Our Blog

Practical advice for cyber security entrepreneurs. Learn from our experience.


The Ambiguous Role of the Start-up COO

Today many entrepreneurs act as Chief Operating Officers in companies they have co-founded. As COO at a start-up where big titles don’t matter due to the small core of employees, it is important to clearly define everyone’s roles.

The ‘big role’ of COO, especially at a start-up, really varies depending on the company; and many don’t have a COO at all. It is my firm belief that the role of a COO is to complete the most important tasks for which the company has not yet hired staff. Set it up, get it right, hire or delegate to someone else and then move on. You need to be willing to let go and be comfortable with constantly getting ‘fired.’ This role is excellent for an entrepreneurial personality type who is project-focused and committed to getting the job done; someone who thrives on being involved with diverse projects every day.

Changing roles is a challenge and can be confusing to the rest of the team. Make sure to clearly articulate your responsibilities as they evolve.

Potential projects for a COO could include:

Project 1: Appointing them as VP of Product or of Business Development

In the beginning, the COO has no choice but to become a functional owner. Product management is a popular functional area for a co-founder, since it is important to be closer to the customer and to the problem the company is trying to solve. Another possibility is business development because it involves transforming the company into an ecosystem of partnerships and competition, and requires a blend of product knowledge and marketing skills, which will be needed in the early stages, before being able to hire experts for these tasks.

Project 2 : Setting up a sales operation

This includes setting up a sales team and sales mechanisms, setting up work procedures, pricing methodologies and incorporating customer feedback into products. Sometimes it can be challenging to find the right target segments and the best business model. Your primary focus should be increasing revenue and figuring out which modules are ready for sale. This is the heart and soul of any company, but unless you want to become a full-fledged salesperson or head of the sales team, this is the point where you need to “fire” yourself.

Project 3 : Becoming “COO”

When you become COO, you grow into a bigger role – working on several projects at the same time. This includes getting larger offices, recruiting new employees, starting a customer support and success team, and turning your start-up into a professionally managed company with legal, accounting and HR. This is where having specific descriptive titles gets blown to bits. Every one of these roles could be a VP!

Step by step, you fulfil each of the functions, but the feeling that you are constantly fixing things never goes away. You are also constantly solving problems you haven’t solved before. Problem solving in a changing environment should be a founding COO’s core skill. Going forward, the role will be the same as it’s always been: Find the most important things the company hasn’t hired for yet, take care of them, hire or delegate to someone else and move on.

Sometimes you have to do things you don’t like, and eventually, you have to find someone else to do those things or you’ll burn out.

Most believe that co-founders are supposed to manage teams and run the business. I believe that in order to learn every aspect of a business, a COO should manage people and become a leader. Although the job description is ambiguous, as long as the focus is on driving value for the customers and the business, the COO will be constantly presented with opportunities to make that vision a reality.