5 Reasons to Not Search for a CTO or Technical Co-founder

Ken Yarmosh

Last updated Jul 23, 2019

One of the common questions we hear from startups is if they'll be at a disadvantage without having a technical co-founder at their outset. Sometimes this concern truly does surround the lack of their technical knowledge. Other times, it's more about not having in-house experience in either technology or in starting a new venture.

Their usual thought process is to find an engineer or developer and have that person join as a co-founder and CTO. At Savvy Apps, our recommendation is that unless this person is part of the original founding team itself, then it's not a good way to proceed. Here are five reasons why we advise against searching for a technical co-founder or CTO for an early-stage startup.

Founders Should Have Experience Together

Building a startup is hard work. There will be good and bad times. There will hopefully be victories but more certainly, there will be plenty of challenging moments. Trying to go through that journey with a person you don't know that well would be akin to marrying someone you just met.

Instead, your co-founder or any founding team members should have some established rapport or work history together. You'll want to understand not only what they're capable of but what their demeanor is and how they respond to adversity

Vetting Technical Skills Properly

The goal with bringing on a technical co-founder is to add skills to your team you don't yet have. Yet trying to vet someone with a technical background when you don't have one doesn't make sense. More importantly, vetting someone without the right background for a position as important as a co-founder or CTO can be disastrous. Removing someone with a sizable equity position or notable leadership role in the company is not easy to do.

Only consider bringing on non-leadership developers or engineers if you don't have the technical chops to vet technical candidates. While you may still hire incorrectly, the mistake won't be as difficult to fix

Compensation and Equity for CTOs are Costly

Unless you've raised a significant investment round, the cost for bringing on a CTO or VP of Engineering could be expensive. That could be both for their actual compensation and also in terms of equity, if your offer includes them becoming a co-founder.

In our opinion, co-founders who come up with an idea together also have a more ideological commitment to their startup. They are not a "hired gun." They may be more willing to take a significant decrease in pay or put the good of the company ahead of themselves. Hired in co-founders just will never see the company the same, especially if they're brought in after money is raised

Developers are Often Not CTOs

There's an odd reality for startups: different stages of the company require different leaders. If you raised enough capital to hire five or more engineers, you likely need someone to head up your tech team right away. Otherwise, you really just need a developer (or developers) to start, and then later need a CTO, VP of Engineering, or both.

Without large capital raises, CTOs or other technical leaders really are not performing those kinds of roles in the early days of the company. Instead, they're actually building the product. They even may be the only person building the product for the first year. A great developer may or may not be able to make a transition to a great VP of Engineering, CTO, or comparable role. Conversely, a great technical lead may never actually be able to bring the first version of your product to market

Dedicated Attention is Important

Another mistake first-time entrepreneurs make is finding a technical co-founder who can help "on the side." In our experience at Savvy, we've never seen this work out successfully. The typical outcomes are that these people become disinterested, burned out, or that eventually, there is a parting of ways between the co-founders. The latter is because of how much more effort the other, full-time co-founder is putting into the company. Save yourself some time upfront and avoid getting help from people who can't commit full-time to your venture

Concluding Note

Some of the more common ways to overcome not having a technical co-founder include learning to code, applying to accelerator programs, or contracting a team like Savvy Apps to help. Learning to code may seem the cheapest, but it's by far the slowest. Even with the amazing resources available today, speed is critical when it comes to bringing an idea to the market. Accelerator programs like 500 Startups, Techstars, and Y Combinator can help match you with a technical co-founder, but they don't necessarily solve the problem of having little to no work history with that person. Finally, contracting has its pros and cons as well, which we've outlined in previous posts.

Written By:

Ken Yarmosh

Ken Yarmosh is the Founder & CEO of Savvy Apps. He's the creator of more than 20 featured apps, including an Editor's Choice selection and Starbucks Pick of the Week. An O'Reilly author, Ken regularly speaks about application design & development, as well as the future of technology at outlets ranging from Bloomberg TV to Google.