If you don’t write it down, it doesn’t ex­ist

Care­fully doc­u­ment­ing pro­cesses and pro­to­cols is es­sen­tial to grow with­out chaos.

Inc. (USA) - - CONTENTS -

In March 2010, Foursquare was rid­ing high, one of the coolest so­cial star­tups of the day, with gobs of fresh ven­ture cap­i­tal and a mil­lion peo­ple us­ing its mo­bile app to check in. And then, on March 26, the com­pany’s web­site went dark. Some­body, it seems, had for­got­ten to pay $20 or so to re­new the foursquare.com do­main.

Foursquare’s faux pas was quickly fixed; the bill was paid and the site went back up. But the blun­der serves as a great ex­am­ple of how im­por­tant it is, no mat­ter how busy you are or how fast your com­pany is grow­ing, to write some things down. In­deed, it’s dur­ing those heady days of startup frenzy that it’s most es­sen­tial to make sure im­por­tant mat­ters aren’t left in some­body’s in­box or, worse, some for­mer em­ployee’s brain.

Write it down. Doc­u­ment your pro­cesses and pro­to­cols. Put them on pa­per. Like many of my fa­vorite startup best prac­tices, doc­u­men­ta­tion has a long his­tory among soft­ware de­vel­op­ers, who are of­ten asked to cre­ate doc­u­ments that ride along with their soft­ware—the ReadMe doc be­ing the quin­tes­sen­tial ex­am­ple.

But doc­u­men­ta­tion goes beyond soft­ware; it’s good dis­ci­pline, both for star­tups right out of the gate and for those soar­ing on a high-growth rocket. For the new­bies, it’s a way to in­scribe your com­pany’s struc­tures and stric­tures, to sub­stan­ti­ate the firm you want to cre­ate. When it’s only two peo­ple in a garage, doc­u­men­ta­tion on core prin­ci­ples and strate­gies serves as tes­ti­mony that this new thing is go­ing to out­grow this garage some­day. For those on the rocket, good doc­u­men­ta­tion fu­els your com­pany with fluid com­mu­ni­ca­tion and pre­vents it from be­ing dragged down by clois­tered knowl­edge. There are four ar­eas where doc­u­men­ta­tion is in­valu­able:

1. Prod­uct de­vel­op­ment. It’s amaz­ing how rare it is that smart peo­ple scope out the who-when-why-how of a new prod­uct be­fore they get started, given how much time and frus­tra­tion two pages of plan­ning can save.

2. Process. Each com­pany has its own meth­ods; com­mit­ting these to pa­per (OK, not ac­tual pa­per) as style guides and how-to pro­to­cols helps keep your best prac­tices in cir­cu­la­tion.

3. On­board­ing. You spent months search­ing for your new su­per­star hire. And now you’re gonna give her just a desk and a com­puter and ex­pect her to fig­ure it all out?

4. Cus­tomer sup­port. Ev­ery busi­ness needs to have wellthought-out rules for how to com­mu­ni­cate with cus­tomers. Doc­u­ment­ing your an­swers as FAQs and in­ter­nal sup­port docs will keep your team con­sis­tent, ef­fi­cient, and on mes­sage.

I learned the magic of doc­u­men­ta­tion as a fed­eral con­trac­tor when my startup, Io­dine, was build­ing OpenFDA for the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion. We de­vised APIs con­nect­ing out­side de­vel­op­ers to FDA data, so the data re­quired ex­pla­na­tion. But we opted to do more than the min­i­mum, and went to great ef­fort to trans­late the lan­guage of a fed­eral bu­reau­cracy for an out­side au­di­ence. The more we ex­plained the think­ing be­hind the data and what uses it might be put to, the more peo­ple re­sponded. Doc­u­men­ta­tion FTW.

We’ve brought that bias to over­ex­plain and over­doc­u­ment into our day-to- day work as well—and yes, there have been times when it seemed we spent too much time writ­ing plan­ning doc­u­ments that no­body ever got around to read­ing. But that’s a far lesser evil than the lost-in-the-fun­house feel­ing of the third meet­ing spent defin­ing the same project.

There are some out­stand­ing tools that make doc­u­men­ta­tion fairly pain­less. We’ve used Google Docs, but, in my ex­pe­ri­ence, which ser­vice you choose is less im­por­tant than choos­ing one and stick­ing with it across the or­ga­ni­za­tion. Un­less you re­ally want to be the next Foursquare.

Thomas Goetz (@ tgoetz) is a co-founder of Io­dine, a dig­i­tal health startup based in San Fran­cisco.

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