How to Build Operations in an Early Stage Startup?


  • Where to begin when joining an early-stage startup that's pre-MVP, as an operations leader (Operations Manager, Head of Ops, COO)?
  • What systems/processes should you strive to put in place as early as possible?
  • What should your first 90 days look like as an ops leader at an early-stage startup?
  • What are the dynamics between other leaders (e.g. COO/CEO/CTO)? Where do ops responsibilities end and theirs begin?
  • What are the tools or products that supported you the most in your first year? What purpose did they serve?
  • COVID-19 bonus: How do you commit to working with someone you've never met in person? How to best manage expectations when we're working remotely?
  • What are typical KPIs/metrics?

Attendee pre-submitted questions:

  • Best technology investments to make
  • What are the key things to have in place?
  • How much should I plan ahead? For example with 10 people, not many things are needed. When will I need more things in place?


Where to begin?

  • Get operational metrics in place first of all - you can tweak later
  • Think about the lifecycle of the company’s operations - how does the company take a lead and convert it to a paid invoice and what do you need to do to make that happen.
  • It’s an exercise in communication - ask a lot of questions to the founder(s) and/or CEO. Understand what they find important or where their focus lies. What do they expect from you? What do they want you to bring to the table?
    • Pick up where the problems are - build from there
    • Where the inefficiencies are
  • Most challenging bits is if you're not one of the founders is getting people to understand why it's important to have an ops function
  • A few other things to think about
    • Asking what their vision of what you should be doing is
    • How do we go about vendor onboarding?
    • What’s the journey from lead to active customer
    • Draw out the customer lifecycle
    • Define the tools and processes needed for every step of the way
    • Define all the moving parts
    • Realise that some processes are too early to build
    • Go as you grow - strip out processes to a lightweight approach as they will change a lot
  • How do you navigate joining an operational role in a completely different sector/industry?
  • Initially, in a young company all the policies should fit on a post-it note - no need to overcomplicate things

What should the first 90 days look like?

  • Peter’s spreadsheet: list of all the problems and issues, impact evaluation (how aggressive that person feels against that issue = the score), etc. -- you see who cares about what the most, what the perceived impact is, etc. Then you can categorise it all into themes and build a strategy off the back of that. But first confirm with the e.g. founders that you have understood the business correctly
  • First 90 Days (book exec summary)
  • The first 6 months you don’t even do any actual operations, it could be just about filling in the gaps. You might find yourself more in product/marketing [operations] because pre-MVP there’s no operations really!
  • Empowerment: let other people focus on the bits that they’re really good at.

Systems and processes to have in place from the beginning (beyond culture):

  • System for sharing information / documentation - do a knowledge transfer exercise from existing team
    • Version control, ordering dates, format
    • Good filing systems and archive in place
    • Format how you save the documents :)
  • Mission, Vision, Values
  • Communication:
    • Introducing a good level of communication (1to1s, standups, all-hands), consistent agenda, the right cadence
    • Cut out unimportant / unnecessary meetings (never have a meeting if you don’t have an agenda)
    • Approach meetings proposed by team members with: “What's the objective, the expected outcome and why am i needed”
  • Communicate these unwritten rules about how to do meetings, how to store documents in new user onboarding.
    • Have an onboarding and offboarding checklist
  • Dashboards: no matter if it’s automatic or manually updated; ticker on the dashboard. Looker, Google Sheets
  • Focus on the customer/product: what’s gonna get the amazing product out?
    • What’s the product process? Do you have a backlog? System for monitoring feedback? How do we do customer success? How do we record and track the data? Are the product ideas tracked? Etc.
  • How do you learn?
    • In the first days you’ve got an excuse to ask every single stupid question you can (lots of leeway). The learning thus is really fast.
  • KPIs/OKRs implementation
    • Setting them early can be challenging but they keep everyone on the right track if done right
    • Less is more - focus. Start small. Overambitious KPIs can be disheartening if not met. Account for the unknowns you’ll encounter in the way
    • Be mindful of unrealistic expectations and views
    • Ensure to roll across the organisation not just sales or product.
    • Get people to understand why they’re important - the secret to making them stick
    • Lattice - https://lattice.com/library/okr-101

Where do my responsibilities end and CEO/CTO begin?

  • Founders tend to micromanage - it’s difficult for them to let it go (“their way is the best way”)
  • Spend some time observing how founders interact with each other - strive to become part of their dynamic.
  • COO: internal; CEO: external. Ops role is doing what’s needed internally. Go with the flow - it changes so much from pre-MVP to scaling up.


  • Peter’s matrix
  • Miro (mind mapping, whiteboard platform)
  • Google Sheets
  • Notion
  • Airtable
  • Front (email interface for teams, common inboxes for e.g. support teams) - https://frontapp.com/
  • HR platform (e.g. CharlieHR, etc.)
  • Clubhouse (project management)
  • Zapier
  • Hubspot
  • Streak (CRM sitting on top of the email)
  • Looker, Tableau, Heap
  • Mammoth (analytics)

  • Important: utilising the tool properly/fully - ensuring that we achieve 100% of the tool’s capacity. Build the culture of fully adopting a solid system, set it up properly; this will ensure you don’t jump from one tool to another every 2 weeks.
  • Have the guardians for the tools or data who’re responsible.