It’s been more than 4 years since I started giving startups advice as a CTO and there is something key to understand. On the first stages, startups need talented marketers and developers to build a proof of concept.

I often see founders trying to get their “CTO” to develop their application, but in fact, startups just need a bit of CTO guidance to get started, and to check from time to time that everything is on target towards the business vision.

Let’s review what the CTO role is

A CTO aids the management department make strategic decisions in favor of the company, all in order to sort out an action plan, resources and technologies to build whatever product or service the business vision requires.

A CTO’s daily task is to brainstorm with the business vision in mind, considering the technical aspect and the costs of the development. Playing with the budget is also one of the key skills a good CTO needs to have. Other tasks include:

  • Challenge and optimize the product idea, working hand in hand with the product owner
  • Define the shortest solution to build a prototype that fits the budget
  • Define the best technologies for a project considering existing product, team and business vision
  • Create clear functional and technical specifications (depending on the organization size, he can obviously delegate that task)
  • Help prioritize the product roadmap based on the available resources and development costs
  • Summarize the product roadmap with required resources and budget costs
  • Define scalable architecture based on cloud services like AWS or Google Cloud
  • Write developers’ job description according to the project’s needs
  • Help search for and cherry-pick talented developers
  • Build and organize a technical team
  • Grow an existing team and optimize the organization using Agile scrum methodology
  • Help overcome any technical or strategical situation regarding product development
  • Pitch the technical part of the project to investors, incubators or grant organizations
  • Audit existing software and source code
  • Guide the technical and management teams throughout your venture

What an early stage startup really needs

For me, early stage startups need to spend more than 50% of their time connecting with their audience, clients and customers in order to get the best understanding of the end user’s needs, and then finding the market fit. The rest of the resources should be dedicated to strategy, presentation for investors, and developing a proof of concept. This is why, startups need talented developers more than a formal CTO. And having the right person in their corner, maybe a serial-entrepreneur friend or a CTO that has jumped between multiple projects and technologies, is enough.

Unfortunately, most corporate CTOs are used to doing things the same way, used to leading development through similar technologies, and only a few have enough time to really learn about all the technologies available, especially when it comes to building prototypes.

What startups need is a geek, someone who is aware of all the new trends, who is willing to provide new ideas for the business, and who has the experience to guide founders towards the right resources to build it.

A CTO and a developer are definitely not the same one. One is an expert at knowing a bit of everything to find the best path, while the other is laser-focused on a specific technology or development language.

The hourly rates are also completely different, since a few hours of the CTO’s time might be enough to define the roadmap, build arguments to raise money or grants, and cherry-pick the right developer. At a lower rate, the developer will usually work big chunks of time on developing the Minimum Viable Product.

What steps are there between the first developers and a full-time CTO?

So, to make it simple, startups will always need great developers, plus a bit of CTO to get started. Only later will a real full-time CTO, with good management skills, be required to get to the growth stage.

If you want get a deeper overview of that process, just check out the free 24-video course, Zero to Million Users, that describes the methodology and the pros and cons of each type of resource, from the ground to a million-user venture: