Finding a Startup COO

How do you find a startup COO?

I've been lucky enough to be a COO (Chief Operating Officer) in three companies, all startups, all following their Series-A funding. (Bookatable, HouseTrip and IOVOX).

As such I have had my fair share of approaches by headhunters over the years. The conversation usually ends with them asking me, "do let me know if you can think of someone suitable".

Here's a typical headhunter wishlist...

has been associated with the early growth stage of a successful consumer internet business | is in their peak in terms of ‘operations’ | could combine operational skills to scale the business and strategic capability to build the business | young, hungry and energetic | great academics

(from a real search).

It's a difficult role to hire for.

For a start, every COO role is different. My Partner, Nic Brisbourne explores this topic in a blog post, "What does a COO actually do?"

Nic comments that theres a...

...distinction between a COO who is a true partner to the CEO and a kind of late addition to the founding team, and the COO who is a head of operations. The former is involved in every area of the business and typically joins pretty early in a company’s life, whilst the latter has a clearly delineated area of responsibility (e.g. logistics) and typically joins a bit later.

Any headhunters are usually assigned to the later stage role, post Series-A (any earlier and the company usually can't afford their hefty fees).

I was chatting about this topic at the weekend with a post Series-A CEO who was looking to hire in a COO.

I gave him my thoughts on how I would think going about a search. I'll share them here.

First of all, define the role.

In the taxi on the way to my very first VC pitch, three of us were discussing how we were going to describe our roles. Niklas, our CEO put it succinctly. "David, it's easy. I dream up this stuff, Chris sells it and you make it happen." Simple.

Too simple for defining a job search. Let's start with this; what are the functional areas that the COO will (or will not) take responsibility for? Finance? HR? Customer Service? Facilities? In some companies it could also extend to any other area (tech, product, sales, marketing) depending on the nature of the leadership team. This is an essential first discussion to have.

Personally, I see the COO as being someone that takes overall responsible for building the capability of the company to deliver on it's promise. I wrote about this last year...

If the COO is concerned with Capability, then the COO's time by necessity needs to centre around Communication, Skills, Information, Resources and Efficiency.

See here for the full post, "Algebra: What is the role of a COO?.

Another way to see it is that the COO is responsible for the repeatable elements in the business.

However, understanding the starting point of the job role is not enough. You need to anticipate how it might evolve over the first 12-18 months.

As I explained to my CEO friend at the weekend, in a startup, some of the tasks the COO may well need to do themselves, some they will delegate. They need to be skilled and experienced enough so that they can be hands on in these functional areas. This needs to be understood as it will shape the search strategy.

One you know what you are looking for, who are the prospective candidates that you need to approach?

Hint: a good COO is not unlike a good Product Manager.

A Product Manager needs to understand their customers above all else. Their needs, their behaviours, their context. A good product manager can connect the company vision and the needs of the customer to create a product plan than serves both.

If you think of "customer" in the widest possible sense of the term, you can extend it to mean the relationships between people in a system such as a company. The product team is the customer of the tech team. The customer service team are the customer of the product team. And so on. In fact, I would go as far as to say that employees are customers of the company.

If a product manager is assessing, defining, launching and retiring products for a company, a COO therefore assesses, defines, launches and retires organisational methods for the company. Plus, they are a good leader of people.

My recommendation is to look for a senior product manager. Ideally a product manager that has worked on internal systems and tools. A product manager who is looking for the next step in their career. Someone who has led multi functional teams, knows tech and thinks about customers all the time.

It needs to be career defining.

If you hire someone that has previously been a COO, you get some good experience but you also get their default toolkit of behaviours and methods. I will freely admit I am biased on how to make things work based on my previous experience. However, just because it worked last time around, doesn't mean it will work now.

I would select someone that has sufficient functional experience in the one or two critical areas where they will be hands-on and then go for someone who will see this as a massive step forward in their career.

To conclude. I've talked about these points with a number of startup CEOs recently and they all thought this was a very useful perspective.

Interested in your thoughts.

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