I’m formally proclaiming this “CTO Appreciation Week”
Let’s face it. Just as the quarterback in football gets too much credit when the team wins and too much blame when they lose, we tend to treat CEOs of start-ups the same way. However we all know it takes hard work and talent at all of the positions to make a great football team. Until recently, one of the most under-appreciated positions in football was the left tackle. If you’re not a big football fan, you probably don’t even know what the left tackle does. Let me explain.
The left tackle is usually the team’s best pass blocker. Of the two tackles, the left tackles will often have better footwork and agility than the right tackle in order to counter-act the pass rush of defensive ends. Most quarterbacks are right-handed and in order to throw, they stand with their left shoulders facing downfield, closer to the line of scrimmage. Thus, they turn their backs to defenders coming from the left side, creating a vulnerable blind spot that the left tackle must protect.
It wasn’t until lightning quick linebackers like Lawrence Taylor came along in the 80s and exposed slow left tackles that a premium was placed on the position. LT defined his hall-of-fame career by blowing by slower left tackles like a freight train and hitting the quarterback from behind, often with disastrous results for the offense. As a result, the annual salary of left tackles in the NFL skyrocketed in the mid-90s. Premier left tackles are now highly sought after commodities, and are often the second highest paid players on a roster after the quarterback.
I think the same thing goes for start-ups. There’s a great analogy between the left tackle and the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of a tech start-up. If the left tackle is a star, the quarterback can safely look downfield for an open receiver, knowing that the left tackle has his back covered. He knows he’s not going to get hammered by a rushing linebacker coming at him from his blind-side. Same goes in a start-up. If the CTO is a star, it sure makes the CEO’s job a lot easier.
So what does the CTO of a tech start-up do anyway? Well, that’s a great question. I’ve seen a host of CTOs have very different roles. Most often though, the CTO in a start-up is the technical founder who either has a co-founder who is the “business guy” (CEO) or has brought in a “business guy” to be CEO. Often, the CTO is thought to be the visionary, knowing before everyone else where the technology is going and having the vision to build it. In my opinion however, it’s precisely this type of CTO that can cause great problems for their companies. The great CTOs that I’ve worked with are more “agile” than “visionary.”
Let’s step back. I’ll agree that great technical founders have to be “visionary” to see an opportunity in a marketplace and build an initial product to address the opportunity. However, after version 1.0 is built, it’s the special CTO who uses his “ears” more than his “eyes.” What do I mean? Simple. They have to listen to the customer. Once the early adopters are using the product, it’s only through listening to the customers that a CTO can have the “vision” to really execute in building a product that has widespread adoption.
Two examples of this stand out in my mind. Earlier in my career, I invested in a start-up based upon the “track-record” of a supposed “rock-star” CTO. He had worked at a big technology company and had the reputation of being “one step ahead of everyone else.” Unfortunately he also had the ego to think that his “vision” was more important than discovering what the customers were asking for. Consequently in the start-up world, if the CTO’s “vision” is wrong you can burn through an awful lot of capital building what the CTO “thinks” the market wants.
On the other hand, we’re currently invested in a company where the CTO has much better “ears” than he does “eyes.” After building an initial product that he perceived to fill a niche in a marketplace and gaining some initial traction, he has spent the last couple of years working very closely with his VP of Business Development to better understand what the customers want to see in the subsequent versions of the product and other new products. He’s selflessly avoided the temptation to flex his reputational muscles, instead opting for patience in understand what the market is asking for. The result? It’s hands down the fastest growing company in our portfolio.
So therefore, let it be known that I’m proclaiming this “CTO appreciation week.” If you’re a CEO, go into your CTO’s office and thank him for keeping you safe and protecting you from all those nasty linebackers…