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  • Writer's pictureNicole Papaioannou Lugara

L&D Strategies for Growing Startups

Your Instructional Designer's biggest client base is growing and rapidly changing businesses, especially startups. Most of them haven't had the time or the resources to build a learning and development structure, and they come to us to rapidly implement solutions that will help them scale their operation.

Startups have a unique working environment. Some are well-funded, and some are not, but one thing remains consistent across all of the: unlike their more established counterparts, startups are "building the plane as they're flying it." They're experimenting with new systems and processes and trying to figure out which ones will serve them best in the long term.

In the early days, each team member is invited to join the startup because they're an expert in their own right and don't need handholding. They're expected to hit the ground running.

Training Challenges for Startups

Expanding Beyond The Originals

The first set of challenges arise when the original team begins to bring on team members to support them. Again, cofounders and first hires are usually experts who may not need or want training as much as problem-solving. But new hires look to be supported.

Early stage training at startups usually looks like meetings, shadowing, or sending people off to do research on their own. While these tools might work well when it's a tiny team of experts, it can become the point of failure when people who know nothing about the mission and values of the organization or are entering in as an entry level professional step in to serve. It becomes especially problematic when teams are growing rapidly at scale.

Relying on Top Performers as Trainers

Aside from the fact that brilliant performers are not necessarily brilliant teachers, do you really want to use your top talent to teach when they could be producing for the organization? That's a question we frame up for our startup clients fairly often, and the answer is: well, duh, no!

But with limited resources and potentially limited L&D experience in house, it can be hard for startups to imagine alternative solutions.

Change Management

Startups are experiments in business. It's a lot of trial and error, try it and leave it. It's very rare (I'd actually say impossible) for a startup to look the same on Day 1 and Day 1000. For people married to old philosophies of learning and development, it can be very difficult to keep pace with ever-changing needs. It can also be frustrating for people to feel like they're scrapping work when plans change.

Scrappy Budgets

Many startups operate with smaller budgets for L&D, either because they don't have the funds for more, or they want to bank funds to invest back into the growth of the business.

Fear of Culture Change

Startups are usually born when a set of colleagues-- who often become friends-- are passionate about a mission and an idea to see that mission out. They may want team members that feel like "culture fits" to maintain the vision they have of their organization.

In reality, "culture fit" is exclusionary and doesn't always serve the business. It can lean to myopic decision making. While startups need to embrace the change and should be looking for "culture adds," it's not always easy for them to let go of their original idea of what the business should look like, especially if it has been successful up to this point.

How to Meet L&D Needs for Startups

Document. Document. Document.

Half the challenge of working in a startup is getting best practices and institutional knowledge documented. It gets lost in the heads of the experts, and there is no where to turn but to them for that information.

As an external partner, I've found a lot of success in interviewing team members, recording sessions, and documenting what I hear. Manuals, job aids, references, and other resources can easily be made from these conversations. Simple tools like Loom, that enable users to screen record, share, and send timestamped comments, can also prove exceptionally valuable for capturing processes quickly.

Solutions that Scale

A successful startup can quickly go from 10 to 40 to 400, but if those team members can't be effectively trained, the organization will fail to scale. To be ready for growth, learning needs to keep pace.

Digital technologies can help make things faster and more efficient. Sometimes, that looks like eLearning, but it can also look like:

  • xAPI for learning track customization or data reporting

  • automation

  • collaboration tools

  • knowledge bases

  • game based learning

  • AI-based tools that support performance, assess learning, personalize experiences, and seek out data insights

  • email campaigns or other digital communications

  • video sharing

  • social quizzing

  • data analytics and visualization

Caveat: Just because it's a digital solution, it doesn't mean it's a scalable solution.


Like its cousin "institutional knowledge," standards can quickly become lost as startups grow. For example, I worked with a rapidly growing airline, and their different bases had different procedures and vocabulary for things that were supposed to be the same across the organization. But training was left to individual instructors, and so, new hires were at the mercy of whatever those instructors came up with. Often they came from other airlines with other methods, and they were just using what they knew, rather than studying the company's procedures carefully. This caused confusion across the airline, especially when people transferred bases.

Whether it's training, branding, criteria for success, or other important procedures and policies, startups need to embrace the concept of consistency across the organization.

Acknowledge that Things Change

Here's the biggest thing I can tell you: startups should plan for the future but acknowledge that things WILL change. Few startups look exactly like they were imagined. As new challenges and opportunities come into the picture, the original plan changes.

And that happens to learning too. You might try to plan for the next 5 years, and find out you need to pivot. Don't get stuck in perfectionism mode and procrastinate until you find the best solution.

Find what works now and embrace uncertainty.

Consider what's priority. Consider what has ROI. Consider how you operate.

Don't be afraid to find cost-effective solutions. The most expensive LXP isn't necessarily your best investment at this stage. I'd also ask: have you made good use of the tools already at your disposal?

Remember, if things are constantly in flux, spending a lot of money on static training doesn't make sense. Unless it's business critical and has massive ROI, why pay a small fortune for training that needs to be completely revamped in a few months or weeks... or days, because that's how it is in startups sometimes.

And with all of this change, I also encourage startups to embrace the fact that your people are busy and probably wearing 12 hats already. Don't add more to their plate by demanding things are built that will be scrapped quickly or never even make it out the gate.

Find solutions that are flexible, easy to distribute quickly, and require minimal long term management.

Identify Change Agents

Learning and development doesn't happen without champions. You need people in place who with usher others through change and help to cause it. This might be managers, leaders, or even passionate employees. They have to be the evangelists and messengers encouraging people to take advantage of the learning opportunities at the organization, rounding up feedback, and taking action, as required.

Think of these folks are your internal Influencers. They're important. Maybe more important than the tech. Social influence is powerful and, when you're working with internal talent, (potentially) affordable.

Grow with Guidance

Many startups have no internal learning and development expertise on staff, which is ironic, considering they have some of the most complex learning and development needs.

Working with a learning and development agency can help you avoid costly mistakes and overspending on unnecessary bells and whistles. They can help startups to define and implement learning strategies that empower the business to keep pace with growth. And most importantly, they can ensure that new and existing employees are able to perform on the job and supported in continuing their development.

If that sounds like something your organization is looking for, well, I know a team is that is eager to work with you 👋


Need better training? Let's chat.

Your Instructional Designer is here to support your growing learning and development needs with solutions that respond to the real business context.


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