Startup school on designing your firm’s communication strategy

Startup school on designing your firm’s communication strategy

In conversation with Mindtree’s Rostow Ravanan and Vivek Rana, CEO of The Practice, on the art and science of opening up a startup’ s communication channels across various stakeholders.

POORNIMA KAVLEKAR

Communication, be it with internal or external stakeholders, is a function which is interlinked with the overall goals of an organisation. And unless there is clarity combined with direction in this task, it would be foolhardy to communicate externally.  As Vivek Rana, CEO, The Practice (a public relations firm), rightly puts it, it is important to know when not to communicate. An entrepreneur has to give shape to his / her idea during the early days and once they are ready, the idea has to be clearly articulated in a manner that the right message reaches its target audience at the right time.

A clear communication strategy is all the more important in today’s context considering the various sources of information present.  Whether you are a new company trying to position yourself amongst your target customers or prospective employees or a company communicating the changes going on within the organisation, the strategy that the management adopts has to be explicit and coherent across the organisation.

In this edition of Startup School we have two experts talking to us about the various dos and dont’s in the art of managing communication at startups. Rostow Ravanan, CFO, Mindtree, shares his experience in communicating with the various stakeholders in Mindtree during the last several years while Rana talks about communication from a professional point of view.

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With over 20 years of experience, Rostow Ravanan, is responsible for the finance, treasury, compliance, legal, administration and facilities, procurement and travel and immigration functions at Mindtree. As the CFO, he has led Mindtree’s IPO in February 2007 and plays a key role in communicating the goal, vision and performance of the company to a diverse set of stakeholders of the organisation.

Excerpts from the interview:

Mindtree was incorporated in 1999. In the last 15 years how has the company’s communication strategy evolved? What are the constants and what are the variables? 

The constant was the desire to be transparent to all our stakeholders at various points of time in our journey. Whenever there was any crisis, like the time when Ashok Soota decided to quit in 2011, the mode and methodology of communication kept changing. However, in the last three or four years, we have become a lot more confident in our communication.

Another change that has happened today is a major portion of our communication has shifted to new media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. When we started in 1999 the only form of communication was a journalist interviewing us for print publications. Communication was one-to-one those days and now, it is on one-to-many mode.

Right after Mindtree was founded you adopted a communication strategy where you shared videos about the “Making of Mindtree” and documents on how the ten founders came together and brainstormed on ideas.  What was the reason behind this story telling? 

We thought that the process we follow to come together as a team and the learnings and experiences we have had will be useful for people who follow the same path down the line. So we captured that journey and made it available for everyone to follow.

What is your thought process on investor communication, especially, when the aspiration is to build a company with high corporate governance? 

We definitely want to do more than what the law requires of us to do.  The most important lesson we learnt as we planned for our investor communication approach was the necessity to be consistent. During the early days of Mindtree, when we went public and when we met investors, they told us that when the markets are good, companies will meet the investors, but they never take that effort when they are going through a bad patch. From 2003 till today, we have never stayed away from meeting investors, irrespective of how the financial performance has been.

Secondly, it is important to make them understand the story. There is a small group, which goes by just numbers and takes into account the quantitative factors. But a majority does base their decisions on quantitative and qualitative factors. They want to understand the company, the people, what we are doing, who is our customer and such. While we have to explain the numbers, for us, that is just 25 per cent of our communication. The remaining 75 per cent is to explain our talent strategy, reasons for hiring and so on.

In an interview with The Smart CEO, Subroto Bagchi said, “it is not the criticism that I have control over; it is the response to the criticism.”  What’s your take on this? 

“I cannot shape my world but I can shape my response to the world.” Our philosophy is similar to this.

The best thing is to accept feedback and learn from it.  We have never defended ourselves against criticism because when you are doing something innovative and building a company from scratch, you will make a few mistakes. Hence, we take feedback with humility, whether it is from an employee, customer or an investor. If the feedback is not relevant, then we use it when it is needed.

Communication to internal stakeholders (such as employees) is very important as it helps them be aligned to the company’s goals and also helps in building the culture of the company. What was Mindtree’s internal communication strategy and how has it evolved from inception till now? 

The starting point for us was the principle that we have – 95-95-95. This means 95 per cent of the people should have access to 95 per cent of the information needed to do the job 95 per cent of the time. There are certain things that we cannot share. For example, if we are doing an acquisition, only a small group of people can know about it, as there are regulatory and other implications.

This principle has not changed. But many other things have changed like the mechanism. For example, in 1999 to 2000, we used to communicate via email to the entire organisation. People in that generation vetted the document and came back with questions. But today, even if the CEO is writing the mail, a large number of young people don’t even open the mail.

After the first couple of years we used to address large crowds in a single hall. We then found that not everyone likes to ask questions in front of a large crowd. We later decided to go floor by floor so that it creates a more informal atmosphere.

Now we are a large organisation and mass communication no longer works. Hence, we have to prepare a larger speech with content that can be seamlessly replicated to all the parts of Mindtree and also uniformly answer any question that comes up. We prepare slides and answer FAQs to prepare people to communicate more effectively.

Internally, we also have social media and a lot of video-based communication.

Over the last few years Mindtree has acquired a few companies as a part of its business strategy. How did Mindtree approach communication with the acquired company’s employees, vendors and customers? What are the various aspects when communication became important?

The best lesson we have learnt is that you have to plan for this before the deal gets signed. Involve the targeted entity’s management, plan for it appropriately and well ahead of time. After the deal is signed, draft a message carefully and convey it to the target company’s employees and customers. For example, a few weeks back, we announced an acquisition of a U.S.-based company called Discoverture. On the date we signed and informed the stock exchange, we had individual videos from the seven or eight senior leaders of Mindtree, welcoming the employees of the acquired company.

A second important aspect is to address people’s concerns proactively. Ensure that there is an individual communication to people, especially to those who will have to undergo some changes such as relocation. We explain our views to them so that they are motivated.

Unlike in the manufacturing sector, where the main driver for acquisition is the plant with inventory or in the banking industry, where it is for branch presence and licenses, we acquire a business for the people. That’s why all our communication is tailored with one objective – how do we motivate employees to come back the next morning and work with more enthusiasm, believing that they have a bright future for themselves as a result of this deal. This is the message we want to give them when we acquire the company. We want the people to feel that they are a part of a larger and happier family, which will help them become more successful.

Mindtree was listed at No. 9 among the Top 10 Most Influential Brands in India by LinkedIn, a ranking based on LinkedIn’s Content Marketing Score (CMS), which measures the effectiveness of content marketing efforts on LinkedIn. Can you highlight a few factors, which have led to successful social media communication? 

Today, it is very important to realise that communication is many-to-many. It is not just the responsibility of the marketing team or of one or two people who are the spokespersons of the company. Each and every Mindtree employee is potentially a brand ambassador for the company. We need to train and enable them to say the right things. And create awareness so that a large set of Mindtree minds are able to explain about the company appropriately.

Use technology. For example, LinkedIn is not just a networking tool or a tool for hiring. It is also a tool that helps to communicate. You are communicating through a platform that has a global base to a hugely diverse set of stakeholders.

However, technology is a double-edged sword. By exposing lots of people to it, we are also exposing ourselves to miscommunication, which can affect our brand. So curate it in such a way that there is coherence in communication.

Articulation is the key 

VIVEK RANA, CEO, THE PRACTICE

Vivek Rana, CEO of The Practice, a public relations firm, provides solutions-based advise to Indian and international companies spanning various sectors. His ability to help clients identify opportunities for effective communication has played a key role in his company’s success. In this interview he talks about communication strategies that startups should adopt to build their brand. He stresses on articulation of values and goals as one of the important strategies to achieve this.

As startups move from early stage to growth stage, they make considerable changes to their business model, products and product positioning. Keeping this constant change in mind, what should a founder’s communication strategy be?

A very important strategy in communication is to know when not to communicate.  In the initial years, say in the first year and a half, the focus should be on human resources, investments and giving shape to your ideas. It is important for you, as an entrepreneur, to identify who you really want to become.  You may want to identify a handful of employees to hire and talk to a few VCs to secure funding. You don’t need to look at aggressive external communication then.

When you venture into external communication, there are three things you should keep in mind; who you want to communicate with, what you want to achieve through that communication and whether you are ready for that.

For example, we once partnered with a company in the temporary staffing space during its first year of operations. We launched external communications only post a year. Till then, our mandate was to reflect on what the story, who they need to communicate it to, what response the company needs from them and what should the company do to achieve that. To explain better, for the first nine months, we articulated the story internally and got all their team members to understand how the story will pan out. We got the proof of concept, ran pilots with various clients and also built a pool of client testimonials.

Finally, often, startups look at communication as a luxury as they are cash starved. This frame of mind has to change, as it is an investment.

Today, for several startups, consumer education and concept selling are key aspects of marketing strategy. Take us through the finer nuances of educative communication.

Education is about clear articulation, especially, the value that one is creating. For example, Infosys (a client we have worked with for several years), during its early stage, was very clear about what it wanted to communicate, the reason behind it and its benefits. Many start-up organisations also often operate under the assumption that community-building efforts don’t need active promotion. The underlying thinking is that if you swing hard with your pickaxe the world is bound to notice. The main flaw in this premise is that if you can’t get your target groups to recognise your work, you may be barking up the wrong publicity tree. You need to spell out your objectives and explain your actions to your stakeholders or risk falling prey to the slingshot of public misconceptions. A well-defined plan for mobilising interest in your product or service should lead to more ability to scale. Just because you have a fantastic app or product, people will not necessarily come to you unless they are clearly informed, frequently reminded and convincingly persuaded that what the organisation is doing is of value to them. People are prone to inertia and breaking them out of old habits or ways of thinking, calls for sustained and focused communication.

Today, given the complexity in communication, it needs one more layer – visual story telling. Building visuals and communicating the story is very critical.

Most founders want word-of-mouth or the network effect to kick in for their product or service at the early stage. How should startups facilitate this effectively? 

It is a great approach and is a good strategy during the early days of the startup. However, remember that what goes behind being able to create word-of-mouth is integrity and professionalism (even as a startup).  Our organisation is where it is today purely through word-of-mouth. Value, integrity and professionalism are very important if a company is looking at word of mouth as an effective tool to build its brand.

This apart, its work has to speak for itself and hence, client satisfaction becomes very important. So, articulating the value created for clients and recording client testimonials is also important.

Some entrepreneurs want their work to speak for themselves. How should such founders approach external communication so their personal traits do not affect the company’s prospects? 

Sometimes when you are the leader of the business, you have to do certain things, which are necessary for the business.  One can easily talk about the value the organisation has created instead of talking about what they have done to build the organisation. The moment you take away the focus from the individual to the organisation, communication becomes easy.  I always encourage those who feel shy to speak about the value their brand, product or service is creating in the market. It is a great branding exercise.

What is the right time to outsource your external communication? 

Within a year of stabilising the business model, say from nine months onwards, and when you feel that you can sustain communication for a longer period of time. One of the important things for startups to understand is that you cannot look at communication in a stop-gap manner. We have clients coming to us for three-month projects. And you cannot achieve much in three months.  Remember, there is a cost for value creation. To counter this, companies need to engage with agencies, which can offer milestone programs and build capacity within their organisation to manage things.

What are the dos and don’ts in a communication strategy? 

Don’t fluff your numbers or exaggerate reach and scale. People will see through it in a jiffy.  The haphazard notion of engaging with the media and choosing the media where you want news to appear are some unhealthy practices.  Be honest and transparent when you communicate. It is the bedrock of communication.

For communication to produce results at all of these levels there needs to be an organisational commitment to making it work. Startups who understand the ingredients for success in this area are more likely to reap the benefits.

Real measurement beats intuition: While gut instincts may be useful for broad navigation, they should not be the basis of a targeted communications campaign. Even small-scale surveys, focus groups and observational studies can be helpful in zoning in on the right messages and stories.

‘Frame’ your message to fit the environment: ?Many startups have been stymied in their communications efforts because they have failed to get a handle on the culture and environment in which they are operating. When organisations find the right ‘framing’ they are often able to scale faster and have greater impact.

Stay transparent and true to your message: ?Stakeholder relationships are based on trust. People are more likely to support an organisation when they are convinced of its integrity. Thus, financial and operational transparency is a very important element of communication in this area.

In today’s social world, what are the finer nuances of a good internal communication strategy?

In most companies, internal communication is driven by the HR and hence, HR and communication has to be well integrated. It is also important to curate content as, today, every employee thinks it is their right to have an opinion on anything that the company does and they have a platform to popularise it. So, curate content in a manner that is completely relevant and honest.

How does one communicate change to employees? 

One, through honesty and empathy. There is no other way of doing it. Two, articulate the change, explain the result of the change in such a way that they can recognise and see the relevance of it.


 

Fictional Scenario:

Two-year-old Design Woods, a furniture and design company, started with a bang and quickly became popular for its designs and quality of furniture. However, over the last few months, instances of complaints and negative feedback on its website from customers regarding its service parameters, timelines and delivery have started to increase.  What should the company’s communication strategy be in such a case? 

First, the company has to acknowledge the mishap with humility. Do not adopt the attitude of – “let’s not talk about it anymore, lie low and go about life normally.” That is a very myopic way of looking at the issue. Today, stories stay in perpetuity in the online space for anyone to see. So it is important to acknowledge where you have gone wrong, with humility, go back, analyse and see what you can do better. Then, come back and say this is the problem and this is how we are going to rectify it.  Once you have made this change, continue having a conversation with your stakeholders about how this change has added value. Remain grateful for that learning.

Communication Strategies Mindtree PRactice Startup Marketing

Poornima Kavlekar has been associated with The Smart CEO since the time of launch and is the Consulting Editor of the magazine. She has been writing for almost 20 years on a cross section of topics including stocks and personal finance and now, on entrepreneurship and growth enterprises. She is a trained Yoga Teacher, an avid endurance Cyclist and a Veena player.