Are you a non-technical startup founder looking for a “CTO” or technical team ? Read on !

“I need a CTO”

A lot of people are approaching me, with a sad and impatient look in their face, “I need a CTO. I can’t find a CTO. Can you help me to find a CTO ? XYZ recommended you – can you be my CTO ?”

A quick look at Wikipedia reveals that you actually might not be looking for a senior executive with a market rate in the six digit range, but rather a … developer. Often in early stage startups the “CTO” turns out to be a 21-year old glorified developer, as part of a two founder team with a “CEO” – versus – being an experienced technology manager. If this is the first technical member of your team, and you are on a tight budget, you are very likely to need an experienced developer much more than a manager – who would the manager be managing if there is no tech team ?

“I need a Front End Dev / Node.js Coder / Designer / App Developer”

Often a non-technical first time founder actually does not know what kind of technical resource is needed. Going to networking events and desperately shouting “I need a dev ! I need a dev !” should be replaced by a more targeted approach, after identifying the skill set and level of experience required – if needed with help of someone who knows (try the Dreamstake Forum for example to start such discussion). Typical internet projects require a variety of technical skills, and one technical individual might not even be able to provide all the skills needed – for example the most basic website project might be feasible with just one resource who knows how to configure WordPress and do some image editing, but as soon as you actually want to build a website you might be looking at a graphics designer, a front end and a back end developer. For a mobile app, you often need a designer, a mobile app developer (or even separate developers for iPhone and Android) and a back end developer. If you take things seriously, you should also have a technical tester. If you are not “technical” then you should not dictate the technology used – because you just read that “node.js is the coolest way to build something”, or that “Netflix is using Hadoop” – it doesn’t mean that you need it too, right now. Get suggestions from someone who understands what you are trying to achieve, and only trust someone who can explain the options with advantages and disadvantages to you, in a way that you can understand. Otherwise, walk away and talk with someone else.

Parallel approach (search / outsource)

Unlike many recent university graduates, who are willing to carry out various unpaid activities to get some work experience onto their CVs to make them more attractive to employers, the person you are looking for typically requires a level of experience that will make it quite easy for them to find “proper” work, for example as mobile app developer in the City of London for £450/day or £80k/annually (real values from today’s job boards). Obviously you are competing with a very attractive market for such resources, no matter how entrepreneurial the candidate’s ambitions might be, and no matter how well you are pitching your “work for me for free on my fantastic unproven vision of a bio-degradable multi purpose umbrella holder with weather detector iPhone app – you can work from home on Mondays and I give you 5% (of nothing)” proposal.

Therefore your level of funding will greatly impact your options. Basically if you have no or a very little amount of funding, it’s unlikely that you can afford to PAY someone a decent amount of money for their services. Unfortunately there is often a direct link between cost of resource and level of quality, experience and overall satisfaction you will get. This leaves you with two options:

  1. Keep on looking for a technical resource who really buys into your idea and is willing to join your startup as co-founder, even if initially only on a part-time basis, for no/low pay
  2. If what you need is just a prototype to show to potential investors and business partners, and / or as part of customer validation, consider paying some money for outsourced development. That way you can tap into a resource pool with a technical skill mix you would usually not find in one person – see my blog post Building Your MVP on a Budget

Many people make the mistake and think that they have to choose either option (1) or (2) – which I think is a mistake ! Your ultimate goal is that you want a technical co-founder, it’s just not easy to find one. But instead of waiting for (1) to happen, which means no technical work takes place, you should instead work on both options in parallel. Try to get something built externally, while still looking for a technical co-founder, because otherwise you will never find one.

For those of you still undecided or confused about what they are looking for, I created this awesome flowchart for you:

Blog June 2014

CTORalph Stenzel, Dreamstake CTO

Twitter @amazingsquirrel