Your Startup Doesn’t Need A COO

“I’d like to be Chief Operating Officer,” Randy (not his real name) said to me.

We had already agreed on Randy’s ownership in the company and his salary, so all that was left was the title. Randy had over 30 years experience, and he was a true heavyweight.

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“I think that makes sense,” I said.

Giving Randy the COO title was one of the worst mistakes I made as CEO.

Why? We didn’t need a Chief Operating Officer. And we likely wouldn’t need a COO for a long, long time.

I had violated the basic rule for titles: Give someone the title they deserve, not what they want.

Randy wanted to be COO for all the wrong reasons. Randy had never been a C-level executive before, so becoming COO fed his ego.

Becoming COO also put him ahead (at least to Randy) of the three other founders. Randy was a bull in china shop, overstepping his bounds every chance he could.

There were so many problems that I had to fire Randy.

I wondered, after I let Randy go, if we would have had these problems if I had given Randy the title he deserved (VP of Operations)?

I’ll never know, but I do know that giving Randy too big a title was the wrong decision. So, with this life lesson in mind, here are my basic rules for early stage startup titles:

A. Beware of giving C-level titles.

I’m not saying to not give someone a C-level title to save money, I am saying stay away from C-level titles unless there truly is a role for a C-level executive. I’ll get back to this later.

This leads to the next rule…

B. The only C-level founder you should have (besides CEO) is maybe a CTO.

Giving some the CTO title makes sense if you have a technical genius that is going to provide the technical vision for the company.

Having said that…

C. You never need a CFO, CMO, CSO, or COO as a cofounder.

Sorry. You don’t. And someone that “needs” that title to join your company is not the right fit. A great co-founder will be in it for the work and what your company is doing, not the title.

D. You will not need a CFO at the start.

You will need someone part-time to help with the books, but you will not need a full-time CFO until maybe the $10M/year mark. You can start with a part time controller or a fractional CFO. And…

E. VP Sales will be your most important hire at the executive level.

So choose very carefully because this person is going to have a large say over your success. And, along these lines…

F. Wait a bit to hire your VP Sales.

You will likely not get anyone good until you get well beyond the $1M/year level, so wait until you have a repeatable selling process. That means…

G. You, the CEO, are going to be your company’s first VP Sales.

Being VP of Sales turns out to be really important for CEOs because you learn how your products actually sell. Plus, you’ll be the best salesperson your company will have early on, even if you don’t have any experience.

I’ve seen it over and over again. Your passion and understanding of your company’s product(s) and vision will shine through.

You’re hiring the wrong person if they’re insistent on having the title.

I know exactly what you’re thinking. “I can’t hire this great person unless I give them the C-level title.”

I get it. I know it’s really hard to hire great talent early on. However, you’ll likely regret hiring someone and giving them a title they don’t deserve, just like Randy.

Having a C-level title really shouldn’t matter at this stage of your company’s development. In fact, it’s a red flag that the prospective executive is joining your company for the wrong reason if they insist on the C-level title.

I wish I had done this with Randy because I would have saved myself, and my team, a lot of grief.

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I work with startup CEOs to help them grow their businesses . I built several businesses from $0 to >$100M. Learn more at

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