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Startup CTO: role, responsibilities and how to find one

The startup CTO has to bring a lot more than building the product. This guide will describe the CTO persona, the requirements and how you can find them.

September 29, 2020
Yuma Heymans
September 7, 2022

The Chief Technology officer (CTO) in a startup is the person responsible for leading the technology side of business.

She or he lays the technology foundation of the business by building architecture, making key technology decisions and guiding the engineering team.

In this blog we give a full view of who the startup CTO is, what they want and how you find them.

We will focus on the CTO that works in a relatively early stage software company.

Startup CTO, who you’re talking to

Most startup CTOs started with building their own applications or writing code for other companies.

Most software engineers already learned to code as kids, so most engineers and CTOs are software engineer by trade.

Some engineers choose to develop into a leadership role and others are more likely to stick with writing code.

The CTO not only is (or was) a great coder, more than anything she’s a great leader.

I started out writing software at the age of 12 and then gradually moved into working on larger and larger projects becoming more of a leader than an individual contributor  — Oskar Stål, CTO Spotify

To be part of the leadership of a startup, you have to have an entrepreneurial personality.

Things go wrong all the time, you have to make a lot of sacrifices and you have to find joy in continuously pioneering into the unknown.

I’m an entrepreneur and hacker — Solomon Hykes, CTO Docker

A lot of good engineers would not necessarily be good CTOs.

Most engineers focus on building great code and are not finding joy in leading a team and company.

But sometimes the line between a coder and a leader is very thin, and a great engineer who loves coding, might end up a great leader later in life.

That’s why you need to understand what to look for in a great startup CTO, what are they able of doing and more importantly, what do they love doing.

Main responsibilities of the Startup CTO

Let's first look at what the CTO actually does in a startup.

Like with many leadership roles within a startup, you have to carry a lot of weight. Because you’re typically not with a lot of people, a lot of responsibilities and activities come down to you.

That also is the case for the startup CTO.

The main responsibilities of the startup CTO are:

  • Managing the team: manage the direction and performance of the technology team that usually exists primarily of software engineers, but also for example technical product managers and technical support staff
  • Setting out technology vision: set out an inspiring and realistic vision for the technology team to work towards to, align the technology vision with the product vision and company mission
  • Building the tech stack: mapping technology architecture and making critical technology decisions like service architecture, data architecture, choice of libraries, APIs and integrations, etc.
  • Setting up and guarding guidelines: safeguarding company software development guidelines, principles and way of working
  • Introducing new technologies: inspire with new software and tools that the team can implement in the product or use to work more efficiently
  • Operating current technology: make sure the solution stays up and running and build in continuity mechanisms
  • Hiring: recruiting the best engineers and specialists for the team, assessing candidates and making the final hiring decision

Skills and personality of a good startup CTO

The role of a CTO in a startup is significantly different from the CTO in a mature technology company.

A startup is a very demanding adventure. People who are part of a startup should not shy away from the unfamiliar and have to enjoy the pioneering character of the company, otherwise they will not sustain.

Especially in a leadership position in a startup, it's important to like volatility and be comfortable with risk.

In addition to the leadership qualities, the startup CTO needs to be comfortable with complexity. Working with technology, things get complex real fast.

The main characteristics of the startup CTO are:

  • They are systematic problem solvers and have a structured way of working
  • They are clear communicators and can articulate a problem and the solution
  • They like complex problems and love deep diving into the problem at hand
  • They are strategic thinkers, they can rapidly shift their mindset from day to day operations to the future perspective
  • They are innovators who continuously look for new ways to build the product and experiment with new technologies and ways of working
  • They are comfortable with the unfamiliar and find joy in new challenges
  • They are entrepreneurial and true pioneers
  • They can think in abstract terms and see the bigger picture
  • They are responsible characters who commit to the evolution and continuation of the product

Startup CTO salary and benefits

Startup CTO should and usually are intrinsically motivated to become part of the startup adventure.

But just like any other employee or business owner they also look at what they can gain from the adventure.

Salaries and benefits vary widely of startup CTOs, depending on their commitment, equity and role.

Some startup CTOs temporarily don’t take a salary at all because they are for example an early stage (co-)founder and therefore have a share in the business.

Most startup CTOs receive a salary and/or other benefits however.

The average base salary of startup CTOs (founder or employed) for seed stage lies between $88.000 - $117.000 (€77.000 - €103.000) and for late stage between $97.000 - $227.0000 (€85.000 - €154.000).

Average salary of CTOs. Sifted.

Startup CTOs can be hired on either an employed or contracted basis, but some startup CTOs are co-founders of the startup itself. This means they joined the 'founding team' relatively early and most like have a significant share in the business, think anywhere between 20-100%, depending on the amount of people in the founding team.

Some startup CTOs are not a co-founder, but do get equity in turn of their contribution to the business. If a CTO is not a co-founder, that equity percentage is significantly lower, think anywhere between 1-10%.

For most founders also take a salary on top of equity.

The average base salary for founders in startups in 2021 in the earliest stage (seed stage) is $65.000 in Europe and $120.000 in the US. In later stages In later stages, like series C, this base salary goes up to €190.000 in Europe and $250.000 in the US.

Base salary founders. State of European tech.

How to find your startup CTO

Finding your CTO all starts with the question, who do you need exactly? 

Based on the description above you might have a better picture in mind, and starting your search can definitely help you refine that picture.

The basic profile you’re searching for, is the profile of a software engineer.

So as with recruiting a software engineer, you look at the technology skills they have (are they native mobile app developers or full fletch back-enders?).

Beyond that basic profile of a software engineer however, more importantly is if the CTO you’re looking for possesses the right personality to build a product that should scale rapidly in the future. 

Your best bet is to talk with many, many people to refine your understanding of who’s out there and who you need.

To talk to the right people, you have to find them in the first place.

Here are some resources that help you find and reach (future) CTOs:

These are some of the sources where potential CTOs hang out:

Complete list of candidate sources for tech recruiters

Some examples are:

  • GitHub
  • Stack Overflow
  • Reddit
  • HackerRank
  • LinkedIn
  • AngelList
  • Xing
  • Kaggle
  • Medium
  • GitLab
  • Coderwall
  • Dev.to
  • StackShare

To search these platforms you have to know how to search, so you can take a look at these guides that help you become a better searcher (/sourcer):

Recruit software engineers: complete practical guide

One String to Boole Them All (complete boolean guide)

GitHub recruiting: find and reach engineers

Stack Overflow recruiting: find and contact engineers

And to have a better understanding of how to win them for you, this might help:

The practical guide to startup recruitment

If you're not familiar with talent sourcing or you don't have the time to learn how to source, you can use this:

Search engine made for finding tech talent like CTOs

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