Founder's Guide to All-Hands Meetings
FundersClub reviews thousands of technology startups every year, and as a VC, has backed a global portfolio of top startup founders. Our insights come from our network of top startup founders and startup investors, and from our own experiences. Christopher Steiner was a co-founder at Aisle50, YC S2011, acquired by Groupon in early 2015.
Beyond day-to-day interactions, all-hands meetings are the most important venues for maintaining a company's culture and values, as well as for preserving a sense of transparency and a free flow of information between all parts of the business.
Without these meetings, destructive silos can develop within a given department or subgroup of the company (e.g. founders, engineering, product, sales, support), and opportunities bred from cross-pollination will be lost.
Startups have different ways of holding these meetings. Small early-stage teams often have them, in some form, on a daily basis. As a startup grows, those meetings often give way to daily team-specific gatherings—engineering, marketing, sales, etc.. True all-hands meetings then become weekly or monthly affairs. But they remain integral events to a well-run business, no matter its size. It's impossible to give the team a strong sense of community without gathering in full on a periodic basis.
Different businesses require different amounts and kinds of contact between the team members and company leaders, so there exist few hard and true rules for how to conduct all-hands meetings. But we've put together some best practices based on input from dozens of startup founders as well as our own experiences.
A quick overview of our findings:
All-hands meetings are a critical component of a well-functioning startup
Most early stage startups, even those of nearly 50 people, hold all-hands meetings on a weekly basis.
Keep all-hands meetings simple; save deep dives for separate working meetings
Try to involve different people each meeting, and include somebody from each team—sales, marketing, development, etc.
CEOs should take questions from the team, collected in advance if possible
Remote teams should include time for things that aren’t simply business related.
For all startups
All-hands meetings are necessary. For the rare startup that doesn't regularly have them: change that.
Wenger offers an additional piece of advice, one that startups should work into their meeting process: take questions for the CEO and leadership ahead of time, even anonymously. Many CEOs expect employees to impulsively develop and ask questions during the meeting, but that doesn't always happen. Some employees just aren't wired that way.
Issues and questions crop up during the regular workweek that may be forgotten by the time the meeting rolls around. And some people simply prefer to submit a question through a form, or even on a piece of paper, rather than standing up in front of a group.
This practice also gives the CEO time to craft a thoughtful response. Sometimes employees' questions hit a nerve or pull at a thread that requires a little research or consultation with others. Now the CEO needn't say, "I will get back to you on that." She can issue an answer that's lucid and thought-through. This process will reinforce the importance of these meetings and let employees know that the CEO values their input and is willing to spend time thinking about it.
Ori Zohar, co-founder of Sindeo, a mortgage marketplace startup now more than 100 people, still holds meetings once a week, and ends them by answering questions as they come from people live, in-person, as well as those that were submitted anonymously ahead of time. The goal, Zohar says, is to come out of the meetings with a renewed focus and excitement.
Try to get different people involved
This is a recommendation that’s threaded throughout this piece, but some companies think it's important enough to build processes to ensure new people get included in the flow of an all-hands meeting. Aaron Feuer, the co-founder and CEO of Panorama Education, which emerged from Y Combinator in 2013 and is now 60 people, runs weekly meetings with everybody present. He randomly selects two people from his team to share their thoughts on the state of the company's culture in something he calls a "Culture Check-In."
These check-ins usually relate to one of the company's called-out values, but they don't have to. Feuer finds that selecting new people each week gives the meetings a freshness—and a way to show new team members, which arrive almost weekly, how inclusive the company is on all levels.
Feuer also spends a good amount of time before the meeting preparing, which keeps the dialogue and presentations moving quickly. If there isn't a lot new to talk about after a particular week, he will cancel the weekly meeting in the name of not wasting the team's time. During the meeting, even during contentious discussions, he takes special care to keep an even temperament, as this is one of the prime venues for him to set a good example for the team.
Fosubu, which provides SaaS for customer surveys, hosts its meetings weekly and, to get all of its eight employees involved, asks the team one question that isn't related to the business—things such as, "What is your favorite country to visit?" or "What is the biggest failure you're proud of in life?" Everybody in the company gives their answers at the beginning of the meeting to get things rolling.
Don't make it complicated
KPIs exist for a reason—they give team members a way to abstract all of the granular data into one indicator that's easier to talk about and build goals around. All-hands meetings usually shouldn't be venues for deep dives into every aspect of the marketing funnel, or how some changes in footer links have driven SEO. That stuff can be saved for meetings focused wholly on marketing.
"I try to not be too heavy with the details, but instead give a helicopter view," says Conor MacCormack, co-founder and CEO of Mcor Technologies, an Irish manufacturer of 3D printers that has raised $31 million.
But don't water down the messaging.
"Employees know more than you think about the company, so level with them and share honest, thoughtful updates," MacCormack says. "This transparency will be rewarded with trust."
Avant, the online portal for personal loans, holds all-hands meetings for its team of 50 every two weeks. Drew Lydecker, co-founder and president, likes his team members to issue their updates in less than two minutes without the use of slides. He likes the simplicity, and says it’s valuable for employees to talk to each other rather than simply issuing slides to a room.
Lydecker tries to get everybody in the company in on the meeting, if possible. This includes remote workers as well as those who may be traveling. “It’s important that everyone get a chance to hear the good, bad and get transparent updates on the business,” he says.
Hit on every part of the company
Because an all-hands meeting naturally includes the entire company, it's important to shine a light on every team and their recent achievements. The whole company is listening.
"Be careful not to forget any sections," MacCormack says. "You want every department to feel included and valued."
When reporting on different sectors of the company, it can be beneficial to let somebody from each team do the report. That lessons the load on the CEO, makes the meeting more inclusive, and gives teams a sense of ownership.
Doug Kisgen, who runs a startup consultancy, advises that each team leader report on the same number every week. That's the number that they're responsible for; they own it. When a number comes in low or is not reported, it can be helpful if it's not the CEO who speaks up or asks a question, but rather another member of the group. Questions and input should be encouraged.
"It helps create a self-directed team that feels accountable," Kisgen says.
Jessica Mah, CEO of Indinero, does something similar with her meetings. She facilitates the dialogue and lets her team leaders give updates and run through their KPIs and wins.
Like many other companies, she does Q&A toward the end of the meeting. But then Indinero finishes its meetings with a question back to staff, who are then able to answer the question via a Slack channel. This play allows for feedback that a CEO might not otherwise get, and it's yet another chance to make the whole team realize that they're playing major roles in the company and that their take is valued.
For bigger startups
Many startups maintain the once-a-week cadence beyond 20 employees, and some keep it going far past there, but it can get cumbersome when things get larger than 50 employees. Michelle Ellner, director of marketing at Montage, a late-stage startup that makes interviewing software, says her company has found a good rhythm in monthly lunch meetings.
The gatherings feature a transparent sharing of all of the numbers: revenue, client wins, average deal size and projections for the next quarter.
"It rallies everyone around the numbers, the goals, and their contribution," Ellner says.
At the meetings new hires get a few minutes of attention as the company's president does a Q&A session with them, which loosens them up and allows the entire team to get a sense of who they are and their past experience. It also instills a sense of belonging from the start for new employees.
For small teams
Groups with numbers in the single digits usually are building out their product and iterating on a rapid basis. This stage of company usually requires more frequent dialogue between the entire team. Most startups of this size choose to do a daily meeting, often just 15 minutes or so, where each team member can review their progress from yesterday and talk about their goals for the upcoming day.
"If each team member has their day planned at the beginning of the day, they are far more likely to succeed," says Steve Wolgemuth, the founder and CEO of YDOP, an internet marketing firm.
"But this isn't a time for discussions—it's a time for sharing that helps ensure everything gets done."
This kind of meeting is familiar to most people who have been on a development team.
During this kind of stand meeting, other issues usually arise that smaller groups of team members can talk about afterward. If it's a big enough issue, it can be elevated to a longer all-hands meeting that Wolgemuth schedules on a monthly basis.
During this event, Wolgemuth casts a larger vision for the company and other team members present what they've recently learned, sometimes from a conference. The team also performs a deep brainstorming session on one major project facing the company during this monthly meeting.
For teams that are largely remote
Don't forget to talk about things that aren't work. Coworkers that don’t see each other every day don't engage in the kind of friendly banter—talk about weekend activities, life experiences, kids, pets, etc.—that helps forge bonds and understanding between people. Most conference calls begin with people trading information about local weather conditions and then diving straight into the task at hand.
And that's fine for a call or online meeting between two different companies. But remote company teams need to work to create the same camaraderie that exists in an office of people who spend 40 or more hours together a week.
Sid Sijbrandij, co-founder and CEO of Gitlab, has more than 100 employees working in more than 100 locations. The entire team, which hails from 31 different countries, gets together four times a week on a conference video call. Half the time on the call is set aside for chatting about non-work items.
"Remote only is great, but you tend to have less water-cooler talk," Sijbrandij says. "So we have an abundance of official communication and an abundance of formalized water cooler talk where we really encourage people to talk about what interests them personally."
The exercise helps the Gitlab team form palpably tighter relationships that lead to a better product and more understanding between coworkers. Beyond the all-hands meetings, Gitlab encourages its employees to take what it dubs 'coffee breaks,' where two employees can go chat one-on-one for half an hour.
"We really try to make sure that personal connection is still there even though you're working from another location," Sijbrandij says.