You don’t need a CTO, you need a lead developer

A quick review of the startup market here reveals a good number of nascent web startups seeking a technical founder CTO.


Revenue Architects

Kill Your Cube

Dating Site Startup

Recently a first time founder of a Boston startup came to us seeking a CTO for their web app. There was no great technical problem to solve, no dream team and no technical IP to create a barrier to entry. In short, nothing that would interest an experienced CTO. It was certainly a great opportunity for the right person, but that right person was a veteran developer with a track record of shipping reliable code.  Mostly the issues were scalability, time to launch and usability.

Rather than waste effort convincing the type “A” founder that they didn’t want a CTO, we focused on showing them lead developers that had shipped significant products and lead teams. Other sources provided many interviews with CTOs and experienced VPs of engineering, at a considerable waste of precious time, but none could be attracted to the deal. Eventually the start-up ended up hiring three good developers and had a very successful product launch.

If you are a non-technical founder with a Web App idea, just get something built. It is all about the Minimum Viable Product. Get something in user’s hands, gather feedback and iterate until you have something they love and will pay for.

Build some traction and revenue, traction is good, revenue is king. If you take off, chances are you are probably going to throw out all your original code anyway. Once you have traction and revenue,  you will be more attractive to the CTO you thought you wanted when you started out.

2 Comments to “You don’t need a CTO, you need a lead developer”

  1. I think part of it is that most “lead developers” won’t work for equity. Those that are lead developers that want to try their hands at being CTO might, though. I think it’s a semantics thing, more than anything.

    I think I’m a good example of that. I’m a person who sold his last company. I am possibly putting together something new, but I’m open to someone else’s ideas. I have the “lead developer” skills, but likely wouldn’t come aboard a startup unless I was being offered a CTO role. I would work for equity (partnership, really) and am fine not drawing a salary for awhile and would do lead-dev skills, knowing it was going to branch into something else. I am less inclined to look at a “lead developer” add than a “CTO” add, even if the duties are one in the same.

    Advertise CTO and explain, very clearly, that you’re looking for a CTO who can be a lead developer until you have a viable product and will assume management roles after there is something to manage. A tech startup does need the tech strategy too, which is CTO-ish.

    All of that said: if someone needs a startup CTO, feel free to contact me. I can do the lead dev stuff, too.

  2. Good post Tom, spot on. Also, why give away the company to a CTO when strong developers are usually very interested in the future role of CTO – when it counts. Something they can grow into, etc.

    @1: You’re right, not all lead developers will work for equity – but the start team might have done some development (up to a point) and the founders might be at the beginning of revenue generation – or they wouldn’t have a product to start with. The overall point is get the right person – who won’t be bored – and who can live with what the founders are prepared to give.

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