Deep domain expertise but no CTO? Here's a guide to hiring one

Sealing the deal with a handshake

Deep domain expertise but no CTO? Here's a guide to hiring one

I was recently asked by a founding team I know, how to go about hiring a CTO. They are experts in a significantly deep domain, but need a technologist with them to build their company, ideally one with a background in the same domain.

So far, they've been outsourcing technical work, but they've realized that this is not be the best approach.

How to find your CTO co-founder

In my opinion, for any type of startup where you are building something new, that has not existed in the world before, it is best if you are able to hire a full-time technologist into a CTO type of role, as a partner or co-founder. Without working extremely tightly (in the same room, even) with the person who is building the nuts and bolts of the product, you always lose some of the innovative magic that comes from different disciplines all aligned on building a product.

Of course there are times you can't do this, e.g. if your budget does not allow it or if the company only needs input from a technologist for a limited amount of time, in which case it can make sense to outsource. If this describes you, you might want to talk to my bot which can help you decide where to outsource from. But if you're in a situation where it makes sense to bring on a full-time technologist, one who can build your product and steer the technical vision, do it.

When you already have expert knowledge of a deep domain in the founding team, here are my recommended approaches to hiring a CTO, in order of preference:

#1: It's all about your network

Take a good look at your existing network. It's quite likely that you can think of a handful of the brightest technical people who you already worked with within the domain.

Work up the courage needed to pitch your idea to them, even if it seems like they are very comfortable right where they are and you think you might not have a chance of wooing them over to a tiny startup. You never know what they will say.

#2: It's still all about your network

If you can't hire from your network, it's still exceptionally likely that someone in your network, who you've worked with in your domain of expertise, knows some ideal candidates.

Your next step is therefore to go deep on your network: Make a list of several folks in your existing network who are likely to know a lot of potential candidates, for example folks who have long experience from multiple companies either in your domain or in closely related domains.

Now, pitch to this list of people. You're not trying to sell them on joining your company, but you need to convince them of your company's worth well enough that they will be OK making introductions to valuable people in their network.

Once you have your introductions, it's time to set up interviews. Since these are folks you either already know or were recommended by people in your network that you trust, the first round of interviews should mostly focus on personality fit, enthusiasm for the mission of the startup, and so forth.

#3: Traditional recruiting

You can try using a recruiter, and/or you can advertise the position, i.e. recruit the traditional way. I don't necessarily recommend this approach, but if you do decide to try it, then it is higher on the priority list than #4, below.

The major issue with this approach is that there is a much higher chance of making a bad or mediocre hire. A bad hire can spell death for an early stage startup, and it can take months to recover from a mediocre one.

#4: Hire for potential if you can't get proven experience

The last approach I can recommend is to lower the bar a little bit, and hire a person with less experience but a ton of potential. This is someone you might not be ready to put in a CTO role yet, but who you could see filling a CTO role within a couple of years. Someone smart and driven and very enthusiastic about what you're building.

You might hire this type of person as a full co-founder who takes a bunch of risk with you and gets a good share of equity, or you might hire them more as an "employee number one," paying them close to market rate for their experience level and giving them a good amount of stock options.

This could be somebody straight out of university, or somebody with a couple of years experience under their belt. It's probably not going to be somebody who is already an expert in your domain.

The trick with this type of hire is, one of the more experienced folks in the founding team will need to take on more of the project management and product management than if you find a full CTO type of person. This type of hire will focus almost exclusively on the technical side in the early days, although you are hoping they can grow into handling more areas and becoming a domain expert over time.

I've witnessed first-hand how this type of hire can become a full-fledged CTO over time, so don't sweat it too much if approaches #1 and #2 don't work out for finding a CTO for your new company, just repeat them to find a more junior person who you are convinced is very talented and highly enthusiastic.

You need a BS detector

In the situation described above, the current founders are not technical. Whenever you're non-technical and are hiring for an important technical role, it's very important to get the help of an experienced technical person you trust to act as a "BS detector" for whoever you've short listed. Ideally you would get somebody you trust, who would be a fit for the CTO position (but who isn't available or willing to join a startup), and ask for their time to do 2-3 technical interviews once you've done the first round of interviews.

Summary

  1. Use your network
  2. Dig deep in your network
  3. Do traditional recruiting only at your own risk
  4. If you can't find a CTO as experienced as you'd like, find somebody with the potential to become CTO down the line
  5. Get a trusted, experienced technologist to act as a BS detector