Why I Made an Employee Handbook Before I Even Had Any Employees

Knowing the type of culture you want to create from the very start is crucial for any business.

learn more about Stu Sjouwerman

By Stu Sjouwerman

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

There's a lot you need to document properly for a startup, not the least of which is your employee handbook. When I decided to leave my previous startup and move on to a whole new idea, I put everything in writing before anybody was even on my payroll — with good reason.

Related: Redefining the Wall Between Executives and Employees – Literally

Rules aren't the only thing your core team needs to understand

I came into my new venture after 15 years at my old company. I had a clear grasp of what I wanted to create and how I wanted it to operate. So I took the handbook from my old business, Sunbelt Software, and tweaked it to reflect what I'd learned and wanted going forward. This allowed me to send the updated handbook to the two individuals already on board for my new startup, KnowBe4 — ensuring we were immediately on the same page as far as the game plan, right from the start.

Doing this early made it really clear to the people who were interested in coming into the new venture with me what the rules were. They knew from the very beginning exactly what they were getting into, what was going to be acceptable and what wasn't. All the "must-have" information on stuff like sick leave, FMLA, etc. — that was all there.

But it wasn't just about setting black and white regulations that said yay or nay to different things. It was also about getting the first team members correctly introduced and grooved into the idea of the business. Sprinkled in between the lines was the entire tone of the company. I was able to get across bigger behavioral concepts, like the fact that we were going to operate on data, not opinion. That we like to stay cool, calm, collected and friendly. That we find the root cause of problems, rather than shoot from the hip.

Right off the bat, they could grasp that the venture I wanted to build was different than anywhere else. They had a picture of culture, not just procedures. They could see that, even as I was outlining serious responsibilities and big goals, it was going to be a place where the fun factor was important.

When you start a business, you are responsible for shaping the culture of that business. And that responsibility doesn't start after employees walk in the door. It starts from day one, from the moment you tell yourself that, yes, you're going to make the company a reality.

From the perspective of your workers being happy, it's really stressful to come into a business not knowing if you're an ideal fit. If you can show someone both the rules and the culture, then they know from the very beginning whether the venture is going to be engaging and satisfying to them. That's so important with a startup, because when you're first getting off the ground, you need brand advocates more than ever. It's right at the beginning when you need people to be the most invested and fiercely promoting and believing in you. If they really have a picture of how the company is going to be, then that's way easier to do and be genuine about.

Two big things to think about before putting pen to paper

Of course, there are some important considerations that go along with creating your handbook early like this. The first thing is, are you bringing in people you can really trust from the get-go? Seeing a handbook can expose someone to a lot of your "secret sauce," so it's something that's going to attract and indoctrinate your core team, not just everybody.

Secondly, like anything in business, a handbook has to adapt — it's just a start. After you've got it laid out, the next step is to make sure that you've got more specific policies or procedures for each sector or department in the company. And you need to review and update it all regularly to reflect changes in the company and market. We opt to do this with HR once a year, but you can find a schedule that's ideal for your own situation.

Related: My Employees Helped Me Build a Billion-Dollar Tech Company

Lay the groundwork for successful culture and competition from the start

A good employee handbook lays out the rules for your company. But it's also important for creating a vision of culture that will shape and set the tone for the startup. It clarifies for those first crucial people who join you what you're all about and how you expect everybody to behave and believe. So if you're serious about starting a venture, put this document together right from the beginning. The extra clarity you'll gain will be exactly the confidence-booster you need to start strong and get a more competitive footing.

Stu Sjouwerman

Founder and CEO, KnowBe4

Stu Sjouwerman (pronounced “shower-man”) is the founder and CEO of KnowBe4, Inc., which offers a platform for security awareness training and simulated phishing.

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