Managing knowledge in a startup

This article is part of a series about how to manage a small software start-up, the first article & overview is found here.

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

There will be hundreds of conversations, documents, graphics, and all kinds of material created during a typical day at your company. One of the more “boring” but essential topics is how to manage this stream of information and make it accessible to your team members — more and more companies are aware of this problem space and usually call it “knowledge management”.

From my observations, this is tackled by building a solid documentation culture and choosing the right tools to create a centralized knowledge base.

Documentation Culture

Everyone in the company needs to be familiar with the main repositories of documentation and how they are structured. Everyone must build the habits to store knowledge in its proper place. When a piece of information is not found anywhere, it should be created — good inspiration for this is GitLab’s handbook-first approach.

In my opinion, the best strategy is to define a single source of truth, one continuously updated knowledge base that everyone agrees on. In addition, it’s an interesting idea to make large parts of the content public, especially the content related to company culture, as it leads to more accountability to keep the content up-to-date.

A helpful mindset to document everything is to assume that you forget everything, even if you believe it wouldn’t. Assume you forget every discussion, idea, task, or decision tomorrow. If you think you, or anyone else, needs that information — write it down! This also relieves stress and improves focus, as our minds tend to get occupied with every piece of information they feel the need to hold onto.

Knowledge Base Tools

It is paramount to have one centralized knowledge base where everybody writes “most” essential information for your business. You won’t be able to avoid using specialized tools for specific work, such as mock-ups or code, but there should always be a (series of) links leading to any created material.

There are a plethora of tools that vie for your attention; when searching for “knowledge base,” you will mostly find software to present Q&A pages directed at your customers, such as Zendesk, when searching for “internal wiki,” you find the traditional products of the industry, such as Confluence. Most of them work fine, and there is are also many startups to choose from, such as Notion or Tettra, but they usually lack features to manage and review contributions as you can do with merge or pull requests in code.

This is why GitLab built its own toolset that enables multiple contribution requests and live discussions. But as you can hear in their internal discussion, they didn’t manage to make it accessible enough to non-technical users so they would actually contribute. I also don’t think it’s a good idea for a startup to spend time building their own wiki system.

In conclusion, I suggest looking for a tool that combines the accessibility and beauty of a traditional wiki system with the control of a code repository. Luckily new tools in this space are getting more traction recently: GitBook with great source control or Archbee with many features geared directly towards developers.

Knowledge Base Structure

To give anyone starting out structuring their knowledge an idea of what to expect, here is an overview of the different categories of information we managed at our company:

  • Operations: Consisting of recruitment, company strategy, internal meetings, and financial planning. Linking to Google Slides for presentations and Breezy for recruiting.
  • Administration: Human resources, legal documents, accounting, and other administrative matters. Usually linking to Google Docs for contracts, for example. Using LastPass to share passwords.
  • Business Strategy: Market research, business plans, and fundraising material. Linking to applications for grants or term sheets for investments.
  • Customer Relations: Sales materials such as quotes, project-related material for specific projects. Linking to files shared by customers, quote creation with google docs, for example.
  • Engineering: Anything related to the technical work. Linking to GitLab for code, Sonatype for executables, Balsamiq for low fidelity mock-ups (recommend Figma), Miro for flowcharts.
  • Marketing: Pitches, illustrations, campaign material to present the company and products. Linking to Google Slides or illustrations.
  • Library: Long-term reads such as books and articles for everyone to learn from. Linking to PDFs usually, to organize research properly, might want to use e.g. Zotero.

In the next article, I write about the often mundane but necessary financial planning and legal work.

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