Startup COO explains startup finance and operations jobs

Startup finance and operations jobs can be a good way to get into the startup world if you don’t have a technical background. My friend Brian Carroll has served as COO at two NYC startups, Flavorpill and TinyPass. In this interview he talks about the importance of these roles and what skills you need to be successful if you’re pursuing this startup career path.

Explain to me what a startup finance and/or operations job entails at an early stage startup.

People responsible for Finance and Operations at an early stage startup have two primary responsibilities:

  1. Keep the trains running on time by building lightweight processes and controls
  2. Keep everyone informed about how the company is doing by measuring and reporting on the key metrics

In terms of keeping the trains running on time (#1), most of the focus is on:

  • Facilities: Expanding offices space, negotiating leases, and hiring office managers to stock the coffee machine and greet guests.
  • HR: Running the recruiting function, onboarding new employees, filing paperwork in the right places, administering benefits programs, and running performance review and bonus programs.
  • Finance: Setting up accounting software, hiring bookkeepers, ensuring bills are paid on time, invoices are sent properly, and financial reports are provided to the board.
  • IT: Making sure we have the right equipment, the right security, and the right software to enable our employees to do their best work.

In terms of #2, the finance/operations team will create the reporting and dashboards for the board, the company leadership, and the employees to understand how we’re performing against our financial and operating goals. Stuff like:

  • cash burn
  • hiring pipeline
  • sales targets
  • office expense budgets

We build financial models to project the future of the business, help raise money, and evaluate the strategic impact of major company decisions.

And most importantly we help pick the right things to measure, and keep management focused on pushing the high-priority levers to keep the business moving in the right direction.

What are the most important experiences or skills one needs to be successful in a startup finance or operations role?

Early stage start-ups need hands-on people ready to do everything from building board-facing financial projections, to managing an office move, to filling out hiring paperwork.

A good cross-functional understanding and eagerness to get the details right, to build the platform on which the company can grow. I was able to pick up this cross-functional expertise via my MBA degree and 15 years of experience in various functional roles (sales, marketing, engineering, finance, customer support) at different sized internet companies.

Also key to early-stage startups is the ability to pull external resources into the company. Whether it’s capital or professional services or software, startups need to rely on the startup ecosystem for many of the functions that larger companies would have in-house.

Finding those resources and negotiating those agreements efficiently is an important part of cobbling together a fast-growing company.

During your time in business school, you interned with one of the best venture capital firms in New York. What was the biggest lesson you learned about startups while working at the firm and how have you taken that lesson and applied it to your startup career?

VC associates sift through a fire hose of business plans from brilliant, motivated people all day.  You start to see the same ideas over and over. The same themes play out with small variations.

Through that process you realize that great ideas and insight are such a tiny fraction of startup success – it’s all about the execution.

  • Can your team get things done?
  • Can you post a consistent stream of wins to the board?
  • Can you keep focused, and keep shipping?

It’s become a cliché, but execution really is everything.  And good execution at scale is all about the ops team.

They keep the business focused, getting things done.