Startup Flex Model

Flexible Bodybuilder

Chapter 1: Chief Technical Officer or Chief Project Manager?

There are two critical tasks in a startup; building an excellent product and selling it. At the onset, a single person usually does both. However, speed is of the essence and raising capital requires a team. So many successful startups are founded by two individuals, a builder and a promoter.

Some examples are Jobs and Wozniac at Apple, Page and Brin at Google or Bhatt and Tenev at Robinhood. In hi-tech startups, both founders typically have deep technical knowledge but one leads product development and the other is the interface with the outside world.

This article describes a flexible approach to product development and what qualities a founder (CEO) should look for in a builder (CTO). I am writing this article because I realize this approach has proved itself to be make or break for companies I’ve started, advised or invested in.

In software, founders usually look for a technical guru to fill the role of CTO. They expect the person to code the initial versions and spend little on anything else. While this approach may have some benefits, it can lead to problems that prove fatal.

For starters, great coders are in high demand so hiring a developer will cost beaucoup bucks or a lot of equity. That will leave less powder for other hires or financial partners.

Even if you convince a talented developer to join, they will receive 6-figure offers on a regular basis, so you’ll have to raise capital fast to keep them.

While the founder is running around trying to find investors and customers, the CTO won’t have much guidance. If they don’t have a clear specification, they will create a bunch of amazing features really fast.

Sounds cool, right? Wrong. A great coder without a clear specification is like a loose cannon without a target.

You’ll blow past and minimum viable product (MVP) without much customer input. Features will get built because they are really awesome, not because they solve problems. When you find out nobody wants them, convincing the CTO to remove them will be all but impossible.

The number of features will increase code complexity exponentially. Your CTO will start talking about APIs and dependencies instead of customer requests. They may request new hires to offload tasks.

If your CTO gets pissed off, or loses interest, you can’t just replace them with another A-list player. This time you’ll need an A+ player because updating somebody else’s code is a lot harder than starting from scratch. If you lose a CTO, or can’t replace them, it’s game over.

Is there a way out of this living hell for a CEO? Of course, else this article would really suck.

A founder should recruit a project manager with technical knowledge, not a guru. You might still call this person a CTO in front of investors, but you should think of them as the Chief Project Manager, or CPM.

Ideally, the CPM should have development experience, but the ability to get code shipped is more important.

In the early stages of a startup, the CPM should work with the CEO to define the minimum viable product (MVP). A CPM with technical knowledge should be able to decide the technical stack and create screen mock-ups (wireframes).

When the specification is finished the CPM should hire and manage a coder or two to develop version 1. The CPM should hire globally and be good at managing at a distance. If the MVP is well defined and the specification is well written this shouldn’t be a problem.

The CPM should be driven by satisfying user requests, not by technology. They should test builds and get feedback from customers at least once a week.

Meeting a release date for version 1 is the hallmark of a great project manager. The CPM should understand development enough to appreciate and motivate developers. They should be business savvy enough to decide which features to delay to version 2 in order to meet a release date.

After version 1 is released, startups need the flexibility to put developers on hold. So working with freelancers brings needed flexibility. During this time the CTO should continue to work intensively with users to polish version 1 and work with the CEO to write the specification for version 2.

In summary, the main benefits of hiring a Chief Project Manager instead of a Chief Technical Officer are as follows.
- Less costly.
- Easier to retain.
- More focused on users than technology.
- Better at customer conversations.
- More likely to release versions on time.
- Decreases the total project cost.
- More flexible for allocating development resources.

Marc Bolh

Founder ☞ Vidalingua, Loaa Digital, Ascendo
Advisor ☞ Renoun Skis
Investor 👼🏻

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