There’s always a tinge of “TBD” that accompanies the role of an early stage startup CTO.
There’s a reason the position comes with that “up in the air” feeling. Early stage companies can’t immediately hire someone with the tech and executive know-how needed to handle the job. Most startups appoint a lead developer or some other tech go-to as the CTO and then ask him or her to juggle any number of responsibilities — sometimes simultaneously.
In some instances, the CTO is a chief engineer who takes a hands-on approach to product development; other times; a CTO is a VP of engineering who is charged with hiring a team and designing the processes and culture necessary to turn business needs into deployed products. And then there are instances when a CTO serves as a startup’s technological “face,” explaining the evolving tech landscape and the company’s “secret sauce” to customers, investors, and the press.
On any given day, a startup CTO will fill any one — or all — of these roles. He or she will then be asked to act as a product manager, designer, board member, or salesperson on top of that. Young companies have to run lean, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that startup CTOs face high expectations.
Startup CTOs must be able to anticipate and balance myriad duties while still focusing on the pressing and evolving concerns that threaten the survival of their organizations.
Putting the Startup CTO Role Into Words
For most startups, the first significant milestone is shipping a minimally viable product. Until that happens, sales can’t demo, marketing can’t measure conversions, and customers definitely can’t make a purchase.
CTOs are invaluable to any early-stage startup’s go-to-market plan. Even with lean approaches like paper prototypes and market conversion testing, the rubber meets the road when developers begin to build that first shippable version.
CTOs have specialized expertise on which CEOs, managers, and other leaders rely. CEOs can’t build systems, select DevOps frameworks, code, or evaluate and hire engineers to run an agile product management process. Managing these variables is part of the job for a CTO.
As a CTO, however, you should be able to recognize your strengths, acknowledge your weaknesses, and delegate when possible.
Although there’s no step-by-step guide on how to navigate a startup’s early months, here are a few hard-earned juggling lessons I’ve learned:
1. Step up by stepping back.
To find balance, first separate your additional responsibilities into two categories: internal and external. Both will include a lot of tasks that you probably haven’t anticipated.
Internally, you’re the company’s technical guru who can handle anything from a QuickBooks installation to the beginning stages of product development and management. Don’t be surprised when you learn there’s no one else around to set up G Suite calendaring and payroll software integrations! At the same time, most developers-turned-CTOs haven’t built a team from scratch and don’t have a thoughtful plan for defining culture, recruiting and interviewing, or creating a diverse workplace.
Externally, team members will quickly pull you into unfamiliar scenarios such as contract negotiations, stock option planning, press appearances, or fundraising meetings. Investors aren’t dummies, and shortly after buying into a CEO’s vision, they’ll want to meet the technical leader who’s executing that vision.
Segmenting these tasks fosters conversations about leveraging strengths, filling in gaps, and prioritizing responsibilities. And considering the never-ending list of early-stage CTO duties, you’ll be better off with less on your plate.
2. Be open with your management team.
As a CTO, most of your role is a mystery to your partners. They might secretly worry about everything. Let them know where you’re confident and what concerns you. Keeping them in the loop about challenges and fears builds trust, which is the most valuable currency on any startup team.
As my startup, Thumb, rapidly scaled, we were racing to transition from MySQL to MongoDB. But when we first flipped the switch, our mobile app screeched to a halt. The app was riddled with bugs about which our users were eager to complain.
When the CEO asked me what was going on and how to fix it, I got defensive. It took him pressing the discussion for me to understand that he didn’t even know what our options were. Once I told him about our possible courses of action, he was able to offer perspective and support. By being open about what I did and didn’t know, we built a rapport that allowed us to solve this — and other future problems — together.
3. Make great approaches your own.
Tech teams have great instincts for leveraging open-source software packages and SaaS tools. But we know better than to waste time reinventing undifferentiated code, so it’s essential to find ways to add your own wrinkles to proven strategies.
But don’t let those instincts stop at tech decisions — put a personal stamp on every process. Find products you admire, and investigate what tech stack the teams behind them are using. Examine designs you love, and shamelessly try to hire their designers. Ask any founders you meet how they are diversifying their developer recruiting pipeline. Design an intentional culture with inspiration from culture decks like Netflix, Spotify, or HubSpot.
4. Don’t be a blocker.
With all the responsibilities of a CTO, there’s a risk of you becoming a bottleneck. Build processes that take you off the critical path and empower your team, but never just for the sake of process. Get to the root of the problem with your own “5 Whys” analysis if things are getting hung up.
Talk with your team about what is and isn’t working. Help all team members see around the corners. After those discussions, collaborate to figure out the fix and how you’ll measure the impact of process improvements. When prioritizing your time, always start with what’s impeding your team’s progress.