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Why, When, and How to Find CTO for Your Startup

So you are a startup, you’ve talked to people, and believe that your product will ”solve a problem.” You’ve secured some funding. Now you think the time has come to find a CTO.

CTOs play a key role in the success of a business. They set a technology strategy, build a team from scratch, oversee the development process, shape a vision of where the product should move in the future, and navigate challenges along the way.

Good CTOs, however, are hard to find.

People keep coming to groups across the internet like Quora, Reddit, or Facebook in search of a technical partner. Some are complaining that they have been on this quest for a few years already. Some are sharing stories about unhappy interactions with outside CTO talent in the past.

This blog is an attempt to help you find a great CTO. It sheds light on CTO roles in a startup and provides tips on where to look for your shining star. ITRex CTO Kirill Stashevsky, who has helped many startups build ground-breaking products, will join in to share his insights. Let’s go.

The basics of the CTO role

The Chief Technology Officer (CTO) is the person who handles the technical side of a company and aligns its business strategy with the evolving technology landscape.

Essentially, the CTO is responsible for:

  • Technology vision
  • Pitching to investors
  • Team setup
  • Technology stack selection
  • IT infrastructure and security
  • Product development and management
  • Code quality assurance
  • Establishment of key partnerships with third parties
  • Help with product innovation

As a rule, CTOs have a solid engineering background. However, they can come from a product management background, too. Whatever the case, a good CTO should deeply understand technology and architecture design, have experience building and growing teams, and be able to communicate complex technical concepts.

Startups can opt for an in-house expert (details on where to look for one are below) or outsource a CTO position, hiring a CTO as a service.

How can a CTO help your startup specifically?

CTOs can wear different hats in an early business depending on its stage. According to ITRex CTO Kirill Stashevsky, there are five basic CTO models that startups can benefit from, although CTO tasks can overlap considerably in each of them:

Technical advisor

This type of CTO is remote and can be a huge help at any stage of the startup lifecycle. Technical advisors brainstorm ideas, help with tech stack and team selection, provide MVP or prototype guidance, step in when the project gets stuck, bring expertise on advanced tech, or advise on a product development direction. Other responsibilities can include assistance with pitching to investors and preparing cost estimates.

Technical consultants are usually hired for a limited number of hours. This can be only 20 hours per week, for instance, if their task is to plan MVP development.

Organizer In this model, CTOs are engaged to accomplish very specific tasks, like guiding your cloud migration or modernization. They can also build in security controls or orchestrate DevOps processes, including CI/CD pipelines, so that your team delivers quality faster.

Sometimes they are hired to help the startup tick all the boxes ahead of tech due diligence for the next financing round.

This role is also remote, with the CTO working for the company for as long as it is needed to achieve a particular goal.

Delivery Manager

This type of CTO is responsible for day-to-day product development processes, making sure that the team delivers on time, on budget, and with quality. They lead the team, prioritize work that needs to be done, and keep everyone on the right track. This might include running key sprint ceremonies or coaching engineers on agile tools and techniques.

In this model, the CTO is engaged as a full-time CTO for the whole range of CTO tasks. So they can be involved in communication with investors as well.

The delivery manager can also be brought into the project only for a few hours a day. For instance, this can be the case when you need their expertise only to streamline an in-house development process.

Technical Founder

The pressure to find a CTO combining a technical founder role may come directly from investors. The reality is, some investors won’t touch a startup that lacks strong technical leadership.

However, there are scenarios when you need to find a CTO for an in-house position from the outset because you just can’t afford to move forward without one. Such scenarios include the following:

  • Your product uses a type of technology that doesn’t exist yet or is highly innovative like AI/ML or Internet of Things
  • Your product is too complex, requiring expertise in figuring out what software and hardware fit best. A wrong decision at an early stage can cost you a lot of money and time later on.
  • Your product is designed specifically for tech teams. In this scenario, you also won’t be able to take a step forward without finding a good CTO first.

When is the right time to find a CTO?

There’s no one answer that works for everyone. However, there are some considerations that must be taken into account when determining whether you should start searching for a CTO:

  • Funding As a general rule, it is best for startups to find a CTO at either a seed or post-seed funding stage. The seed-funded CTO will help you bootstrap the idea, playing rather the role of a consultant or wearing the tech lead hat (and often doing a dozen jobs at once, including pitching and coding). At a subsequent funding stage, the CTO role shifts to strategic work.
  • Product development lifecycle From the perspective of the project development lifecycle, it might be too early for many startups to add a permanent CTO to the board before reaching the product-market fit. Hiring an internal CTO is not cheap while at this point, it is not even known whether there is a real market for the product.
  • Unless your product is technologically complex, requiring finding an in-house CTO from the beginning, you might want to focus on getting your product right rather than stressing over tech. Consider engaging a part-time technical advisor first to hack your MVP and find a CTO for a permanent position once you have some traction and revenue.

How to find a CTO — in-house

Getting the right-fit CTO talent right away is really, really hard. If you are reading this, chances are you’ve already exhausted the list of friends and acquaintances.

There are a few proven paths though to find a CTO, which include:

  • Your team. If you already have a team, start by looking at it. You might have a developer with leadership skills who is doing a great architectural design and engineering job and is respected by their peers. Take a careful look at this person.
  • Networking. Local startup meetups, hackathons, and industry conferences provide an excellent opportunity to grow your network and meet people. Pick events based on your niche and industry. If you take part as a speaker, give an elevator pitch. You never know what discussions you may get into.
  • LinkedIn searches can be the next step. There are good strategies to recruit on LinkedIn for cheap.
  • Slack groups, subreddits, and Discord threads are also worth trying in the quest to find a permanent CTO. You might want to consider joining communities with a specific tech or more general focus to look for CTOs who share interests with your company.
  • Tech recruitment platforms like CoFoundersLab, AngelList, and StackOverFlow where you can post to job boards and ask people around.
  • Job sites, too
  • Skilled recruiters. Working with a headhunting agency to find a CTO can save you time, but you should pay a commission.

There’s a problem though.

If you find a CTO who’s good at what they do, there’s a strong likelihood they are already building their product or have a secure job, paid well. In the US, for instance, the average CTO salary is $257,263, ranging between $215,747 and $300,899.

However, you can bring something valuable to the table.

You can negotiate for a much lower salary and give equity as a supplement, or just give equity. It’s good to remember that there won’t be full-time work for a CTO at an early startup stage, anyway.

A potential technical founder would often expect an equal share (or even more). You would be better off if you succeed to make it lower. An equal share might raise a red flag to investors or paralyze your project should you and your partner seriously disagree on some matters and end up in court.

Financial matters aside, you will also need to sell your vision to a potential tech founder to convince them to take a risk on your startup. It’s much easier to get a tech guy excited about your idea once you’ve built something and validated the value of your concept with the market. To deliver an MVP or a prototype, it is not uncommon for non-tech founders to start by hiring in-house or freelance developers when they have some tech knowledge to vet them. They can also go with a tech advisor or an agency that can provide a dedicated team with a proven track record (if you consider this option, drop us a line to discuss details).

On a side note, hiring developers or an agency for a little upfront work to launch an MVP is a good path to go also because you can miss the market opportunity otherwise. It’s important to understand that your search for a good permanent CTO can take months or even years.

Why do startups choose to outsource CTO tasks?

Often, startups outsource the CTO role. Hiring a remote CTO has a lot of benefits, including:

  • Access to a wider pool of high-quality talent outside your immediate geographical region
  • Lower cost as salaries vary greatly in different countries
  • Flexibility to choose a full-time or fractional CTO engagement model depending on your needs
  • Commitment to your startup that is a client at the same time

There are many ways an external CTO can help a startup get off the ground.

We sat down with ITRex CTO Kirill Stashevsky to ask him to share his experience.

According to Kirill, a remote CTO often combines different roles on a startup project, acting, for instance, as a consultant, delivery manager, and organizer simultaneously. Sometimes, his or her set of tasks is very narrow.

In one project, for instance, a founder of a sports live-coaching solution startup turned to Kirill for help to pitch to investors. The client could not explain his idea in a technical language or understand if it was even feasible. So he needed a tech expert to do research and accompany him to investor meetings.

In another project, a startup working on five in-door navigation applications for different premises using one library needed a kind of tech lead who would plan sprints and present demos. Kirill’s involvement in this project was limited only to 10 hours per release. “They needed just one person who deeply understands their technology to manage the development process for all of their apps at once. I was the right person for them,” Kirill says.

There were also a few projects in Kirill’s portfolio where he juggled different CTO roles. Here’s a short summary of them that might help you understand whether an external CTO can be of help to your startup as well.

Smart fitness mirror equipped with 3D cameras

The AI-powered smart mirror was initially developed by five tech teams working on different parts of the mirror in different countries. At some point the project became overwhelming to manage, forcing the CEO to start looking for an external CTO. Specifically, the client had several pain points:

  • Coordination of the teams across multiple time zones and consolidation of their deliverables, a task that distracted the CEO from his immediate business focus
  • A highly unstable product resulting from poor code, which made it virtually impossible for the CEO to demo it to investors
  • A lack of expertise in embedded systems, a core technology in their solution

Kirill joined the project as a CTO-as-a-Service.

“My first priority was to make their product stable,” he says. “I studied what had been done up to this point and saw that building a single back end running on microservices was a natural strategy to achieve this stability. So I suggested migrating all mirror components to microservices. I also built automation for a CI/CD pipeline and developed a test strategy for all parts of the system. Delivery became really fast and secure. Investors were impressed.”

Then Kirill created a brand new team who gradually replaced their multiple vendors. His other important task was to screen offerings from manufacturers of hardware development kits in China to select the right plant for the client. Finding the best match involved product benchmarking, experiments, and a cost-efficiency analysis for each option.

Along the way, Kirill helped the CEO pitch the product to both tech and non-tech savvy investors.

The fitness mirror has been successfully launched to market early when the vacant niche was still available. It is attracting more and more users among not only individuals but also gyms reopening in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Security-as-a-Service Solution

The CEO of this startup wanted to build a next-gen cybersecurity solution that protects companies from cyber threats, data breaches, and synthetic identities using facial recognition. The founder was looking for a business-oriented CTO who could assist him with designing a product roadmap.

“They wanted an expert who could take a look at their solution from a business point of view, doing all market research and understanding how they can succeed and grow,” Kirill says. “So I first provided business-focused consulting to them. At the next step, however, I switched rather to a solution architect role, helping them design a cloud-based architecture using microservices to make sure they are easily scalable as an enterprise-level solution. I also communicated a lot with their patent lawyers. The client needed someone to explain the technical side of the product to them.”

Superscreen tablet for personal smartphone screen mirroring

“When this client came to us, he had just an idea,” Kirill notes. “He was not even sure if there’s technology to realize it.”

Specifically, the startup wanted to create a lightweight tablet with a high-resolution display that would magnify apps from personal smartphones, mirroring the content without complicated setups required from users.

“Stepping in as a technical advisor, I first looked through all available Wi-Fi and Bluetooth protocols that can stream video and audio. I figured out how their idea can be brought to life and drafted an architecture. Then I helped them deliver a prototype. With it, the client was able to raise a few million US dollars more from investors,” Kirill says. “Next, I recruited an international team for them, consisting of both remote and in-house US engineers. This involved handling all the recruitment hurdles, from candidate screening to interviewing and mentoring. Last but not the least, I also did vendor due diligence to find a good manufacturer for them.”

The product has reached beta testing where 78% of the group valued the product at a price above the $99 campaign price, and the rest, at over $300 (three times the campaign price).

“If you can’t find top talent right away to fill in a permanent CTO position, look for trusted outside expertise. My firm belief is that a good remote CTO can bring a lot of value to the table at any stage of a startup journey,” Kirill adds.

If you are still unsure which CTO option fits your startup best, contact ITRex . Apart from consulting, we can also provide top-level CTO services to help you build a great product.

Originally published at https://itrexgroup.com on June 15, 2022.

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A new tech publication by Start it up (https://medium.com/swlh).

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ITRex Group

ITRex Group

Emerging Tech Development & Consulting: Artificial Intelligence. Advanced Analytics. Machine Learning. Big Data. Cloud