What to look for in a startup CTO

Emily Bahna

As a founder, when it comes time to build out your technology road map, the most important decision you will have to make will be in hiring or acquiring a CTO partner. For early stage product companies, a hands on internally focused CTO is whats needed most. They will be the foundation that will bring your product to life and lay the essential infrastructure necessary to building your business. Get this wrong, and it will be hard for anything else to go right. So what do you need to do in order to hire the right CTO?

Do your research

Talk to founders who are two years ahead of you in the process. Ask them about their greatest challenges and how they would handle them differently in hindsight. Have them share what they look for in a CTO, and whittle their advice down to a prioritized list of must-haves and nice-to-haves. See if they can connect you to the advisors who helped them the most when they were in your shoes.

Find a network of experts

There are incubator and accelerator programs in many cities that can connect you with advisors and technology experts willing to offer you guidance. Input from these advisors can be invaluable when looking for a CTO partner. At thoughtbot our developers and designers regularly mentor and advise for programs like TechStars, MassChallenge, Startup Stampede, Hubspot Summer Accelerator, Venture Cafe Foundation, Codebar, Boston University Venture Accelerator, and NC IDEA.

Look for the right experience

Don’t just look at years of experience, look at type of experience. Enterprise technology experience is very different from working in innovation or new product development. Make sure you are looking at potential technology partners who have been successful working in new product development and early stage startups.

In addition to that experience, you should look for technologists who are:

  • Design-driven first
  • Knowledgeable about the most advanced and stable frameworks
  • Experienced developers
  • Able to recruit and hire quality talent quickly
  • Able to mentor and train
  • Skillful in building a team culture
  • Careful to adhere to best practices for quality control, code review, and test driven development
  • Capable of seeing the future and long range planning towards it
  • Connected to a large network of high quality consultants

Invest in quality not quantity

Finding a full time CTO will be expensive and difficult, but it is also critical. Here are some options to help you get there faster and smarter depending on your funding and organization situation.

Consider a Fractional CTO, especially if you can’t afford a full-time CTO right away. Having someone to help you make critical strategic decisions part-time is better than hiring someone who is less than fully qualified to do the job. Here is more information when considering hiring a Fractional CTO.

Hire a qualified consultancy like thoughtbot who has a trusted track record of success with early stage startups. Even a short-term engagement can help you define a clearer path.

Experienced consultancies can:

  • Help you make critical strategic decisions on design and architecture
  • Help you build a solid foundation for your product early on
  • Help set up a test driven process that is most effective for rapid growth
  • Help hire and train your initial design and technology team
  • Help production move forward while helping you vet and hire your full time CTO

Plan for the long-term

Do it right the first time, even if it takes longer than you’d like. It will take time, money, and a compelling story to attract the right CTO, and it will be the difference between your organization flourishing or languishing.