Blog | Dec 2, 2022

Tips from Ultimate’s co-founder & COO on leading the business operations of an early-stage startup into a scaleup

Reetta square WRITTEN BY Reetta Heiskanen

Sarah Al-Hussaini, Co-founder & COO of Ultimate
Reading time 3 min

When Sarah Al-Hussaini first took on the role of Chief Operating Officer at Ultimate, she ended up writing her own job description. There is no single playbook for a startup COO.

Since then, Sarah and her co-founders have built Ultimate into one of the most powerful virtual agent platforms for customer support. Global players from Zalando to Zendesk, Gorillas to GetYourGuide use Ultimate to automate their customer support – a feat that also caught the eye of Forbes 30 under 30 in 2019. As there still isn't much practical advice available for COOs at young ventures, we asked Sarah to unravel the functions of a COO and share her key learnings on leading business operations of an early-stage startup turned scaleup:

1. The right time to hire a COO

Sarah stepped into the COO role at Ultimate very early on. However, the time to hire a COO depends largely on the skills of the founding team. For instance, Ultimate’s co-founders have strong technical backgrounds. This allowed Sarah to complement the team well by joining at an early stage. Alternatively, if the founding team has strong operational strength, to begin with, then the COO can be hired much later when more support is needed to structure the startup’s business, sales, hires and marketing.

2. Defining the scope of a constantly evolving role

Ultimately, COO is a very generalist role that changes through different company life cycles. Be prepared to wear multiple hats, e.g. fundraising, hiring, crafting messaging, identifying customers, and selling, until series A, when you’re essentially trying to turn a group of adults into a real business. After reaching an annual recurring revenue (ARR) of several millions, you can start to build an experienced leadership team and the COO begins to specialize on talent, culture, analytics, legal, finance, strategy, and other fronts.

The biggest takeaway is the moment you think you have the COO role all figured out, be prepared to face a whole new challenge.

3. Most critical skills to ace Operations

Being a very effective communicator is an absolute must. You will get a 360-degree view of the company, which means you must be able to translate multitudes of complex topics into one clear vision. If you’re a numerical and detail-oriented person who finds the world easier when quantified, it’s a plus.

Everyone in an early-stage startup will find themselves ‘selling’ at some point. Therefore, pitching, talent acquisition, and relentless optimism are all great strengths to have. Moreover, be solution-oriented – don’t get stuck on the problem, instead, focus on finding the best possible response.

4. Top KPIs for COO to follow

Always focus on top-line company metrics, the fewer the better. Later, as the role evolves and you have an executive team onboard, COO continues to focus on topline whilst also keeping your eye on the KPIs of the teams which report to you, which may include retention rate, gross margin, and net burn.

But as a rule of thumb, the COO is responsible for ensuring the business is achieving the objectives it sets. If the company misses its goals repeatedly (i.e. for multiple quarters)– then there’s something amiss about how the company operates. That’s your cue to take a closer look and fix the problem, be it focusing on the wrong market, poor team alignment and coordination, or R&D not meeting shipping commitments.

5. The art of structuring Operations work

This is one of the most challenging aspects of Ops. Get comfortable with changing priorities. Work on the problem at hand and focus on the impact right now as opposed to the plan for years ahead. And whatever you do, always reserve plenty of time for reactive work.

6. Building the best operations team

Sarah is currently overlooking People & Talent, Finance & Legal, Strategy and Analytics functions at Ultimate. Her tip for hiring is to find the “managers of the managers” of these domains. Look for people who embody the hallmark of that function. If, for instance, you're frugal in running your business, hire a CFO who’s very critical of how every penny is spent. If you need to hire people faster, find a sales-oriented Talentleader with a knack for snapping up the best talent.

Most importantly, make sure you’re able to trust the work of the team you put together, so you don’t continue to do their job in time to come.

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