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The COO Mistake: Don’t Make It

Last week I met a bright entrepreneur with a good idea and the right experience and cred to pull it off. She said, “what I need is a tech person and a COO to get started.

I told her that she absolutely didn’t need a COO right now, and that she should run as fast as she could away from anyone who told her she did.

Everyone seems to make this mistake with their first (or second?) company: you feel like you want the company to be legit in the business sense, so you go out and find yourself a COO who knows how to operate things.

The only problem is when you first start a company there’s no real company to operate. So that COO starts operating whatever he or she can in the meantime – which usually turns out to be the product, since that’s what’s getting figured out pre-launch. And COO’s, by the very fact that they make good COOs, make less-than-perfect product people. (And product doesn’t need to be “operated”, does it?)

The result is a product discovery and perfection phase that is overly beaurocratic, overly managed, overly operated. That all gets in the way of that discovery process, which needs to be as focused as possible and as fluid as possible.

What you need when you start a startup is a core of people whose main job is to figure out the product – people who can translate the big idea that you started with into a nuts-and-bolts reality that actually works and that people actually like. Anything else is a distraction.

When you need a COO is when you have a real company, hiring employees, making payroll, talking to a board of directors, evaluating business deals. Operating.

I feel this problem extra sharply, because I had it myself when I started Appify. Our COO was a great COO, but there wasn’t any operating to do initially, and it led to a lot of overlap between what everyone on the team was doing, and a lot of extra conversation that slowed things down when they needed to go fast. If he had come on 6 months later, it would have been much better timing, and things would have gone smoother as a result.

When you start a startup, it’s really NOT a business at first. It’s a hunch that you’re onto something, a good idea that, properly executed, you could turn into a great business. The first thing you have to do is explore the idea from the product side of things and see if you can actually execute it. Once you start to see that you can, then, and only then, bring on a COO.

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