Start-up Hub Problem Page: Can entrepreneurs play the role of both CTO and CEO?
Is it feasible to combine the roles of CTO and CEO? Or are these specialist areas demanding different skill sets? That’s the question behind this month’s start-up problem page, where we take a burning issue and get our experts to provide advice.
This is the second in our problem page series (last month we featured Bill Clee, CEO and founder of Asset Mapping) and features a question from Yury Birchenko, the CEO at Nwave Technologies.
“I’m currently playing the role of both CTO and CEO and I’m wondering if it’s sustainable in the long run. How can I break down this issue and make a plan moving forward?”
Yury Birchenko, the CEO at Nwave Technologies
To me, there are two aspects here: the skills side and ‘brain space’. Some entrepreneurs show a leaning to either the commercials or the technical side, while others are truly multi-disciplined. Either way there does come a point where a single person needs to consider if they have enough capacity to run both roles or if bringing in “fresh blood” with new ideas and experiences can help the business to grow.
To help answer Yury’s question, I’ve spoken to two experts: Adam Bird, who looks at it from an entrepreneur’s perspective; and Mark O’Connell, who takes a closer look at the skills aspect.
Adam Bird, entrepreneur and CEO at Cronofy, shares his story:
“It’s so hard to meet great technical co-founders that it’s tempting to avoid appointing someone at all. Instead, you could throw a bit of money at some student developers you meet at a hack event or pay an agency to build you something. But I’ve rarely seen this play out positively.
I started as a developer, was CTO and co-founder of my last company and when it came to starting Cronofy of course I started building. I am, or rather was, a pretty good developer so on the face of it I didn’t need help. Thankfully, having spent the last 12 years working alongside someone in the CEO role I had a pretty good appreciation of how different the roles are.
Being a technical co-founder is all about being able to immerse yourself in the problem and build without distraction. Coming up for air as and only when you have a feature needing feedback from your co-founder or users. To be most productive you need to set your own cadence (in hours rather than days though). The person in the CEO role has absolutely no hope of doing this.
The start-up CEO role is all about being responsive to users, customers, partners, investors, etc. Spinning plates and making space for the team to do what they do best. A key part of the job, especially in the very early days, is to filter and protect the CTO from noise so they can work optimally and being responsive to them when they need feedback.
Trying to mix those roles is a recipe for at best mediocrity and at worst abject failure. If your competitor has both roles covered then chances are their business will grow much faster than yours.
So, leverage your network, find someone who believes in what you are building and give them space and feedback to build what your market needs.”
Adam is Founder and CEO of Cronofy, the unified calendar API. He’s a highly technical and experienced technology entrepreneur with a passion for continuous improvement that pervades every aspect of his life. He achieved entrepreneurial success with the co-founding and growth of Esendex, the international text messaging service provider.
Mark O’Connell, Principal at People Puzzles, provides his expert advice:
“Recognising that the requirement of each role is fundamentally different is a good starting place. As a CTO, focus must be on the technology, innovation and the product or solution. As a CEO the focus and priority must be running and building a successful business. Users, customers, partners and investors need as much (sometimes more) attention. The CEO must ensure that the business is still here in the future; a great system, solution or product alone will not be enough to ensure success.
So, what do I need to do?
- Reflect on what you are best at doing and identify what the gaps are in your knowledge, skills and experience
- Accept that doing everything yourself carries great risk to your health and wealth, as well as your business
- Ask yourself – am I ready to change?
Take a “time out” – take a day and allow yourself to think about the future:
- Assess how you spent your time last month – how many hours are CTO and CEO activities? What work got done between 8am and 6pm and what had to be done between 6pm and 8am?
- Create a list of what the company will need to achieve under the headings of financial, customer, people and systems for the next 2 quarters
- Assess what skills and expertise you have in your team already to deliver the plan and identify what you can cover in house
- Assess how much time you are spending on CTO activities and be honest about what time is left to do the rest. Decide how important “the rest” is and think about what you need to stop doing in the CTO area to deal with it. If you stop doing CTO work, who can help you?
- If you stop doing the CEO work or identify what aspects of the CEO role you need help, who can help you?
- Now you have a gap analysis between what the business needs in the short term and your capability to deliver it
Where you have a critical shortage of skills, expertise or knowledge, then you need to be creative to resource your organisation on a cost effective basis. Clearly you may not need and cannot afford full time professionals experienced in all areas. You can however access this level of resource on a part time regular basis to fill the gaps and share knowledge. They become part of your team and help share the load.
Whatever you decide to do, juggling both roles will not be sustainable in the long term.”
Mark is a Principal at People Puzzles. He has over 20 years’ experience, focused on managing, developing and leading teams that can deliver an organisation’s vision. Mark’s expertise is in leading change and business transformations, helping people succeed on the journey, or look positively and constructively for alternative options. People Puzzles provide HR support to start-ups as part of the programme at IDEALondon.
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