Innovation Blog

9 Make-or-Break Startup Roles (and Why They Are Important)


Think having a killer business idea and some funding is all you need for a successful startup, right?


75% of startups fail. And one of the main reasons is not having the right team in place to make the company successful:


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Hiring qualified people for your startup isn’t enough, either. 65% of startups fail due to management issues. So, when you’re building a startup, it’s about hiring the right people for the right positions—not just those who look good on paper.

So, what startup roles are essential for success? We’re going to take a look at nine essential roles in a startup company, and what it takes to make each of them successful.

The roles in a startup that matter

How do you hire the right people for your startup and build a team that works, instead of one that sinks it?

According to a Harvard Business Review study, experience alone is not enough to make a new team thrive.

“While experience broadens the teams’ resource pool, helps people identify opportunities, and is positively related to team effectiveness, a team also needs soft skills to truly thrive,” the study found

So, hiring the right people is about making sure they’re a good fit on paper, and in person. What’s also essential is a shared entrepreneurial passion and strategic vision to push a startup through the valley of death and into hockey stick growth.

Let’s look at the nine roles that can make (or break) a startup’s success.

#1: CEO – visionary

The chief executive officer (CEO) of a startup is often referred to as the visionary. The leader of the pack. The decision maker.
Their talent lies in dreaming big and being passionate about what the company could achieve in the future. But that doesn’t mean a CEO is paid more than the rest of the team, and they don’t hold more power.


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However, there are a couple of core skills a startup CEO must have in their toolkit.

A vision

Kind of obvious from the “visionary” label. A CEOs vision needs to seep into the foundations of a startup. They need to be constantly looking for opportunities for their product in the market, their customers, and find it a place in their chosen industry. 44% of startups fail because there isn’t a market need for their product, so finding a pain point (and fixing it) is a crucial part of a CEOs job.

Being a jack of all trades

A startup, especially in its early stages, can’t afford to hire consultants and specialists to help make their vision become a reality. That’s why a CEO needs to be a jack of all trades. They need to be good at wearing several hats and solving a lot of different problems.

Once they fix a problem or tick an item off a to-do-list, CEOs are always asking, what’s next? There’s no room for the phrase “that’s not my job” in the CEO role. Instead, they’re always thinking strategically about what they can do to push the company forward.

And last but not least, they’re a leader.

“A good CEO is constantly questioning whether the right people are in the right places,” says Founder/CEO of Brainscape, Andrew Cohen.

“Do any roles need to be re-organized? Are any bad apples affecting the performance of the rest of the team? Do people like their jobs? Do we need to have a corporate team-building retreat at a ropes course? Do we need to create any new vacancies for unmet leadership needs?

“Continually optimizing for team fit is a difficult activity, but it pays off exponentially as you put the right people in the right places.”

If a CEO leads from the front, the rest of the team will follow.

Core responsibilities of a startup CEO: 

  • Setting strategy and direction
  • Creating, living and breathing the startup’s culture, values, and behavior
  • Hiring and leading the company’s executive team
  • Implementing short and long term plans
  • Making important managerial and operational decisions
  • Focusing on the needs of everybody from investors to employees, customers, and the board of directors

#2: CTO – innovator

The role of a chief technology officer (CTO) isn’t only about coding and development.

A startup CTO is a CEOs right hand and helps them fine-tune strategy, tactics, and business goals to push the company forward. In the first stages of the startup, the CTO will be hands-on in the IT/development side of the company, helping to invent the product before the company progresses out of its early-stages.


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Let’s address the elephant in the room. Wouldn’t a CTO just be in charge of tech at a startup?

Well, yes and no. While a CTO needs to lead the startup’s engineering team, it’s also their job to also focus on what the customer wants from the end product, and use that to increase the company’s revenue.

In the early stages of a startup, a CTO must be willing to pull up their sleeves and do some heavy lifting to get a product or service off the ground. This means juggling different roles and being a master of all things when it comes to tech, including coding.

Sergey Bushtruk has been the CTO of two startups and says the role needs a person who can solve anything quicker than anyone else.

“Coding is not the main function of a CTO, but he must know how to do that,” he says.

“For example, if the deadline is on fire, a CTO can work side by side with his team and code or run tests if they require his help.”

Ultimately, it’s a CTOs tech skills that set them apart. If you’re looking at hiring a CTO who has stronger soft skills than their tech skills, they may be better suited to a project manager role.

Core responsibilities of a startup CTO:

  • In the early stages, coding and developing the company’s product
  • Developing and fine-tuning the startup’s strategy for using tech resources
  • Making sure the tech team is hitting deadlines, and using their time productively and efficiently
  • Focusing on ways the backend team can increase product revenue 
  • Developing and implementing product infrastructure

#3: Product – director

A Product Manager lives and breathes the product a startup is creating. They’re in charge of directing who the product will be sold to and how it will be positioned to buyers.

In simple terms, it’s their job to show a startup’s target audience that the product is valuable. 

In a startup’s early days, a product director will make sure the product is market ready and more importantly, that there’s a market need for it. They act as a bridge between the product and the customer, and develop non-technical aspects around the product like:

  • Product positioning (internal and external): They are responsible for creating the positioning of the product to the internal team and developing messages that will be used on target personas, as well as how it’s positioned to the public (what is it used for? What problem does it solve?)
  • Creating personas: User persona (who is going to use the product?) and buyer persona (If you are selling a product to a company, who is the person who will decide if they will buy it?)
  • Pricing: Create a pricing structure for the product based on value, market need, production cost and sales cost.

A startup product manager is the middle-man to UX, tech, and business at a startup. Image source

A product manager must also help the startup founders with strategy, along with ideation and features. Their role is to communicate to their product team the value of the product, as well as its intent, so the team is prepared for when the product is released. When things ramp up, the product manager will build a roadmap and prioritize what needs to get done to achieve the initiatives and strategic goals behind the product itself.

As for the product’s features, the product manager will set the requirements for each feature and explore how they will benefit the user’s experience. This stage requires the product manager and the tech team to work together to make sure the backend of a product translates into a better experience for their customers. Otherwise, it will be a wasted effort for both teams.

Core responsibilities of a startup Product Manager:

  • Know and predict what a customer needs through research

  • Build product marketing objectives and strategies
  • Create product lines and test ideas for market viability
  • Determine a product pricing strategy based on production costs, market demand and research
  • Create sales forecasts for each product and analyze them
  • Manage the company’s product team: planning, meetings, monitoring results, and organizing training

#4: Developer – builder

A developer’s job role in a startup is all about being curious with code, and a willingness to push boundaries to create a killer product.

In the super early stages of a startup, the CTO might be responsible for the bulk of a product’s coding. But as the company grows, bringing in developers is unavoidable. Startup Cronofy wrote on Medium that working in a startup is probably the most exciting place to be a developer simply because developers can be the master of their own destiny.

“It’s also one of the toughest places as you will probably have very little safety net or support.

“Startup job roles often don’t cover the responsibilities of the job accurately, in many cases because they don’t know what’s needed until a particular idea or situation surfaces.”

A bulk of a developer’s time will be spent designing, coding, testing, and debugging software. They will also have to push to complete code developments so that products and features can be released to customers on time.

Hiring the right developer isn’t all about their tech skills, though. They need to have strong communication skills, be able to work in a team environment, and an eye for detail so they can pick up on product problems.

Great developers aren’t just great on paper. They need to truly integrate into a small team, be willing to problem solve and go beyond their job scope to get a product released on time.

Core responsibilities of a startup Developer:

  • Code, design, test, and debug software
  • Review current systems
  • Work closely with the rest of the startup team including CTO, designers, and product manager to keep the product in line with the company’s strategy
  • Create and present ideas for improvements to software and systems (and include cost proposals with them)
  • Testing products and updates before they go live
  • Writing and preparing training manuals for customers
  • Maintaining and monitoring systems when products go live to minimize disruptions

#5: Operations – organizer

At an early stage startup, the Operations role is all about boosting team productivity to ensure a product idea becomes a reality as quickly as possible.

Basically, an operations manager makes sure everyone is doing what they should be doing, and holds the startup together. It’s a broad role, and an operations manager needs to be flexible every day to problem solve and keep their team on track.

Beyond supporting the team, an operations manager also helps with raising funds, market analysis, and product management.

An operations manager makes sure each team in the startup are staying on track. Image source

Once a startup has found its product-market fit, and it’s starting to find its groove, an operations manager switches responsibility from holding a startup together to keeping it on track.

The role will move onto organizing the startup’s operational systems, processes and policies. The operations manager will also keep a close eye on the productivity and effectiveness of other in-house teams like finance, HR and tech (when the company is big enough to hire them, of course). They will also build out a strategy that coordinates the communication between departments, so it functions easier when it’s time to scale.

Core responsibilities of a startup Operations Manager: 

  • Structure and overall processes at the company
  • Planning and reviewing logistics, HR, and overall service
  • Contingency management
  • Execution of jobs/tasks (anything from creating policies to making sure HR are paying people on time)

#6: CMO – marketer

In a startup, the importance of a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) is often overlooked, which can be a massive mistake for a company down the line.

A CMO is responsible for marketing and driving demand and growth of a company’s product, and they’re held accountable for their successes (and failures). They are responsible for creating and building the startup’s customer base, bringing in revenue, and most importantly, making the company profitable.

If that’s not enough responsibility, in early stage startups, the CMO is also the driving force behind engagement, retention, creative and brand strategies, along with all marketing communications.

The role of a startup CMO involves a lot of moving parts. Image source

Mike Grandinetti has been a CMO at eight startups. He says startups (especially those in tech) typically operate with just an idea and lack the essential marketing assets needed to run a successful business: strong brand identity, healthy customer roster and established references.

“There is also the obvious financial obstacle of a limited marketing budget that hinders immediate growth if creative thinking and resourcefulness are not within the team’s grasp,” he says.

“This is especially challenging for companies with customer functions where failure is simply not an option.”

And that’s why having the right CMO can quite literally make or break your startup. A typical CMO will cost a startup $250k+ base salary (not to mention a bonus + .50%-1.25% equity). So hiring the right CMO is crucial to the company’s finances as well. 

Core responsibilities of a startup CMO:

  • User acquisition, lead generation, and retention/engagement
  • All marketing communications
  • Brand positioning/identity
  • Research and analytics
  • Product marketing and positioning

#7: CFO – money manager

Whether or not a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) is needed in an early stage startup is a hotly contested topic

How hard can it be to manage a startup’s finances, right?

The truth is, the role of a CFO goes well beyond just counting cash. They’re also responsible for the company’s growth, forming new relationships with companies, and creating financial processes and reporting requirements that can be used when the company scales.

The right CFO can take a deep dive into a startup’s financial capabilities. They help a startup to optimize the cash they already have, and build a plan for when the company is ready to scale.

The various responsibilities of a startup CFO. Image source

It’s normal for startups just to hire an accountant when they’re getting their bearings, and a CEO will likely have a firm grasp of the company’s profit and loss. But without a CFO, it’s hard for a startup to influence the rest of the board (especially if they have investors) without metrics and results.

A CFO holds a startup accountantable with figures. If too much money is being spent in a certain area, or it’s not being utilized correctly, the CFO can highlight it and come up with a solution.

Core responsibilities of a startup CFO:

  • Preparing budgets
  • Monitoring expenditures, costs, and P&L
  • Reviewing, analyzing, and reporting on the company’s financial data and performance
  • Taking control of the startup’s financial planning and risks associated with future goals

#8: Sales – rainmaker

A startup sales job sounds exciting, but the VP of Sales in a startup is a world away from a VP of sales at an enterprise company. 

Michael Pici wrote for HubSpot that a typical salesperson wouldn’t survive on the startup sales floor. 

“Primarily because there is no “sales floor” – but also because of the different skill set it requires,” he said. 

At a startup, the VP of sales doesn’t have the luxury of case studies or customer success stores to lean on when they’re prospecting. Instead, they need to convince prospects to take a gamble on an untested product, an unknown company… and hope it pays off. They need to be focused on closing as many deals as possible, and do whatever it takes to make it happen, so the company has a chance at surviving.

So hiring a sales role in the early stages of a startup means they need to have a ton of soft skills. They need to convince a prospect to take a chance, and this requires not only confidence and persistence, but also a deep understanding of the startup, its mission, and its culture.

Once the startup grows and the company starts to hire more sales roles, the VP of sales will move onto more of a management role. They’ll then take control of the company’s sales funnel, and train and build up their team of sales reps to reach their sales targets.

Core responsibilities of a startup VP of Sales:

  • Prospecting and closing sales
  • Creating and defining a sales strategy, process and tactics
  • Recruiting, training and managing sales reps
  • Advising sales reps on their current deals and helping them problem solve

#9: Success – customer champion

A startup’s success relies on keeping customers happy (and retaining their business), especially in its early stages. 

That’s where a Customer Success Manager (CSM) comes into play. A CSM is responsible for making sure customers understand the value of their product, as well as making sure they have an unforgettable experience with the company’s product.

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In the early stages of a startup, it’s unlikely the company will have funds to bring on customer support staff. So it’s not unheard of for CSMs to spend 50% of their time answering customer support tickets.

But where a CSM plays a crucial role is creating an experience with a customer that could trigger word-of-mouth referrals⁠—the bread and butter of a startup’s success. Beyond making customers happy, a CSM will also build out internal processes and workflows to speed up customer support to make their job easier.

Once a CSM creates processes and onboarding workflows for new customers, it’s easier to cut down on a customer’s time to value. And as the startup gains momentum, a CSM will also create workflows between them and the sales team to ensure a new customer has a smooth handover after they purchase a product.

Core responsibilities of a startup CSM:

  • Give customers an experience beyond their expectations to create brand advocates and encourage word-of-mouth referrals
  • Build workflows and processes internally between sales and marketing teams to cut down onboarding times for new customers
  • Help customers see value in your product quickly by managing product implementation and onboarding
  • Generate revenue by encouraging renewals, cross-sells, upsells, and expansions
  • Relay any suggestions from customer feedback to internal departments

Final Thoughts

Hiring the right staff for a startup isn’t about looking for “rockstars” or “ninjas”.

It’s about hiring people with the right skills on paper, who will also be able to adapt to working on a small team. Working in a startup means no two days will be the same. So each time you hire for a role in your startup, keep in mind that the best person to fill it is someone who is adaptable and puts the mission of the company first.

In a startup, there’s no room for “that’s not my job”. It’s all hands on deck to get a product launched and to make an idea into a reality. Find these people, and you’ll already have a headstart in making your startup a success. 


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