Hiring the right chief technology officer (CTO) is often the difference between success and failure for startups.
Finding a great CTO is incredibly tough.
Luckily, you’ve come to the right place.
This article outlines some crucial factors to consider before hiring a CTO.
➡️ A reminder of what a great CTO should deliver.
➡️ When to think about making the hire.
➡️ Hiring the right CTO for the right stage.
➡️ Actionable tips on how to find the right CTO for your business.
What Do Great CTOs Deliver?
A CTO is part of the executive team. They play a crucial role both in the technology and day-to-day operations of the business, as well as helping to formulate and implement its strategic vision.
The responsibilities of a CTO vary and mostly depend on the size, structure, and type of company they work for.
The stage the company is at also determines the kind of CTO that is needed. For example, early-stage startups might need a CTO that is mostly focused on developing and delivering a high-quality product, whereas startups that are in a high-growth phase might need a CTO that is more focused on longer-term strategic thinking around areas like scaling, risk, and costs.
Generally, a CTO will help a tech startup or an established business with the following:
✅ Planning Product Architecture
If your company is in its startup phase, a CTO is a driving force behind the design, creation, and planning of software architecture.
In more established businesses, a CTO will still work closely with technical leads and have the final say on product architecture. However, they will be more focused on creating and implementing longer-term strategies for the business to scale successfully.
✅ Creating the Tech Strategy
This involves budgeting and establishing what the company wants to achieve with its products and which resources are needed to meet these goals.
A CTO will also communicate the tech strategy to different teams to ensure that everyone in the company acts in sync with the product strategy.
✅ Designing the Roadmap
The CTO is responsible for executing the product roadmap. They architect a technical solution that brings the product vision to life.
In startups, the founders define the roadmap and the business vision, and the CTO has a key role in providing the technical strategic thinking to bring it to life.
A good CTO needs to be able to think about what technical resources and systems are needed now, as well as a few years down the line when the business gets to the next stage and needs to scale.
In larger companies, the CTO collaborates with the CPO to design and deliver the roadmap.
Great CTOs can navigate the path from idea to functioning product, as well as to scaling that product.
✅ Managing the Development Team
One of the main roles of a CTO is to support and manage the technical team.
CTOs are responsible for ensuring that the tech team delivers high-quality work and supporting them with any challenges. They form the bridge between the technical team and the executive team.
They will also assign tasks, train new hires, and manage communication between customers and the development team.
Hire the Right CTO for the Right Stage
The function and requirements of a good CTO vary depending on the stage the company is at.
At the early stage, you need a CTO who has very strong technical skills and can focus on implementing your product roadmap and delivering a high-quality product.
Once you get to the growth stage of your business you still need a CTO with strong technical skills, as they need to be able to understand and envision how technology will be used within your company.
However, it becomes more important that they are also able to set the long-term technology strategy for the company.
At the growth stage of the business, you want a CTO who has some business acumen and who can work closely with the rest of the executive team to create and execute long-term strategies for the company around things like risk management, data management, and cost management.
This means that at the early stage, your CTO functions as more of a technical lead, whilst at a later stage you need a CTO who has more of an outward-looking, strategic planning role.
This is not to say that it is not valuable to have that strategic function in your CTO at an early stage, but it is more difficult and expensive to hire this kind of CTO. At the early stage it can often be easier, and cheaper, to hire a strong technical lead as CTO and to bring on a strategic advisor in addition (more on this later).
When Is the Right Time to Hire a CTO?
The best time to hire a CTO will vary from company to company.
While some businesses need a CTO from the beginning, others will only need their expertise later. Getting the timing right is crucial.
Many startups make the mistake of bringing in a CTO before it's financially and technically justified.
In those cases, it’s often more efficient and cost-effective to first have a team of developers build the initial foundation of a product.
Once a proof of concept has been established, there’s a strong case to bring in a more experienced CTO to grow the product or service further.
Shelley Marais, Account Manager at OfferZen
When Should I Bring on an Advisor?
Our general view is that a lot of startups don’t need to hire a CTO when they are still in the idea stage of their business.
At this point it is often not cost-effective to hire an outside CTO, but since there is usually an expectation from investors that a startup needs to have a CTO, it might make sense to give the technical lead the title of CTO.
However, even though the company is still in an idea or early stage, it doesn’t mean that they should not be thinking strategically about the long term.
For this function you can bring in an outside advisor who has the experience and capabilities you need, but who you don’t need to have onboard in a full-time capacity.
When bringing on an advisor, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.
🔸 How to Incentivise Them
Most advisors will have other ventures they are advising, or they might be working as a full-time CTO at another company.
This means that you will need to sell them the idea and vision for your company to make them want to work with you.
On the financial side, most advisors will expect an equity stake. Giving them one can be a smart move for startups, as it saves cash and motivates the advisor to ensure the success of the business.
That being said, some advisors will want some cash remuneration, so it is a good idea to be flexible on the cash vs equity split if you want your pool of potential advisors to be as big as possible.
🔸 Set Clear Expectations
Advisors don’t want to be on call 24/7, so you need to set clear expectations and boundaries around what the advisory role will look like, what is expected from them, and for how long they will be needed in the role.
🔸 Define an Exit
You need to define an exit for them so that there is the opportunity for them to come on board in a full-time CTO role at certain milestones, or to leave the position of advisor to the company.
What Should I Look Out for in a CTO?
It’s crucial to look for a CTO with an extensive skill set to help your business at each phase of its development.
The section below looks closely at what makes an excellent CTO:
🏆 Strong Technical Skills
One of the most important things to look for in a potential CTO is their technical expertise.
This is because they will be responsible for ensuring that the company’s products achieve strategic objectives.
Your CTO should also be able to address technical issues at every stage of development.
🏆 Business Acumen
A CTO should be able to understand a company and its operating environment.
Strong business acumen will also allow the CTO to predict the challenges a business will face and determine how a product can address these issues as it scales.
🏆 Interpersonal Skills
Your CTO needs to be able to motivate and lead tech teams to stay focused.
Many CTOs also have a seat at the board table, so they need solid people skills to interact with key stakeholders and executives.
Software solutions are rarely static and need to be able to scale or evolve with the companies they serve.
A good CTO thinks outside the box and has a vision of where the product is going and how it can adapt to the changing needs of the business.
🏆 High-Impact Problem Solving
A good CTO needs to have strong critical thinking skills and be a good problem solver, as they will be responsible for overcoming all technical hurdles that the company faces.
🏆 Risk Awareness
A CTO needs to have a good understanding of risk, especially the security risks that technology companies face from cyber threats. It is the CTO’s responsibility to protect the business by implementing effective cyber risk management strategies.
🏆 Product Vision
Your CTO needs to have the ability to transform business ideas into a real working product.
To do so, they need to have a strong understanding of their product sector, what problems customers have within that sector, and the ability to translate those needs into a product vision and roadmap that solves those problems.
4 Actionable Tips to Find the Right CTO for Your Business
Finding this talent is hard, but get these four elements right and you stand a good chance:
Set Clear Role Requirements
The first step in finding a CTO is mapping exactly what skills and experience your ideal candidate should possess.
Include the soft skills your ideal CTO would have. This may include traits like:
✅ Problem-solving skills
✅ Ability to work well in a team
This will give you a better chance of finding candidates who would fit your company’s culture and get along well with different teams.
Assess Applicants’ Technical Knowledge and Background
Consider the technical skills the CTO would need to drive the product and the business forward.
For example, at the idea stage, your ideal CTO should understand different programming languages well to decide which one best suits the product.
And at the growth stage, your CTO might not need strong coding skills anymore, but they need to have a good understanding of the technologies that are available and be able to assess which will be best to implement to scale the business.
You should also evaluate which industries each applicant has worked in before.
This will help you find candidates who understand your company’s business and tech needs before joining your team.
An applicant who has worked in a similar industry to your company will likely reach full productivity faster and be able to find creative solutions for your software from the get-go.
It’s vital to identify what you want your new CTO to achieve in this role. This way you can align a candidate's technical and strategic skills to business needs and opportunities.
Shelley Marais, Account Manager at OfferZen
Diversify Your Search
Many of the best candidates probably aren’t looking for a new role and, given how competitive the hiring climate is, you’ll need to be creative about where you look for a potential CTO.
An excellent place to start is your network. You may already know someone who would be interested in the role.
Platforms like LinkedIn make it much easier to connect with potential candidates and give you a wider pool.
You could also look for candidates on platforms that host C-suite conversations like Founders Nation, Indie Hackers, or CoFoundersLab.
These sites are great for finding CTOs that have scaled businesses before and may be looking for a new opportunity.
Also, consider approaching potential CTO candidates with the smaller task of bringing them on as an advisor. Many good candidates might not be looking for a new full-time role, but would be interested in acting as an advisor in a company that excites them.
Make Sure That You Sell the Position
When you’re trying to hire a CTO, it’s important to remember that the candidate will potentially have several other offers to consider.
This is why you need to ensure that the interview process is engaging and that you sell the benefits of the role to them.
You could showcase aspects of your company’s culture that make your business stand apart from others or highlight the exciting challenges and opportunities that the job offers.
It’s important to sell the opportunity to a prospective CTO.
Demonstrate how the role will contribute to business growth and success, and why a candidate personally would be a good fit.
Shelley Marais, Account Manager at OfferZen
Are There Other Ways to Fill a CTO Position?
Whether it's because of budget constraints or other reasons, you may be looking into possible alternatives to hiring a CTO.
Other than bringing on an advisor, there are also a few other ways to get the tech expertise of a CTO without the actual investment of filling the role.
Make an Internal Hire
Sometimes, the best candidates are right in front of you.
If you have a strong technical lead within your company with the right skills for the role, consider making them your chief technical officer.
If the person has worked with you for a while, there’s a good chance that they will have good internal knowledge about your processes and tech stacks.
They may also have established relationships with the software development team and be able to work with them effectively in the future.
Bring on a Product Development Agency
You could also look into outsourcing your product development.
A product development agency with a dedicated software development team often has the necessary skills to perform a CTO's duties.
Instead of relying on one person's knowledge, hiring a product development agency for the job will allow you to leverage the expertise of many.
Having worked on a variety of different projects, product development agencies have already worked through many of the challenges your project is likely to face.
They will also be able to advise you on the best tech stack to use and what the best practices are for your industry.
Many product development agencies also provide you with a dedicated project management team.
These teams will be able to sort out any issues that pop up and ensure that your roadmap runs according to schedule.
👋 How Does MOHARA Act as a CTO?
We’re a product venture studio with over ten years of experience in developing software solutions.
Whether you’re a startup, scale-up, or larger corporate, we can provide expert guidance on product strategy to deliver solutions that translate into results.
We’ll manage all of the responsibilities usually handed over to a CTO, from ideation to execution.
We have collectively functioned as the CTO for more than 15 pioneering startup ventures, so we bring a combined experience that you can leverage at the executive level and that you would not easily be able to find in a single CTO hire.
And with our sweat equity model, we fulfil the CTO role in a cost-effective way for cash-strapped startups.
Get in touch with us today to find out more about the MOHARA way and how we can turn your ideas into reality.
Let’s be pioneers together!