Life of a CTO 👑
What is your job as a CTO as you move through various stages of your company growth.
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The startup scene here in Italy is pretty small. This is most often a problem, but it also means that the community is tight-knit and we all know each other.
Since I founded my startup, in 2012, I have often been involved in mentoring other early-stage founders and CTOs. I still do it today.
The most recurring question I get from CTOs is: what should I focus on? Or, if you prefer — how should I spend my time?
Answering this directly is close to impossible, because the CTO role depends on many factors. In my experience, the three most relevant ones are:
📱 Product / Business — the nature of your product deeply affects your role. If your tech is mostly a commodity (e.g. you are building yet another SaaS), your main concern will be to go fast, stay lean, and not reinvent the wheel. If your product involves a strong technical challenge, instead, you may need a more deliberate approach, and focus on quality from the get-go.
🏢 Size / stage of your company — like all executive roles, being a CTO is a shapeshifting duty that changes with the scale of your team. What you do when you are 5 people resembles nothing of what you do when you are 50, or 500.
👑 Executive team — much of your scope is shaped by the qualities and gaps of your peers. What are your co-founders / other execs good at? The best teams fill each other’s gaps. I have met CTOs who were a lot into product because the CEO was more into (e.g.) business development, and viceversa.
Nevertheless, there are some common traits about the work of the best CTOs I have known. To understand them, let’s start with the three main responsibilities you have to cover in early stage startups: Tech, Product, and Marketing.
Such areas are not clear-cut and have often big overlaps. For example:
SEO is a marketing / distribution topic that also requires a strong technical work.
Refer-a-friend strategies are both non-trivial product features and distribution channels.
A good technical strategy often informs the product of what can be built. Famously, Steve Jobs decided to build the iPhone after he saw a prototype of a multi-touch screen in the lab.
The biggest overlap of all, though, lies at the center, and is about process — that is, how people work together.
Out of the various leadership roles, CTOs are the ones who most likely take care of this. That’s both because of their engineering mindset — they often see the company as a system, and act accordingly — and because in tech startups the engineering dept often ends up being the largest (or one of the largest), so there is more need for structure.
This article covers what you should focus on as a CTO when it comes to tech and process.
I will do so for three different stages of a startup life:
🌱 Pre-seed — where you learn more about the problem / solution space.
🪴 Seed — where you look for product-market fit.
🌳 Series A — where you scale your product and business for the first time.
Sure, there are more ones! But these are those I am the most familiar with — and are also where the most action happens.
Let’s go 👇