What Makes a Good Startup CTO?

There are several types of CTOs but startups need a specific type

👋 Hello, welcome to the Startup Hustle! I’m your guide, Matt Watson. I share weekly tips from my 20+ years of startup founder experience and stories from other entrepreneurs from the Startup Hustle podcast.

On the podcast, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adelina Chalmers, a CTO consultant. We discussed the seven different types of CTOs.

The types of CTOs vary widely between a small SaaS company, a Fortune 500 tech company, and a nontech company like a railroad or hospital.

A “Startup CTO” is one of those seven types and one of the key pieces every startup founder needs on their team.

In a startup, you need someone who can bring the product to life. That is usually the CTO's responsibility, and there is a lot of urgency in a startup.

You need a Chief Today Officer.

That is dramatically different from a larger company, where it is more of a leadership and strategic role. They spend most of their time planning for the future (most of which the company won’t even do).

You don’t need a Chief Tomorrow Officer.

You need someone who can help get the product to market ASAP and iterate quickly on finding product-market fit. You are running low on money and time.

This requires a different kind of CTO: a startup CTO.

My podcast with her got me thinking… What makes a good “startup CTO?”

The Importance of a Solution-Oriented Mindset

When you are first starting, you need a “solution architect.”

They need to be really good at understanding business problems and requirements. They can then translate that into how to build a software product.

This has always been my superpower throughout my career.

I have a knack for speaking to people about their problems, asking the right questions, and then architecting and building software solutions to their problems.

I could also use my experience building software to create something even better than what they originally requested. If you can dream it, I can build it.

That is the magic and value of a good startup CTO.

Quickly translating business problems into a software solution is key to startup success… and survival!

The best CTOs should also think strategically and can help drive the product vision. A CTO who is also one of the founders and has a passion for the product is extremely valuable.

Knowing What Not to Do

Writing the code is actually the easiest part of building software.

The harder part is figuring out what product features to build, how to architect them, and, most importantly, avoiding common mistakes.

Avoiding mistakes is one of the key reasons you hire a CTO.

Like everything else in life, we all learn from our mistakes. If you hire someone who has led development teams and projects for 10-20+ years, you also get their experience of all the ways not to do things.

Be that from their own personal mistakes or by witnessing them from all the companies and projects they have been part of in some capacity.

Their experience is invaluable in helping you avoid the types of mistakes that can be fatal for your startup. There are tons of them, but here are a few:

  • Flexible and modern tech stack

  • Ensure proper scalability & security

  • Hiring good developers

  • Software architecture patterns

  • Balancing technical debt

Most startups don’t have the time or money to recover from mistakes. Having people on your team that can help you avoid them is key.

Many first-time founders hire dev agencies or expensive consultants to help build the software. A good CTO can help ensure they do the work correctly and hold them accountable.

Big mistakes can cause startups to experience major short-term or long-term setbacks.

Should They Write Code?

One endless debate is whether a CTO should be writing code…

If they are the only developer, they have to be able to write code.

Realistically, your company only needs a part-time CTO in the early stages. They can help oversee the product planning and architecture decisions and manage the team's day-to-day operations while not writing code themselves.

If you have a technical co-founder, you potentially only need them part time to manage the team. They can still work their high paying day job until your startup receives more revenue. Another option is to hire a fractional CTO for $4,500 a month from a company like Fraction.

Having a part-time CTO manage a couple of offshore developers is one of the most cost-effective ways to launch a product. At my company, Full Scale, or similar companies, you can hire great developers for as little as $25 an hour.

A CTO doesn’t need to write all the code, but they should be highly technical and able to jump in when needed to solve hard problems. I prefer a CTO who can write code and prototype new features. I also wrote about that topic previously.

The CTO Role Evolves

As a company grows, what it needs from a CTO evolves. This is part of the reason Adelina identified seven different types of CTOs.

You can listen to that episode on YouTube here or on your podcast app:

Eventually, managing teams and being a strategic leader in the company becomes more important.

Also, listen to this episode of the Startup Hustle podcast, which was a more in-depth episode about the evolving role of a CTO with Stephan Schmidt:

Not every startup CTO can transition to a CTO of a larger company.

That is OK, and it is true of many jobs in startups. Your first sales and support leaders are also not likely the right leaders if you had 100 employees all of a sudden.

If your CTO is a co-founder, you can also do what I did. I hired a VP of Engineering to do all the things I don’t like to do, namely managing the day-to-day operations of an engineering team. This allowed me to focus more on the product, architecture, prototyping new products, and solving the big hairy problems.

In my opinion, one of the most valuable things of any CTO is their ability to prototype and build new things. This holds true as the company scales until it simply isn’t possible anymore.

A startup founder who is also the CTO is potentially a “10x developer” who can move mountains. Knowing what needs to be done and being able to do it allows them to move very quickly.

Every startup needs a CTO, even if it is a fractional one.

Who is Matt Watson?
Join 46,000 others, and follow me on LinkedIn. I am also the host of the Startup Hustle podcast, which you can listen to on any podcast app or YouTube.

I’m the CEO of Full Scale. We help companies scale up their development teams with top talent from the Philippines at a 60% savings.

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