What does a Startup COO do?
This is one of the most frequent questions I have been asked since co-founding Accordium around one year ago as COO. Along with “ What kind of Operations do you manage?”, “ Are you the COO because you already have a CEO?”, “ Wouldn’t you rather be the CEO? “…
Spoiler Alert: It depends, the role usually has nothing to do with operations, and no, I don’t want to be the CEO.
Recently I went to an amazing event held by Northzone, a Stockholm-based VC, where David Ferguson (COO at Trustpilot) and Christoffer Norman(Investor at Northzone and former COO at AVITO.ru) discussed this question. The outcome we could all agree on is: “It depends!”
There are many good reasons why you might need a COO at different points in time:
So what does a Startup COO do?
The keyword here is “Operating”, which is not the same as “Operations”. It relates to
“the way a machine, vehicle, device, etc., functions or is used and controlled”.
The COO operates the business as a whole or parts of it. This can be anything from new marketing initiatives, fund-raising, or being the first employee on the ground for a new market.
In many cases, the COO takes over parts that don’t fall under any other department or manages all departments that the CEO wants to stay away from. Oftentimes the COO is simply in charge of daily business activity, while the CEO focuses on long-term vision and stakeholder management (as David Ferguson described it for Trustpilot).
The exact role of a COO depends a lot on the type of business you are running, the industry you are in, the dynamics and skills in your team, the location(s) of your business, the stage your company is in (e.g idea-stage vs. multi-national corporation), etc.
What is my role as COO at Accordium?
At Accordium, I am wearing many hats — both functionally and culturally. In many ways, my role is to ensure Andrew, our CEO, can focus on the development of our product together with Barrington (Chief Product Officer) and maximize revenue generation with Daniel (Chief Commercial Officer).
Anything left usually ends up on my table — I’m the Chief Anything-Else Officer.
Generally, I’m in charge of all number-driven operation as Chief Financial Officer, Chief Marketing Officer, and Chief Operations Officer (yes I do some operations too) — all in one. However, it didn’t start out that way but developed over time:
1) Accordium Pre-Funding Phase: Finance
When we first started with Accordium, my role was much like a CFO. Since we hadn’t raised any outside capital yet, it was my responsibility to prepare everything to close our pre-seed funding of ~$500k from SEED Capital and Perch Capital (see our article in Børsen). Having worked at Alps Ventures for almost 2 years in Southeast Asia, I knew how to build a compelling story with a pitch deck, how to create a budget for a SaaS company, and how to negotiate a deal with investors.
2) Accordium Post-Funding Phase: Operations
Once we received the money, my responsibilities were very operations focused: Ensuring we have all the systems and process in place to control the mayhem of an early stage startup: Setting up project management tools, recruiting and on-boarding employees, setting up our international operations with both Malaysia (Tech Dept) and Denmark (Commercial Dept). This also involved our first “M&A transaction”, buying our Malaysian entity with our Danish main entity — which is not a straightforward process in a country like Malaysia (I leave that story for another day — subscribe ).
3) Accordium Post-Revenue Phase: Marketing
As all of the above operations became more routine and standardized and Accordium released its first product ( Accordium Flow), we needed to focus more on our marketing activities. Being “Chief — Everything-Else-Officer” I obviously took the chance to expand my skill-sets by taking over. Having worked at FALCON Agency in Southeast Asia in corporate development gave me a top-level understanding of digital marketing, but I never had to execute marketing strategies with clients myself. Once again I had to pull out my dusty university books on marketing and started reading up the basics, as well as doing all the online courses Google, Facebook, &Co have to offer.
4. Accordium today: Bringing it all together as COO
The 3 roles that I described above were not consecutive — they were just added on top of each other. My role is quite simple:
- Take on a new challenge in the company and understand what the issue is
- Define what needs to be done
- Implement a solution that is scalable (automating as much as you can is key), i.e. make sure that once you have set it up you don’t need to invest additional hours every week to keep it rolling
- Once you have the money, hire someone to manage it and move on to the next challenge
Why I prefer being COO over CEO?
Being in charge of everything the CEO is not in charge of also means that I’m kind of “ Second in Command”. I get the same kind of responsibilities, get to work on awesome projects, need to learn new skills every day, and manage a great team — without all the * bs* CEOs sometimes have to deal with: Paperwork, showing off your face to the media, and having to respond to (sometimes nasty) stakeholder questions. I love being challenged with new problems every day, finding scalable solutions and moving on to the next.
Does your Startup need a COO?
One of the key themes here is, that a COO is someone that compliments the skill-sets of the CEO and the rest of the management team. In our case, Andrew has a completely different skill-set than me: He is great at selling, he is an awesome storyteller, he is a fast decision-maker in critical situations. I, on the other hand, am very analytical and usually take my time to make a decision, over-think situations sometimes, and I hate selling. This is a perfect scenario in my opinion, where the CEO can trust his COO 100% as he doesn’t need to fear that he will want to take over his job, whilst having someone who keeps him in check with a different pair of eyes.
What are your thoughts on COOs in early-stage startups? Shoot me a mail!