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A development shop as CTO?

I've been approached by a development shop that likes my idea and would like to come on as my development team for equity. I met with a founder and we had a good connection. They are putting together a proposal and I'm meeting with their team next week. I know there is no way to confirm anything until I have the proposal in hand but assuming we could come to an agreement, what is the downside of such an arrangement? I like that they can bring a team and we can get the mvp done in a few months but if/when the mvp proves successful and I need funding, I feel like I will have a problem in that I won't have a full time tech partner. Anyone else have experience with such a situation?

28 Replies

matt
0
1
matt Entrepreneur
Web Developer
Joey, Interesting situation. Please keep the FD community updated!
Roger Smith
1
0
Roger Smith Entrepreneur
Chief Technology Officer at RealtyClub Investment Advisors
If you are building a technical product that requires a CTO (not all technical products need a CTO), then the ideal scenario is to have one as part of your team. If you do not have that person on your team and need them, then you have to consider how long until you are able to bring someone on vs. moving ahead now with this development shop and pushing your idea forward. Starting a company is about crossing off unknowns, some call it jumping lilly pads. So my feeling is if you don't have that technical person now, then do what you can to cross off more unknowns with this development team so you can move your company further down the line. That being said though, be careful with your equity that can come back to bite you in the future if you give out too much.
Tony Peccatiello
4
0
Principal at Social Starts
Hey Joey, I would need to know more about your idea and the dev shop to say what is the most important thing to consider is but I will just go through a few big ones. A little background on me, I have been through this type of situation before and it is definitely one that has a lot of moving parts. So let's dive in! 1. Is the technology the root of your business? If so having an in-house team or at least a rock star CTO is important. For example, if you are trying to create the next Facebook than the technology is your entire business and is going to be very important. However, you are working on the next custom suite company with a new innovative way to measure and order online than it is not as important. Speaking with an investor hat on, it is important to have the essential business processes under your control so when something breaks it can be fixed as quickly as possible. 2. Investors like to invest in teams and almost never see an outside dev shop as really part of the team. This is a tough one to overcome and should not be downplayed especially if the tech is part of your core business. I have had personal experience and if you do decide to go this route I would be more than happy to talk to you about how I have overcome this in the past. 3.How much equity do they want? Don't want to give up too much too early. Also, as your project progresses would they want more equity? 4. How long does the agreement go for? There should definitely be some sort of vesting schedule that provides you enough time to prove the business 5. What will the hour limit be per month? In an ideal world you would be able to make small changes and maybe even a few true pivots quickly and without having to be too concerned about how much it costs you. 6. What is the plan for when you raise money and want to move away from the dev shop? There should be clear terms surrounding this. In an ideal world you would be able to retain some of the engineers who worked on the project but this is probably not going to happen. Better would be to hire people and have them work hand in hand with the dev shop for a while and slowly transition away. Anyway, hope this helps and if you want to talk more let me know. -Tony ?
Crystal Grave
3
1
Crystal Grave Entrepreneur
Founder, President & CEO at Snappening
I agree with the comments of both Roger and Tony above. What this seems to boil down to for you is:
  1. Does the speed of using the dev shop outweigh the precision of finding your own future technical hires?
  2. What sort of valuation are you using to do the equity share? What terms are tied to performance (both good and bad)? Think about this so you leave yourself room for some failed concepts at the beginning. You'll need to rework and rethink more than you may realize.
  3. Is equity being calculated at the market (retail) rate for the development, or their out-of-pocket rate for the team? An important consideration and discussion I would think.
  4. Does the dev shop have any immediate previous experience in your space (or with a similar implementation in another vertical) that you can see and use? Do you have any technical friends who can look at a small sample of their code to see if it appears logical, best-in-class and strong? Would they be wiling to do a small test project with you as a starting point to make sure the partnership works?
  5. Does the dev shop have at least 3 - 5 satisfied existing customers (preferably also startup / founder types) that you could contact and ask about benefits and drawbacks of their experiences?
  6. What happens if it blows up and doesn't work out? (Even worse (and possible), what if it blows up before you have an existing product, can test it and can take a non-glitchy product to market for user adoption?) Probably can fix this if it's tied to some sort of sprint-based vesting schedule.
  7. How will this team handle the least sexy parts of the build: (a) documentation, (b) A/B testing, (c) QC and (d) bug cleanup and tracking? Is all that covered in their proposed plan? If not, it should be.
Keep us all posted on how it goes!

Michael Barnathan
2
0
Michael Barnathan Entrepreneur • Advisor
Co-Founder of The Mountaintop Program, Google Alum
You do eventually need to find a CTO, but as long as you're ok with the MVP possibly being throwaway code, using some equity to get to the point of funding isn't a bad idea. That'll help you land a CTO/lead engineer later as well.
Joey Chandler
1
0
Joey Chandler Entrepreneur
Founder at YouAre.video
Thanks all. And to be clear there isn't a heavy tech component which is why this makes sense for both sides. I'm pretty sure I could replace them if needed and they don't have to worry about getting bogged down in tech heavy implantation. I do have a lawyer and tech advisors to confirm the agreement will work for me and that their code won't require a complete rebuild when I bring the team in-house.

I'll let you know how it goes.
Travis Russi
5
0
Travis Russi Advisor
Developer, Marketer, Entrepreneur, Adventurer
Unless you are VERY close to cashflow positive, don't do it! And if you are very close to cashflow positive, definitely don't do it!

Giving equity to a dev shop is a bad idea. Equity doesn't pay salaries, so they will put all paid work in front of your project, regardless of what they say or commit to.

There is an allusion of alignment (they are equity partners, so they care, right?), but it still doesn't pay salaries. So they will meet their commitment as slow as possible with the minimum of effort. That means it will take longer and be a lesser quality product.

You also don't need a CTO. A CTO is somebody who can build and manage a team of developers.

You need one senior full-stack developer that can build what you have in your head as fast as possible. It has to be only one person (read Mythical Man Month) and they have to be be senior level (or they will be slow because they won't know what features to cut out).

The easiest way to get a senior developer at a reasonable compensation level is to show them traction. So don't start the conversation until you have something tangible they can use to judge whether you're the real deal.

Just my two cents as a full-stack developer and a former CTO of a web dev company that did equity deals with clients. :)


Michael Barnathan
0
0
Michael Barnathan Entrepreneur • Advisor
Co-Founder of The Mountaintop Program, Google Alum
How will he get traction without a developer? Perhaps pre-orders, but it's hard to make a release date when you don't already have anyone technical onboard. The alternative is cold, hard cash. Which is great for hiring contractors (and employees), but most early stage startups don't have much of it to give out.
Travis Russi
2
0
Travis Russi Advisor
Developer, Marketer, Entrepreneur, Adventurer
As Gary Vee would probably say, "Just f**ing do it"! Lots of examples of getting traction without a product (thegrid.io, mailbox app on iOS, Kickstarter). Traction is absolutely possible in virtually every opportunity without a product. Like I said, getting traction (especially without a product) will get good devs to take you seriously. [On my phone, I type faster than I think.]
Tony Peccatiello
0
0
Principal at Social Starts
Agreed. Well said Travis. ?
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