The Ultimate Guide to Employee Onboarding for Lean Startups

The Ultimate Guide to Employee Onboarding for Lean Startups

Rasmus Busk Hyllemose
8 min read


Onboarding employees is a lot like starting a new relationship. After the courting period (job interview), things get serious once they join your startup. You want to ensure everything starts off on the right foot.

And a lot of what will set the tone begins during the onboarding process.

In fact, the quality of your onboarding could make or break your startup. According to Bamboo HR’s survey, 31% of US employees leave their job within the first 6 months - and 68% of those within the first three.

Hiring and losing an employee in such a short term can have a tremendous impact on your business. You’ll need to gather new candidates, broaden your talent pool - not to mention deal with the administrative headache.

First, to give you some perspective, let's take a deep dive into some key datapoints.

What Poor Onboarding Looks Like

why employees leave their job

According to the aforementioned study, there are three clear reasons why employees leave their jobs soon after starting them:

  • 28% said they didn’t want to do the job anymore
  • 26% claim their job was different than what was laid out during the interview
  • 23% said they didn’t like superior’s attitude

To tackle these issues, employers can work harder on managing staff expectations. From the job post, to the interview, up to the official website, the narrative needs to be cohesive and clear about the company mission, vision, and values.But to especially the last two, a lot of the solutions will come from a good onboarding plan and process. This is what early defectors said would have made the difference:

  • 23% said they didn’t receive clear job guidelines
  • 21% said they lacked effective training
  • 17% said they expected a friendlier work environment

So how do you solve all three points above in one fell swoop? Create a killer onboarding plan and strategy.

Your Step By Step Guide to Lean, Effective Onboarding

Onboarding for startups can be chaotic, messy and complex, especially if you’re scaling fast. You might not have a dedicated HR department yet. You might be strapped for time, resources and energy. But as Cervantes said, “to be prepared is half the victory”. This is why we’ve created a template you can use for your own company.

Note that we’re using Trello, because it’s neat, free and extremely intuitive list manager. More and more industry leaders use it for onboarding, like IoT data management company (you can see their public board here).

Startup onboarding guide - trello board

Of course, you can use any other checklist tool you like. But the idea is the same: have a comprehensive view of current tasks to complete, as well as upcoming ones. In Trello, it’s pretty satisfying to drag and drop cards to the Done section, and you can also tag colleagues for comments if you have questions directly within the platform.We’ve also divided the boards into four general sections, as you’ll see below.

Employee Onboarding Plan

1. Before The Employee’s First Day At Work

Alright, ready to break it down? You’ll be surprised by how many managers and founders fail to consider this step. But helping employers prepare in their own time, before they start at work, is a tremendous boost to their confidence and a great aid for smooth integration.

It’s the whole strategy behind Twitter’s Yes to Desk policy, where they follow through between hiring new staff and sitting them down next to their future colleagues.

Ideally, you’ll give them at least a few weeks to review everything, but if you’re super strapped for time, a couple of days will have to do. Just don’t overload the newcomers with info and expect them to have assimilated everything if it’s the latter.

Here’s the info you should hand them:

  • Introduce the onboarding process itself
  • Give useful, relevant resources (employee handbook, NDA)
  • List necessary paperwork (social security number, ID photocopies etc..)

From your side of things, this is also a good time to ensure their workstation is prepped and ready to go:

  • Find and equip workstation
  • Create logins for all your software
  • Create email account
  • Discuss who will be the mentor for your buddy system (more on that later)

2. For the First Day At Work

How would you like to be welcomed at a new company? Ideally, warmly. You want to feel at home right away. Which is why tons of tech companies are really outdoing themselves with welcome tours, orientation, dedicated time with the higher executives, and even “appreciation gift bags”.

You don’t have to go all in, but the bare minimum should include:

  • Practical info like where to park and where to get coffee
  • A basic tour of the premises
  • Introduction to key colleagues
  • Ensuring the employee has some time alone. Useful to get up to speed with the systems at their own pace, and to remove some of the pressure.

Meanwhile, back at the office, here’s what you should have in place:

  • Let everyone know the new recruit is coming
  • Free time for tour and meet and greet
  • Ensure “buddy” is ready
  • Preparing 1st week work plan and planning 1:1 time for first week review

The so-called Buddy System that we keep mentioning is one tried and tested technique in the tech world used by companies like Percolate and Quora. In short, one employee from the team becomes a “big brother / sister” to answer any question and ease the new recruit into the company life.

This will come in handy for the first week and month review, as you’ll see below.

3. For the First Week At Work

Ok, it’s been one week and now it’s time to ensure everything is going smoothly. It’s also the perfect time to iron out issues that often result from, well, being new and maybe a bit lost and confused. At this stage, it's not so much about the quality of the work, but really more about the integration process.

  • One on one to discuss onboarding process
  • Review buddy system and offer option to switch
  • Double check employee has mastered all the key tools
  • Create training plan
  • Plan a social activity - now’s a great time to break out that list of team building activities, or organize a team dinner / drink

As Erik Falk Hansen of AvantGarde Search puts it: “Even if the new isn’t clear on their exact tasks, it’s still very easy to make a simple training plan. This will help employees who shape their own position to quickly get up to speed on important company info, get necessary introductions and meetings, and set expectations and goals to be able to take ownership of their new role.”

Another interesting thing Facebook does, for instance, is allow new developers to push some of their own code very early in the recruitment process. Can you imagine that?

The lines they wrote in their first few days will go live in front of hundreds of millions of people. Must be good for their self-esteem, engagement and long term commitment.

4. First Month Review

After one month, it should be safe to say the employee should feel right at home. Any technical questions should be out of the way. At this stage, it’s more about productivity, efficiency, and the quality of the work.

  • Move on from buddy system to more general meetings
  • Check integration / communications issues with the whole team
  • Review work quality, offer constructive criticism
  • Set targets and goals for next 30 days
  • Offer additional material if needed to patch information gaps

Of course, don’t dismiss any personal issues that may have arisen with the work culture / wellbeing / colleagues etc. One interesting point made by Thomas Lahntaler, of Groundworks, is to remain available, but also vulnerable as an employer.

“Being the new guy at a new company is a very vulnerable position to be in,” Thomas says, "By making sure you are not afraid to show vulnerability back, you can establish trust right from the start.”

Successful Onboarding - The Hub

Remote Onboarding Checklist

Things have changed quite a bit for all of us regarding our used-to's due to the pandemic which naturally has affected the way we work - and the same goes for onboarding employees.

Remote Onboarding Checklist

Now, remote onboarding has proved to be one of the more crucial areas of business that you need to be able to comprehend and execute in a very engaging manner in order for you to make your new candidates feel welcome, part of the team and ready to go once the onboarding is over.

All behind a screen with possibly no physical interaction. And that's harder than what you think, since all people are different, have different personalities and traits.

The checklist:

  • Remove Anxiety With Weekly Plans

Since your new remote employees are not in office, they are not accompanied by the cultural feeling of being truly present. There's no team around them and no one to naturally chit chat with in-between breaks. By creating a plan and setting up multiple meetings (at least 3-4 a day) with both outlined agenda descriptions and video links, you help reduce the anxiety of the new employees by making sure there's a structure in place that they can follow without any stress or an unnecessary bag full of questions. Now you're making sure that you're getting the person introduced to the team, your processes and projects.

Advice: Make sure that you balance the plans and meetings between work and socializing. It's very important for the person to feel included in the team and culture in order to feel calm and open.

  • Align Expectations With a Let's-Get-Started Project

Yes, we just coined that term. In startups, things move fast. Sometimes there's just not a lot of structure in place. And it makes sense. Because you as a founder have your head wrapped around hundreds of other projects and ideas. But that's a great danger towards new employees. You have to make sure that the new employees feel occupied with something relevant and meaningful while progressing through the onboarding phase when not attending meetings or not socializing over Zoom. You have to keep them on your radar.

Advice: Collaboratively work out a 2-week plan that aims to align expectations for the role and set the employee on track of what needs to be done. But try not to overdo it - it's all about making the new employee feel confident about the first tasks at hand.

  • Introduce Cohort Onboarding and say "Goodbye!" to loneliness

As mentioned above, running a startup is hectic and requires a lot of input for a greater output. You have to be resource efficient and minimize the time spent that could've been used elsewhere. This is why onboarding new employees in groups is a lean strategy to grow your startup successfully while also giving your new employees a sense of community.

Advice: Assign each group a host or a squad leader who'll be responsible for creating the best possible environment for learning, collaborating, socializing and teaching the culture. Optimally, your assigned squad leader should be a specific team leader e.g. Head of Marketing, Head of Customer Success and so on.

Learn why Culture Should Be Your Number One Priority When Building a Startup.

  • Have Personal Connection & Socializing on Your Radar

Prepare your team members to take active part in onboarding new employees and embracing them on a personal level. Ask your team to reach out to new hires in order to establish personal connections from the get-go. It's valuable for both parties to start building relationships during the first week.

Advice: Arrange team lunch hours on Zoom to break down the digital barriers of "normal" social interaction.

  • Ask New Hires for Feedback

Chances are that you might not be an experienced remote team manager, yet. Meaning that you eventually will run into hiccups along the road. To get better you have to rely on your most trusted source. Yes, the new hire. Don't be afraid to ask how the onboarding process is going and if there's anything that you could improve. It makes for a better result for both parties and for future hires!

Let us teach you how to become a master at remote management!

Key Takeaways

Chances are, hiring a new recruit is exciting for you. It means the company is doing well. It means bringing in new ideas and a new perspective into the mix.

This is why onboarding should be a joyful affair. Sure, it can be nerve wracking for the new employee, but you can give them a huge confidence boost by letting them prepare at their own pace and holding their hand remotely.

A stitch in time saves nine, as they say, and this is also true with hiring new employees. Onboarding efficiently can be fun, easy to do, and have tremendous long-term benefits for your organization and everyone’s morale.


As noted above, we used Trello for our onboarding checklists, but there’s no shortage of dedicated tools for startups. If you’re based in the Nordics, we’re also proud to work with a handful of startups who are creating the next generation of onboarding tools, such as IntroDus, Onboarding Group & Wibe Academy.