Earlier this year I had the pleasure of interviewing Jay Nargundkar, Head of Business Operations at Volta Charging. Jay and I discussed the role of bizops (business operations) in start-ups and more mature organizations. The article below includes highlights of our discussion, which covered topics including org structures, value adds, key skill sets, dashboards, tooling, and the future of bizops itself.
About Volta Charging
Volta Charging manages a network of electric charging stations across the US. With more automakers producing electric vehicles (be it zero-emission battery-powered or hybrid cars), charging stations play an increasingly important role in electrifying the automotive sector.
While some electric car owners can charge their vehicles at home, especially those who live in suburban areas and have access to a garage, this isn't a possibility for everyone. Charging networks like Volta’s provide the necessary infrastructure across the country while reducing costs and charging times for drivers (commercial charging solutions charge electric vehicles much faster than regular home charging options).
Volta Charging's philosophy is to provide charging as a solution to people's existing daily lives and patterns. This means Volta installs charging stations at shopping centers, grocery stores, malls, movie theaters, etc. The idea is that charging your car becomes an integral part of your regular commute or daily routine. All Volta charging stations also have HD digital screens, which can display advertising as well as provide interactive content and other value-adds to a host site’s customer base.
Jay's role as Head of Business Operations
Bizops, as a business function, can change markedly from company to company. This depends on a number of factors including the size and stage of the company, what the company does, and the particular challenges it might be facing. What tends to be consistent is that bizops routinely finds itself at the nexus of high-impact, time-sensitive issues. Since Jay heads up bizops at an electrical infrastructure company that has an advertising model and employees spread across the country, I thought it would be pretty interesting to learn what bizops meant in the context of Volta Charging. Jay was kind enough to offer his time to explain.
At Volta, the role of “Head of Bizops” - and the function of bizops within the company - has changed and evolved over time and has meant wearing a lot of different hats. When Jay first joined Volta, his remit was broader and he originally also handled IT-related responsibilities which were later handed over to a full-time CTO. Jay and his project team were also key in changing Volta's approach to handling customer support.
As is typical for many start-ups, bizops at Volta is a smaller tight-knit multidisciplinary group that offers bandwidth and key analytical skills in support to a number of different areas. Jay likened the function to a firefighting squad that tackles various projects across the business, following the steer of the executive or senior management team.
Having said that, Jay recognizes that bizops can mean a lot of different things in different places. Generally speaking, when an issue without a clear-cut owner is identified, or a function realizes they don't have the bandwidth or skill set to investigate an issue, bizops will step in.
Interestingly, in certain organizations, bizops and strategy tend to be closely linked, while in other companies they might be split into separate teams. This can depend on the level of maturity of the company, but there’s certainly a strong overlap in terms of profiles that work in these teams.
In a nutshell, Jay concluded, bizops as a function sits at the intersection of the analytical, strategic, and operational. Because they handle both the analytical and the operational side, they have a tight feedback loop between experiment and results.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to get into bizops?
People who work in bizops roles tend to come from a variety of different backgrounds. This may include banking, finance, and pure operations skills that align with the needs of a company. People with a management consulting background tend to be common, since they are accustomed to diving in and out of details, collaboration, and have a lot of experience with cross-functional analysis - a key skillset for anyone pursuing a career in bizops.
Diving into data, surfacing insights, and presenting information to senior audiences through outputs such as business cases, are also key to a bizops role. On top of communicating effectively, mastering spreadsheets and presentation skills are certainly a requirement. Whether information is presented in the form of briefs, emails, memos, or PowerPoint presentations, what's key is that it's presented at the right level of detail.
While spreadsheets have long been taken for granted as a building block tool for these types of roles, when the data is too large and complex, spreadsheets may not suffice. That's where SQL comes in and can be a great asset. Knowledge of programming certainly provides a much more efficient way of navigating the information when more complex data is involved. So SQL can be key for anyone working in larger companies or pursuing more analytical roles, such as those of business analysts.
When is the right time to set up a bizops team?
The way bizops is utilized in a company can change depending on its size and maturity. Something worth keeping in mind is that in a growing start-up, flexibility and growth are fundamental. Anyone looking to work for a start-up, regardless of what role they might have, will need to be flexible and open to change and growth. Because in start-ups changes and pivots are a constant.
Before hiring someone with a consultant background for a bizops team, the company should get to a position where they have data available. After all, hiring someone who excels at surfacing insight from data and can use that knowledge to improve processes or identify gaps can only add value if that person has access to the right type of information. It doesn't matter if data isn't structured or sophisticated yet. But in order to fully utilize someone's skill set, some level of information must be available.
With regards to when the right time to set up a bizops team might be, the answer is different for every company. However, when the start-up hits an inflection point - as the company continues to scale and manual processes aren't enough anymore - that's when it’s time to start thinking about setting up a bizops function. At that point, the company should bring in someone who can make sense of whatever data is available. And what's key is that these people have the sophistication to scale with the business. When the company is in a more mature place (in 6 months, 12 months, and far longer into the future) - with better-quality data, a better structure, and more processes - that team will still need to be effective and relevant.
While the size of the bizops team will vary by industry, type of company, size, and maturity, Jay recalled that at Volta, he joined before the company hit 100 employees. Because of the nature of the business -- charging stations -- the operational side of things needed a fair amount of people.
What value can bizops add to a company?
Bizops is the layer that helps the leaders translate their vision and strategic plan into action. bizops should help the executive team 'see around corners'. In other words, it's bizops' job to ensure that the founder or executive team is given the right amount of information to make good decisions. When the information is too much or too little, the details become 'noise' and the information isn't actionable. And that's where bizops can step in and add value.
As a function, bizops can help surface anything that needs attention or input. And as the company grows and scales, bizops can act as the function that helps the business overcome some of the silos that tend to develop. Sitting across functions, they collaborate with people from all over the business. So when information is relayed to the senior management team, the view they're given isn't specific to a department, for example. Bizops is the connective tissue that sees across functions and highlights what matters to the executive team.
Where does bizops ideally fit in a company's org structure?
Where bizops sits in a company's org structure is a case-by-case decision. However, if a company is creating a bizops team from scratch, the business size and its existing reporting structure will certainly play a role. Since the bizops team is the layer that translates executive vision into action, it makes sense (especially in start-ups) for the function to report directly into the executive team.
Generally speaking, the best org structure reflects what bizops tend to spend most of their time working on. After all, flexibility is important, and as a team, bizops need the ability to step onto the biggest fires first - no matter where they might be.
How has bizops added value at Volta Charging?
To answer this question, Jay shared an early instance where bizops analyzed the company's customer support situation. Having moved from running a small number of stations to several hundred, Volta Charging found themselves in a position where a much larger number of calls were coming in, possibly warranting a much more resource-intensive solution. The bizops function was asked to step in and look at the situation from different perspectives.
By listening to calls, reading emails, and poring through case logs to understand the most common reasons for outreach from customers, they were able to implement simple fixes that were appropriate to the stage of growth of the company. For example, they published FAQs on their website and in their mobile app, and updated their phone scripts.
Bizops was able to add value not only with their output but also through their approach and mindset. The team stayed flexible and looked at different ways to solve the problem. Volta‘s network continued to grow without experiencing a corresponding surge in urgent customer support requests. In other words, bizops took the 'hot potato' that Volta had on their plate and ensured that no money, time, or resources were wasted.
What are the most important tools for the job?
Jay’s primary tools are spreadsheets (Excel, Google Sheets), CRM software (Salesforce), and BI software (Sigma, Tableau)
Centralization of data is important. For example, construction project management is handled by a customized tool that sits as a layer on top of Salesforce. The same goes for sales opportunities, whether agreements with site hosts or brand partners.
Where do you see the future of bizops evolving in the next 5-10 years?
Having a bizops team is relatively common in tech companies and start-ups--however the function as a whole still needs to be better defined. Bizops hasn’t ”gone mainstream” yet. The function needs to become more widely known and accepted as a standard business function.
The fact that bizops teams exist at a number of successful tech companies and start-ups (with Google having a large bizops team, for example), helps move things in this direction. Successful larger companies tend to act as examples of best practice, showing others how bizops as a function can move the needle and drive better decision making.
Hopefully, over the next 5-10 years, bizops will become a more clearly-defined, widely-known, and standardized function across various industries and sectors.
Why is bizops becoming increasingly valued in organizations?
According to Jay (and we agree), the increasing reliance on data for decision-making is the biggest factor in turning bizops into a valuable and valued function. The expectation is that decision-making must be justified by data, rather than driven by gut, and that expectation is starting to hit earlier and earlier in the business cycle. Before, startups were like cowboys shooting off quick decisions off the cuff without data and a rigorous decision-making process. Now, the expectation to use data is hitting a lot earlier.
The consensus now is that the sooner a company can get data, the quicker and the better they can make heads or tails of a situation. Founders and executives can use data to make recommendations, tell stories, prioritize effectively, and decide what to ignore versus what needs to be focused on. And that's something bizops will play a key role in.
If you want to check out vacancies at Volta Charging, head over to the Careers section of their website.
Thank you, Jay, for your time and for providing such detailed, interesting, and informative insight into the role bizops can play in start-ups!