Startup CTO Corner #3: How To Be A Lean CTO

Startup CTO Tuesday

I am the CTO of a Lean Startup, before I go any further, let me make sure everyone knows what “Lean” means. Lean is a startup methodology popularized by Eric Ries, it does not mean bootstrapping or running your company financially lean, it’s all about customer development. Of course now I’ve introduced another term which might not be all that well-known outside of the startup world but I can assure you that you already know.

Customer Development simply means learning from your customers. Lean startups test assumptions with their customers before building things they “think” everyone would love. The startup world is full of companies that spent a year (or three) building something they thought people would absolutely fall in love with. They raise money, assemble a team of amazing developers and designers, they are rocking! The problem…once they launch nobody wants to use it, rather than being lean, they were fat, and now all their money is gone.

If you want to learn more about Lean Startups I can highly recommend two absolutely amazing books:

  1. The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
  2. The Lean Entrepreneur by Brant Cooper and Patrick Vlaskovitz

Okay, now for the topic of this article, how to be a lean CTO. First let me say that I am far from being a guru in this area, I’ve been a CTO for nine months so am still learning new things every day. That being said, since we’re running a lean startup I have worked very hard to apply this methodology to my role and the way in which we approach our development process.

Here are some of the ways you can stay lean as a CTO:

  1. Don’t build your own framework – there are so many amazing frameworks out there that developers have spent years perfecting that you really don’t need to re-create the wheel. Your customers don’t know what framework you’re using, and unless your customers are developers they actually won’t even know what a framework is. Spend your time building your product not building a framework, that’s already been done.
  2. Use cloud hosting and start with something small – sure, someday you hope to have millions of visitors, but that doesn’t mean you need to have all the horsepower for that yet. That’s the beauty of cloud hosting. Start small and only use what you need for the amount of traffic you’re currently getting, as you get more traffic, scale, that’s the beauty of the cloud. (Oh and yes I know the use of this buzzword will make more than a few CTO’s cringe, but we all have to get used to it)
  3. Spend less time writing internal tools and more time building your product – as a CTO you can easily be pulled in many directions. While internal tools are important you should be putting your focus on building your product, honestly, internal tools can wait.
  4. Don’t become a conference/MeetUp addict – your time is incredibly valuable. Only go to a conference or MeetUp group if there is something you expect to get out of it that will directly impact your business. Having beers with other founders is a lot of fun and I’m not saying you should never do it, just don’t get carried away.
  5. Stop adding features you want – this might be the hardest one. Since you spend so much time with your product it is more than likely that there are some “killer” features you’re just dying to add. Unless your customers are asking for it, or you can see through analytics or heat map data they are trying to do something that they can’t, it can wait. In most cases you are not your customer and even if you are, you do not speak for the majority.

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