Entrepreneurs constantly approach me to ask: “How can I find a great CTO?”
To which I reply, “I know plenty of CTOs, and I can tell you that the good ones are looking for a salary, not just equity. Can you pay them?”
You’d be shocked at how often the answer is “No.”
But that answer no longer shocks me, so I dig a little deeper with the entrepreneur. I ask: “Why do you think you need a CTO?”
Here’s where the conversation gets interesting. Intrigued? Read on.
The most common answers are:
- “I have an idea and I need someone to build it”
- “I need customers.”
- “I don’t know how to write code.”
I can say with absolute certainty that these answers in and of themselves DO NOT mean you need a CTO, at least not at this stage in your business. Here is a cheat sheet to show you whether it’s time for CTO:
If you aren’t ready for a CTO yet, here are the steps you need to take to become ready.
Why this is important: I like the root canal metaphor: If you go to the dentist and get a root canal filled, how do you know if the dentist did a good job? The answer is, you don’t truly know unless the root canal either falls out or you get a killer toothache. And then it’s too late. The same thing can happen to your code. If you hire a CTO and have no way to vet that person’s performance, trust me, you’ll NEVER know if she/he is doing a good job until it’s way too late. Too late is when they’ve been responsible for your software for a while and spent your entire project budget.
How To: You don’t necessarily need to be the person who can read code, but you do need to hire someone who can. Read this to get a 4 step process on how to bring someone on your team that can read code in a VERY low cost way.
Manually Testing your Idea
Why this is important: CTOs are expensive, as they should be. And they are valuable assets when needed. Manually testing is an inexpensive, low-risk way to test out your idea. If it’s a good one, you can then use your money to scale up. Until you know if your idea is viable, you don’t need a technical leader.
How To: Manual testing is easier than you think, and there are many ways to do it.
- Build a Squarespace page. You can try Squarespace free for 30 days. It really doesn’t get easier than this when it comes to building a website. And they even have e-commerce. You can sell up to 20 products for the very low cost of $16/month. I doubt you need to sell more than 20 products to get valuable feedback on your product.
- Or do an old school, non-tech manual test. Say you want to create a product that gives people discounts to pizza shops. Print out 100 coupons, hand them out and see if your offer works. At least 9 times out of 10, there’s a manual, low cost way to get feedback.
However you want to test your web application product or concept, do it before you hire a CTO to build a platform.
Why this is important: Good CTOs can find a paying job right now. Unless they passionately believe in your idea, a qualified CTO won’t work for free. Offering equity is tricky— how will you possibly know how much equity to give? If you have no money and no traction, that CTO is going to want a hefty chunk of equity. Do you really want to give up that much of your company? You are better off to raise some money, pay the CTO a salary and give a smaller chunk of equity as a default. If you find a CTO that’s qualified and you meet the three other requirements for being CTO-ready and they want equity and no salary, feel free to negotiate.
How To: Watch David S. Rose’s video on 10 Things You Need To Know Before You Pitch a VC.
Quit your day job
Why this is important: Why would any qualified CTO ever want to work full time on your pet project when you are spending only nights and weekends on it? Let’s play out this scenario. Your CTO has a question. It’s 2pm Monday. Whoops, you can’t answer it because you’re in a big meeting with your team at your other job. Your CTO is stuck until you can respond. Not good. Don’t let this be you. Never ask a CTO (or anyone else for that matter) to commit to your idea more than you are willing to do.
How To: Ok, this one is obvious. Just do it. But wait, don’t ‘just’ do it. Have a plan, believe in your vision, timebox it. Be smart about it.
Make sense? Do these steps, and then when you think you are ready to hire a CTO for your technical team, don’t be shy about asking for help, from your network, from me, from anyone who you think can add value. It’s not about pride and going it alone, it’s about learning from those that have done it before so that you can hire efficiently.
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