A chief operating officer — or COO — is typically the person who keeps a business ticking over, and is usually the second in command to the CEO. For early-stage startups, it’s likely that the COO is an early employee or cofounder who knows the ins and outs of each part of the company's operations like the back of their hand.
What is a chief operating officer?
A COO ensures that a company's operations run smoothly and efficiently, and that a business is in compliance with legislation. They’re also tasked with ensuring business objectives are met.
The chief operating officer role includes things like overseeing the management of resources, such as personnel and technology costs, and strategy development and implementation.
Every great COO makes sure everything is functioning seamlessly behind the scenes. But what the role entails will vary depending on the operational focus of a company.
Sifted turned to four chief operating officers at European startups to find out what that looks like in practice.
Glen Walker, chief operating officer and cofounder at Nous
Glen Walker is the COO and cofounder of Nous, a UK-based household bills management tool. Over the years, he’s been responsible for finance, product, people, business development and marketing — though fortunately, he notes, not all at the same time.
A COO needs to be wiIling to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in when they need to
“A COO needs to be wiIling to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in when they need to, and then helicopter back and adjust overall strategy based on what they saw,” says Walker. “They also need to be a first-principles problem solver and great at hiring people — they're likely to be a generalist, so if they're hiring specialists, they need to be better than them.”
Walker believes the COO’s role is very much dependent on the stage a startup is at — Nous raised a seed round in February 2022. The startup is currently focused on defining how its operations will work. His days currently include:
- Talking to customers to help them save money on bills;
- Understanding what Nous processes work and don’t work, and helping to problem solve to improve them;
- Working with engineers on what tools they need — right now, Nous is thinking a lot about workflow orchestration;
- Hiring for the operations team.
“At Nous, the operational challenges are fascinating,” says Walker. “We're building a workflow system to absorb the complexity of managing all the household services of millions of households, so operations are much more important than if I were the COO of a simple SaaS business, where operations could be limited to customer support.”
Thorbjørn Fink, COO at Pleo
Thorbjørn Fink is chief operating officer at Pleo, a Copenhagen-based business expenses platform. He highlights adaptability as the key attribute that every COO must have — specifically, the ability to adapt quickly to changing situations, market conditions or new technologies.
“Strategic thinking is really important,” says Fink. “Having that ability to think long-term and develop strategies that align with the company's goals and objectives is key, and so too is problem solving. COOs at smaller companies need to be able to work effectively with cross-functional teams and lead a lot of the practical work themselves.”
Having that ability to think long-term and develop strategies that align with the company's goals and objectives is key
As a startup grows — Pleo is a post-Series C business — Fink believes leadership becomes more important and the need to inspire and motivate teams can fall on the COO’s shoulders. You also need to be increasingly across the management of external relationships, whether with customers or partners and, in Pleo’s case, financial regulators.
At Pleo, Fink is tasked with:
- Leadership and guidance: “This involves guiding and challenging our leaders and subject matter experts to ensure our teams' strategies align to the objectives and goals of the company.”
- Financial products: “I oversee the development of new financial products and services by working closely with both product development teams and payments specialists to identify new opportunities and develop strategies to build financial products that meet customer needs, as well as regulatory requirements.”
- Onboarding of customers: “I have overall responsibility for the teams working with the KYC (Know Your Customer) onboarding process for our B2B customers, and work closely with our compliance and operations teams to continuously improve and enhance our onboarding processes.”
- Partnership management: “As COO, I am typically involved in negotiating partnerships with other companies/infrastructure partners or commercial partnerships that might help grow our business. In these cases, I work closely with our business development or partnerships teams, as well as our legal teams.”
When it comes to the volume of challenges that this year is throwing at startups, Fink notes how there is currently more focus on efficient and sustainable growth rather than a “growth at all costs” mentality. At Pleo, this means more focus on optimising operations, getting more out of the resources available and simplifying processes to make them less resource-heavy.
Fern Wake, chief operating officer at Packfleet
Fern Wake is chief operating officer at Packfleet, a fully electric parcel courier primarily operating in London. The company raised seed funding in April 2022.
A key part of Wake’s role includes ensuring KPI setting and adherence, managing HR policies and checking processes are set up correctly to be able to scale the business as needed.
She believes the main role of a chief COO is bringing the senior team together to ensure clear goals are communicated and that everyone knows the priorities for the next quarter, as well as looser goals for the full year.
“A COO needs to be able to manage multiple openly conflicting priorities and needs a broad understanding of key aspects in running a business — and particularly when to get expert help,” she says. “They also need to be able to remain calm and deal with people at all levels within an organisation. A sense of humour is definitely helpful.”
A COO needs to be able to manage multiple, open conflicting priorities and needs a broad understanding of key aspects in running a business
Of the many challenges startups are facing this year, Wake notes the need to make cash go further is a particular task for COOs — with investment much harder to find, keeping a closer eye on burn rate is important.
Inspecting headcount and whether the talent on the team matches the long-term direction of the company is also a challenge that COOs face.
“Rapid changes in direction are common within a startup and have to be assessed and communicated clearly, to ensure you bring the team with you if you're suddenly pivoting and changing direction,” says Wake.
“Employees who are great at the initial stage aren't always the right people to take the company forward — those can be hard situations to resolve for COOs.”
Jack Waley-Cohen, co-founder and chief operations officer at what3words
Jack Waley-Cohen is both chief operations officer and cofounder at UK-based navigation platform what3words. He believes that flexibility, patience and remaining unflappable is key to fulfil his role as COO.
“A big part of what a COO does at a startup is plugging gaps and making sure to take into account the knock-on effects of all of our plans,” he says.
This was particularly true when what3words launched in Vietnam last autumn, Waley-Cohen says, with its success leading to the decision to set up an office in the country earlier this year.
“Asking questions about the legal implications of operating overseas, negotiating relocation packages and visas, understanding the advertising landscape, as well as finding office space was all part of it,” he says.
A big part of what a COO does at a startup is plugging gaps and making sure to take into account the knock-on effects of all of our plans
“I’d be flattering myself if I said I was organising all of this, as this is all the result of a collaborative effort, but someone needs to oversee all of the moving parts.”
Waley-Cohen adds that another key part of his role includes doing the jobs that people don’t always realise are happening. One example is negotiating every aspect of an office lease, from evaluating office usage, coordinating office schedules and ensuring all the equipment is functioning, to taking into account the legal and financial elements of a contract.
“Negotiating with landlords and building in contractual clauses that prevent us from long-term liabilities — like a protracted lease — to protect the company in the event of an unanticipated change is a key part of my role,” he adds.