Being Your Own CTO – Advantages, Disadvantages, and Roadblocks
In the early days of SaveOhno.org, one of the top questions people asked me was, “Who’s going to build this platform?” When
my response was, “Me” the subject of the conversation seemed to shift from a practical venture to a cute little idea. Fast forward 1 year and SaveOhno is in its 2.0 beta with hundreds of users, thousands of online petitions, 11 nonprofit partners, and 3 environmental clothing companies in its rewards program. In addition, I’m getting published in tech blogs and newspapers, speaking at large events in person, winning multiple competitions and awards from MIT’s Climate CoLab, getting featured at the biggest tech conferences in the world, and even appearing on TV. Being your own CTO comes at a cost and isn’t always feasible, but none of this would’ve happened if I wasn’t. The following post describes why this matters and how you can do it too.
- Costs = low: In tech startups, especially platform-based businesses, your primary costs are building the mobile app or web platform and marketing it. By building it yourself, you eliminate the (far greater) cost of development at both the MVP creation phase as well as future feature implementations.
- Deep product knowledge: Some of the best advice I ever received from a tech entrepreneur was to ‘stay close to the code’. He noted that, in his experience, non-technical co-founders at the early stages sit around saying, “what’s going on?” The technical co-founder does all of the early heavy lifting, and then, when it’s time to ramp up, the only person who knows enough about the product to do so is that tech co-founder. If you’re a business student that knows how your product works, you can actually create a company around it. Otherwise you’re at best relying on someone else’s opinion and at worst guessing.
- Respect of future tech employees, and knowledge of who to hire: when it’s time to build out your dev team, you’ll have a much stronger grasp on who to hire. It’s also worth noting that employees have a high level of respect for founders who built the product that’s now providing them with a job where they build it out further.
- Feasible Ideation: if you know what it will take to build out a certain feature, you can make better decisions on the features you decide to implement. For founders who pay people to build their product, they typically don’t have an honest representation of how much time and money it will take to develop everything.
- Time tradeoffs: there’s only so much time in the day, and if you’re spending 40% of it designing and coding, then you lose 40% of the time you could be spending fundraising, selling, presenting, managing, and marketing. This is a huge tradeoff, and you either need to work both harder and more efficiently than a typical entrepreneur, or you need to bring in some help.
- No fault tolerance on launch day: One of the harder predictions in tech is setting a launch date. Most of the time, you end up coding until the last minute and if you’re the CEO and CTO, you’re handling both responsibilities. In my case, I recently stayed up until 4 a.m. working on final bug fixes, slept for a couple hours, and then went to a huge event in Boston with over 600 attendees to showcase and pitch the new website.
- Distorted opinion: When you spend a lot of time working on a certain feature or staring at a certain design, you start to fall in love with it. This makes it hard to know if the website or app is truly ready, so you should always get it into fresh hands and get feedback before making launch decisions. When you market your site, you’re bringing in people who are seeing it for the first time. It doesn’t help to use an opinion from someone who’s been using it for 7 months.
- Time: the only real roadblock to anything is time, the rest is just determination. If you seriously want to become your own CTO, you need to eliminate your bottom-most commitments and prioritize the rest to have your startup and tech education take precedence.