Is it possible to start a tech startup without a CTO?

July 26, 2019 | Tim Stribos | , , ,

The answer is YES, it is possible to start a tech startup without a CTO. Just as simple as that.

Last Thursday, I was presenting this topic at the Boot Startup meetup. We could have stopped our discussion right there and have left immediately for a boat trip to enjoy the lovely Amsterdam summer.

Fortunately, the reality is not so simple and many questions raised. If you already have a partner dedicated to overseeing the technical side of the new coming business, great, lucky you. For all others finding the right person could be a challenge.

In this article, I try to address why you should not begin with chasing for a mystical “work for equity” tech guru to bring your innovative idea into life. Will try to cover three significant issues:

  • Why engaging a CTO might be not the best idea at the early stages
  • When you should start coding (hint: the later, the better)
  • What you can do yourself – create a working prototype or even an MPV

Also, as a bonus, I’ll share examples of startups who hired CTOs much later after they started.

So let’s start with the basics. Why finding the answer to the question “who will code this?” should not be the priority for you.

Skills gap

The startup world is blossoming. As more startups launch, the demand for tech talent increases – but not the supply. There is also a skills gap. While the demand dramatically outstrips the supply, competing for limited high-level talent is not where you want to spend your energy at the early stage.

CTOs are not a “real” CTOs in startups

Unfortunately, in startups reality, technical guys, those who are founding partners, often must play multiple roles and be real executives who manage “boring stuff,” such as people, policies, and budgets. Which not all of them are ready to do. You, as a founder, should also take a minute to understand your projects tech needs and options for solving any tech gap. However, how would you know that at the early stages? Moreover, what if you hire the wrong person? I knew some guys who decided to do their relatively simple web project on Java because Java developer was the only one they were able to get. Not the best way to choose a technology, right?

Hefty price

Considering the reality, this is what can happen: you spend too much time looking for the best fit for your idea, and eventually you are so happy to get the high-quality person, that you are ready to promise anything to keep him/her happy. So you end up with, for example, giving away too many shares.
Also, you could dramatically increase your costs by hiring too early, on a stage when you are still not sure about the product future features and characteristics. So why wasting time on re-does, drafts, checkups, “let’ s-also-try-this-way-or-no-better-that-way” things, etc. Hiring an expensive CTO or freelancer too early may cause you unnecessary cost increase. But we want to be cost-effective, right?

Technology is not the goal

At certain stages, you could get too involved into investigating technologies (as it is exciting, agree?) and neglect the most critical part and the goal of any startup – making money. Technology is just a means. Whatever you can imagine, can be coded. But can it be sold? That is the biggest question.

Here we come with the main conclusion: before you code anything, you need to prove that your idea worth to be coded.

On its way to growth, every startup goes through the following circles:

Startup life cycle
Startup life circle

The more time and effort you spend at first phase of formation, the better prototype or minimum viable product you can create. At the formation phase, you envision what problem your app or service can solve and why would the market fall in love with it and be ready to buy it. To answer these questions, a choice of technology is not paramount. What is essential is to go outside and ask as many potential clients, as you may find.

Your first phase would rotate following the following scheme:

Market fit feedback loop
Market fit feedback loop

A comprehensive market fit vision helps you to create a minimum viable product with only what is necessary to get the product on the market. It also saves you an enormous amount of money and time when it comes to the production phase.

So my recommendation here is to push as far as you can with what you know.

Here is the most fascinating part of this journey. As a founder, you have to possess just enough expertise and knowledge to be able to start everything on your own. The success of the project would pretty much depend on your:

  • Learning agility: how fast you can get a necessary knowledge
  • Domain expertise and experience
  • Market and product strategic vision: starting small, thinking big
  • Business development and growth hacking skill

So here the steps of your idea validation:

  1. Start by getting your vision out of your head and down on paper.
  2. Fill out a rough canvas, and understand your value proposition like the back of your hand.
  3. Once you’ve completed that, go interview as many potential customers as you can reach.
  4. Next, write down the responses, look for patterns, revise, reshape, add/remove features.
  5. Repeat until you get enough answers to make wireframes.
The steps of idea validation for startup
The steps of idea validation for startup

So how can you do an MVP yourself?

I will make a separate post overviewing tools could be used to create an MVP or working prototype. So far, I would mention tools like Powerpoint, Sketch, XD, proto.io to create basic frames and user stories, Google forms, or Zapier for databases. Depending on your niche, you could also use specific WordPress plugins, Bubble.io, Shopify, etc.

After your MVP is ready, you get a sharper picture on who do you actually need to hire: an agency, a freelancer or maybe you will eventually come up with hiring a CTO. Though in this case, having a CTO on board is your conscious asset requirement.

Summering up, engaging a highly skilled technician after your MVP is validated allows you to:

start quicker

start cheaper

test more ideas

There is probably only one case worth mentioning where you don’t want to start without having a CTO on board. For example, in case if you have a hardware or technology provider startup idea.

I have also seen too many startups hiring a CTO too early. However, look at these startups, who are or were our clients:

  • Bittiq is a fin-tech startup.
  • Learned.io won a prize for most innovative hr tech company.
  • Shypple was voted startup of the year 2018 by Sprout.
  • EZfactory, a factory automation system was a contender for the KVK innovation top 100.
  • Whoppah is a state of the art e-commerce app.

They started with nearshoring their development and operated successfully, and some of them still haven’t hired a CTO.

It’s 2019 out there. You do not need to code to create a simple MVP to get in front of your potential clients or investors. Agree?