I’m amazed these days how many business co-founders with an idea search for a CTO rather than build their idea. I’ve been pitched countless times with a “great idea” that just needs that savvy CTO to help co-found. But I think senior tech folks aren’t needed to prove an idea. An idea is something that needs to be proven through market testing.
Lean Startups are all about well “lean-ness”. Hiring a CTO before you have a fully baked idea is not the right use of resources. A CTO will plan and architect out your company technology strategy over a long period of time. But the most pressing needs of an initial startup are getting a prototype going, acquiring customers and proving a business. Getting a full blown CTO to start coding and building something before you have a customer #1 and a proven design is not always the right path. A great CTO can get upwards of 200 – 300K. You don’t want to hire a Donald Trump to build your 3 bedroom, 2 bath family house in Kansas!
Another misconception about Computer Science is that what gets made in the beginning (i.e. the foundation of your software), can’t be changed later. Unlike our brothers/sisters in mechanical, structural, and other hard-core engineering areas, software code gets constantly rewritten, refactored and redone. When I worked on Internet Explorer, we built it on the NCSA Spyglass Browser code base. Bit by bit the code from the original was removed and redesigned. I don’t think any of the original code is still there.
What I do see people doing is hiring offshore or local contractors to get going. Also hiring employee/programmer #1 is a good solution for business founders. Programmer #1 is not the guy who needs to build the next Google Page Rank Search System, but rather the dude to get things going. In fact, often times I think a hack-a-thon pro is way better suited then someone who’s thinking a year down the road by building elaborate build systems with nice architecture. Programmer #1 is going to be faster, cheaper and more nimble for the early startup.
This all makes sense if you’re building a straight web site to sell your idea. The one big exception here would be on startups that are built on a technical heavy idea. Well if you have a startup building rockets for reaching space or advanced biotech, then I would hope there is a technical co-founder onboard.
I’ve also visited many startups post-raise with a successful development team looking for CTOs. They’ve made it that far by being nimble.