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Do You Really Need to Hire a CTO to Launch Your Startup?

by Nicolas Jacobeus, on 10 July 2017

As a non-technical founder of a budding startup, it may feel like finding a CTO should be your top priority.

You want to make the best choices about product development, but as you lack the technical knowledge yourself, it's natural to want someone on-board who's more knowledgeable in that area to guide those decisions.

But while having a CTO is great in the long-term, do you really need one to launch your startup?

Are You Trying to Look the Part?

When you look at the structure of any of the big, successful tech startups, one thing they all have in common is the core of their C-suite. The CTO role is ubiquitous, so it's easy to assume that in order to become a successful startup, you need to bring a CTO on-board. 

However, it's not essential so early on, when you've not yet launched. Having a CTO on your team won't make or break your startup - and at this early stage, it's too soon to worry about having the 'right' make-up in your C-suite when your focus should be elsewhere. Rather than obsessing over team structure and hiring, a better use of your time and energy is to focus on proving out your startup idea and underlying hypotheses - to lay the foundations from which to successfully scale your startup.

In the early stages of building your startup, finding product/market fit should be your primary focus; everything else can wait. You don't need a technical co-founder or CTO on your team in order to validate that essential hypothesis - so don't stress about finding someone sooner than necessary.

The Risks of Hiring a CTO

If you're determined to hire a CTO at this early stage, you have two main options:

  • Hire an experienced CTO - this person will likely be working elsewhere; bringing them to your new, unproven startup will take a lot of money, and a lot of equity to make it worth their while.
  • Hire an inexperienced CTO - most likely a new graduate, or someone without much experience. This person would be more like a 'pseudo-CTO' - given the title, but without the knowledge or experience to be a good fit. It's likely that they would need to be replaced by a more experienced person as your startup scales.

Neither option is great for your startup, and if you're trying to make that decision quickly, you run the risk of a serious lapse in judgement. Rush-hiring anyone - especially someone for the C-suite - can be disastrous, and incredibly expensive if you make a bad hire.

In fact, founder mismatch - in terms of personality clashes, different levels of commitment, or product direction - is a leading cause of startup failure. Bringing the wrong person on board, even at this early stage, can cripple your startup.

When Should You Bring a CTO On-Board?

While you may not need a CTO to launch your startup, at some point it will become important to have that level of technical expertise and seniority within your startup team. So, when should you bring a CTO on-board?

The right time will depend on your startup. But as a general rule, having a CTO will be useful when you come to seek post-seed round investment - investors like seeing a cross-functional team. At this stage, your startup should have clear indicators of having reached product/market fit, and it will be a good time to bring on-board someone with the required level of technical expertise who will stay with your startup as you transition through different growth stages. Additionally, if you've successfully raised funding, you'll have raised your startup's profile, and should have the cash to be able to afford an experienced CTO.

Before bringing on a CTO in-house, it may be worth working with an agency, to meet your startup's immediate technical requirements. This is less of a commitment than hiring a stop-gap CTO, and a different type of relationship. You'd essentially be outsourcing the technical work - and the risk that comes with it - until your startup begins showing signs of reaching product/market fit.

Whatever approach you take to bringing technical knowledge into your startup, it's important to remember that at the earliest stages of your startup, your top priority should be proving out your essential hypotheses, rather than worrying about putting together the 'perfect' team.

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Topics:EntrepreneurshipThe Belighted WayStrategy Workshop

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