“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” ―Henry Ford
In this episode, Amaury and Mitchie discuss why everyone is looking for a CTO, what a CTO does, and mainly how startup founders can fill in those CTO roles, if you can’t afford one.
- What startups want
- How vast the options are for getting a developer
- Why startups think they need a developer
- What the harm is in taking that approach
- How to do things right
- When to start replacing a CTO and how
- How the different CTO roles change over time
- What each CTO role does
- How to go about taking over the CTO roles
- Amaury’s words of advice
- Airbnb – https://www.airbnb.com/
- Zapier – https://zapier.com/
- IFTTT – https://ifttt.com/
- Dropbox – https://www.dropbox.com/
- AskMyCTO videos – https://myctofriend.co/videos/
- Zero to Million Users course – https://members.myctofriend.co/p/startups-tech-challenges
- Episode 5: Know your customer – https://myctofriend.co/5
- My CTO Friend The Podcast – https://myctofriend.co/podcast
- Episode 3: What startups WANT vs what they NEED – https://myctofriend.co/3
Read the transcript
Mitchie Ruiz: Welcome to My CTO Friend the Podcast, where founders come to learn how to manage a tech startup. This is Mitchie Ruiz, and I’m with Amaury Khelifi. Hi Amaury.
Amaury Khelifi: Hi Mitchie, and welcome, startupers, to today’s podcast. In this episode, we are tackling the first chapter of my book: ‘What founders want vs what they actually need.’ We’re going to talk about why everyone is looking for a CTO, what a CTO does, and above all how you can fill those roles, especially if you cannot afford one.
Mitchie: For this first series of the podcast, we are working our way down Amaury’s book, ‘Startup Without a CTO,’ going through the tips and real startup experiences he’s gathered throughout the years—let me tell you, there are a lot. And so if you’re a founder without a technical background, listen up because you’re really in the right place. Amaury, let’s jump right in. What do startups want?
Amaury: Usually startups and startup founders search right away for a developer. They just had an idea like a mobile application or an Airbnb for bikes or whatever. And they say, “I have my idea. I’ve built a business plan. Now what I need is a developer.” And they search for a developer. That’s usually what they want.
Mitchie: Just to get an idea, how vast are the options for getting a developer? Because you’re saying they want to get a developer right away, but they’re just getting into their idea. So how many options do they have?
Amaury: Well, when you search for a developer, there are thousands and thousands of different types of developers, of skill sets.
Amaury: We’ll talk about languages first. In languages, the most common ones you might think about [are] maybe 10 to 12 languages. Then on each language, you have usually thousands, sometimes hundreds of frameworks. And then you can add to that specific technologies.
[What I mean by] specific technologies is the way to analyze doing machine learning, [for] example, or image recognition, or virtual reality, there are lots of technologies that can be integrated in a project. And for each of these technologies, you might need maybe not a specific developer, but a specific expert with a dedicated experience, so that’s a lot. And usually the requests founders [ask] when they come to me, they say, “Amaury, I don’t need a CTO, I just need a developer.” I say, “Okay, we need to talk.”
Mitchie: And we need to talk for a while because just to recap, you have a dozen languages, then each language has their own frameworks. You can have 10, 50 frameworks for each language? How much would that be? Then each project might use different technologies. And if you want to get a developer, they would need to know this technology or at least have worked with it before even though you might want to get an expert on it. And then the experience that developer might have, that’s just overwhelming just to think about it. So what makes startups think that this is the right step? Why do startups think they need a developer?
Amaury: Well, they think that because they can do it in millions of ways. I mean, you can build a website in dozens of languages or dozens of frameworks. So if they meet someone, if they talk to a developer, this developer will specialize in a specific language. And if we ask him, “Can you build an Airbnb website?” He would say, “Yes, of course.” But he will not be aware that that might not be the shortest way to build it because he specializes in one language.
So the goal when you are a startup founder is first to analyze basically your market, what you want to offer knowing your audience, and therefore you can talk to CTOs that have a very wide awareness of what is possible and try to find the shortest way to build your first version, your prototype, your proof of concept, or your MVP—you can also call it that.
Mitchie: While we were discussing this topic before this podcast interview, we actually got to the analogy of building a house. And I feel like that’s a great analogy for what we’re trying to do here. The startup founders out there that actually want to build their startup, they have the idea, just like someone who wants to be a homeowner has the idea of, “Oh, I want to build a house,” and getting a developer right away kind of translates into getting a construction worker right away, right after you had the idea of building a house, “I need to get someone to lay the first brick.” And like you mentioned, you need to go through so many experts and you need to go through a CTO to see what’s even possible.
So it’s like jumping through all of the different steps of building a house, you jump and you try to ignore having an architect, or a civil engineer, or an electrical engineer, preparing the land, preparing the blueprints, looking at requirements for living quarters. All of those things you would be jumping the gun and avoiding all of those steps, and that would be a very unsafe house if you were to build one jumping all those steps. You don’t want your startup house to fall down on you, right?
Amaury: Yeah, [the] analogy is just perfect. Because when you build a house, the architect will [make] sure that everything goes all together, that they are compatible, and they will also help you to find what are the bricks that are more adapted to where you want to build your house, depending on if it’s a zone where there is a high risk of an earthquake, as an example. So there a lot of things.
And basically, the zone, the area where you are going to build your home is your market. So if you don’t know exactly where you start building your home, your building or your skyscraper, basically you are going to go nowhere and it’s not going to be useful to anyone. So yeah, this analogy is just perfect and you will have to go through an architect to decide which type of equipment, bricks and materials that you need.
Then you will need to go through a project manager, people that know each type of skill. And during the project, they might also require experts. The civil engineer, as you mentioned, putting enough iron in the construction to be sure that it’s going to register through the years. So that’s exactly the same thing when we build a startup.
When we are in a large information system and we need to connect to others, you need to be integrated in the area or the rules of your city. And that’s what we can get under the specifications, under how Google specifies the protocols. So we need to follow the best practices. So someone else that is not in the project yet but maybe a future employee, when they come and work on our construction, they will already aware on what are the methodologies, and they will be able to work pretty rapidly on the project.
Mitchie: It would be like trying to build a house with blueprints that are not up to code. If another civil engineer or another architect, or another construction worker, following our analogy, needs to read the blueprints and the blueprints are not up to code, no one’s going to understand that and your project is not going to move further if you ever need to change someone on your team or add someone to your team.
So the same goes for startups. You need to have a base that everyone will understand. You need to make sure that your soil is solid, and you have the opportunity to build a house and that market. You need to be able to make sure that your startup has the best chance of succeeding. And jumping the gun and going for a developer right away, as I’ve learned throughout my work with you, is really not the right move. For all of these steps, you really do need a CTO in a way to take care of all those needs, right? A CTO would be the one to take care of the early stage?
Amaury: Well, [not] all startups [can afford] to have a CTO. So what we can do is now we can dissect the CTO roles. Over the years, I understood that there are four roles, in fact, when we are in the early stage of a startup. The very first one is IT manager. This is the obvious one. The IT manager is going to delegate work to outsourcing companies, to contractors, to freelancers.
The second role they need to handle is the tech expertise. A good CTO, and if he’s a good IT manager, will know a few expertise, a few specific languages or frameworks. And when it’s out of his own skillset, he will have this wisdom to delegate things to someone [who] is more an expert on the specific area.
The third role, which is not that obvious, is the product owner. And [they’re] not really the product owner, but the product manager. Let me develop that point. When you are a startup founder and you [come] from a specific industry, let’s say the transport industry as an example, [you’ve] never built a software, [you’ve] never built a team of engineers. And you don’t know really how to delegate this type of work, and above all, you don’t know how to chunk your project into smaller parts.
And that’s where the product owner, the product manager come into place. He is able to analyze from three points of view—from the customer point of view, from the founder vision, as well as from the cost point of view—what we should develop first. And that’s one of the most important roles in a startup that you need to handle, that someone needs to handle, the product owner role.
And there is a final one that I discovered a bit more recently, which is the innovator role. This is the creative mind. The creative mind is able to bring new ideas, thanks to technologies and thanks to a large experience in business models. And I found that I add that role to startups after helping more than a hundred startups. Because after helping a very large [number] of startups, [I’ve seen] many technologies, [I’ve seen] many business models, many ways to generate revenues in the very early stage in a way that people [have] not thought of before.
Sometimes it’s just by selling or proposing services, or just doing some selling through phones, through emails. When we cannot afford to develop an entire application, maybe there are also small ways that can enable us to generate revenue. And that revenue down the road will be first, the proof of concept, helping us to get funds and [interested] investors, and then scaling to what we call eventually a software as a service (SaaS) startup. Because in software as a service, you have services, and we should say services first, because it will enable you to industrialize everything you do manually and replace it with your software.
Mitchie: And on that last role, I do want to add that while I was learning this with you, the innovator role, one might think that an innovator would be just on the software side of things. So the product that you’re going to provide, you can be innovative in the way your app is going to work. But it really goes further than that because being the innovator is also innovating in the way you’re providing that service, especially if they are early stages where you can’t invest that much, where you’re still trying to make sure that your idea makes sense, you need to innovate to have new and crazy ideas to make sure it works to prove it.
So the innovator, it sounds technical. It sounds like it has to do a lot with technologies, and it does, but it also means thinking outside the box when your resources are limited. And once your resource are no longer limited, fingers crossed, you’ll also need to innovate in how you’re going to make sure that this momentum gets you somewhere and it’s going to stick, right? So for all of these roles, this is something that a CTO would normally do, right?
Amaury: Yeah. And a CTO will bring solutions. We call CTOs solution-providers because they know how to build things and basically, if you have an idea, they can convert it to any software or any solution. And the very high level and becoming an innovator is when you are not going to build solutions but just find solutions.
You are going to get something on the Web. You are going to combine some kind of Lego blocks, and by combining them, building something that works. And there are some very convenient tools like Zapier and IFTTT that enable you to get something from a Dropbox directory, [for] example, and automatically generate a piece of code and [do] something.
And after two or three hours of work, we can have an entire workflow that can help people, that can serve people without having to invest a big amount of money in developing or even a big amount of time. It’s just a matter of being able to find the tricks that can provide value to your team, to people, and help you scale to a SaaS level.
Mitchie: I understand because there’s so much out there. I mean, all of the startups exist right now and other companies that are not startups, they have created solutions that are openly available. And many times, like we’ve mentioned, startup founders just go to a developer and say, “Develop this from scratch.” And jumping the idea of being an innovator is also jumping the idea that you can make this with what already exists out there.
We’ve talked about the innovator and what sort of tasks he or she would take. Let’s talk about the product manager, a little bit about the product manager. So one of the things I learned with you is that the product manager would take on certain roles, like for example, making sure that you have a roadmap for your product. Is that right?
Amaury: Yeah, absolutely. You need to define a roadmap. And attached to the roadmap, you will have some costs on each stage and some KPIs. So basically, we will define Version 0, Version 1, and we say, “We are going to invest,” let’s assume, “5K.” During this 5K, we have several hypotheses to confirm. And if we reach that [number] of followers on Facebook, if we have X [number] of users that are using our crappy first website or however it’s going to look, then that’s proof that we can move to the second step.
And then there is nothing better than having a clear roadmap. Because you can meet investors right off the bat, presenting your website and sharing with them, “I am not here to ask you for some money. I am here to share with you what I am about to do. I am about to launch this that’s going to cost me just 5K… Then after that, I’m going to reach this proof and this KPI, and I’m going to come back in three months. In three months, I will need your money. I will need your help, and I will have the proof that works and that my business will keep growing. Are you in?”
And you can ask an investor if he’s in right off the bat, not asking for some money, but just preparing for further discussions. And that’s what a roadmap is all about. If you want to have a roadmap and define what it is, in each version, we have some goals, we know what you do, what we are going to invest and how much it’s going to cost, and then thanks to these goals, what are the KPI we are going to measure at the end of each version, and [so on]. Then we are going to move on to version after version.
Mitchie: And for the product manager to be able to do this, they need to be aware of the market. They would be in charge of market research. They would be in charge of understanding costs. And one of the most important things I’ve learned with you is that in the early stages, it really does make a lot of sense for the CEO to be the product manager because the product manager needs to have the startup as their baby.
They need to know it from every angle because the roadmap means that you need to plan for the future what this project is going to look like in every stage while still being somewhat consistent to that original idea or to the value that you want to provide. Who better to do that than the CEO?
Amaury: Well, the real problem is that the CEO often lacks these skills, first. And the second thing is that the CEO, thanks to the constraints—honestly, that’s a very good thing to not have—enough money in the beginning, because that brings some constraints. And thanks to these constraints, [these are] what will bring innovation. And the role of the CEO is to have that constraints in terms of investment to have the overview of the market, understanding what are the client or prospect needs, and to finding very cheap solutions just to fulfill those needs.
And as I said previously, it can be without software. And often actually, I suggest to start without software, just by serving something—services, just faking. Sometimes it’s just faking. We can use a Google [Sheet] just gathering all the information someone wants in a Google [Sheet] and say, “We are developing the software. But in the meantime, if you want, we can help you, and here is the result. It’s on this dedicated link that belongs to you, and you can call us if you need anything else.” And you can start generating, maybe not the business, but at least providing value to people with very simple tools.
Mitchie: Very interesting. So far we’ve covered product manager and innovator. Let’s talk a little bit about IT manager. What sort of tasks would the role of the IT manager would they take on?
Amaury: Well, the role of the IT manager is to apply the roadmap. The product owner, generally speaking, provides the roadmap to the IT manager. And the IT manager is going to be sure that the developer sticks to the roadmap and that they’re not going to develop anything else. That’s the first role.
And the second role is to be sure that the development team is effective enough, and if not, understanding why and being sure that the communications has a good flow. The IT manager defines shorter goals, smaller than just the version of the roadmap, and also prioritizes in terms technologies because sometimes it’s better to develop the interface first, and sometimes it’s better to develop the backend or the database structure first because it can influence or change a couple of things on the frontend. It depends on the application.
And when you need to outsource, the role of the IT manager is also to find people to actually develop the software. It can be finding people to hire, freelancers or an outsourcing company, or it can even be offshoring. Everything depends on the level of the manager. I would not recommend to start by offshoring, but sometimes it’s a very good way to just prototype, and for a very small amount of money to get something [done].
Mitchie: We’ve talked about a few of the startups that you’ve worked with. And although it’s not like you mentioned the best option, you do have some success stories with offshoring, so you can explore that option. But for the early stage, the first startup that you’re building, I advise and Amaury advises to keep on the My CTO Friend advice, the My CTO Friend and AskMyCTO videos that we have and posts that you’ll find on our website, myctofriend.co, just a little self-plug there.
Now let’s talk about tech experts. You already mentioned that if you ever want to use this specific technology like virtual reality or IoT devices—Internet of Things, for those not familiar—you would use tech experts. Is that right?
Amaury: Yeah. And that’s also part of a good IT manager, is to be able to surround yourself with the right people. And you will definitely need tech experts in many areas for your company. So there are lots of platforms on the Web, there are lots of outsourcing places where you can find people, not always experts. And the difficulties you will have is to figure out which one is good or not, and which one you can trust or not, and which one is here to provide you advice to sell you something.
Because that’s the real difficulties with experts or with almost anyone in IT, is that usually you ask them some advice, they talk to you, but they have something [in the] back of their mind to sell you something bigger. And that’s really where I disagree with, this principle. Because startup founders cannot be misled. They just need to just know the truth, understand how things work, and make the decision on their own.
And that’s also why I always refuse to get any fees or commissions on work if I redirect people to agencies. Because I don’t want to imply or have any type of interest in redirecting people to one solution or another.
Mitchie: And that’s a very respectable position. Everything’s networking nowadays, but there really is a line between cheating someone because you’re wanting them to pay for your services, and actually giving them advice from your expertise. So there’s a little bit of two-facing there. I’m very proud of working with you because of that you don’t let the biased advice get into your channel and get into your platform.
Now talking about that, I’m a little curious. When you’re going through the different phases of a startup, we’ve talked about mostly the early stage. So I’m curious to know, once you move on to future stages, the breakdown that we just went through, does that change? Because if we’re talking about different [pieces of] advice and we’re talking about getting into the different roles and fulfilling them, maybe if you have a lot more to lose at the beginning, you might find yourself talking to different people, then once you get that money and once you’ve proven that it works. So how does that change overtime?
Amaury: Well, let me just put what a CTO role is in general in a large company. A CTO is an IT manager, period. But because on the early stage of a startup, we need much more than that, actually we should need all types of roles that you have in an organization—the HR, the product manager, the marketing role, etcetera, because of that, because he has the technical keys, so he needs to take on several other roles, and that’s why today we came up with four roles.
So after a while, after the first or the second versions, we need to hire, obviously, a product manager. And this product manager will bring more structure. He will be able to work closer to marketing and having a deep knowledge of analyzing his market, analyzing the analytics. The analytics is a huge part of being a good product manager, a product owner because people will tell you what they need. And if you don’t analyze, if you do not measure something, you cannot improve it. That’s not from me, that a real quote. If you cannot measure things, you cannot improve them.
And there [is] the other role, the creative role we can call the chief innovation officer. The chief innovation officer is not the same person as a CTO. It’s someone with a really [highly] creative mind, aware of what’s happening. It’s basically the innovator role of the CTO. And that’s going to come in, in the project, but after maybe after 10, 15 or 20 [employees] when all the roles are going to be more specialized and we are going to take on more experts in the company.
So that’s where the role is going to evolve, time after time, while the company is growing and the CTO will not do everything like in the beginning, but he will start delegating not outside of the company but inside the company, and hire people better than himself. Because that’s the basics of a good manager, it’s to hire people better than themselves.
Mitchie: Now, I just want to say we’ve covered a lot here right now. So just to recap a little bit: we have talked about the difference between what startups want versus what they need, why starting with a developer is not the right move, how we can take over with the right foot from the beginning, so going over the different roles that a CTO usually takes, and like you just cleared up, on the early stages of your startup. And what they usually do, what these roles mean and how you can go about supplying that need for that role, so fulfilling those roles in a way that you don’t have to break the bank, by hiring a full-time CTO.
Amaury: And if you are a non-technical founder and you don’t have that background, there are a couple of things that you can learn. You can learn to become a better product manager. That’s something that you can learn. There’s a lot of courses on the Web on product management. And we provide the basics of what startup founders need to know as a product manager, not like in a big corporation. Because there are a lot of methodologies, certifications, we don’t have a time for that. When you build a startup, we just need to go fast. So you need to just learn the essential of being a product manager.
And the second role that you can learn as well, as a founder, even if you are not a technical [person], is the IT manager role. Because the IT manager role is all about delegating. It’s managing. It’s being able to listen to what your team has to say. It’s about listening [to] what your providers propose to you and negotiating with them, and defining goals. And for the rest, the technical experts and innovator, [on] that point, you will have to delegate and find the right people.
And that’s also why, of course, we provide that at My CTO Friend. We have a pool of experts in many technologies and they can come in the coaching program for our clients and coach founders, audit code, talk to developers, help them to correct if things go wrong, and suggest some improvement to the development.
Mitchie: Now I do want to pitch in here because on one of your products, one of your courses, you actually do have some exercise for startup founders to put themselves in the role of an innovator. I’m talking specifically about Zero to Million Users, the course on My CTO Friend, and you have a few brainstorming exercises that are actually very interesting for startup founders.
Because they are in a place where they can imagine what their product is going to look like, and they can put themselves into that innovator role, even if it’s something that might not affect their product in the long run, they get into that headspace. And it’s very interesting to watch, very interesting to explore. And who knows, you might be good at it. You might be able to dabble into that innovator role as well.
Amaury: Yeah, I have to say that’s one of the first course I produced because that’s the process I went through all the time. I thought that everyone should be able to do it. So that’s interesting to learn, to understand the methodology.
It’s very interesting to also monitor the news and tech crunch on big tech news to see three things for other startups: what are their business model, what type of technologies they put in their product, and what are the growth techniques, the growth-hacking techniques, how they get their users in a large and in a rapid way. [Those] are the three things that you really need to understand and to learn from other startups. And eventually, someday you will become better and better at being an innovator.
Mitchie: Now I think this kind of wraps it up for us. Amaury, do you have any advice for those startup founders listening to our first episode on the book, the first chapter of the book? What advice would you give them, now that they’re dabbling into that tech management journey?
Amaury: It’s to surround yourself with right people. There are great incubators, accelerators, everywhere around the world. Find people that are unbiased. People that don’t have any interest in you or in selling [you] services, and ask them what they would do for themselves. That’s the best way, to have the right guidance and then knowing what are the tech experts’, the developers’ languages, and how to come up [with] a tiny prototype, a cheap prototype that proves that you have a market, that people are willing to build your company.
And the last piece of advice I would recommend is to focus on building an audience, a community that fits what you want to build, and therefore you will be able to sell them your product. If you don’t have any community while you are developing your application, you will have an empty application. And we’re going to touch on that later, but that’s one of the big mistakes I did when I built mine in 2012.
Mitchie: And we’re going to learn from those mistakes. Listen, that advice is right there on one of our future episodes, ’Know your customer.’ It should be the Chapter 3, so that would be Episode 5, if I’m not mistaken. I’m not great at math.
Amaury: Just follow the podcast.
Mitchie: Yeah, exactly. So listen, its’ going to be on that episode, look out for it. Make sure your check out myctofriend.co. You’re going to find courses and video advice there that are going to a big help if you’re going through this startup journey. Amaury, thank you very much for this interesting conversation. I’m sure that a lot of startup founders listening will actually get a lot from it. Thank you very much.
Amaury: Thank you very much, Mitchie. It was very interesting, as always, to talk to you. And thanks for making things more understandable for everyone. And if you have any questions, go back on myctofriend.co/podcast where you can ask us questions, share suggestions or just have a quicker and formal chat. And you can get the notes as well as a few links that we have mentioned today on myctofriend.co/3. This is Number 3.
Mitchie: Yes, Episode 3, exactly.
Amaury: Thanks, Mitchie. I wish you a great day. Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to be with us today. And I look forward to talking to you in the next episode.
Mitchie: That’s right. Until next time. Buh-bye.