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Business Hires in a Startup - COO, Chief of Staff, CFO

Peter Ombres

Module Description:
Curated COO and Co-founder Peter Ombres shares what the role of a COO is, how a COO interfaces with a CEO, the right timing to bring on a COO, and where a Chief of Staff and CFO fit in.

Full Transcript:
Welcome everyone to our Ubiquity University session with our deep dive on business hires in a startup, including COO, chief of staff and CFO. Today, we're lucky to have my good friend Peter Ombres, who's COO and co-founder of Curated. Before we dive in, I'll remind everyone, Ubiquity University is a pre-seed and seed stage venture capital firm investing in software beyond the screen. That means we back early entrepreneurs who are moving software off the screen of computers and smartphones into the real physical world where they're solving business problems using smart hardware and machine learning. So with that, let's dive into today's topic. Business hires in a startup. Especially for deep tech startups this is a topic that isn't very well understood. Peter, you've been in and around startups for over 20 years now. Let's dive right in and if you would, tell us what it is a COO does, and if you could weave in a little bit of your background, that'd be really helpful.

Yeah, sure. Great to be here. Thanks for having me. So, just maybe we can start with my background. I've been on the business side of technology for basically my whole career. Finance, strategy, operations, and I think that's given me a good strong foundation for what we're about to talk about now. So as a COO, I'm basically responsible for anything that isn't product engineering and design, or design of the company. That can be anything from our financial models, HR, legal, to goal setting, operations, making sure that we're tracking and hitting the things that we need to hit in order to move the business along. So it's really a catchall title, I would say, for a number of different functional areas in the company.

Hmm. So, when you say something like HR and legal, can you tell us what that means? Are you doing the HR or do you coordinate? And with legal, you're doing the legal or you coordinate externally?

Yeah, so we're about 6 /12 years old as a company. We're about a little over a hundred people. So in the early days, yes, I was actually running payroll, I was onboarding employees, I was working on the paperwork to make sure that they had their equity, their comp packages, et cetera. On the legal side, I was reviewing legal documents. Legal's a little bit more difficult. You should absolutely have outside counsel. So, we've had attorneys from the very beginning, but they give you form docs that if you know what you're doing, you can fill out those form docs, have them take a quick look at those legal docs and save quite a bit of money. So, we used TriNet on the HR side in our early days. They were a great partner for us, which gave me some leverage. But yeah, very tactically it was me doing all of those jobs or those roles early on. And then as we've grown, we've been fortunate enough to be able to hire amazing people under me. So I now have a Head of HR, Head of Legal, Head of Finance, et cetera. And so, I went from basically doing everything to now being responsible for, and managing all those functional areas myself.

So, a lot of the startups we work with and in the Ubiquity community have one person, five people, 10 people at the whole company. And when I hear you describe these things, I'm wondering what's left for the CEO. So, how do you think about that? Again, rewind to year one or year two of Curated. How would you, versus a CEO, divvy things up?

Yeah, so in our case, our CEO was also our head of product. And so that-

Which is also very common, I think, yeah. That makes sense.

I think that's very common these days. And so he was very focused. I think that if you really zoom out, the job of a CEO is to set the long-term strategy for the company to make sure that we have enough capital to hit our next discretion point as a business, and then to hire amazing people, and really create an amazing culture. So he had that hat on, and then he also had the head of product, which is iterating daily, weekly, monthly with the teams to try to figure out how do we find product market fit in the context of, in our case, it's an e-commerce company. I was responsible for everything else that essentially freed him up to focus on those first three topics that I mentioned as the CEO, and then also the product side. So for example, he and I would co-lead on any financing. We would talk about what did we wanna put in the pitch deck, how do we wanna articulate our story, how do we wanna describe the traction that we had? And then I would help and was the lead on pulling together the decks, the financial models, and really being his partner in those meetings. And then, as we went through term sheet negotiations, I would put my head of legal hat on. As we went through financial diligence, I would put my CFO hat on. And then, as we went through the close of financing, I was the one who was responsible for making sure that we were hitting our targets and hitting our deadlines and getting it to close. So, working hourly with our CEO. But that then allowed him to free up some time to focus on how do we achieve product market fit while at the same time, us raising capital, for example.

So, I've heard the expression, "Keeping the trains running on time." Is that something that is a good or bad analogy for what you do?

Yeah, I mean, that's super important. I mean, especially in an early startup, it's absolutely critical that you're creating traction on a daily basis and pushing things forward. And so, it's very easy to get distracted. It's very easy to lose focus. It's very easy to forget about what it is that's most important at the end of the day. And as we've gotten bigger, this has crystallized a lot more. I now lead our OKR process, for example. Objectives and key results, which is a much more formal process that we go through on an annual basis, and then quarterly and track monthly. In the early days, it was really trying to sit down with each of the teams to try to figure out what is it that we were trying to solve for, what is the most important thing that each team needs to solve for in the following weeks or months? And then, making sure that we were achieving those goals and that we were hitting those goals, achieving those goals, and continuing to push forward.

So in your view, I mean, I know you all did this at Curated and you're a consumer e-commerce. A lot of our Ubiquity deep tech companies are enterprise focused. But if you put on both hats for a second, how soon should someone bring on a COO? Does it normally, would you recommend it's even part of the founding team? You know, independent of your own situation? Or a chief of staff if you could weave that in? Like, what is the right time to bring on a COO or chief of staff?

Yeah, I think, one thing I would say is look around the room and see what are the skill sets that you currently have. So I think, product engineering design, obviously super important in the early stages of a startup. I think the question to ask yourself is, and this is probably a question for the CEO. How much am my time am I spending away from those three areas? Am I spending a lot of time on legal? Am I spending a lot of time on onboarding employees? Am I spending a lot of time trying to think about goal setting and tracking those goals? And so, I think the finance is also critically important at the early stages. I mean, I'm a big believer that you should be deep in your financial model, understand your burn, and operate the business against burn targets and runway. And so I think, it really depends on your skillset as a CEO or founding founder or founding team. But I would say, the earlier, the better to make sure that you can focus the rest of the team on finding product market fits and getting it to market as quickly as possible. A chief of staff is a really interesting role. That term has been thrown around a lot over the last 5 to 10 years in Silicon Valley and a lot of people have been hired into that role. I think it means different things to different people. In my mind there's kind of two distinct roles within the chief of staff. There's an EA who can help organize you, make sure that all of your meetings are running smoothly, and is really elevated EA which gives you incredible-

Yeah, executive assistant?

Executive assistant, thank you. Yeah.


And that gives you incredible leverage. It's absolutely important and I would say frees up the organizational of your side of your brain so that you can focus on whatever it is that you need to focus on. The other side of a chief of staff is someone who's an extension of you as a decision maker and can speak on your behalf in meetings and make decisions on behalf of the CEO or the executive team. And so, I think it's really, which of those do you need? And that's a conversation for you to have probably with your co-founders and your board.

The last role that comes up in this category, I guess it's function, but it's finance, whether it's a CFO or a director of finance. You mentioned that you covered that in the early days of Curated. Is that something you recommend? And so if you have a COO, a lot of these other roles disappear for the first 5 or 10 or 20 hires?

Yeah, I think a COO that has a finance background and can own and run the model is absolutely critical to this hire. Because what it ends up, what it ends up doing is gives the CEO a lot more leverage. And it gives the business, I think, a lot more focus. So, I'm a big, it depends really where you are. If you're pre-revenue and all you're doing is you're keeping track of expenses and making sure that you're not overpaying for legal bills or software or whatever, you probably don't need that finance skillset as much. But even in the early days of raising capital, you're gonna need to build a financial model that articulates the way that you're gonna eventually generate revenue and eventually have a good underlying business. And so, I think to the extent you can find someone who can act in both the COO role and CFO role. I think that's an extremely powerful combination and will give you a lot more leverage. And allow that person, frankly, to have more impact on the organization.

Hmm. Yeah. I'll do two plugs for Ubiquity University. You mentioned OKR. I think we're gonna do a future session on that together. And then, we do have a very simple session on building your first basic financial model with the link to a Google Sheets, just to give folks a sense of how to get that going. But I agree with the premise that the more leverage you can offer a CEO to blaze forward, focus on the vision, recruit capital and people, I think you get a ton of value outta that. Maybe the last topic I'll ask you about is where would you recommend a very early stage company? Again, 5, 10, 20 people, maybe even at founding, find somebody that would be a good COO? What sort of roles or titles or companies do you think they come from?

Yeah, I mean, I think what's critically important in the early days is someone that has a broad skillset. And frankly I think in this role, trust is extremely important. I mean, in our early days, probably until employee 50, we used our networks to try to go out and find individuals that we could bring on because we could get validation that the person was really good and we could trust them in that role. I think if you're looking for backgrounds, it's interesting. Over the last 10, 15 years, it's been hard as a business generalist, I think in technology, because you naturally end up in a sales role, a marketing role, a finance role, et cetera. And so, I think the backgrounds... I'm a little bit biased here 'cause this is my background and yours as well. I think ex-management consultants are great for this role. They have a skill set in finance because they built financial models. They also have the strategy side of things, which we haven't talked about. But I think strategy or being a strategic thought partner to the CEO is critically important, and they can get a ton of stuff done. They have been in work environments where it was critical that they just got a ton of stuff done. The other background that I really like for this is someone that's been in banking, investment banking that is, and then has had an opportunity to be either at a private equity fund or a venture capital fund. Again, I think the banking side of things, that gives you a finance background. Really, really solid financial modeling. On the private equity or venture capital side, I think that pushes you into a more strategic role and gives you exposure to operations.

And so, if I were to try to find this person, I would ask every single person I know, and really focus on those two backgrounds. Or obviously a CMO at another company.

That's an interesting answer 'cause you and I basically met on the first day of our first job outta undergrad in 2004.


And at Bain. And both of us pretty quickly, you full-time, and then me with a six-month externship wanted, meandered into startups. And I think to me hearing X consultant X banker is the beginning of the sentence, but it has to be followed by, they didn't quite fit, right? Like, they didn't quite get sucked into slide world only, right? They can do slides, but they're also practical and can take out the trash.


I think it's an interesting profile to find someone like that.

Yeah, and I think, what I'm really saying there is someone who's been trained with that skillset is absolutely critically important. And you're right, the people that last are not gonna be a good fit for these roles or for startups in general.
I think you really have to have a hunger to roll up your sleeves and dive deep into problems.

Yeah, and I think, what I'm really saying there is someone who's been trained with that skillset is absolutely critically important. And you're right, the people that last are not gonna be a good fit for these roles or for startups in general.

Well, Peter, thank you very much for being part of this session. Our deep dive on startup business hires. Again, Ubiquity Ventures and Ubiquity University, we're happy to do this. We'd love to hear from you. If you have an idea you'd like to talk to us about, please visit us at pitch.ubiquity.vc. And if you'd like to reach out to me about this session or something else, I'm at sunil at ubiquity.vc Thank you.

14 minutes
Startup Stage:
Pre-seed, Seed, Series A
Upload Date: