Karl Hughes

Karl Hughes

How to Find a CTO: Tips for Non Technical Founders

How to Find a CTO: Tips for Non Technical Founders

I’ve worked in startups my whole career, first as a software engineer, then as a Chief Technology Officer (CTO), and most recently as a founder. In that time, the most common question I get from non-technical founders has been, “How can I find a CTO or technical co-founder?”

What Does a Startup CTO Do?

First, it’s important to understand that startup CTOs have a very unique role. They are responsible for everything in the software product from writing code for your MVP to hiring engineers to company-wide security. Being a startup CTO is hard - you’re basically doing 13 jobs at once.

13 responsibilities of a startup CTO

That said, everyone at a startup is doing a lot, so CTOs aren’t really special. My point is that you aren’t just looking for a software engineer or just an engineering manager. You need someone with a hybrid set of hands-on and higher-level thinking skills. The CTO role is a really difficult one to fill.

Note: If you’re looking for more reading material, I’ve assembled a list of my favorite books for startup founders here.

Tips for Finding a CTO

While it’s difficult, it’s clearly not impossible for non-technical founders to find a CTO.

At my last two startups, I was the first engineering hire, and I know dozens of others technical co-founders and CTOs in Chicago alone. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as putting together a list of interview questions and posting a job listing. After having conversations with several of my CTO friends, I put this list of tips together for non-technical founders looking to attract a technical co-founder or CTO.

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1. Hone Your Vision

With rare exceptions, technical co-founders are likely not the visionaries. We tend to be more execution-focused, but we are still attracted to founders who have a strong vision for why their product needs to exist. People who join early stage startups tend to be idealists. We know the world doesn’t work the way it should, and we want to be out there making it right.

Founders who have a clear vision that is aligned with something their CTO cares about will get a huge leg up.

2. Hone Your Business Plan

On the other hand, few engineers are going to be sold on vision alone. The biggest mistake I’ve seen startups make is overbuilding before they validated their market. So when founders approach me, one of the first things I ask is, “How are you going to make money?” followed closely behind, “What have you done to prove that this works?”

Consultant Corey Haines presents it this way:

1) What’s your business model?

2) What does “traction” mean with respect to that business model?

3) What is your current traction in that context, and how has it grown over the past couple months?

4) What is your plan for accelerating that traction (give the context of the business model)?

Your technical founder will know the value he or she brings, so you’ve got to prove yours. As the non-technical founder, the burden is on you to prove that the business model works.

A good CTO will ask about your business plan

3. The Product is Not Your Biggest Barrier

If you had true market validation, investors would pour money into your startup and you could hire the best tech talent in the world. Unfortunately, a lot of non-technical founders think they must have a working app in order to validate their idea.

“If you can’t sell [your idea] without an MVP, what makes you think you can sell it with one? Honestly, the difference is smaller than you’d think.” - Josh Symonds

Get creative: build the MVP yourself, sell a prototype, build a huge email list of interested buyers, or hire a contractor to build your first version.

I joined The Graide Network because the two non-technical founders had built a business generating real revenue off email and spreadsheets. Hustle in the face of not having a product is extremely attractive.

4. Technical Talent is in High Demand

Most software engineers with more than 5 years of experience have little trouble finding a job. The trick here is to narrow your market so that your startup can stand out.

Limit your search to engineers who:

  • Know and trust you personally,
  • Have founded or been part of a startup before,
  • Done open source projects in your problem space, or
  • Work in the industry you’re interested in.

Most co-founders knew each other long before they started a company together, so it’s unlikely that you’ll find a random person on the internet who shares your vision. Limit your efforts on people who meet specific interest areas and you’re more likely to at least start a conversation.

5. Play the Long Game

Once you start having meetings, don’t lead with, “So, do you want to build my startup?”

“Do ‘this thing’ for equity because you love it” usually means “because I love it” - Griffin Caprio

Start small, ask their advice, get to know them. Ask for introductions, mention that you’re keeping an eye out for a technical co-founder, but remember, your business shouldn’t depend on it. Tell them about the success you’re having, the challenges your facing, and see what gets them excited.

End every meeting asking if there are other engineers you could talk to who might know about your startup’s problem space.

6. Put Skin in the Game

By taking a job with a startup, an engineer is forgoing most of their guaranteed salary in exchange for a piece of a fledgling company. Level the playing field by putting your money into the business.

$50,000 might not pay a full-time engineer’s salary in many places in the United States, but it might be enough to attract a CTO to moonlight for you. If you can’t get that kind of money together, make pre-sales, borrow money, or raise money. You’re unlikely to find a technical co-founder who will work for free from day one.

Put skin in the game

7. Success Attracts Talent

Finally, keep moving forward.

Never use your lack of technical skill as a reason not to move your startup forward. The longer you stick with it, the more you’ll learn, and the more likely you are to find a level of success that becomes attractive to a technical co-founder.

Whether you measure your startup’s success by fundraising, revenue, or users, find a way to move your key metrics forward until your future CTO can’t ignore you.

Looking for more great reads about building your startup? Check out my list of books for startup founders.

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