The Early Startup COO: When You Know You Need One

PlanetWatchers
Dec 10, 2017 · 7 min read
The view from PlanetWatchers’ office in Tel Aviv.

Does a startup need a COO at the beginning?

Take PlanetWatchers, a geospatial analytics startup. Wait. Before taking it, let’s understand what that actually means… geospatial analytics deals with data that changes in both space and time, and the insights derived from the data also involve the dimensions of space and time. PlanetWatchers uses multi-source satellite imagery and other data in combination with dedicated algorithms to gather, process and generate insights for natural resource managers in forestry, agriculture, mining and more.

  • Global markets: PlanetWatchers doesn’t target the Fortune 100 or big banks, we target natural resource intensive industries such as agriculture, energy, mining and forestry, and those businesses are even more globally distributed than typical tech sector customers.
  • Remote job sites: clients in forestry and agriculture have their natural assets in geographically distributed locations and they are, usually, far from big cities or the center of the country. In both of these business verticals - the need for large geographical areas dictates being in the peripheral parts of the county.

Now, all of that calls for some serious Operations!

Established in 2016 to do satellite imagery analytics differently, from its first day PlanetWatchers was a global company. That’s pretty ambitious for three guys with no funding separated by an ocean and a ten-hour time difference. Between San Francisco and Tel-Aviv our garage was Skype, or WebEx or Slack calls into the night. A dog barking (every night!) was our music, and with the time differences - everybody had coffee. Lots of coffee.

It didn’t happen.

Endless contracts to review, cultural differences, tax laws in multiple countries, it all became a big pile of ongoing comments on documents and time-zone adjustments for calls and visits. Slowly, I was able to set a few rules that made doing my job easier and therefore making the business run smoother. It started with a clear mapping of tasks by importance and urgency, I then set one of my most important rules - I always start with the task that I want to postpone the most. Tackling the task I feel least comfortable with always gives an extra kick to the rest of the work.

Stay Calm

First and hardest to apply. The pressure will arrive. Sooner rather than later, pressure will become a major factor. And even if you do not feel the pressure directly - it will be all around you, affecting your co-workers, your clients, probably even your investors. Guess what - you can’t avoid it. Know this: the way you, the person in charge of a million moving parts, will handle this pressure has a huge impact on the business environment. Feel the pressure, but stay calm. At least three times a day, I go up to the roof of the office, I look around at the sea and the city and I breathe. It’s a no-phone time. I always look for something new when I take my roof walks, I get an unfiltered, non remote sensing view of the constant change. This is my calm spot, try to find or make yours!

Use Common Sense

Doing business globally comes with the challenge of working with many different sets of rules: cultural, business, legal and accounting rules all vary from place to place and represent different set of ideologies than you come from. Though we might think they are complicated or arbitrary, in most of the cases we just don’t get their logic at first. When faced with the unexpected and unclear, I always find that getting to the basics, to common sense, assists with handling the task at hand. Think simple and start reducing the problem to its building blocks.

Never, Ever, Underestimate the Cultural Gap

If you’re an Israeli, you are used to short meetings, no small talk, no beating around the bush and no subtext. Go to South America, or Eastern Europe and you’ll find that important meetings are long and that the heart of the matter always comes up at the end, just before you think the meeting is over. Cultural differences are wider than we imagine: how fast should you answer an email?, “did we just get a No”? Do they really think it’s AMAZING or is this just how they say “Nice”? Before going into any new market, take the time to learn about it, meet people that have worked there and prepare yourself prior to actually starting to work there. Be ready, this process takes time. A whole lot of precious time.

Filter or Flail

PlanetWatchers’ technology can process terabytes of information, fast. In today’s world, satellite imagery is (almost) endless and smart technology starts with choosing the right sensors for each task, avoiding information overload by careful planning. Well, if algorithms can do it why shouldn’t I? Check the importance of what you are doing often, tasks that started long time ago might be part of a daily routine but no longer have the significance they once held. Another time saver is to hold meetings without bringing in cell phones, it’s amazing how everybody is more effective without being constantly distracted. Plus, they are eager to conclude the meeting and reclaim their phones!.

You Are Not So Special

Ok, you might be to a few people… But as a rule, don’t run the business based on this. If the general advice you hear is that a business cycle in a certain country is 18 months, believe it. Try to beat it, but have this benchmark in mind. Common practices became common for a reason. Don’t try to beat the system on every level, it will just be more time consuming, rather understand the places you are best equipped to take shortcuts, and concentrate on them.

Energy

Bring it. Keep it positive. Use it. Always share it.

Enjoy the Intensity

You chose a crazy ride to ride, ups and downs, successes and doubts. You can’t lie back and enjoy - you are in the driver’s seat! it’s up to you to get things done and that requires jumping to the deep end. If I were a spiritual guide I’d describe how all colors of emotions grow you as a person, how all challenges make you stronger, etc. As I am only a COO I’ll just say, you feel alive!

Hiring a C at Seed

At PlanetWatchers we found that Operations is important enough to have a dedicated C from Seed. Managing the logistics of a geospatial startup is by nature more remote and more geographically and culturally distributed than your average SaaS or AI startup.


PlanetWatchers Monitoring Blog

Last mile of analytics for companies that manage and protect natural resources.

PlanetWatchers

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PlanetWatchers Monitoring Blog

Last mile of analytics for companies that manage and protect natural resources.