place much emphasis on communication.
A review of the Harvard Business School MBA curriculum reveals that out of more than 170 elective courses, only one is about ‘The Arts of Communication’ (it is a public speaking course). There are also a handful of courses on consumer marketing, collaboration, and negotiation, which are adjacent to, but not exactly communication courses. Stanford Graduate School of Business offers a similarly miniscule number of communication classes, again, as electives rather than as part of the core curriculum.
In short, you can graduate with an MBA from one of the world’s most prestigious business schools without ever having studied the fundamentals of communication.
Business accelerator programs, which are specifically focused on entrepreneurship rather than business in general, also neglect to teach communication skills. With a portfolio valued at nearly USD 1 trillion, Y Combinator is one of the world’s largest and most successful business accelerators, having funded more than 3,500 startups, including well-known names such as Airbnb, Stripe, Dropbox, and Instacart. It offers a free eight-week Startup School for aspiring entrepreneurs, as well as an extensive library of articles, videos, and podcasts about entrepreneurship. Of the nearly 500 pieces of content available in the library, less than ten are about communication.
So You Think You Can Pitch
The main communication training offered to entrepreneurs is how to pitch. You probably know how to write a pitch deck and present at least two variations of your pitch: a 30-second ‘elevator pitch’ and a longer three- to five-minute pitch. You may have practiced this in front of an audience to build confidence.
While this is helpful and certainly better than no training at all, it is quite mechanical and does not help you understand why a certain pitch is better than another. It also doesn’t help you with all the other types of communications you will need to master.
Another important area covered in these programs is how to negotiate with investors. Again, this training is superficial and doesn’t necessarily teach you the fundamentals. It also doesn’t teach you how to negotiate with vendors, suppliers, team members, and other people you interact with in your business.
Who Are Your Stakeholders?
To get better at communication, the first thing you need to do is identify who you are communicating with. Stakeholders are defined as a person, group of people, or organisations that are affected by your business or can affect it. These are not just your investors and customers but can also include your co-founder(s), employees with equity in your company, employees receiving a salary (who have different expectations than equity-sharing employees), existing investors, future investors, vendors, suppliers, partners, competitors, customers, the media, and, if you are in a highly regulated industry like financial or medical services, government regulatory bodies.
The last thing you want to do is ignore a particular group who could strongly influence your chances of success. Looking at this list, you may realise that you haven’t considered how you communicate with some of these people, particularly those within your company.
Communication Within A “Two-Pizza Team”
When your team is still so small that everyone fits around one table (or as Jeff Bezos likes to put it, small enough to be fed with two pizzas), internal communication might not seem very important. However, 65% of startups fail simply because of co-founder conflict. Like any other relationship, co-founder relationships rely on trust, transparency, and open communications, so you should aim to nurture these.
Once you onboard your first team members, the tone and quality of your communication will create your startup’s culture. Startups grow quickly and if you do not establish the right culture from the start, you will find it harder to control later. This can lead to bad hiring decisions, employee gossip, and a toxic work environment, which will negatively impact your success.
In a highly competitive market environment where a startup needs to be agile and responsive, team members need to be able to communicate quickly and effectively with one another. Traditional hierarchies and information silos will not serve a startup. Instead, you should aim to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing ideas and information with everyone else.
You will also need to establish the channels through which team members communicate with each other. With the rise of remote and flexible working, your team may never actually be around a single table at the same time. They may not even be in the same country, or the same time zone. The right communication tools can help streamline internal communication and keep information organised.
Leadership and Likeability
While CEOs of large companies develop and refine their leadership skills over many years, a startup founder is expected to be an effective leader from day one. This role will require you to lead your team with a clear and exciting vision, put out fires between team members, and maybe even deliver bad news to investors or customers. Therefore, one of the most important skills for a leader to develop is communication.
Think back to all the great political leaders in history, such as Martin Luther King Jr, John F. Kennedy, or Winston Churchill, and you will notice they were also excellent orators. More recently, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s high approval ratings during the COVID-19 pandemic have been linked to her excellent communication skills, which American political scientist Van Jackson described as Ardern’s “superpower“.
According to Peter G. Northouse’s book Leadership, the best leaders are those who are respected and liked by their team. By focusing on interpersonal skills such as empathy, compassion, and emotional intelligence, you can enhance your likeability and your communication skills. To put it simply, the better you are at putting yourself in other people’s shoes, the better you will be able to connect with them.
Think back to your list of stakeholders—do you know what their desires and expectations are? Can you see issues from their perspective?
Head to an Improv Class
One group of people who were not very good at putting themselves in other people’s shoes is scientists. In the 1990s, the scientific community realised it had a problem: scientists were not very good at explaining their research or why it was important, which led to governments ignoring warnings about climate change. Consequently, specialised training programs were developed to help scientists communicate with a variety of audiences using simple, jargon-free language.
One of the biggest U.S. training programs, offered by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York, uses theatre improvisation techniques to teach empathy, confidence, and communication. In improvisation, actors work together to create a scene without a script, building on each other’s ideas to tell a story.
Improv requires an active willingness to listen to others and take their ideas, needs, and concerns into consideration.
More recently, the business community has taken note of improv as a method to enhance communication skills. Forbes, Harvard Business Review, and Wharton School of Business have all written about how C-suite executives are embracing improv training. Taking a few improv classes at your local comedy club could be a great boost for your communication skills, as well as a fun way to let off some steam.
Study the Basics
There are many excellent books you can read to become a better communicator and ensure you always deliver the right message through your emails, presentations, social media posts, and in-person interactions. You should aim to understand topics such as key messaging, storytelling, writing style, tone of voice, and even crisis communication.
At the end of the day, over 90% of startups fail for reasons that may not have anything to do with poor communication. But with the odds stacked so much against you, every little bit helps. Communication skills can be trained, just like any other, and if they can give your startup even a nudge towards success, it is worth making the effort.