Start-Ups

CTO to startup founder: The reprogramming process

Leaving your job as a corporate CTO to found a startup requires a big mindset change. Keep these factors in mind if you are looking to take the leap.

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Technical expertise and high-level business competence is a killer combo for a those looking to build a tech startup. Thus, a CTO would seem to be an ideal candidate to start a company. But, making the transition from CTO to founder will take some reprogramming, but it is possible. While you're probably not Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man, we can rebuild you... We have the technology.

You have to 'do' again

Execution is everything in a startup. Whether you follow a lean philosophy, or you are a product perfectionist, it's all about getting stuff done.

David Yach was the former CTO at Blackberry/RIM (2007-2012) and is now CTO and co-founder at Auvik Networks. When he left RIM in 2012 to join the startup world, he said that the biggest shock was getting back to doing everything himself. In a large corporation you have specialized employees for individual tasks and you lose sight of all the things that need to get done in a given day. He went from making high-level decisions to spending eight hours a day coding.

"The startup, in the early days especially, everything is technical. It's all about defining the product, with a little bit of business stuff as well," Yach said. "Then, [asking] 'Do you think there's a market for this?' So, heads down, thinking about the hard technical problems."

This will require some stretching on your part, especially when it comes to your job description. Even though you'll likely take the position of the "technical" founder or co-founder, you are still a founder, which means that many of the day-to-day business processes will fall on you as well.

"In large part, by the time a CTO is needed at the corporate level, the product has already been baked in architecturally," said Tidemark CEO Christian Gheorghe, formerly the CTO of SAP. "As a startup founder, especially a technical founder, you need to be able to create and communicate the vision for the product, create something from nothing, sell to the first customers, hire the early team, build the sales team and model financials to support the company's growth, build and a manage a board of directors, etc."

As a CTO, much of your job has to do with management, and it is easy to get to point where you are just maintaining order, rather than setting out to get individual tasks done. Peter Yared, founder and CTO at Sapho and former CTO at CBS Interactive (TechRepublic's parent company) described it as being in a mode where you're never supposed to deliver anything. In a corporate setting, your endless to-do list can be simply to clear out your inbox. He contrasts that with the amount of things you have to "do" at a startup: "At a startup you're never done."

Re-learn how to manage your time

As a CTO, your calendar is awash with multi-colored blocks of scheduled time. Often, a particular time frame is occupied by multiple events vying for your attention. This leaves very little room for actual work to get done, as Yach described his time at RIM: "I'd given up on committing to do anything, because I'd never get more than an hour to do anything."

That's precisely the reason that Peter Yared was so surprised when he set out on his startup journey. He was finally confronted with something he had never before seen at work: "Empty calendars."

"I'm not kidding," Yared said. "At a big company, in a senior role, literally almost every minute of every day is scheduled. So, there's really no time to create anything."

In a corporate environment, especially at the senior level, your attention is constantly pulled from one action item to the next, making it difficult to dedicate your energy to a single specific task.

Startups provide a polar opposite environment. You'll remain the decision maker, but you'll take on the role of chief producer as well. As a new founder, time is a luxury when it comes to product testing. This will inevitably change the way you look at production.

"The biggest change in philosophy was to start thinking incremental vs large scale releases. As an engineer, you want the application deployed flawlessly, and without issues," said Larry Kiss, former Senior Design Engineer at Motorola, now co-founder of SpotHero. "But in a startup, every minute that a user isn't using the new production/feature, is lost time for user experience or production validation."

Think small

As Yach noted, if your main professional desire is to manage a team, then a startup is not the right place for you because there's no team to manage, at least not in in the early stages. There is nothing wrong with wanting to manage a team, it's just not the process you'll use to get things done at a startup.

"It can be frustrating just how long it takes to do things with a small team, when you're used to having a big team," Yach said. "On the other hand, a small team is often more agile and nimble and can sometimes accomplish a lot in a short bit of time."

The key is to capitalize on that nimbleness and that agility. You're not working on alignment at a startup, Yared said. When your business consists of four people working in a room together, they're typically all there for the same reason. The passion of you and your team combined with the lack of bureaucracy in the decision-making process is a combination that you can leverage to make some truly amazing things happen.

"At a big company, you can do small things and it has a big impact, because you have the scale of the big company" Yared said. "You notice a lot of big companies do things incrementally and it's for that reason. Versus at a small company you have to do big things and a lot of times they only have a small impact, at least at first."

One of the main differences in operating as a corporate CTO compared to your time as a startup founder lies in not only how, but why decisions are made as well. Yared said that it has to do with balancing rational and political, or diplomatic decisions. As a startup founder, you have the freedom to make decisions simply because they make sense, or because you are convinced that they are going to work. Large corporations, on the other hand, have more constituents to answer to, requiring careful treading around any decision.

While these tips can help you ready your mind and renew your focus for the journey ahead, your startup journey will be a subjective experience.

"It's sort of like having children," Yach said. "People can tell you over and over again how much it's going to change your life but, until you actually experience it, you don't know."

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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