When you’re founding a startup and you don’t have a senior technical co-founder, what is the default thing to do? Look for a CTO, a chief technology officer.

Guess what there’s a shortage of? Great CTO’s…

But there’s another option.

What if for the same ‘price’ as a CTO, you could get a great part-time Silicon Valley CTO + 2 full-time developers? (Ask me how this works.)

That could actually produce more progress in 1) building out your business and 2) supporting your customer development efforts. You could get more momentum, while being more capital efficient.

With this approach, your CTO can focus on high value-add efforts, like:

– designing the technology architecture

– setting the tech team culture, including coding standards

– prioritizing steps in the development plan to support business needs & schedules

while your developers build out the code.

One of the challenges of the ‘full-time CTO who does everything’ approach is that they face constant context-switching between back-end coding, front-end UI tweaks, architecting and sync-ing w/ the business team and business considerations. Constant context-switching can really reduce productivity. That reduced productivity is often in the critical path of the business, limiting speed and making other members of the management team worried.

When searching for a part-time CTO, there’s also less requirements to filter on, than if you’re looking for one person to do everything, since you’re not looking for them to be the combo CTO/front-end/back-end/mobile developer. That means it’s easier to find one, and you’re faster in getting started and going to market.

By helping build out multiple startups concurrently, a part-time CTO can bring you 5x the expertise in high-value areas like:

– technology architecture

– practical experience w/ different technologies and their development productivity and any potential surprise issues

– best practices for tech team culture

– leveraging usability design, metrics, analytics, A/B testing, etc.

What happens when you scale up the tech team and need more tech management? Do you then switch over to having a full-time CTO?

That’s not your only option. One great approach is to start building out your engineering management, by adding a half or full-time Director of Engineering. Or a VP of Engineering.

But what will investors say? Their main concerns are that:

– The Tech is being built in a high-quality way (Answer: You’ve got a high-quality CTO guiding that)

– Opportunities are not being missed (Answer: They’re handled because the CTO can focus on those opportunities and doesn’t have to context-switch to write CSS code)

– You have a plan to scale up development productivity (Answer: Such as by bringing on a Dir/VP of Engineering in addition to more developers when needed)

When talking with investors, you can address these concerns with the points mentioned above. Then you can talk about how your current plan is giving you higher development productivity by having 2 developers building the tech, and is capital efficient. You also have less dependency on one particular person.

If incentivized suitably with sufficient stock, an experienced CTO can probably help raise an additional amount of funding enough to cover a years’ worth of cash compensation or more. They aren’t going to promise this and it shouldn’t be the reason to bring them on board, but it can be a nice benefit. And in some cases, that additional new investor can be a name investor who strengthens and contributes momentum to the whole fundraising process.

The biggest benefits that an experienced CTO can bring to a startup are in the interplay of business and tech:

  • connecting and ordering tech priorities to business & customer needs, and
  • balancing technical and business goals.

Being on top of these areas means quicker time to market, quicker iteration in customer development, and a higher probability of making it big.

I welcome your thoughts on this.


Adrian Scott is a pioneer of social networking, having founded Ryze. He was also a founding investor in Napster. He currently helps companies build & ship technology and grow their metrics, as CEO of Coderbuddy.

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