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Stop! Startups, Read This Before You Hire a CTO

Tech startup founders, listen up. We’re going to say something a non-technical founder might not like to hear. But after working with hundreds of startups and corporations on software initiatives, we know it’s best to say the hard thing when it’s the right thing:

Your first technical move should not be to hire a CTO.

Okay, we’ve busted the myth, so keep reading to discover why a CTO is not the most effective way to hire at the beginning, so you can set up your product – and organization – for scalable software success.

The Old Approach for a Non-Technical Startup Founder

A common progression for tech startup founders usually takes this path: The founder has an idea for an app or software, hires developers to build it, and quickly realizes the project requires someone with a higher level of expertise. Without an extensive tech background, the next natural step seems to be for the startup founder to hire a CTO, or chief technology officer.

It’s understandable. Non-technical founders reasonably assume that technical knowledge is the most important – and first – acquisition in order to build a software product. And it can be scary if they don’t have that immediately in a founding partner or an early hire. However, the great news is that founders not having a tech background is not one of the leading causes of digital product failure.

How Does a CTO’s Role Misalign with Startups?

Startup founders should be focused on building the right product and getting the product to market. This is less about a technology strategy and more about understanding the end user, the product roadmap, and the launch.

Nowadays, CTOs are more strategic in nature regarding technology across an organization. A CTO is a senior level leader, and in a startup, there’s not enough true CTO-level work. What a tech startup really needs is a person who will roll up their sleeves and get into the guts of a product development initiative.

What Happens When You Hire a CTO Early On?

When a startup brings on a CTO early in the company’s journey and before the software is built, they risk spending on a (large) c-suite level salary and getting a person ill-equipped or unwilling to lead the software development and participate in non-strategic, ground level product development activities. This person will not be able to move the needle in the agile, hands-on environment of a startup.

On the flip side, some founders hire someone for a role integral to building the software, like a solutions architect or senior dev, and then give them the CTO title. Then that person operates as the CTO but functions as a product manager or head of product development in order to bring the software initiative to fruition. This mismatch between job title and what the person is really doing will likely cause organizational issues down the road. When the organization grows, this person will not have the skillset to take on normal CTO initiatives.

Furthermore, even if they aren’t given the CTO title, a solutions architect is not the best choice for an early hire. Early on in the organization, this person will also face a lack of work. These types of people are in high demand and command a premium salary, so paying them to work part time is a poor use of early funding. Unfortunately if you put them on tasks like coding or firefighting/problem solving to occupy their time, they are likely to find this unfulfilling and leave. An architect is not the right first tool for the needs of most new startups.

How to Hire Effectively for a Tech Startup

We have covered why you should not not hire a CTO or solutions architect initially. We also suggest avoiding another common practice: hiring a whole development team first.

Instead, start by hiring a product manager.

An in-house product manager is going to have knowledge of how the product needs to work, what it does, how it serves customers’ needs, and a development roadmap of how to get there. From there, it’s easy to plug and play partners to add bandwidth and scale the development to move the project along.

As we covered in Software Project or Software Product? Know Which One You’re Creating, in the early stages of ideation, planning, and development, the software product should be the focus, not the technical process of how it will be built in the software project(s). Without strong product management, a lot of money can be blown on the development team being ineffective, distracted by too many or contradicting priorities, or missing the mark for customer needs, requiring expensive reworks or causing project delays.

The other benefit of a product manager is their closeness with sales. A product manager is responsible for steering the direction of the product, but they can also be an advocate or liaison between development and the customers or between development and the sales team.

One Other Option for Highly Technical Startups

Above, we suggested product managers as the ideal first hire for most startups, but there are some exceptions. If a startup’s need is particularly technical, such as a SaaS-like web application, it may make more sense to start with a good lead developer who loves to code and ideally one with some experience as an architect.

If a startup is building a multi-platform solution with mobile apps, web applications, and a back end, then the primary starting point would be a lead developer with strong experience in back-end development who understands basic architecture and can be that central repository of knowledge of everything on the back end.

One way to promote this position is as a lead developer role that could transition into an architect role as the company grows. This is a great method to get someone who is hungry and who is on their way to being an architect. Then both the startup and that employee can grow together.

Successful Startups Hire for the Greatest ROI

Early hiring mistakes, especially expensive ones that spend precious seed funding, can be the difference between a successful or failed startup. Seek the team members that offer the highest return on investment rather than those that bulk up the c-suite or command sky-high salaries. Higher asking price might mean higher skills but it doesn’t equate to a better fit for a lean, fast-paced startup. Start by hiring with savvy problem solvers who know how to build software products, and you’ll find that anything is possible!


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Jeff Francis

Jeff Francis is a veteran entrepreneur and founder of Dallas-based digital product studio ENO8. Jeff founded ENO8 to empower companies of all sizes to design, develop and deliver innovative, impactful digital products. With more than 18 years working with early-stage startups, Jeff has a passion for creating and growing new businesses from the ground up, and has honed a unique ability to assist companies with aligning their technology product initiatives with real business outcomes.

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