In Startup Management, Tools

Managing contacts is an important task in any startup – especially those selling to businesses.  Even when there are quite a small number of investor and customer contacts, it needs to be clear what stage the relationship is at, who owns the relationship, and what the next steps are.  Without a clear record of this information, it’s surprisingly easy to lose track of what is happening as weeks and months pass.

In large enterprises, there is usually a sophisticated CRM system (Customer Relationship Management) to help track relationships, but for many startups using enterprise-grade CRM systems will be overkill – in fact it can be counterproductive.   In this post I intend to share some of the things I have found work effectively, some ideas I have seen work for others, and some of the problems I have encountered.

Defining Success

I think the definition of success is important here, and for me these are some key characteristics of successful CRM:

  • Team members can easily find accurate and up-to-date information about relationships
  • Actions are not forgotten or missed
  • CRM plays a central role in running relationships

These reflect the opposite of what I have seen happen all too often in practise.  The CRM system (assuming there is one) is hurriedly updated once a month before board meetings, at which point a bunch of missed actions are suddenly noticed.  In between times, the CRM system is largely ignored and information is stored on post-it notes, and in e-mails, and exchanged by shouting across the office…

Getting Started

Most startups will have a relatively small number of relationships at first, so need only simple CRM.  A document is often all that is required, and I have found a format that works pretty well is a landscape-format word document with a three column table:

Company Notes Next Action
Acacia Enterprises

John Smith


Met John at Munich trade show – interested in Widget4000

Sent Widget4000 datasheet

Ian to call John before end Aug to follow up
Buttons Inc

Lynne Smith


Lynne filled in contact form on Website – might want Widget2000s in Oct/Nov

Sent datasheets in Jun, called in July, no response

Fred to call again before end Aug

I use green to indicate contacts that are on-track for a sale, amber for contacts where there is some interest but it’s not clear how much, and red for contacts which are looking less promising.  This same system works well for both customers and investors for the first stage of company development.

When a contact goes completely dead, I move the entry to the bottom and grey it out so I know I don’t need to keep paying it attention.

This document is usually only a few pages long, is easily presented at meetings, and by referring to it weekly I can see exactly which contacts need follow-up and when.  Usually I keep contact details separately in Outlook (which can be a shared contacts database using Office365).

There are plenty of variations on this theme.  Using Google Docs, Office365 or DropBox allows sharing of the document. A spreadsheet offers more functionality to sort contacts, but I think it’s less easy to print and share with others what the status is.  A spreadsheet also tends to tempt people to create more columns and extra complexity.  A simple database is another option, but most people are less familiar with databases than spreadsheets or documents so I find they are best avoided.  OneNote or EverNote can also be used to sync data across multiple devices, but they tend to lack structure for easy reporting unless used carefully.


Trello  ( ) is an online tool/app for organising tasks and I have heard from a number of people they they are using it successfully for CRM.  I tried it on one project, and I didn’t really see the advantage over using a document, but that’s mostly force of habit rather than any real objection.

Enterprise Grade CRM

The main problem I have with enterprise grade CRM is that is it brilliant at capturing data, but not so good at giving it up again.  With one company we use which is immensely powerful and flexible.  It has separate facilities for managing multiple contacts within accounts, multiple opportunities, and for attaching files and e-mails (somewhat automatically) to all those records.  You can log meetings, and create tasks (with automated reminders) for follow up actions.  The challenge is that unless it is used consistently, data can be really hard to find.  If I want to know what the next action is for Acacia Enterprises, it could be under the account, contact, or opportunity…  This can also make it difficult to produce simple and complete reports for board meetings.  Many of the features that work well for summarising hundreds or thousands of opportunities are overly complex for startups.

SalesForce’s competitors like Sugar CRM (free, open source), Microsoft Dynamics, and Zoho have much the same issue.

Enterprise grade CRM has lots of benefits though:

  • All communications logged in once place
  • Scalable for large numbers of users and customers
  • Integrates with e-mail, mobile apps, marketing software, mailing lists etc

My advice to anyone considering enterprise grade CRM in a startup is to first create a functioning system in a simple document, then identify what you want to achieve that it can’t accomplish.  When making the move, there needs to be some sort internal user guide that describes how the system will be used (recognising that some features and data types may not be relevant), with an emphasis on producing useful and actionable reports.


 A simple document will be more than adequate for CRM for most startups in the early days.  At some point, the number of people involved and the ammount of data will outgrow this method, at which point a more substantial CRM system may be required.  The key to using this successfully is recognising that it is a tool, and planning how to use it effectively is a very important task – almost certainly more important than which tool is choosen and what bells and whistles it has.  Whatever approach is use, it is vital that it lets the company concentrate on building relationships rather than messing around with CRM!


  • Anne Johnson

    Looking at Slack’s list of integrations reminded me of how much of a rabbithole this CRM notion leads into.
    My current startup uses Podio – both for prospect/customer interaction archiving, and as a semi-private place to post ‘this is interesting, and relevant, but doesn’t have to be in your email flow’ links with comments.

Leave a Comment