Execution is everything in startups: the tight time frames, the overwhelming tasks, and the constant need for quick wins. Yet, many startups choose to delay the staffing of the COO role. You can hear different opinions debated in founding teams around the world:
“Operations, that’s a big word, lots of moving parts, administration, coordinations and many other time consuming aspects of the daily work. Our startup wants to concentrate on the tech! Someone should take care of all the noise.”
“Operations lead? Hey, we just got out of the garage, we are still a handful of people - we don’t need an operations person, let alone a chief officer of operations. We were actually doing very well without one - raising our seed, getting initial traction.”
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.
Similarly the operational challenges faced by PlanetWatchers are complex and also change in space and time; my role as COO is to make sure that all these parts are moving smoothly:
- Geographically distributed teams: the core team, developers, and subject matter experts are spread across half a dozen cities on three continents - and counting.
- 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.
Then, funding came, and with it, a roadmap and milestones. Funding means you have money to spend to build the business, but it also means dealing with vendors, payroll, invoices, purchase orders, and bookkeeping. And that’s to say nothing of the challenge of spending wisely. A multilocal team calls for more than one bank, additional accountants and most daunting of all, double the lawyers.
All this actually appeals to me: I love juggling, throwing and catching, keeping up the rhythm and making sure that nothing falls. In defining my role within the founding team, I had one message to my colleagues: I will provide you with a care-free environment to do the important stuff, make and sell great product. I envisioned myself as The Wolf from Pulp Fiction, cleaning the mess in a swift and elegant way.
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.
After a while, the traditional matrix of “urgent and important” was not working well enough: tasks and work were properly categorized but something was missing. For me, what was missing was the third dimension to the matrix - emotional impactful. Some tasks are not that important, not that urgent - yet, their influence of the morale and momentum are high, they needed to be pushed up and be dealt with ASAP.
I built a simple set of rules, taking into consideration our team, the jobs we needed to get done and the personalities of every member of the team (attitude, behaviour, sensitivity, mode, etc.) Here are my seven insights for staying sane and keeping an international, multi-locations, startup running smoothly:
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.
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.
I started this journey visualising my elegant way of operating, keeping the team problem-free while calmly orchestrating every task. The reality? There was no calmness, no elegance, just noise, pressure and tasks piling up. Slowly, by developing and practicing my 7 rules I’ve been able to get myself and my team closer and closer to my operating vision.
We tackle the challenges of a thousand moving parts (in a few languages) while being accountable to our clients and investors, we keep learning and adjusting ourselves, staying focused on our target. because getting the things done on a global scale is challenge. And I am loving it!