What if we can't afford to hire an expert?

October 24, 2021

I recently made the case that early-stage startups should hire seniors for business-critical roles.

But this sometimes leads to a Catch-22. Startups often have the least money they can spend on hiring top-notch talent. You need talent to build a successful business. But you need to have a successful business to afford the talent.

What can you do?

Let’s discuss the things you hope to get out of your expert would-be hire, if you could afford them:

  1. You want someone to “do” things: build software, configure servers, design an automated-test platform, etc
  2. You want someone who “knows” things: how not to expose customer credit card numbers to the world, how to design a system that will scale as your business grows, etc.

In a perfect world, you would hire an expert who checks both boxes. Such experts are expensive, but well worth it, because they “do” things you need and they “know” how to do them well. They’re also usually very fast, to boot, so even though they may cost more per hour, they often cost less per unit of output.

But recognizing and acknowleding the value such an expert would provide doesn’t suddenly make the money appear in your bank account.

So this is when you can “moneyball it”: Hire an expert who “knows” the important things, on a limited, part-time or retainer basis. Then hire a less experienced, and therefore cheaper, person to handle the “doing”, with the limited oversight of the expert.

One approach that seems to be gaining in popularity is the hiring of a fractional CTO. But there are other approaches, too. A simple approach is just to find a part-time freelance expert on an hourly basis. There are also cosultants (like me!) who are available for ongoing advice on a regular basis.

With this part-time, fractional, or advisory person on board, they can then help you fill the “doer” role. Get their help to define the job role(s) and description(s), and help with the technical interview and final selection. Use them for what they know, to help select those who do.


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