Starting a new tech business ? Don’t forget the CTO.

Steve Jobs & Steve Wozniak

The title is a bit teasing, but true. I met few non-tech founders of tech or digital projects that were asking me: “I need a developer, do you recommend someone?”. And every time, I get back to them saying that I don’t think this is what they really need. If you’re in this situation, I hope my advice and feedback as an entrepreneur and a CTO will enlighten you on the importance of a technical co-founder from the beginning.

Of course, you will need developers for your project. But who will drive them? Who will handle the technical strategy? Who will make sure that they take the right technical decisions? You obviously shouldn’t take care of this and externalizing it isn’t a good idea either.

Why do you need a CTO?

When you’re starting a digital project, most of the time, you can start without writing a single line of code. And actually, I would recommend it. This is the best way to be able to test your idea as fast as possible. It’s easier to combine services to create your product rather than building it from scratch — Zapier is your best friend here.

However, you will quickly want to go further, by customizing your product, but you won’t achieve this only with combined services. Here come the need of developers.

To build a technical product, you need more than a developer. You need somebody that masters all the technical aspects of a technical project, that can define a strategy and lead a technical team. It’s illusive to build such a project without a co-founder that have these skills.

Even on a funding point of view, every VC will ask if there is a CTO part of the team and check his/her background. If no, they won’t go further and that’s normal. You won’t put money in something where the creator doesn’t even know how it work, will you?

What’s the role of a CTO?

The CTO is responsible for all the technical aspects of the company. His/her scope will considerably evolve as the company will grow. He will first do the job of a developer, then a technical leader, before only focusing on strategy.

But what really matters at the beginning of a project is the ability to solve problems, being resourceful and proactive. You need somebody that delivers. But hey, isn’t this the role of a developer? Yes. But the CTO has to scale and this is exactly why it’s hard to find a good profile. You need to find somebody that can evolve and grow as the company does and stay efficient at all stages. That can move from a position of a developer, to somebody that can draft and execute a long-term strategy.

Beyond the technical aspects, the CTO can be a great asset to define the product strategy and vision. Some of them can handle the CPO responsibilities too. It depends on their profile and skills.

Here is a chart that summarizes how the role evolves according to the company stage.

What’s the profile of a CTO?

First of all, being a good CTO isn’t about being a top developer. Some developers are way better coders than their CTO, and that’s totally normal. However, he/she needs to have great knowledge and skills in software engineering, to understand the needs, draft solutions and allocate resources on them. Beyond these technical knowledge, leadership, management and great understanding of the business are as important.

Last but not least, I would add that a CTO of an early-stage startup should be an entrepreneur at heart. He/she has to be a problem solver and not only playing by the book.

What should be the relationship between a CTO and a CEO?

As a C-level, the CTO should take part in all decisions regarding vision and strategy. But the hard thing by being a CTO is that other C-levels won’t potentially understand either the technical challenges or the needs. As a CEO you have to give full trust and support the CTO decisions and in return, he/she has to give a full overview of the problematic, and the strategy put in practice. Everyone must understand the problems of each and feel concerned, it is a common responsibility.

Because it’s a tech project, part of the global strategy will be closely correlated to the engineering and the best advocate of this is the CTO. He/she is the best interlocutor to speak about these challenges in front of investors and during board meetings.

The worst-case scenario of a CEO/CTO relationship would be a lack of trust in the ability of each to understand the other’s challenges and a lack of sharing in the definition of the vision and the global strategy. The project will the one that suffers the most of this situation.

Conclusion

To wrap-up this post, I would highlight the fact that finding his/her alter ego with a complementary profile is one of the hardest things that an entrepreneur will face. They have to share common values, having trust, esteem and respect to each other. Especially between a CTO and a CEO. Because this one needs to give his/her confidence on the most important thing of a technical company, that he won’t master: the engineering.

I hope this blog post has been resourceful and you’re ready for your next challenge: to find a great technical co-founder to start this business!

Jean