What does a startup COO actually do?

Real data from across the startup community

Man (or woman) of mystery no longer: understanding the COO role with data…and a few stories.

I always thought it would be cool to have a job that would make people wonder. Wouldn’t it be fun to shake someone’s hand and predictably hear something like:

“A wreck diver?? How do you spend all the treasure?”

I wish every networking event could start that way. Well, today I can tell you that when you’re the chief operating officer at a startup, everybody does have a question about your job. But it’s never about your adventures scaling headcount or driving down customer acquisition cost. It’s more like:

“So…what do you actually do?”

It shouldn’t be a surprise: Harvard Business Review calls the COO role the most misunderstood job in the business world. But here’s what actually is surprising: a large number of the people who ask me to define my role are first-time startup COOs themselves — and it’s almost always after they’ve started their new job. Where to begin?

I’ll try to clear up this mystery. Not only have I held the role myself for four years at HoneyBook, but I also started Performance COO, a community for startup COOs in San Francisco. Over the past three years, we actually tracked the individual functions a group of 30+ bay area COOs managed, and how these responsibilities changed over time. Who knows, this data might just be the most recorded history in the world about what a startup COO actually does — and I’m happy to unearth our findings together. But I’ll start by sharing what I know the most: my own job.

In our dataset, we found that the average COO oversees 4.4 distinct company functions…over half the company

A case study of my own role

I started HoneyBook as a team of one when we were very small, and in the beginning my world was filled with things like this:

  • Building our first operating model
  • Putting together our first board deck
  • Writing our first job description
  • Selecting vendors and infrastructure
  • Choosing a price for our product
  • And charging our first dollar of revenue

But within two months I needed to set out on the long journey away from the (deeply satisfying) world of individual contributions and scale the company by empowering tasks, processes, roles, and missions to other people.

Below I’ll show how this evolution unfolded for me over the course of my four years and nearly 200 hires. Let’s start by looking at the first time I began managing a function that had full-time headcount. In most cases this meant I had transitioned a task I used to do myself into a new hire or team of people. But not always.

Fig 1: Evolution of functions with headcount I lead
Bold indicates a new team I manage, or one that returned to me.

But wait, there’s more. While managing operating teams has been a large part of my role since almost the very beginning, I still have a day job of managing many roles in the company that I call “orphan functions” — roles that must get done but aren’t quite enough for a full-time hire. These roles and tasks appear on my plate whenever there is a need, but they also fall off when they eventually turn into people or whole teams. Looks can be deceiving, though, because these roles aren’t weighted equally. Some of these items are truly episodic: after you move into an office and finish construction, being the resident “real estate person” takes all of 4 hours a year. By contrast, an innocuous sounding role like recruiting sponges up a huge amount of my calendar: I interview 100 people per year! Luckily it’s my favorite part of the job.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, but here are a few of these orphan functions and how they evolved over time. You’ll notice in many cases the link between the diagram above to see how orphan functions often turn into “real” functions with headcount.

Fig 2: Orphan Functions — Evolution of functions without headcount I lead
Bold indicates a new orphan I had to adopt.

Fig 3: Evolution of functions I do not manage

While these paint a picture about how much of my time was allocated over the past four years, it’s notable to mention that none of these diagrams match up to how I would describe my own role to others! I actually have a much simpler way of explaining what I do, and I would sum it up this way: taking things off my CEO’s plate, and figuring out how to thoughtfully scale the company.

Fig 4: How I would describe my own role

These two focuses boil down to why all of this is important: COOs aren’t just managing a bunch of people and cranking away at work in their spare time. I believe we’re doing something else that makes a big difference in a growing company: we’re adding leverage to the right people, and we’re looking inward at how the company is scaling — — and fixing the leaks.

But enough about me: let’s explore how my experience compares to startup COOs throughout the bay area. Over the past three years we’ve assembled a group startup COOs who meet monthly to share and learn from each other. While collecting data isn’t our primary objective (we’re dinner party enthusiasts with very busy day jobs!), I do believe our simple tracking over the years creates a more relevant dataset than any I have seen for elucidating the roles COOs play in their respective companies.

Data: Findings from the startup COO community

First Finding: Startup COOs are multifunctional leaders

In our Performance COO community we have a lot of edge cases for membership where somebody introduces a new colleague and says “They don’t have a COO title — but they’re doing the same things we are!” Our next question is always the same: “How many functions do they manage?” In a very diverse world of titles and responsibilities, it’s this characteristic of being a multifunctional leader that brings us together.

This commonality doesn’t come from our hunger to consolidate power. Rather, in a great many cases (including mine) we’re the ones who create all these teams to begin with. When the company is small, we do the job ourselves. Then we map out a process. Ultimately we hire people to scale it. Over time a leader gets hired for what has now become a whole team, and the team rolls up to us because, well, who else would manage it? In our data set, we’ve found that the average COO oversees over 4.4 distinct functions — and that number becomes much larger when you unpack our placeholder functions like “Operations” into its parts: HR, recruiting, administration, facilities, IT, etc. Think about the significance of this finding: how many functions exist in your whole company? Typically fewer than eight. This implies that COOs across our startup community are effectively managing over half their respective organizations — and sometimes much more.

Chart A: Average number of functions reporting to the startup COO

Second: There’s a lot of diversity in what COOs manage

Some real surprises surface when we look at what functions these COOs are leading; the data will break any stereotypes that exist. It’s not surprising to see the typical COO managing operations and finance, but I wouldn’t have expected that more COOs manage Product than manage Sales. On the tail end, a handful of us even lead engineering. On the surface it appears impossible to define the day job of this role when some of us are managing an engineering team while others handle analytics and HR. But taking a step back it’s easier to understand why this diversity exists: a COO is essentially managing around the skills of her boss, the CEO. Often the very reason we get hired is to supplement gaps on the senior team, which vary in every company.

Chart B: % of COOs in our community who manage each function

Putting it together

I hope this helps to shine a light into the world of the chief operating officer. I’ve hosted nearly 50 COO meetings since I got started myself, and I know firsthand about the vast diversity among my peers. But we can define ourselves broad lines:

  • We almost universally manage a significant chunk of the company
  • We ensure that roles and tasks without headcount don’t fall through the cracks
  • We keep our CEOs focused and pointed in the right direction
  • And finally we act proactively to hold the company together as it scales.

Over the past four years I have found this role to be impactful enough to do it myself every day. If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve written another article explaining the COO position through a different lens: what impact a role like this has in a startup and whether it’s right for your company.

More where this came from

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