The long road to the success of your startup begins with building the right team that would preserve your business through all the usual ups and downs that a startup faces during the early stages of its development. Though sometimes underappreciated by many first time entrepreneurs, the CTO’s role might be the most critical position in your company during the initial product and business development phase. The importance of finding the right person for this position is hard to overestimate. During the initial stages, this person alone might make or break all your future chances of success.
Without a doubt, the best-case scenario is to have an experienced technology co-founder who has already had multiple successful product launches under her belt, deep technological expertise, great managerial skills and business acumen. But what if you don’t have such a person on your team? Should you hold off until you find one? Should you settle for less so that you can move forward quickly?
Is there a shortcut?
Decision-making under pressure is never a good idea. However, for an early stage business, it is easier said than done. Being under pressure from potential investors, competitors and eternal thirst, an entrepreneur thrive to move forward quickly. It is a fairly usual case when lacking sufficient technological and product development expertise, and after a long and fruitless search for a proper CTO candidate, the entrepreneur settles for a young software engineer, techie geek or just a friend of a friend for the interim CTO role.
Does that sound like the right decision that will keep your R&D on track at least until you find a good fit? I’m afraid it doesn’t.
Based on my experience from working with many early stage companies, compromising on a CTO can lead to a total collapse of the product development process and eventually your startup; failed business objectives, subpar product characteristics, and performance, waste of a budget, loss of labor hours and deployments that take forever. In most cases, this is not something your early-stage startup will be able to live through.
It requires a lot of experience in order to take your business idea and translate it into the product vision, functional specifications, development milestones and product architecture. It takes the experience to make some hard choices on features’ priorities, internal shortcuts, and even hacks to make it work within the existing budgetary and time limits. All this, while keeping – his or her eyes and ears open, constantly communicating with the rest of the team and even soliciting for customer feedback. This is not easy but these are the basic skill sets you will need in your CTO.
What it takes to be the right CTO
It goes without saying that the technology and product development expertise are important for a CTO. However, there is a full set of qualities that a proper CTO should have which are essential for the success of your startup. So let’s take a closer look at each quality and discuss why you should care deeply about each and every one of them.
1. Product vision
An average developer could be skillful in technical terms but she might not have enough experience to be able to create a product strategy for your business. A CTO must see the whole picture, including the business side. She should be able to take your business ideas and initiatives and transform them into a real working product.
The right CTO will be able to form a focused, achievable vision of your product from the prototype to the MVP, to the first production version and beyond. She should fully understand and care deeply about:
- Who the end users are, what their problems are and how the product resolves them.
- What features and to what extent should it include at every stage.
- Decide what shortcuts can be made in order to reduce costs and meet important deadlines.
If your CTO does not have these qualities, then all you will end up with -is a product that does not fulfill its promise, a broken budget, unmet deadlines and plenty of excuses.
2. Management skills and people’s person
A CTO’s job implies that there are more managerial responsibilities than technical ones. The CTO is responsible for the whole R&D management process. This includes:
- Managing the company’s development resources.
- Choosing the most cost-effective development solutions.
- Vetting new candidates for the developers’ team.
However, even with limited financial incentives, a strong CTO must be able to fire up the developers with her vision, charisma, and expertise. Talented people are attracted to talent and oftentimes are willing to sacrifice a fat paycheck for being a part of something bigger. Only a talented and experienced leader can create such affection.
3. System architecture and UI/UX
Any product has internal system architecture and external user interfaces. A good CTO has to be able to form a qualified opinion on both:
- What is the proper internal architecture that allows you to launch fast and scale rapidly? Where should you draw the line between quick and dirty beta version and clean and modular production?
- What are the programming languages, frameworks and 3rd party modules that are required in order to build the product? This decision should be based on something more substantial than just personal preferences or, worse yet, personal ignorance. This will have a strong and long-lasting impact on the development strategy for years to come.
- What are the right screen and user flows that would translate into high user retention and monetization? How to optimize UI, deal with the usability issues and facilitate user feedback?
Those are the daily questions that CTOs face and your CTO should be able to provide a good answer.
4. An executive with strong and well-rounded credentials
Your CTO will be facing your partners, customers, and potential investors on a daily basis. If you think you can take care of all external communication yourself, think again. There will be technical issues that your partners would prefer to resolve with the “tech guy” directly. Your potential investors may want to evaluate his or her competency and not just technical ones. Your customer may want to discuss some potential features, general feasibility, and a development timeframe. You need an executive with strong presentation and communication skills, who can articulate and sell your vision to the world. A software engineer will simply not cut it.
5. Partner and team player
Your business will likely take years to bear fruit and there will be numerous ups and downs which you will need to overcome as a team. It is critical that you feel you are able to communicate clearly and openly with your CTO, which you will do on an hourly or daily basis. You should actually like the person, you should trust your CTO with your money, your ideas and your business. This is more than just a friendship and will oftentimes feel more like a marriage. Not many people will fit this role. It will take months or even years to find a good fit. Who has time for that?
Is there a viable alternative?
Well, the bad news is that finding the person who will satisfy all these requirements is extremely hard. You don’t have sufficient funding to pay for such a talented player and these guys usually have plenty of options to choose from. Besides, even if you find the right candidate, both of you will need some time to adjust to each other and to make sure that you fit well together. Remember, you are looking for someone who will go hand in hand with you for years to come.
It might take a year or more to find the right match, but what if you don’t have that much time?
The good news is, however, that there is a viable alternative that can buy you more time to find that perfect CTO without delaying your product development progress. Since your priority is to develop an MVP as soon as possible, you have the option to cooperate with a strong product development company, which can offer its services as a technology partner.
Granted, your company won’t be able to operate without a resident Technical Officer for long, as a good CTO is vital for any technology startup. However, luckily, in most real-life scenarios, no CTO is actually better than a bad CTO. Being aware of your shortcomings and acting appropriately is better than putting your trust, money and the future of your company in the hands of a random person.
Partnering with the right company will require a diligent selection process on your side. It takes experienced product and project managers that are able to work with you and your customers. A full range of product development services has to be readily available within the company to design, develop and support the product throughout its life cycle from a functional prototype, through the MVP and on to the production version.
Having the right technology partner will give you the required amount of time that you need in order to find the right CTO while also moving forward with your plans. Furthermore, your technology partner may even be able to help you with identifying the right candidate.
How does it work?
Taking the lead on all aspects of a new product requires a well-defined multiphase approach
- Setup. Your technology partner will assign a dedicated development team to your project which will be led by an experienced product manager.
- Product definition. Just as your CTO would do, your dedicated Product Manager will gather the business requirements, identify the main actors, user flows and transform them into the development requirements. They will also help you define an MVP.
- Planning and management. With years of experience and multiple successful projects under their belt, your dedicated team will identify the technology stack to be used, define the roadmap and milestones which are critical to your startup. The tasks will be efficiently split- between developers. They will define the shortcuts to reduce initial costs.
- Development. They will provide you with development resources, depending on your current needs. In any case, they will be able to scale up when you need it most and scale down when funds are tight. That’s why you should be looking for a partner who provides a full range of services, from A to Z. Even if you don’t need it now, you will - in the future as your business grows.
- Release. A technology partner will ensure that your product is launched on time and within the budget.
Succeeding with your startup is going to be a long ride. Make sure you fully realize all the options available to you to make this ride fruitful from the very start.
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