How To Proposition a CTO

Ever find yourself writing, calling, or trying to book coffee someone you’ve never met before, asking them to take a technical interest in your new project?  Perhaps you’ve had a few of these meetings before but never made it past that initial meeting.  Perhaps this person has the technical expertise you desperately need to get to the next stages.

Here are some thoughts how to proposition a CTO.  It is very similar to how you might pitch an investor.  Always make sure to keep what a CTO is interested in at the center of your proposition.  Before hand make sure you figure out if you actually need a CTO, or will a lead engineer or a developer be sufficient.  You will be giving up different amounts of your company depending on the intended role and overall involvement.

Things To Do

Start Strong

Lead with something which will grab their attention.  Perhaps it is about one of the points below, or the greater market opportunity, or that you’ve taken the time to look at that persons profile.  Tell the potential co-founder why he or she a good fit for your project.  Don’t forget your one sentence elevator pitch.  Also tell your potential CTO what problem you are solving, how you are solving it and for who.  Don’t go into mundane details about how its going to function.  Stay high level to try and generate interest and save time.

Personal Thoughts: Personally I don’t care about if a site has social functions or will link to Facebook.  I do care about the fact that you know exactly who will be using the product and why the care.  If you are making the next social network for pets, tell me what kind of pets specifically (dogs).  And what they are all about / the problem you are solving, (chasing cats), and how your startup will capture and monetize them (Once per month all users will get a free virtual chase, but each additional chase will cost one rawhide).   Tell me how painful this is. (Dogs only think about chasing cats, its what they do)

Traction

How can you convince the CTO that there is merit to your idea?  Are you in an accelerator?  Are you funded?  Do you have paying customers?  How many customer interviews have you’ve done?  Do you have folks beating down your door for your product?

Personal Thoughts: I really want to hear that you already have enough users lined up so that when the prototype / MVP is ready, you will have immediate feedback coming in.  You have enough connections that the team wont have to promote the site to only friends and family in hopes that they will somehow magically provide the insights we need.  Funding isn’t as important.  The opportunity is important.  (I have 1,000 dogs on a waiting list for this and know exactly what kind of cat they want to chase)  In lieu of customers lined up tell me how many people you’ve interviewed and what you learned.  Please don’t tell me that you see an opportunity and you just need someone to build the site… (more on that below)

Team

Who else believes in your ideas and why are they amazing?  How many folks on the team?  How long has the team been together?  Have you worked together before?  Why is this the team?  How did roles get decided and why is each person an excellent fit for that role?

Requirements

What do you need from the CTO?  Time, technologies, location, etc?

Interesting Problems to Solve

Most technical folks are interested in building really cool stuff that pushes boundaries.  Those boundaries could be personal, global, or anywhere in between.  Consider what the candidate has done in the past and where he or she might want to go in the future.  If they’ve built other social networks for pets, he or she may not find your platform that interesting unless it ties in another level of functionality or goes a new direction.

Who Are You?

Why should the CTO believe what you are telling him or her?  What experience do you have?  Why should he or she follow you into battle?

Personal Thoughts: This one is just as important even though it is last.  If I get the vibe that I’ll make a better CEO than you then we’ll have a problem and we won’t move forward (or if we do you won’t be CEO).  Without all team members having confidence in the leadership it’ll be over before it starts.  The CEO is a generalist, but more importantly someone who can ‘make things happen’.  Not everyone who generates an ‘idea’ is well suited to lead a startup.  Also see team above.  Everyone should be really good at whatever role they are in and those roles could change.

 

Things Not To Do

Just Build My Site

Ask your potential CTO to just “build my site”.  Chances are if someone is considering themselves a lead engineer or CTO they’ve probably been through the startup grinder as much or more than you have.  They’ve seen many different situations, technical challenges, and partnerships.  They’ve been highly involved in fund-raising, product management, and other areas of the business.  Never assume someone wants to, or is willing to, just sit in the corner and code ‘your’ web application.

Go In Blind

Take the time to investigate what you actually need.  If you solicit a rails developer for a design role you may be barking up the wrong tree.  It also shows that you don’t understand what you need or the terminology.  It’s OK to be green but don’t be ignorant.

NDA

Don’t ask your candidate to sign an NDA.  When you move forward and decide to work together then perhaps an NDA makes sense.  But asking someone to sign an NDA in order to talk about an idea or even about the high level value proposition isn’t a good lead in.  Few ideas warrant that kind of protect these days and most people know that.

 

Closing Thoughts

Finding a CTO or technical co-founder is difficult, really difficult.  Ideally you want someone who can be in the trenches there with you, understands how to operate lean, understands customer discovery and validation, can be a product manager, builds excellent technology quickly, asks the hard questions, pushes you, focuses on product/market fit and the one metric that matters, and more.  Make sure you do your homework before soliciting / propositioning them.  Have your ducks in a row and you’ll get to subsequent conversations.  Move the ball forward as far as possible before bringing co-founders on and learn about what you really want and need.  Be persistent and good luck.

Author: Adam Perkins

Startup Entrepreneur from Madison Wisconsin.