I’m Still Waiting for My Perfect CTO. Here’s Why You Should Too — Advice for Solo Founders
When I started my company, Pixc, I didn’t really know what a startup was. I just went about teaching myself how to build a basic website, and when we got to the stage of needing someone technical, I found someone online.
After I had run Pixc for a while, I decided I wanted to apply to an accelerator program. There was just one catch before I could get in: I needed a “CTO/technical co-founder” to be accepted into the program.
Because of this requirement, I promoted my contract web developer to CTO of my business. It made sense at the time, but I soon came to understand it wasn’t the best move.
I learned that when you’re starting out, you do need someone technical on your team, but they don’t have to be the CTO. The key is that a chief technology officer is someone who has a technical vision for the company and has managed people before.
The second requirement is really important! As your company grows and its technical needs become more complex, you’re going to need more talented people to help you. Your CTO could be brilliant, but you’re going to have problems if they don’t know how to keep team members moving in the right direction.
After my new hire, things started to go wrong when my developer-turned-CTO showed up late to the first roundtable with our official advisors. I needed someone who was going to share my passion for the business, and this was the first sign that my CTO wasn’t as committed as I was. Later on, I found my CTO lacked the key organizational skills to progress the overall vision of my business.
You could say I learned the hard way. There is a silver lining to making mistakes, though, and that is you become a little wiser. If you run your own business, you might be able to take a few lessons away from my experience.
What’s the difference between a CTO and a technical lead?
There’s a stereotype in the tech world of the prototypical technical lead: a brilliant, anti-social programmer who just wants to code all day. Of course, that’s not fully the case, but there’s a kernel of truth to the image.
A technical lead will be coding the vast majority of the time. They will be managing their team in the sense that they’ll keep the team working toward a coherent output, but it’s not their job to look much outside their specific projects. A tech lead will be right there in the thick of things, coding and creating right next to their team.
Contrast that with a CTO. A CTO should still know how to code, but they might not be working on any code. There are many industry experts, like technologist Kate Matsudaira, who say a CTO shouldn’t be touching code at all. Rather than focusing on the intricacies of code, a CTO should be looking at the big technology picture for a company. They’ll be creating the development budget and representing the technical side of the company in management meetings.
See the difference? The CTO has a much wider range of responsibilities under their purview. They’re working on big-picture, vision-creating plans with key individuals. This means they need to know how to organize and manage relationships within a company. If a tech lead makes a mistake, they might affect one or two products within your company — not ideal, but probably not catastrophic. If a CTO bungles their job, however, they could cause company-wide problems and systematic weaknesses in your organization that could affect your business’s overall success.
At Pixc, my business wasn’t anywhere near large enough that I needed a CTO. All I needed at that time was someone to take care of website development; I could handle the big-picture details on my own. Sure, it would have been nice to have someone at the forefront of technology to guide me, but it’s hard to dream when early customers and revenue are more important.
Now I know that if your potential CTO candidate doesn’t have managerial experience, don’t give them the title of CTO. It’s too important of a position to get wrong. You can always promote someone to the position — but no one wants to be demoted.
So, do you need a CTO or can you go on without one?
If I could go back in time and give advice to my former self, I would tell her to be patient. I thought I had to have a CTO, when in fact I was perfectly capable of growing my business as its sole captain.
It might be scary to go about it alone as a founder, but you shouldn’t automatically discount your possibility of success if you don’t have a CTO.
Sandi MacPherson, editor-in-chief of Quibb, has written that solo non-tech founders have a few things in common:
- Technically literate
- Have cash
- Startup/tech-connected (i.e., they know people)
As someone who had a few of those qualities Sandi listed, I managed to get into 500 Startups Batch 13 as a female non-technical founder. (Making an amazing music video is one memorable thing that came out of the program.)
Here are a few things to keep in mind as a non-technical founder:
First, you should understand your product from a technical point of view, but you don’t have to know the nitty-gritty technical details. You also don’t have to know how to speak to your software engineers and developers at their technical level. You do need to be the first one to put your hand up and ask them to repeat something in basic English if you don’t understand something — this is the fastest way to learn. I had to do this from time to time, and my technical personnel were more than happy to explain complicated things simply.
Second, if you want people to believe in you (and not just think you’re all talk), get some traction. Revenue and users trump everything. A startup can have the best engineers and co-founding team, but it won’t get anywhere if it doesn’t have a product customers love. According to Fortune Magazine, the number-one reason startups fail is because they make products no one wants. So it’s incredibly important to prove your product’s market viability.
And third, it’s always helpful to know people. Having great connections can give you the initial spark to get off the ground or give you the fuel to grow. Sure, it’s definitely tricky to build your network initially. But as soon as you have a few people who believe in you and invest in your success, you’ll see a beautiful snowball effect.
Always keep your eyes peeled for the perfect CTO
Right now, my company’s CTO position is still vacant. We have a technical lead, but I’m leaving the CTO position open for the right person. Ideally, I’ll hire a CTO when we have a larger engineering team.
How about you? Maybe you’ve decided you don’t need a CTO right away. Maybe you couldn’t find the right CTO and decided not to hire one (and if so, good decision!).
If you’re just starting out, you probably won’t have many people in your team. You’re in a perfect position to not hire a CTO, because you don’t necessarily need someone to manage big teams yet. This was a good description of my situation at Pixc before I joined the startup accelerator.
If you’re lucky, you might have someone on your team who you could see potentially growing into a fantastic CTO. That’s great! This could be your co-founder or an early employee, but don’t feel forced to promote a founding team member to CTO (especially if you don’t know them that well). Remember that you can take your time with the hiring and you never have to rush it. Rushing hiring decisions is a big reason companies make hiring mistakes.
The rule of thumb is to take it slow. In place of a CTO, you can always just bring on a technical advisor. Of course, when you find the perfect candidate, pursue them with every ounce of passion you can muster!
You can do it! Other amazing people have
Personally, I want to become an investor, maybe an angel investor or venture partner. I’m not entirely sure, but I want to work with multiple teams on multiple ideas and I think investing is a great way to do that.
I’d definitely lean toward investing in teams, as the data shows that companies started by multiple co-founders are more likely to succeed (and by a huge 163% in performance as defined by venture capital firm First Round).
But you never say “never,” especially not in business. You can be an outlier who succeeds; you just have to want it enough.
These are a few solo founders whose companies have done incredibly well:
Furthermore, there are loads of founders who have made it into top accelerators as solo acts:
- Y Combinator: Ray Grieselhuber of Ginzamarkets (better known as Ginzametrics); Olga Vidisheva of Shoptiques
- Techstars: Laura Fitton of OneForty (acquired by HubSpot in 2011)
- 500 Startups: Naoki Shibata of Appgrooves (known as Searchman SEO); Damian Madray of Hunie; Aihui Ong of Love With Food
And I’m proud to see successful companies that were started by solo female founders:
I get inspired by these fine folks every day. Who inspires you? Remember that no matter who you are, you can start an amazing company.
Remember also that you neither have to have a technical background nor hire a CTO right away. Always be on the lookout for a good CTO candidate, though, because investors are more likely to invest in teams and it will make building your vision easier.
Conclusion and takeaways
I’m still looking for my perfect CTO. Maybe you’re still waiting too, and if that’s the case, I’m right there with you. I’m glad I learned early on how important the CTO position is — and I hope you can avoid the mistakes I made.
There’s no perfect way to build a business. Personally, though, I believe having a technical team member is critical to the success of a business. You can learn from my experience to help you find the right person for your startup. Keep these things in mind:
- Add a technical-minded person to your team early to speed up the development of your business. Focus on what you’re good at; if you don’t know how to build a website, for example, you should seriously consider hiring an expert to make one for you. I started off managing the Pixc website, but eventually I outsourced my site’s backend to a contract developer.
- Think about whether you really need a CTO. At the beginning, it’s highly unlikely you’ll need one. So, you don’t have to rush the decision. It’s best to wait until you find the perfect candidate, someone you know very well and trust to define the overall vision of your business. I definitely should have waited a little longer before hiring my first CTO!
- Never be afraid to start a business on your own! You can always hire help if you need it. The important thing is to not let fear or over-planning keep you from taking the leap. I started Pixc by myself and today I run a successful and still-growing eCommerce services company.
The most important thing is to just set the ball in motion and take the first steps to starting your business. From personal experience, I know you don’t have to wait for the perfect person to begin building your idea. Remember, they always say that tomorrow you’ll wish you’d started today.
So, get started! And don’t ever let a lack of technical knowledge hold you back.