Ask @StartupCFO: Should I hire a COO or CFO?

Sheryl Sandberg

Venturebeat recently declared in an article that “The CFO is dead, long live the COO.” The premise of this piece, written by a CFO, was that today’s CFOs are intimately involved in growing their businesses. Rather, than just reporting on historical results, they are a key partner working across the company to promote better strategies and decisions, leveraging current, real-time data, not just historical financials.

All of this is true, but there is a big difference in my books between an actual COO and a CFO who happens to be adding value across the business. The COO is ACCOUNTABLE for those results. She will have P/L responsibility and will be managing a large team that is directly tasked with delivering those results.

If you’re just supporting the delivery of those results with insights and analysis, then you’re not a COO.

The question that comes up in this then is what should you hire when? When do you need a CFO and when do you need a COO?

When should I hire a CFO?

I have a pretty simple framework for when to hire a CFO:

Seed stage: Have an advisor or investor with this experience
Series A: Hire a part-time CFO
Series B: Go full time

There’s a lot more to think about when it comes to hiring a great CFO. Check out my talk on the High-Performance CFO here.

When should I hire a COO?

A great many companies never hire a COO. So the answer here is not as obvious. If you look at companies that do have them you tend to see a common pattern: a founding CEO with a functional specialty who has hired a right hand to take care of the stuff that the founder doesn’t want to manage directly.

Facebook illustrates this well. Zuckerberg is a technical, product-focused founder. So, he hired a COO early on to drive sales and operations. There are many more examples of this.

If you’re always on the road bringing in deals or if you are in the office but want to go deep on a particular function, like product, then it probably makes sense to hire a COO.

Unlike the CFO role, COO is not something that can be done part time. So, I would not really think about COO until Series B. Once you’re into scaling mode, that’s the time.

If you’re interested in this role, there is a great book on the subject: Riding Shotgun.

Getting Started

At the early stages, you don’t need all those fancy C-level titles running around. The fact is your first finance or Operations hire will likely be neither a CFO or COO. Instead, this person will head of finance or Ops position. This person will be doing everything from annual budgets to ordering computers and chairs for new hires.

Hold off on the fancy titles until you hit scaling mode.

Feature image courtesy Wikipedia.

Syndicated with permission from Mark MacLeod’s StartupCFO blog.


Mark MacLeod

Since 1999, Mark MacLeod has been helping fund, grow and exit venture-backed startups. Mark has over 14 years of experience as a CFO for leading companies such as FreshBooks, Shopify, Tungle, and many others. In addition, Mark spent three years as a General Partner for Real Ventures. Mark now runs SurePath Capital Partners the leading investment bank advising the SMB software and commerce markets.

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