What does a Chief Product Officer do?

Though company structure is often emergent, many startups run into the same bottlenecks that converge over time towards fairly standard patterns.

At the beginning, every startup should have a clear CEO. With three founders of Zapier, Paul Graham' very first question to us after being accepted into YC was “okay, so whose CEO?”. Though it seems unnecessary to ask, it sets the initial company framework in place and can help resolve early disputes.

It seems unnecessary because in the beginning everyone is doing everything. The best founding teams have a high degree of autonomy and separation of concerns. When Zapier was getting started, the founding team broke down like this:

Wade (CEO): Customer development, marketing, support Bryan: Backend engineering Mike: Frontend engineering + design

As the startup finds product/market fit and grows, job roles specialize for new teammates, early hires, and the founding team. Deciding when to introduce more structure to titles is a (relatively minor) decision every growing company has to contend with. In our case at Zapier, we formalized titles (including CTO and CPO) around 20 people, mostly to label the work everyone was already doing.

I was reluctant at first, but as we began growing, it became obvious that while I had enough engineering and design chops to build the initial product, there were people more skilled at those roles.

As Chris Rill and others have put it, I started firing myself from those roles.

What remains are my strongest skills: listening, handling complexity, and understanding trade-offs from a business, engineering, and design perspective.

At a small- or medium- sized company, typical CPO responsibilities resemble those of a COO:

In addition, a CPO takes a very product-centric stance on their responsibilities (trading off some raw ops or company building experience):

Early on, a CPO/COO often ends up as the defacto “hole-filler” until more formal help is brought on:

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