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The Four Types of Startup COOs

If you asked 5 people in Startupland to define the role of a COO, you would receive 10 different explanations. I have three myself. What does a modern COO do?

The role of a COO has evolved over the past decade or so because of broader changes within the ecosystem which has created some confusion what what precisely should a COO do. Recently, Redpoint Office Hours welcomed Allison Pickens to clarify the COO role and when startups should consider recruiting one.

Whereas a decade ago, a board might have hired a professional CEO to scale the operations of a startup, today, more boards seek COOs. A few hypotheses underpin this trend.

The first is founders possess greater leverage today in the boardroom than in the past and seek to remain CEO longer. Second, more companies have adopted a product-led growth (PLG motion). Product and technology-centric founders should remain at the helm of these businesses longer because the product drives the GTM.

Regardless of the reasons, more startups are looking to hire a COO. If you’re in the market for a COO, how should you write the job description?

Allison answered this question with a stunningly lucid phylogenetic tree of COO archetypes.

The Four COO Archetypes

  1. Chief of Staff - a founder recruits a CoS to combat an increasing workload of project work. The CEO needs 10-12 hours more throughput each day and this person provides that help. The CoS doesn’t manage anyone.
  2. The CFO+ / operations lead - the CEO notices misalignment amongst the management team and may need help running team meetings, OKRs, or entire teams like the people, finance, legal, data and the systems to power them to success.
  3. Chief Journey Officer/Chief Revenue Officer - The CEO observes GTM challenges and the customer journey requires refinement. This archetype oversees all GTM including marketing, sales, and post-sales.
  4. Run the Business - The founder decides they would like someone to run the business day-to-day, to free themselves to evangelize or focus on one part of the business.

Allison also shared a not-uncommon pattern of a Chief of Staff being promoted from within. They might start by succeeding with the first operational projects, hiring the team to staff it, and then managing the team as they scale. Having accomplished this a few times, Chief of Staff becomes the operations lead.

If you’d like to read more about this important topic, Allison delves into much more detail here in her recap of the event.

I want to thank Allison for her trenchant insights which clarified an important trend in management team composition and at the same time I had a great time talking about it.