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The problems that COOs at Europe’s top startups are dealing with right now

We spoke to six COO’s from fast-growing tech startups and asked: what’s the biggest problem you’re dealing with?

By Miriam Partington in Berlin

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A chief operating officer (COO) has their fingers in lots of pies. While the job description of a COO varies wildly from company to company, these executives typically make decisions across all areas of the organisation: from production, marketing and sales to finance and legal.

On a daily basis, COOs strategise on how to build a healthy company culture and stay ahead of the competition — while also dealing with areas such as finance. They work hand-in-hand with the chief executive officer, helping to take tasks off their plate while maintaining a stake in the ground amid turbulent waters.

As companies deal with hyperscaling, hiring and hybrid workforces, we asked six COOs — from Forto to Flipdish and Zego — the key challenges they’re up against right now.

Jessica Oppetit, chief operating officer at Flipdish (Ireland): Adjusting tools and processes so they work at scale

Jessica Oppetit, chief operating officer at Flipdish (Ireland)

Flipdish is a software company offering digital ordering solutions for the hospitality sector. We’ve just been valued at $1.25bn and we have every intention of building a €100bn company. My most pressing issue is therefore figuring out how to change our team’s mentality and processes to those fit for a €100bn company. 

Questions I’m dealing with right now include: How do we automate our onboarding processes so that we don’t need to grow our operational headcount? How do we migrate our tools that we started using when we were a 50-person company to tools that scale to accommodate 10k people? How do we collectively raise the bar such that our targets, projects and hiring standards are more ambitious? 

These changes would be challenging to implement even if we were given unlimited time and bandwidth to think them through. We have more than doubled revenue and headcount year-on-year and we have every intention of continuing to grow at this pace. Trying to automate processes and grow incredibly quickly is akin to trying to fly an aeroplane while we are in the process of building it. It is a delicate balancing act that is both crazy fun and insanely challenging. 

Dr Michael Ardelt, chief operating officer at Forto (Germany): Ensuring scalability at a time of hypergrowth, internationalisation and global disruption

Dr Michael Ardelt, chief operating officer at Forto (Germany)

Right now, my focus is on the scalability of the company. Forto is a global business seeing significant geographic expansion into new markets while undergoing constant hypergrowth. This inevitably brings new levels of complexity. 

Together with the executive team, a key challenge in my role is in combining the right strategy and operating model with a strong purpose, vision and culture. This is something that we’re constantly reviewing to ensure people have a true North Star and the right guidance on how we get there, without trying to define absolutely everything. Our goal is to maintain a culture where all our people feel empowered, so they have the autonomy to make decisions, and this stems from our core values and leadership principles. 

Getting this balance right can be challenging. As COO I’m always thinking about things from a systems perspective and understanding how we scale internationally requires a “wide lens” view of the entire business. But while planning is crucial to help manage increasing complexity, I always keep in mind a quote attributed to Socrates, that “you don’t know what you don’t know”. All the uncertainty of the last few years with Covid, the Suez Canal and now Ukraine has really shown the importance of finding the right balance between robust planning and staying agile and flexible. 

Without structure and planning it’s very hard to be efficient. But to maximise the potential of the company, you have to complement these structures with the right culture to empower your people.

Lauma Sile, COO at Tech Chill (Latvia): Improving efficiency in a hybrid team and a highly dynamic environment

Lauma Sile, COO at Tech Chill (Latvia)

Efficiency is one of the most important aspects of any business, though it hasn’t been easy the past two years as we’ve all had to overcome obstacles that have changed the way we operate.

One of the most important values of TechChill has always been creating a strong core team, because we believe that once you gather individuals with the same set of values and a common goal, the rest can be taught along the way. However, we have some team members that work remotely, others that join at different times of the day or even the weekends, some of whom we only interact with within spreadsheets. 

For this reason, we need to define what is efficiency for all levels and all types of roles while giving enough background information, support and trust.  When the team is growing, the schedule is rapidly intensifying, and new projects and stakeholders are coming into the game every single day; it becomes a very challenging task, but it is one of the most crucial ones to keep improving as a business.

Christian Springub, cofounder and chief operating officer of Dance (Germany): Simplifying a complicated subscription service for ebikes

Christian Springub, cofounder and COO of Dance (Germany)

At Dance, we want to create a world in which people with ebikes can get maintenance in hours, not weeks — with no phone calls, no lines and no need to carry a broken bike to a store. We’re working on creating a simple experience in which a member can just subscribe to Dance via your phone and get an ebike delivered to your doorstep. 

My focus is to ensure that all the parts fit together and that everything we build and invest in helps us create an easy, smooth experience for members whether they’re in Hamburg or Paris. 

In order to create a great product, we have to balance both big and small bets — and finding the right investment partners to make those bets. Subscription is still in its infancy when it comes to electric mobility; it’s a long-term game. Simplifying something as complicated as a connected ebike/emoped subscription service takes support from various sources of capital, a global and diverse team, and of course, a great community of members.

Emma Lehikoinen, COO at Swappie (Finland): Finding quality hires in an increasingly hot talent market

Emma Lehikoinen, COO at Swappie (Finland)

The biggest bottleneck in scaling a business is talent. Right now, we have barely scratched the surface in the market for refurbished phones and we are still on our journey to becoming a global leader in this category. Because of this, we aim to hire over 1,000 new Swappiers in 2022 alone. 

Most startups and scaleups can feel that the talent market is hot right now: every role from growth marketing to software engineers is in demand. What has really helped us is focusing on our mission. We’re hunting down people who feel passionate about spending their working day towards building a more sustainable future. And we’re finding that people are coming to us too: a lot of talented professionals have joined us from many top tech companies that care about sustainability and want to take this concept mainstream. 

👉 Read: COOs are startups’ unsung heroes. Here’s how you can empower them

I don’t think finding talent is something leaders can simply outsource to HR, however. I spend a big chunk of my time recruiting, whether it’s interviewing or having (virtual) coffees with potential candidates. I think all managers in high-growth companies should be spending significant time just talking with the people interested in joining them.

To summarise, I think it’s about putting enough time and effort into recruiting, and really nailing down why someone would like to join your company. I strongly believe that a people-first approach is the only way to sustain long term growth. With the right people and culture, you will get strategy, execution and results to follow. 

Sonia Flynn, chief operating officer at Zego (Ireland): Balancing short and long-term goals

For me, the biggest challenge is striking a balance between focusing on the things that impact the business in the short term, while still holding the longer-term vision firmly in your sights. Too often, teams focus on what needs to happen today and tomorrow and don’t take the time to consider how actions and workstreams interconnect later, or what’s needed to build for scale.

I find it extremely valuable to book in regular slots with our leadership team to focus on the bigger picture and the overall direction for the company. The insight from these sessions is then fed into our weekly company meeting, the Zego Huddle, so that everyone understands where we’re headed and why we’re taking a particular course of action.

Miriam is Sifted’s Germany correspondent. She also covers future of work, coauthors Sifted’s Startup Life newsletter, and tweets from @mparts_

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