Over the last 20 years, as I have observed, advised, and launched numerous startups, I’ve come to the conclusion that early to mid-stage companies don’t require dedicated executives for every function. A CTO is a role that doesn’t require a full-time commitment for many modern software ventures. If you are curious to learn more about what a CTO does, including quotes from some of Austin’s best CTOs, check out my story “What is a CTO?”.
As I was considering what I would do after Twyla, I kept coming back to this idea that most software companies don’t require a full CTO and the possibility of a market opportunity for me as a fractional CTO. As I would do when launching a new product, I decided to put my hypothesis to test. I began to meet with VCs and CEOs of Austin companies to better understand their needs and where I could provide value. These conversations allowed me to both validate the opportunity and to discover the 5 most common scenarios when companies need a fractional CTO.
When to consider a fractional CTO
The key business benefit of retaining a Fractional CTO is that they provide the same expertise and capability of a full-time CTO without the associated level of salary, benefits and overhead associated with adding a top level executive.
You are launching a new company or product
Most founders that I speak to, have been given the advice that they need a technical co-founder to be successful. Armed with this advice, they either hire someone who lacks leadership and business experience, or hire an experienced CTO with the expectation that they will spend a lot of time in the weeds. Both of these situations are not ideal. The junior CTO will have gaps and must learn as she goes and the senior individual must context shift between the strategic and the hyper tactical; this dynamic shifting is difficult and rarely executed well. Additionally, they will likely focus on growth and will be a drain on the resources needed to execute the tedious detail work needed to test your market and grow your business.
A fractional CTO is especially valuable in the early stages of a company or new product, as you are validating your market and testing various product strategies; allowing you to keep your burn low while you adapt and learn.
My clients hire and retain me to assist them with testing and validating potential solutions, assessing the technology landscape to highlight risks and opportunities relevant to their business, creating their product roadmap, and determining the most cost-effective way to quickly make progress towards business goals. They also include me in their pitch deck to help them as they progress through the necessary milestones to raise money and eventually grow to the point where they need to hire someone full-time.
You desire more visibility or confidence in your existing team
If your team is struggling but you are unsure of the cause, have a fractional CTO conduct a holistic technology assessment. They will help you understand why you are consistently missing deadlines, why the team’s not getting along, or why you have a general feeling that you’re not getting your money’s worth from the team.
In addition to a standard technical audit focusing on assessing operational excellence such as competencies and capabilities, I conduct a thorough audit with attention on organizational health. I’ve often found that most problems product teams face stem from relationships and lack of coherence or focus, so I’ve learned to start there first. This approach helps me guarantee that any changes made will become habits and truly transform your organization.
I’ve often found that most problems product teams face stem from relationships and lack of coherence or focus, so I’ve learned to start there first.
Your existing team needs some oversight or guidance
If you’ve opted against hiring a senior leader and instead hired junior developers, a lead developer, or outsourced development, you probably lack confidence in their ability to make the right strategic product and long term architectural decisions. Likewise, when a technical cofounder or junior CTO is struggling or simply lacking some of the skills now required of them, a fractional CTO will help them learn and adapt to the new skills required of them as the organization grows.
My clients depend on me to coach, mentor, develop and inspire their team, who I grow both personally and professionally to perform at their peak potential. I help my clients determine how and when they need to invest in growing the team. When it’s time to grow the team, I advise and guide them through proper recruiting, onboarding, and retention techniques. I have a well-established network and will leverage that network to assist in locating, attracting and retaining top talent. I draw from my diverse background to apply a broader spectrum of experience across many technologies when enhancing process and transforming culture.
You’ve lost or may lose your CTO
If you have abruptly lost your CTO, or need to end your relationship with them and don’t have someone ready to fill the role, or are struggling to attract the right full-time CTO, a fractional CTO can easily fill the gap. Providing this level of continuity is important for the health and focus of your team, the confidence of your customers, and the predictability of your software delivery.
One of my clients recently lost their CTO, and as their fractional CTO, I am providing all the value they need in 10 or fewer hours a week. They rely on me to attend weekly staff meetings, conduct one-on-ones as needed, audit technical designs, oversee DevOps, and provide sales support. They are delighted to have the confidence to tell investors that the product is still on track and the team is engaged while they have simultaneously reduced monthly burn.
You’ve never had a CTO and need a tech strategy
When your executive team lacks a seasoned CTO or CIO, your CEO, CFO, or COO is responsible for technology. They are often overwhelmed with technology vendors, technology strategy is unclear, releases lack predictability, quality suffers, and they find it challenging to make swift decisions. In today’s business environment, software is touching everything. Organizations of all types should consider how they remain relevant and grow with the demanding ever-shifting technology landscape.
I help clients to answer questions like:
- “What do our customers actually need?
- What should we build?
- Should we hire or use a vendor?
- How will this integrate with my other systems?
- Can our systems support growth?
- What do we need in order to invest in our team?
Many organizations lack a product mindset and instead think all of their software work as projects. In this case, I help my clients reframe their perspective from software projects to a product mindset. These clients benefit tremendously from this digital transformation which unlocks their ability to fully achieve their technology pursuits.
A fractional CTO can provide that trusted advice and guidance you require at a fraction of the cost, freeing up budget for individual contributors who will execute efficiently and effectively under their leadership.
Getting started with a fractional CTO
It will likely be a long time before you need someone full-time, but you simply can’t go without a CTO in the meantime. You need something more than an advisor but less than a full-time CTO. A fractional CTO can provide that trusted advice and guidance you require at a fraction of the cost, freeing up budget for individual contributors who will execute efficiently and effectively under their leadership.
If you are uncertain where to begin, start with a finite initial engagement and then move to a retainer after you’ve seen results and are comfortable with the working relationship.
Unlike vendors, I am independent, I am on your side and in it for the long term; I am a vendor agnostic trusted advisor.
Working with a fractional CTO
Every organization battles some level of uncertainty and risk. Meeting with a fractional CTO regularly, to establish a foundation of understanding, will allow them to quickly dive into any problem that arises and help you develop a swift mitigation plan.
Unlike vendors, I am independent, I am on your side and in it for the long term; I am a vendor agnostic trusted advisor. Even though I may not be on-site, I am always available and thinking about what you need and how to get it for you. Keep me updated regularly, so that when you have a critical problem, I am up to speed and can quickly help you address the issue.
Once the time comes to hire a full-time CTO, I help my clients find the right person if they cannot promote from within. Sometimes I locate this person through my own network of CTOs. I run a meet-up for CTOs and generally know who is looking in Austin. If we need to cast a wider net, I will work with them to select the best recruiter for a retained executive search.
If you have questions about the fractional CTO model or are in need of my services, email me now at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll be happy to sit down and talk through your needs and challenges. The first meeting is always free.