Thursday 17 October 2019

Founders sometimes think they can do it all - but they can't

The problem with progressing your startup dream is that nothing sucks like success. Stock photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto
The problem with progressing your startup dream is that nothing sucks like success. Stock photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Richard Rodgerer

The problem with progressing your startup dream is that nothing sucks like success.

It only gets harder. As soon you start to get some sales and start building your team and start making an impact, the amount of stuff you have to handle as a founder increases exponentially. This is one of the main reasons that investors prefer founding teams over solo founders.

As a founder with a previous successful exit I have had the luxury of starting this company as a solo founder, and the luxury of writing about it in detail in this newspaper. I have been very lucky to build a great team at management level, and that has been a key factor in moving us forward.

However, startups go through phases, and at each phase some people grow into the phase, and others step back a little to make room for more experienced operators. We are starting to make that transition now with our technical team. Although we have a fantastic head of engineering, that is not the same role as CTO - Chief Technical Officer. Up until now I have been filling that role, as it is one I have performed in startups for many years.

Just because I can play the CTO role, does not mean that I can play it well if I am also the CEO. To understand this, let's breakdown what a startup CTO needs to be able to do. You have to be able to code, all the way down to the ugly little details - in the early days there's no-one else to do it. You then need to ascend all the way to the top of the abstract ladder, and design the overall architecture of the system so that it can scale to millions of users.

Now, you don't do this on day one - that's how you burn millions of dollars and get nowhere (a common first-timer CTO mistake). Instead, you have to carefully draw down 'technical debt' to weave a path from 'barely works' to 'hyper-scale'. This is probably the hardest part of the job - you have to decide where to deliberately do a bad job and take shortcuts. This is what taking on technical debt means, because eventually you will have to fix the mess. Hopefully you have paying customer by then. Most developers who take on the CTO role fail at this - their sense of engineering pride sabotages the necessary velocity. It's probably the hardest part of the job.

That's just the technical stuff. The CTO is a client-facing role and you need to be able to sell. With the CEO, and without. You sell not only the company's products, but also the company itself, to new recruits. That means you need to be able to make some impact as a thought leader, and contribute to open source, or write blogs, author books, or speak at conferences - little things like that. Or at the very least, be able to make a start (running a meetup is probably the best place to work on your promotional skills). A startup is a great place to learn all this, as you have the freedom to get of out of the building and just to do it. You don't join an early-stage startup to write interesting code - that only comes later when you get to scale. And you don't get to scale without going through the hell of bad code.

And then there's the management role. You need to build up a team of engineers and keep them focused and motivated. This is the standard IT project challenge, multiplied by 10. You start off under-resourced, by definition. The client doesn't know what they want (you still have to iterate to product-market fit), so the requirements are badly defined, if at all. And your team is probably composed of remote freelancers who are keeping a sceptical eye on the whole thing and have other options. Startups are fun.

I've been doing all the above, badly, as well as all the CEO founder stuff (hopefully less badly). Even though I can do the job well, I don't have the time. Worse, I've suffered from a cognitive bias that is quite common in startups - assuming that you will be able to perform properly in a startup just because you've previously been good at a job in a normal company. You forget that a normal company has support systems and structure, ways of doing things, people who already know each other, and holidays. You can be very efficient with all that infrastructure backing you up. In a startup you have nothing and you're just not going to be able to perform at the level of a specialist. This problem affects people coming from big companies disproportionally - if you're working for a big company you tend to stop seeing all the supports you are provided with, and it can be quite a shock to realise how spartan the startup environment is.

It's now time for Voxgig to find a CTO. We have a bad one (me) we need to fire. Ironically, I am now in the same situation as any other non-technical founder. In fact, it's probably worse, my programming skills are a net negative because any code I write is going to be shoddy given the time I can put into. I'm effectively a part-time, dangerously ambitious, junior engineer and I need a CTO to manage me. Next week I'll continue this topic and discuss tactics for finding a great CTO. Hopefully you'll find them useful if you're facing this challenge too.

Search engine statistics: this is our new section on our search engine - we have 2,196 conferences, 6,135 speakers, 4,945 exhibitors, and 942 venues. We have not yet opened the system to user-generated content - these numbers will get a lot more interesting when that happens later this year.

Marketing update: speakers newsletter: 5,702 subscribers, open rate 11pc. EventProfs newsletter - 392 subscribers, open rate of 40pc, and the podcast is at 85 downloads (a little pick-up there - encouraging).

Richard Rodger is the founder of Voxgig. He is a former co-founder of Nearform, a technology consultancy firm based in Waterford

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