Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Are COO's Really Needed?

Mark Suster wrote a blog last week about the role of COO's in startups and basically argued that they're not needed. You can read it here. He got such a strong flood of opinions in response (check out the comments) that he wrote a follow-up this weekend, which is here.

As a COO myself since 2006 of what for many years was a startup (and some could argue still is), and as an avid follower of Suster's blog,I found the discussion quite interesting. I don't want to argue the merits or lack thereof of Suster's comments but rather touch on a bigger issue. The one that I think Suster was really getting at.  And that is the role of building a management team at a startup.

It is well chronicled in the annals of entrepreneurship that success of a company is determined by the management team. Great ideas come and go, strategies change and competitive landscapes shift. These are all things that are inevitable. Successful companies aren't the ones with a great start out of the gate but rather the ones with the personnel to manage this ever-changing path and stay a step ahead of the others.

I interpreted Suster's point as being that it's important to have razor-sharp focus with your employees and ensure that investments in employees are producing maximum returns.  His assertion is that COO's are like Chiefs of Staffs to the CEO - and in a startup, is that really necessary when you need folks focused on sales and marketing, product, engineering, business development and finance?


I agree in principle with Suster's point while at the same time defending my title of COO as being accurate.  In a young company, all employees wear several hats and mine include corporate strategy, franchise development and operations management. COO fits that job description better than "VP of Sales or Franchising or Business Development." And I think that’s the thing with the COO title – there isn’t a clear-cut job description and the roles look differently from company to company.

So are COO's really needed? Well, it depends. When it comes to your startup, I encourage you to look hard at the duties you need as opposed to hiring based on preconceived notions of the titles you need. Then hire accordingly.  Some of you may need a COO while others may not.  The key is to invest in employees who have job responsibilities that provide the greatest return to the company. And at the end of the day, titles within a startup are mostly inflated and don’t make a lot of sense anyways. It’s the job function that counts.

Given the importance of management teams and the reality of limited funds and resources at a startup, it's imperative that you get your initial hires right. That, I think, was Suster's point ... And as a COO, I agree with it 100%.

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