What is Operations at a Startup?
Or, what does a COO, VP, or Head of Operations do at a growing company?

December 28, 2018
written by Daniel Coyle  AngelList | LinkedIn | Email | Twitter

Given my idiosyncratic background, having touched a lot of different business functions (product, project management, marketing, people or the dreaded “human resources”, recruiting, talent management, sales, partnerships, client success) and operated as a director, manager, founder, president, and department head in various sectors (wellness, press and media relations, artificial intelligence, saas, healthcare, design and marketing), I get asked all the time, “what does operations do?”.

The truth is, this means many different things in many different companies. To try and put “what operations means to me” in context, I went through the exacting task of parenthetically citing various departments and verticals--it wasn’t just to start this post with an inexcusably lengthy paragraph. Below are my takeaways from nearly two decades of being entrenched in, and frenetically building, startups.

To be effective, Operations should have the most detailed insight into what’s happening day-to-day; what people are focused on, working toward, and how those things align with short and long term initiatives and goals. This clarity will allow Ops to set up teams and individuals for success. The story can go sweet or sour very quickly--ultimately, the team you build is the company you build.

In a resource and expertise starved environment, hell bent on non-linear growth, Ops absolutely must take what’s most important from zero to one and then hand it off to, or hire, someone more qualified.

Knowing what needs to be done (properly prioritizing) and leveraging individual's horsepower to get those things to a fledgling state, will provide real world improvements to the organization while buying time to get the right person into that role. A note to those with egos that are larger than their standards, once you get that “right person” in the door, they had better tell you why your current efforts are pretty lackluster-at-best and how they’re going to make incredible changes right away.

A few things Ops must be:
-Excellent at handling what’s around the corner and having resources dedicated to strategic initiatives that can provide outsized growth (this is only slightly different from the paragraph above, but nuance rules the day).
-Well positioned to drive internal mandates and provide the “startup within a startup” culture.
-Constantly fixing and improving things (“things” is intentionally vague, because those with the know-how don’t need that ambiguity erased).

A few things that Ops must relentlessly drive and insist on:
-Have high standards and take the steps necessary to know what “great” looks like in areas where you’re operating, need to be operating, or are questioning current operations. If you find people or entire teams operating with a system that tolerates subpar standards, you must address it (unless you want to work at a mediocre company, doing mediocre things, ending in a whimper and not a bang).
-Facilitate (or force) communication that gives the right people the complete information they need. This also helps reduce politics within an organization. As you likely know, one of the key drivers of politics in an organization is information asymmetry.

These are thoughts from the front lines--having engaged for many years, in many different ways, and still learning. Now go ask someone who works in a warehouse, or at a subscription-box startup, or at a factory that manufactures widgets what a COO, VP, Head of Operations does, and they’ll tell you something just as lengthy, but completely different.

Welcome to the weird world of Operations.