The startup ‘training’ program

Or why giving your team dedicated time to learn is best for the long-term

‘Training’, at least as it’s historically been defined by larger corporations, is quite commonly overlooked in the startup world. While you’ll often hear of large companies building dedicated teams and budgets solely focused on implementing a global training program, you rarely, if ever, hear about startups giving such a program the slightest thought. And who could blame them! Any given day can provide any number of unanticipated distractions that seem urgent: a top customer requests a custom analytics report, a distinguished potential client has ‘one more’ feature request, the current sprint is already days behind its scheduled completion, etc. With all these distractions, who has time to worry about training? After all, we hired the team we did because of the knowledge they have now, so let's put that knowledge to use now!

Maybe I'm exaggerating a bit...but the truth is that life as a young startup can be crazy and stressful, where focus, bandwidth, and dollars are finite resources to be utilized only on the most critical of needs. Training is usually a “we’ll get to it later” focus, not a “we need this now or we’re dead” focus. And honestly, there’s probably little reason to hire a dedicated training team on a dedicated budget if you aren’t even sure you’ll have a team 6 months from now.

Why We Spend Every Friday Learning

However, none of this means you should totally forget about the training and personal development of your employees. You’ve probably hired your early employees because they’re quick learners and autonomous. If that’s the case, maybe all you need is to set aside time for “self development” and let them loose! Which is exactly what we do. Every Friday, after usually an hour or two of ‘real' work in the mornings, we spend the rest of the day on some sort of personal development: learning something new, contributing to open source software, writing a new blog post, etc. 

We’ve been doing this for over a year now, so I figured it’s time to review what we’ve achieved and reflect on why we implemented this ‘policy’ in the first place (and why you should too!)

It builds a self-sustaining learning culture

Let’s consider a scenario. Sally takes a few hours every week to explore her curiosities: learning new things, tinkering with side projects, etc. One day, she stumbles upon an amazing talk from the Netflix engineering team on building flexible APIs for streamlined client-side communication, and finds it quite relevant to the stack her company currently uses. She thinks this new way of thinking about API development has potential to increase the front-end team’s development velocity by many factors.

If Sally is an employee of a large company, the knowledge she’s learned may have a slight impact on her immediate team, but it’s unlikely to be a game changer for the entire company. However, if Sally is a member of a 15 person startup, the amount of influence this newfound knowledge can have knows no bounds.

This is the single greatest benefit we’ve seen from this ‘program’. Once something exciting is learned, it quickly spreads throughout the rest of the team, serving as a talking point well after it was initially started. The end result is a self-sustaining learning culture, one where the knowledge learned by one spreads to the others quickly. The process is refueled weekly, as other employees discover more exciting information. The excitement is contagious, the information sharing is continuous, and the benefit to team culture and knowledge is obvious. Everybody wins!

It prepares employees for their career after your startup

Obviously, what your employees achieve during their time with you is of the utmost importance. But what about what they achieve after their time with you? Do you give that any thought? Should you really even care?

I’d be willing to bet that most startups don’t give this the slightest thought. Startups care that their employees work as hard as they can now, that they dedicate all their energy to the startup now, that they help the startup achieve its goals now. After the employee moves on, that's their business. 

While this approach may help you achieve your startup's short-term goals, it will prevent you from building a lasting 'brand' for your company. Your former employees are like your ambassadors to the rest of the industry: the more they achieve, the better your company's reputation will be. When you get a new resume on your desk and you look through the applicant's past companies, there's a reason you're more excited about some more than others. Don't you want people to be excited to see your company's name there?

Ensuring your team members are setup for the world beyond your borders is absolutely critical to building a respected business. Of course, you should absolutely consider implementing a “personal development" program for many other reasons: you genuinely care about the success and well-being of anyone who’s put their trust and faith in you and your company, you realize the knowledge and technology your company uses today is only temporary, etc. But if you needed a selfish reason to convince you, there you go. Remember, there's a reason why universities obsess over the accomplishments of their alumni.

It’s a critical component of a healthy startup culture

The two most common concerns people have when considering working at a startup seem to typically be:

  1. Stability - "Will I still have a job in 6 months? What about 2 years?"
  2. Work hours - "Will I be required to work crazy hours? I don’t think I can stare at a screen that long….you won’t make me sleep in the office, right??"

A great way to alleviate concerns for #2 is the ability to point at a set time for creative exploration and personal development. And while this may not directly ease the concerns of #1, it certainly has the ability to increase your employees’ confidence in their ability to land on their feet if something does indeed happen.

By guaranteeing your team a set time where they can break away from their normal workflow and environment, you keep them engaged, focused, and prevent burn-out from the rigors of your current work environment. This keeps their attitude, and team morale, pointing in the right direction. 

It’s a great "perk" when recruiting

I’ve been recruiting a good bit over the past several months. One question I ask every candidate during the initial chat is “So, why is now the right time to move on from your current position?”. I’d say over 90% give some form of the answer “I feel like I’ve learned about all I can here”. Yeesh…feeling like you’ve learned all there is to know is hard to do, so that feeling probably doesn’t bode too well for that company’s work environment. 

This, of course, makes some sense if you aren’t allowing your engineers some ‘free time’ to explore the ever-changing software world. If your engineers are just constantly engrossed in your tech stack every hour of every work day, it’s inevitable they'll get a bit bored. Thus, if an engineer you're recruiting has experienced this before, they'll know to look out for it in their next position. If you have a ‘policy’ to learn or experiment on a weekly basis, you’ve already eased their largest concern. Additionally, if your engineers spend some of this time working on open source development, as our engineers often do, a Github profile of useful and (hopefully) popular open-source projects can serve as one hell of a recruiting tool for some of the best available engineers. It’s done wonders for our own recruiting efforts, that’s for sure!

In conclusion

In the incredibly competitive world of recruiting, you'll see companies ranging from Google to small startups offering some fantastic-sounding perks: free massages, free lunches, free laundry, free gym memberships, etc. Hell, I even saw free lawn care once! And there's absolutely nothing wrong with these perks...that is, if your company can afford them. But amongst the sea of superficial perks, perhaps it's time for "free learning time" to join the group. After all, it has the potential to impact your employees' lives in a way that would far exceed any free lunch or massage.

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