The Benefits of a Fractional CTO for Startups

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Building a company is hard. Startups need to move fast, iterate quickly, and get their product into customers’ hands, all while managing teams and dealing with various other functions, such as operations, support, recruitment, and business development.

While many tech startups have technical founders, not all are experienced or ready for the technical challenges they face. Getting an initial idea or MVP is the first step. Scaling the product, business, and team is a different challenge altogether.

Fortunately, fractional CTOs can support the founders and set the company up for success.

What is a CTO?

A CTO is an executive responsible for the technical landscape of the company’s vision and mission. These senior leaders bring their expertise to achieve business goals, build technical teams, and deliver innovative products.

Nicholas with his team in Milan.
Nicholas Nadeau with the Halodi Robotics team in Milan deploying a humanoid robot for packaging machines.

While there are many different types of CTOs, early-stage startups require a mixture of a hands-on team leader and a big-thinker. Execution and velocity are the most critical indicators at this stage, so having this expertise bolster the team is vital.

What Does “Fractional” Mean?

A fractional executive is a type of consulting role with a specific purpose: to set the company up for success by filling a critical leadership role or responsibility.

The executive role is fulfilled at a fraction of the entire position, either on a part-time basis or focusing on a subset of the function (i.e., a specific project). This approach eliminates the costs of long-term commitments, high-end salaries, and all the employee benefits that come with a job while still retaining the expertise needed to achieve the company’s goals.

Fractional executives are often available for immediate engagement and deployed at a moment’s notice. They are flexible and can be scaled up or down as the company’s needs change.

Why Hire a Fractional CTO?

Hiring a full-time CTO is extremely expensive and challenging. The recruitment process alone is a high-risk, lengthy affair, as you want to ensure that you’ve picked the perfect candidate, or else you’re stuck.

Hiring a full-time CTO is extremely expensive and challenging.

For companies that do not have technical founders, it is necessary to find someone to lead the engineering organization. The right leader will be able to translate the vision to the individual contributors and the technical risk back up to the executive team.

Moreover, the average fractional CTO cost is much lower than a full-time hire. It offers the same level of expertise without the risk of hiring the wrong person. As your company evolves, so will your leadership needs. Fractional experts allow the company to stay agile and iterate as an organization.

What to Look for in a Fractional CTO

For startups, the ideal fractional CTO is a hands-on leader who can execute the company’s vision and mission. They are a technical expert who can lead the engineering organization and deliver innovative products. Their flexibility comes from their ability to work with the company’s existing leadership and team and switch between tactical and strategic approaches.

The ideal fractional CTO is a hands-on leader who can execute the company’s vision and mission.

The right fractional CTO will be able to:

  • Lead both the people and the technology
  • Translate the vision down to the individual contributors
  • Communicate the technical risk back up to the executive team
  • Connect the day-to-day execution with the long-term strategy

How Does a Fractional CTO Work?

A fractional CTO empowers the company with the expertise and responsibilities needed to deliver products and innovation efficiently and effectively. A fractional CTO will flexibly execute vital executive functions for a fraction of the budget.

Fractional CTOs can be empowered to lead the engineering organization, manage projects, or provide technical expertise. They can also support the executive team in areas needing more expertise.

Some companies may give them authority to hire, fire, and promote team members. They may also be able to manage the budget and make decisions on the company’s behalf.

When starting a new engagement, a fractional CTO will begin with identifying the core motivation or problem, such as:

  • Does the executive team need coaching on strategy and roadmap in areas they do not have expertise?
  • Do projects or deliverables need a leader to enable agile development and operations?
  • Does the engineering team need support or talent management?

Next, we define a scope of work and a level of engagement. Some problems are addressed simply with weekly consulting sessions. In contrast, project delivery and team management may require continuous commitment. Depending on the selected level, the cost structure will be either a monthly retainer fee or an hourly rate.

With the scope and engagement defined, a fractional CTO becomes part of your team and provides a flexible senior resource to set your company up for success. Some examples of projects and roles include:

  • Development, architecture, and refactoring of legacy technology for cost reduction or improved business performance
  • Technical due diligence for acquisitions and venture capital investments
  • Leadership, agile project management, and coaching of junior engineering teams
  • Technical strategy, roadmap, and business development of a new vertical or innovation initiative

Nicholas with Osedea.
Nicholas Nadeau working with Osedea to develop a new innovative product for Industry 4.0 and dynamic sensing.

How Much Does a Fractional CTO Cost?

The cost of a fractional CTO depends on the work scope and engagement level. The cost structure can be either a monthly retainer fee or an hourly rate.

Typical hourly rates range from $150 to $300 per hour, depending on the seniority of the executive and the type of work. A monthly retainer fee is typically between a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars per month, depending on the scope of work and level of engagement.

When Do I Need a Fractional CTO?

Several vital situations signal the need for a fractional CTO:

  • You can’t afford a full-time CTO but need to expand your leadership team and technical vision.
    • A fractional CTO engagement offers the flexibility of part-time work and limited-time contracts, which is significantly cheaper than a full-time hire.
  • Your leadership team lacks specific technical expertise.
    • A fractional CTO empowers the company strategy and roadmap through executive advising, offering the right expertise for the current company needs.
  • Your development team lacks guidance or is missing deliverables.
    • A fractional CTO uses their experience and knowledge to work with team leaders to enable agile projects, development, and operations while acting as a bridge between individual contributors and company leadership.
  • You have a specific project that needs senior technical expertise to get off the ground or out of a jam.
    • A fractional CTO offers both hands-on experience and visionary leadership to innovate and accelerate product development.

Nicholas at PyCon.
Nicholas Nadeau presenting at PyCon, the largest convention for the Python programming language.

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Nicholas Nadeau, Ph.D., P.Eng.
Nicholas Nadeau, Ph.D., P.Eng.
Founder / Fractional CTO

Nicholas Nadeau is a fractional CTO empowering startups with next-gen technology expertise, and a passion for driving corporate innovation. Stay informed on cutting-edge hard tech trends - subscribe to my newsletter. Ready to innovate? Discover my services and accelerate your growth.