12/22/2020

Why your startup doesn’t need a CTO

Gray Skinner

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The title might sound like heresy, but bear with me. What I really mean is, that it’s important to be aware of the stage your company is in and how well the CTO role fits your current needs.

First, you need to know your current goals – because these will change as you evolve. For example, a CTO in a company in the early stages (0-6 months) will look different once the startup is 6-12 months old and again when it’s passed its seed round or Series A funding. My first piece of advice is to not be afraid to make changes throughout the process. A CTO doesn’t need to be the same person on day 1 as on day 300, and most often it doesn't need to be the most technical person. In fact, the first technical employee should almost never be the CTO. Although it can work, such a person rarely has the skills needed for managing and putting together a technical team, building a vision and having the ability to execute it.

The person that signs the certificate of incorporation is likely not going to be the same person you want in 5 years to lead a team of 100 engineers, and that’s okay.

Who makes the best startup CTO?

I believe business executives, operators, or even failed startup founders – are the best startup CTO’s. Having someone with experience in the zero to MVP stage is really important. Building an MVP is very different from scaling the infrastructure and keeping the engines running at companies such as Google or Amazon. Yes, experience at Google certainly looks good on your CV, but have they been responsible for building an MVP from scratch, or, in a resource-constrained environment – had to put together a team to deliver, to create value?

As it turns out, very few people have actually done so.

As an investor, that’s exactly who I want to build my MVP – someone with lots of experience – not someone with just a great CV.

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When is the right time to hire a CTO?

I get this question a lot from clients and investors. After the MVP is built, and you are starting to get some traction, you are in a much better position to assess the needs of the company, the product roadmap, and scale requirements.

In the early phases, it’s tough to predict where your product will go, or what your product-market fit will be, so I’d say – don’t focus on solving that problem just yet. Many things will become more clear once you have your first few employees, paying customers and some revenue. At this point, you will better understand if your product-market fit is strong, and know the direction you need to build and evolve the product. And that’s exactly when you hire a CTO – and by saying that I don’t mean hiring the smartest developer you can find.

Instead, hire a manager who can bring together the resources necessary to efficiently execute the vision for your product.

Looking for a CTO is not looking for a tech genius

In my experience, a CTO must first understand the direction and vision of the company, know the strengths and weaknesses of the product, and understand the value that’s being created. Building a successful MVP is much more than knowing what Node.js or what C++ means, it’s finding the right technical co-founder that is a great partner in building a startup.

I’ve seen a lot of people make this mistake – when hiring a CTO, startups often look for the wrong person, i.e. they typically end up with someone that’s more of a technical fit than a leader and partner. In my experience, just because someone is more technically sound or more familiar with a few acronyms, doesn’t necessarily make them a valuable CTO.

CTOs should be managers first

A common mistake that people make when hiring CTO’s is believing that a CTO is not a manager, but a tech guru. Personally, I believe a CTO is a manager first, and a technical person second.

The primary responsibility of the CTO is execution of the product and the company’s vision, which begins first with assembling the right team. It takes a deep understanding of each person’s strengths and weaknesses, along with experience and confidence to properly navigate projects and processes.

Don’t be misled, some of the best CTO’s that I’ve known came from technical backgrounds, but they were more than just smart developers. They had the confidence to build strong tech teams that were able to execute the product roadmap.

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Why your company doesn’t need a CTO

I know it’s a bold statement, but I don’t believe every company needs a CTO in the very beginning.

At MasterBorn, we’ve had the opportunity to work with over a dozen companies in 2020, where we’ve built MVPs from scratch and end up serving as CTO for our customers. It has been a very successful model – a company raises money, gets funded and then wholly outsources the technical product creation phase to our company. Such companies don’t have any technical employees in the U.S., and we become their CTOs. At MasterBorn, we’ve learned the importance of being dynamic, open to change, and the value we bring by executing and delivering high quality MVPs quickly to our clients.

By outsourcing a company to build your MVP, you’re buying yourself more time to think about your product or service from a different perspective. You are also avoiding giving away valuable equity in the early stages of your business.

I am a lawyer by education, never written a line of code. However, I’ve learned from my experience as a CEO, that success hinges more on people and process management than solely technical expertise. At MasterBorn, we’ve learned the importance of being dynamic, open to change, and the value we bring by executing and delivering high quality MVPs quickly to our clients.

If you have any questions about hiring a CTO or a technical team to build your MVP, don’t hesitate to drop me a line.

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