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What should a COO do in a startup? Learn from an expert

The role of a COO in a startup cover image

A chief operating officer (COO) is a senior executive whose role is to oversee the day-to-day operations and administrative tasks of a company are handled smoothly, competently, and efficiently. The COO is also No. 2 in the company, serving as the CEO’s right hand. On the other hand, a Fractional COO – a part-time COO – can equally streamline operations if your startup is on a budget.

The title may sound fancy, but the work is down and dirty. A quality COO is a quick study who can rapidly learn every facet of a business and can effectively interface with department leads and rank-and-file employees as much as they can with the CEO. When bottlenecks, inefficiencies, and customer complaints occur, the buck stops with the COO. Not only that, a Fractional COO can also be used to leverage DEI & ESG goals.

COOs are critical to the success of any startup and the earlier one can be brought on, the better. Let’s learn more about what a COO does and how a COO can optimize your business’s performance.

What size company has a COO?

You may think that your startup is too small to consider hiring a COO. The truth is any size company can benefit from the presence of a COO. A COO’s role in supporting the CEO throughout the normal processes of running the business frees up mental bandwidth for a founder. Rather than focusing on headcount, if you are feeling overwhelmed or are near enough to it, that is when you should seriously consider hiring a COO. 

And thankfully there are COO’s that offer more accessible price points: they’re called Fractional COOs! We’ve even written a comprehensive guide to Fractional COO rates, if you want to learn more about that.

What is the role of a COO in a startup?

Generally speaking, the role of any COO, regardless of the size of the organization, is to oversee finance, HR, product development, and customer service, while ensuring all areas of the company are working cooperatively toward achieving the company’s goals on a daily basis. 

The role of a COO in a startup is influenced largely by what needs to get done, which is in turn influenced by what stage your business is at along its startup journey. 

  • If your priority is with raising revenue, try recruiting a former chief financial officer (CFO)

  • If you are having difficulty harmonizing operations in your startup, a career COO would be a wise choice in this regard

  • If you and your team are looking for mentorship in addition to having the traditional day-to-day operations work tackled, bringing on a former CEO for the role of COO could be very beneficial. 

Therefore, it is up to you, the founder, in tailoring the COO’s role to your business, and one way to do that is to truly understand what is lacking in your company. Once you have assessed this, it is crucial to prepare a startup COO job description so that you can recruit the right candidate for the COO position.  

What should a new COO do first?

A colleague meeting where the COO helps assessing the organization

It is critical that a new COO kicks off with a first 90-day plan that does two things: (1) assess the organization and (2) create an executable strategy. 

Assessing the organization

In a startup, a COO assesses the workplace culture

A COO’s eye is out for two things: opportunities and threats. Culture can be labeled as either. If the culture is conducive to a respectful working environment where individuals can perform at their best, then no worries. 

But a COO is definitely on the lookout for cultural red flags as these can transform into liabilities down the line, e.g., litigation related to discrimination and harassment claims or legal penalties for not following rules and regulations that govern your industry. 

To examine culture, a new COO will study the organizational structure and be on the lookout for written policies and procedures. They will also take note of the leadership effectiveness that they observe as well as the emotional intelligence and level of self-awareness among leadership and other team members. 

A COO will recommend resources to improve operational excellence

A new COO will also determine what resources are there for people to do their jobs efficiently and effectively and the availability of those resources. Everything from physical equipment, technology, and human capital will be assessed.

A COO must understand the startup’s business model

The operating model of the business and the financial health of the business are essential topics that a new COO must become versed with as soon as possible. A new COO will dive into understanding the driving KPIs and the needs of customers and how well the business is meeting them.

A COO understands the fundamentals of risk management

All areas of risk in the business–financial, legal, logistical–are to be assessed by a new COO within the first 90 days. This can include risks in the supply chain or risks related to not being properly insured against newer threats, such as cyber security breaches. For each risk identified, the COO will work on plans to mitigate those risks.

A COO’s role in executing a strategy

The COO is responsible for both devising and implementing a strategy to remediate the identified shortcomings that will elicit the cooperation of everyone along the chain of command, beginning with the rank-and-file employees to the CEO.

The best strategy is doomed to failure if a COO cannot clearly communicate how it will not only benefit the business as a whole but the needs of each stakeholder within the organization. 

What are the top 3 objectives of a COO?

With so much to do in a new organization, a COO, particularly for a startup, should prioritize the following:

  • Streamline operations–through understanding the product, the customers, the people making it, and the money, time, and other resources that are involved

  • Improving the work environment–high employee morale should be the standard as should be addressing issues head on with compassion and a sense of urgency. Bad actors should be shown the door, regardless of their level of brilliance, and weak performers who show aptitude and have potential and are a good cultural fit should be provided with extra support. 

  • Plan for scaling–the idea behind a startup is that eventually it will become a full-fledged company. Assessing the organization and executing a strategy to deal with any shortcomings within it lay the groundwork for developing a plan to scale at various points to attract additional investment capital. 

A COO helping to streamline operations

Why is scaling a challenge for startups? (And how a COO can help.)

Scaling does not have to be challenging, but here are the four startup challenges to avoid when scaling your business, according to Harvard Business School.

  • Hiring the wrong people (and/or too many of them)–again, a COO can help assess which team members add value to the organization without corroding the culture and which ones need to go elsewhere.

  • Hesitating to delegate–the very presence of a COO is meant to ensure that delegation can be properly done. Allow your COO to do their job with faith and trust in their judgment and work.

  • Becoming distracted–losing sight of the company’s mission can sabotage plans to scale. It’s essential to maintain focus because it is impossible to be all things to all people in the marketplace. Part of a COO’s function is to make sure that the company is operating in a manner that will keep it along its intended path.

  • Not having a plan–the wrong team members, wearing too many hats, and falling victim to every shiny object that glistens in front of you is a recipe for failure. A COO is there to make sure that not only a plan is developed but it is implemented as well. 

Bhuva’s Impact Global provides the COO support your startup needs, on a budget

The earlier you realize that things are moving faster and are becoming more complicated than expected, the better. Hiring a COO is a serious business decision, and many founders refuse to do so because they think they can handle everything on their own or they believe hiring one is simply too costly. It doesn’t have to be that way. 

Bhuva Shakti is the fractional COO that can help you scale your startup.

An experienced Fractional COO like Bhuva Shakti can help you at the very earliest stages of your startup for a lot less than what it would cost to bring a full-time COO onboard. And thanks to Bhuva’s decades of experience and track record of success, she is prepared to handle a wide range of issues across numerous sectors. Position your startup for success from the get-go and schedule a consultation with Bhuva today!


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