To the Non-technical CEO: Thoughts about an early stage startup hiring a CTO

Open letter to the non-technical CEO looking for that magical technical CTO.

At this stage,

  1. Only you can set absolute priorities (which features come before other features)
  2. Only you can determine relative priorities
  3. Only you can determine the MUP – minimum usable product.
  4. Market focus.

Expanding on the above:
Absolute priorities
This is a business call: what is the schedule. Understanding that only 1 thing can be built at a time. (even with multiple people) Long complex schedules = scary to a CTO candidate. Lots of opportunity for slipped schedule, surprises. I will never work for a company that has a schedule more than 6 months before they can validate the real product with real customers. (note: not the same as shippable non-demo product)

Relative priorities
As things come up, which features do we build before other features. Can you demonstrate that you can be brutal about priorities and dropping features early before a lot of (now discarded) code is written?

Minimum Usable product
Do you know the absolute minimum essence of the vision that you have? Who is the happy customer? A huge product / a massive vision is scary. Too many things that can go wrong when going through the dark forest.

Market focus
Many products can be used by many different kinds of customers. For example, excel is used by fortune 100 and the coffeeshop down the street. But in the beginning, you need to set the customer that gets their needs prioritized. Create a persona that I as a CTO am to satisfy. Don’t tell any CTO the long term vision – it is not believable (yet). Tell me how you are going to make your first dollar…. and make sure the team stays focused on that dollar.

Suggestions
Set aside for a second the work you have done so far on the UI. Lets call that the “2.0” version. Now what can you eliminate from the product and still have a MUP?

  • eliminate anything that requires multiple users to signup to realize value. Reduce the number of decision-makers needed before value is realized.
  • Pick out the single most critical feature to build. Use an outsourcing team to build that one feature.
  • The implemented feature becomes part of your demo that you are using to show your technical hires. You can then hire individuals for projects to make that feature better and more awesome, you can ask how they would make the feature better.
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