What Does a COO Do in a Startup?

A chief operating officer (COO) is a high-level executive who plays a critical role in overseeing a company’s day-to-day operations and ensuring the business runs smoothly. In a startup, the COO serves as the right hand to the chief executive officer (CEO) and focuses on executing the company’s strategy, managing various business functions, and driving growth. This article provides a comprehensive guide for startup founders to help them understand the responsibilities, skills, and importance of a COO as well as tips on how to find the right candidate for this crucial role.

Understanding the Role of a Chief Operating Officer

A COO plays a critical role in a startup by overseeing day-to-day operations and executing the company’s business plan. While the CEO is the visionary leader who sets the overall direction, the COO focuses on implementing strategy, establishing policies and procedures, and managing the various business functions to achieve goals.

Key responsibilities of a startup COO include:

  • Designing and implementing business operations, processes, and procedures
  • Establishing policies that promote company culture and vision
  • Communicating and coordinating with executives and employees to align operations with strategy
  • Managing relationships with partners and vendors
  • Leading employees to encourage maximum performance and dedication

When Should Startups Hire a COO?

Many startups hire a COO when they have around 30 to 50 employees. However, a COO can add value at most stages by bringing operational expertise to complement the CEO’s vision. The right time for a startup to hire a COO will depend on the company’s stage, growth, and operational complexity. Some potential triggers to bring on a COO include:

  • The startup has validated its product/market fit and is poised for significant growth.
  • The founder or CEO is stretched too thin and needs someone to manage operations.
  • The company has grown to a size where it needs more structure and processes.
  • Specific skill sets are required, such as expertise in the company’s industry.

Skills of a Chief Operations Officer

When hiring a COO, startup founders should look for a candidate with a diverse set of skills, experiences, and qualities. The ideal COO should be able to drive operational excellence, support the company’s growth, and complement the existing leadership team. Here are the 10 key skills and qualifications to consider when identifying promising candidates for the COO role:

1. Proven Operational Leadership Experience

A strong COO candidate should have a track record of successfully managing and scaling business operations, preferably in a startup or high-growth environment. They should have demonstrated the ability to lead cross-functional teams and drive results. Additionally, experience in developing and implementing operational strategies, processes, and systems is crucial.

2. Strategic Thinking and Problem-Solving Skills

The ideal COO possesses the ability to think strategically and translate a CEO’s vision into actionable plans. They should have strong analytical and problem-solving skills to navigate complex business challenges and adopt a data-driven approach to decision-making and performance optimization.

3. Industry and Business Acumen

A deep understanding of the company’s industry, market trends, and competitive landscape is essential for a COO. They should have knowledge of best practices in operations, finance, human resources (HR), and other key business functions. The ability to identify and capitalize on growth opportunities and mitigate potential risks is also valuable.

4. Financial Management Expertise

Experience in financial planning, budgeting, forecasting, and reporting is crucial for a COO. They should be able to optimize financial performance, control costs, and allocate resources effectively. A solid understanding of key financial metrics and drivers of profitability is necessary.

5. Leadership and People Management Skills

Exceptional leadership skills are a must for a COO to inspire, motivate, and develop high-performing teams. They should have the ability to foster a positive, collaborative, and results-driven company culture. Experience in recruiting, coaching, and retaining top talent across various functions also is important.

6. Communication and Stakeholder Management Expertise

A COO should possess excellent communication and interpersonal skills to effectively convey strategies, plans, and results. They should be able to build and maintain strong relationships with internal and external stakeholders. Experience in managing board, investor, and partner relationships is highly valuable.

7. Adaptability and Resilience

The flexibility to navigate the fast-paced, ever-changing startup environment is essential for a COO. They should have the ability to adapt strategies and plans based on new information or changing circumstances. Resilience to overcome challenges, setbacks, and uncertainty with a positive attitude also is crucial.

8. Technology and Innovation Expertise

A COO should have an understanding of relevant technologies, tools, and platforms that can drive operational efficiency. Experience in leveraging data analytics, automation, and process improvement methodologies is valuable. The ability to foster a culture of innovation and continuous improvement also is important.

9. Domain Expertise (Depending on the Industry)

Specific knowledge and experience in the startup’s industry or niche can be highly beneficial for a COO. They should have an understanding of relevant regulations, compliance requirements, and industry best practices. A network of industry contacts and thought leaders to leverage for insights and partnerships also can prove valuable.

10. Cultural Fit and Values Alignment

Alignment with the startup’s mission, values, and culture is crucial for a COO. They should have a passion for the company’s product, market, and growth potential. A strong work ethic, integrity, and commitment to the team’s success are essential qualities.

How to Find a Chief Operating Officer for Your Startup

Finding the right COO for your startup can be a challenging task, but there are several strategies founders can employ to identify qualified candidates.

Leverage Your Network

Reach out to your professional network, including investors, advisors, mentors, and industry contacts. They may know potential candidates or be able to provide referrals. Attend industry events, conferences, and networking sessions to expand your network and meet experienced professionals who could be a good fit for the COO role.

Engage Executive Search Firms

Consider working with reputable executive search firms that specialize in placing top talent in startups and high-growth companies. These firms have extensive networks and databases of qualified candidates and can help you streamline the search process. However, be prepared to pay a significant fee for their services.

Utilize Targeted Job Boards and Online Platforms

Post your COO job listing on startup-focused job boards, such as Wellfound and VentureLoop. These platforms attract professionals who are specifically interested in working with startups. Additionally, leverage LinkedIn to search for potential candidates and reach out to them directly.

Consider Promoting From Within

If you have a strong internal candidate who has demonstrated operational leadership skills and aligns with your company’s culture and values, consider promoting them to the COO role. This approach can save time and resources on an external search and ensures a smoother transition.


The chief operating officer (COO) is a vital role in a startup, serving as the strategic partner to the CEO in driving operational excellence and growth. By bringing critical expertise in operations, leadership, and problem-solving, the COO enables the company to optimize performance, achieve targets, and scale effectively. Startups should carefully assess their needs and priorities when deciding to hire a COO because this executive position can have a significant impact on the company’s trajectory and success.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the role of a COO in a startup?

The COO is responsible for overseeing all day-to-day business operations and executing the startup’s business plan and strategy.

How much should a COO of a startup make?

Startup COO salaries can range from $150,000 to more than $300,000, depending on their location and experience as well as the company’s stage. Most COOs also receive equity grants as part of their compensation package.

What is a CEO vs. a COO in startups?

The CEO is the startup’s visionary leader who sets the overall direction and strategy. The COO is the CEO’s right hand who oversees all day-to-day operations and executes the company’s business plan and strategy.

What exactly does a COO do?

The COO manages all business operations and functions, including the product development, engineering, marketing, sales, customer service, HR, finance, and legal departments. The COO is responsible for implementing the company’s overall strategy and tracking its key performance indicators (KPIs), translating them into clear operational plans and goals. The COO also leads, manages, and mentors department heads and their teams, fostering a high-performance culture.