New York, San Francisco, and beyond. There’s a talent war out there when it comes to finding qualified CTOs for tech startups.
This of course means more challenges onboarding CTOs (and more expenses along the way). Even though some startups can get by without a CTO until later stages, others need CTOs just to get off the ground.
So let’s dig in to how to hire a CTO, when to hire a CTO, and whether there are other options out there for tech startups.
In a startup, the Chief Technology Officer, or CTO, is responsible for:
Every CTO will have a unique set of responsibilities based on the company they serve. For example, some companies may require a CTO who is well-versed in deploying AWS others may prioritize expertise in a specific programming language.
As well, some startups hire CTOs to manage internal operations. Others hire CTOs to develop products. Some startups hire CTOs to do both.
Regardless, most CTOs are skilled in computer science, engineering, or other related fields. Many CTOs also hold an MBA degree to bridge between technical and business silos.
Many startups choose to hire a CTO during the pre-seed or seed rounds. This is because a strong CTO helps advance a startup’s core idea and can help secure funding. They may even be one of the first hires made by the founder.
For example, a qualified CTO can assist in developing the minimum viable product, or MVP. The development of the MVP is typically happening when the company is considered to be “pre-seed”. In most cases, many tech startups don’t onboard any tech specialists except for the CTO during this stage as they may outsource development.
In these early days, CTOs aid in hiring programmers, developers, and other tech staff. The CTO will also onboard, train, and manage these teams. As the startup scale, the CTO usually continues to grow and manage complex tech teams.
Startups that don’t hire a CTO in the beginning stages may opt for a technical advisor instead. It’s important to note that there’s no exact “right time” to hire a CTO. This largely depends on your startup, its goals, and the industry it operates in.
When your startup is ready to hire a CTO, here’s a list of criteria to evaluate candidates. Keep in mind that this is a general list, though. Exact criteria fluctuates, it depends on the needs of your startup and which stage you’re in. But this is a great place to start:
CTOs should have a solid set of technical skills and experience. This is a given for this role. As the CTO typically oversees the quality of software, they should be able to spot, and fix, mistakes.
Depending on how early you are hiring for this role, it MUST be someone willing to CODE; and who is an expert in either software or AI. If the candidate isn’t an expert in AI, they will need to add someone with this skill set to their early team. One of the biggest challenges we see non-tech founders face is qualifying their technical partners as they don't know what good tech skills are.
One of the most important skills a CTO will need is management skills—and not just managing a tech team. Specifically, the CTO will be responsible for hiring end-to-end. From sourcing and recruiting to assessing and onboarding. Especially in the early days when there will be no on to help them.
Additionally, CTOs will manage the team developers and technical talent they hire. They’ll need all the skills that go along with managing high-performing teams including clear communication, conflict management, leadership, and other EQ-related skills.
Startup CTOs should be forward-thinking and creative when it comes to problem solving. This usually means:
CTOs who only focus on short-term goals or long-term goals probably don’t have a grip on the “big picture.”
Whereas talented CTOs can envision where your startup is going and how it can improve based on where it's at. In other words, a “big picture” CTO can help your product grow faster and better.
Plenty of CTOs have degrees in computer science or related fields. But finding a CTO with commercial experience can be like finding a needle in a haystack.
In which case, CTOs with business experience (or even an MBA) are highly valuable to startups. They have perspective that can bridge the gap between the business and tech silos.
Ready to onboard some CTO talent? Here’s exactly how to hire a Chief Technology Officer for your startup in four simple steps.
First up, think about what characteristics your ideal CTO candidate has. Do they have hard skills? Soft skills? Do they need to know how to code? What does their education profile look like?
For startups, we recommend identifying candidates who view the CTO position as a “step up.” For example, a senior software developer or tech team lead who is ready for that next step.
Alternatively, some startups look for candidates who’ve already “walked the walk”. In that case, it’s helpful to onboard someone who is already familiar with how startups work, and how to scale..
Candidates who want to wear multiple hats, and who have a wide skill set, are often best for startup CTO positions. For example, programmers who only code in one language might not be the best fit for a startup environment.
Lastly, think about what you need your CTO to oversee. Will they manage teams? Products? Internal processes, external processes, or both?
Once you’ve identified what it is that you need in a CTO, write it down! Group your list into sections like:
This list will serve as the CTO job description. You can post this on your website, on job boards, or both.
But don’t forget to identify hard skills and soft skills first …
Hard skills include computer science, machine learning, product management, database management, and other job-related or industry-related knowledge. Soft skills are personal skills like communication, organization, leadership, and so on.
Great CTOs should have both hard and soft skills. This is because they’re in charge of teams (people) and products (technology). So take a moment to evaluate which hard and soft skills you need your startup’s CTO to have.
Once you’ve identified such skills, be sure to list them on the job description. As well, make note of these skills and ask candidates competency based questions during interviews.
Qualified CTO candidates almost ALWAYS have multiple offers. So it’s up to you to sell the available position at your startup. Keep in mind that “selling” starts at the job posting, rolls through the interview process, and ends at the final offer.
Another way to think about this is that you already know how great your startup is — but none of the CTO candidates do.
This is why it’s important you not only list requirements for the position, but that you also list reasons a CTO would benefit working for your company. Some benefits include salary, work environment, unique opportunities, or greater autonomy.
Every CTO is different. Some candidates prefer flexibility over title. Others prefer autonomy over new opportunities.
So the best way to snatch up a talented CTO is to make them an offer they can’t say no to... and that’s through pay.
Keep in mind that compensation doesn’t always mean big paychecks. You can offer candidates other benefits like:
Don’t be afraid to get creative with how you define “pay." When in doubt, ask candidates directly — you may just be surprised by their answer.
CTOs make critical decisions about a startup’s tech like which stack to use. In addition, CTOs are ultimately responsible for the quality of the final product. This may also include quality assurance, debugging, and other processes.
However, a tech advisor gives advice about which tech stack to use, which tools to use, and what’s going on in the current tech climate.
CTOs make decisions, tech advisors give advice.
In some cases, startups opt for a tech advisor because they can’t find a quality CTO with great culture-fit. Or, some startups that aren’t tech-focused opt for an advisor instead because they don’t feel they need the full skill set of a CTO.
Ultimately, whether you work with a technical advisor or a CTO depends on the nature of your startup, which stage you’re in, and what your objectives are..
The biggest challenge that non-tech founders face is qualifying their technical partners as they don't know what good tech skills are. The answer for many tech startups is yes. Working with a venture studio is more beneficial for startups than hiring a CTO. Here’s why:
Venture studios, on the other hand, help build startups. So they’re directly interested in helping startups succeed. Plus, they leverage their own internal ready resources to work toward a successful launch.
In short, venture studios become your technical co-founder, and extension of your startup’s tech team. Venture studios can also offer bespoke advice on sales, marketing, finance, legal and more..
But, just like with CTOs, the right venture studio can be tough to find. Not all studios are created equal or have the same focus. Yet the one you partner with may directly impact your startup’s success.
Slimmer AI is a venture studio with over a decade of experience building AI tech products. You can think of Slimmer AI as an invested builder that helps you build your startup. With a team of machine learning and software engineers, we’re ready from day one to start building (and setting you up to scale). In addition to our tech expertise, we have commercial experts focused on building your brand, selling your product, setting up your financial systems, fundraising and more.