In many ways, small teams are better than large ones. Because there are fewer people involved, team members are more likely to build relationships. Better still, it's harder to slack off, and the bureaucratic slowdown that affects big teams doesn't take hold.
Of course, this may reduce the margin for inefficiency, but it doesn’t always mean small teams work well. In fact, it's not uncommon to find an employee bending over backward on a small team to do the work of three people.
As the founder of a small startup, here’s how I do my best to make our teams as efficient as they can be.
The smaller your team is, the more important each member's role is, and the more room there is to collaborate instead of just manage. I realized early on in my own experience that it helps to speak individually to each team member, offering specific and clear definitions of my goals for the company. You can't just state your objectives to the whole group once and hope everyone got the memo. It's these individual connections that help keep everybody on the same page as we move ahead.
Why? Because when I had to revise some of my goals, not only could I explain what the new objectives were on a person-by-person basis, I also used the opportunity to illustrate why things were changing. Leaders of much bigger teams simply don't have that luxury. Seeing the looks of recognition on my team members' faces and and actually hearing them agree—and ask questions—reassured me that everyone knew what they were doing.
Unlike a larger company, where employees' titles reflect the tasks they do, smaller teams require people to take on several roles at once. Your content team may be just one or two people handling marketing materials, a blog, social media, and email campaigns. That's a really wide range of things to be responsible for—and I let these people know how truly incredible they are in basically leading a whole department.
For them to do that well, though, they need autonomy. And as I watch my team members progress in these wide-ranging roles, I try to continuously discuss what new, higher-level tasks they want to take on. This motivates them to further raise the bar on what they're doing, because they're already free to test out new things. And I let them have this freedom rather than micromanaging.
A small business can make a big impact by taking advantage of web tools that help automate tasks. You can consolidate social media, email marketing, and tracking social analytics all on systems like Dasheroo or retailing platforms like Shopify. That frees your employees up to tackle the more challenging, human-level stuff.
For larger tasks (like IT management or graphic design) that need a specialist, I rely on freelancers because they're already well-trained to handle these types of projects. In order for your small, in-house teams to thrive and work efficiently, build a network of freelancers to call on so your team members can stay on track and do what you hired them to do.
A clear benefit of having a small team is that I can get to know each member on a personal level. It only takes me a few minutes to check in with employees online or in-person. This also saves time since employees don't have to take an hour of their day to hear about departments that aren't related to them (although by all means, invite questions and keep everyone notified of company news).
By keeping meetings brief and intimate, I've been able to keep the less formal lines of communication open to offer personal encouragement, commendation, and constructive feedback.
When you're a startup with a small team, limited resources, and minimal health or social benefits to offer, it's important to rely on the team's passion to keep the momentum. It's this passion that can really push a company toward success and increase employee retention. And so much of that rests on a work environment that can engage and excite people from within.
We tend to overlook culture's impact on performance, but in my experience, the links have been easy to see. We've done that by emphasizing trust, combining the right mix of people, creating a common vision, and including heavy doses of inspiration and fun. The virtue of small teams is that it's easy to shape your culture in modest ways—whether that's testing reward-based strategies, social outings, or just being available and understanding employees' needs.
Finally, don't stop any of these tactics when you see them working. Small-team performance is all about consistency—keeping up good habits, looking out for bad ones, and adjusting course as need be. When you get in the swing of them, these techniques can help your small teams stay efficient even when they become less small.
John Rampton is the founder of Palo Alto, California-based Due, a free payments company specializing in helping businesses bill clients easily online. He is a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs. Follow John on Twitter at @johnrampton.