I am starting a business that is anchored in an idea that may transform the way we shop online. I have done a lot of work to define the problem, research competition, talk to potential customers, size up the opportunity, etc.
My start up needs the CTO to lead the build of a new e-comm platform.
The he huge problem: My 20+ year career has been in marketing and other non-tech positions. I know nothing about building platforms, websites, apps, etc. I don't even speak the language.
How do I assess whether they are qualified to lead the project and work with someone like me? Ideally this person would bring a lot to the table and add to the platform vision and not just develop what I think it should be... I see it as highly collaborative process.
You can't. You're not qualified to assess them. And frankly, at this stage, it's more important that they be a fast-moving, scrappy, customer-focused engineer rather than deeply technical in any particular way. You can certainly interview for attitude and drive. References, and building something small and tightly-scoped together for a few weeks is the only way, as @Justin said.
If you're building an e-commerce platform from scratch, by the way, you'd better have one hell of a differentiator. Because that's a solved problem, not worth much additional technical work. Ideally, you've got some specific twist that can actually be abstracted from the actual e-commerce, and build your thing on top of existing systems or APIs. Just a thought (from an engineer who's built a lot of these things).
Other than engaging the prospect on a project or two, you won't really know. CVs, recommendations, googling, interviews, etc will only take you so far. But doing something together will quickly show if both of you are the right fit for each other. Experience and technical prowess are important, but are not the most important thing - if that work 'chemistry' doesn't exist then the relationship is doomed.
Call 5+ of the references they provide, review test scores & certifications (and dates), look at the software they've created, ask them what programming languages they think will be needed for the site (& ask them why they didn't mention a language another potential cofounder listed), and hang out with them. At least three times. If you're going to be working 10 hours / day, 7 days / week with them for the next 5-10 years, you need to be as close to friends as possible.
Unless you arrange them to work on contract beforehand (a possibility), your cofounder will be getting equity in your business, so you better be sure they're awesome.
Sam, it is different. It solves a problem. I assure you. I have a long career in brand development, product development, and marketing so I am pretty familiar with the process. I continue to test the idea's viability, receptivity, etc., research the competition, and hone the business model. I have put the idea in front of some very smart and experienced business people in my network and it has been well received.
I just need my new cofounder to help me find the right path to get to MVP and eventual launch!
Given your feedback, maybe the best approach is to do co-foundership -- if that is a word -- in baby steps. Start the project with someone who is a fit and has the desire, passion, energy... and if we get to an agreed upon point B, we initiate that part of the deal. I could probably even find some way to scrape up cash to pay for the initial work... Thinking out loud here.
Besides experience and portfolio of projects, you won't really know until they actually start working. If you're not paying them or paying little, in exchange for equity, keep in mind that they are also taking a similar risk (a lot of labor for potentially no/low gain).
Something you might consider is to have a "grace period/trial stage" for a set amount of time. Or have an agreement to pay X percentage to get something done, and pay the rest when they finish it. Set some milestones.
The more closely their experience resembles what you want to do and the longer they have been doing it, the better your odds of success. In your case, find someone that has written ecommerce apps similar to what you want to create.
You need to take into account both your immediate needs and your future needs. That will make this hard. When you are cash strapped, you want a CTO that can add some sweat equity and write code and set the architecture. However, later this person needs to be able to manage other developers.
There are a lot of great developers that can't manage software development efforts and many CTOs that can't write code any more. When evaluating fit, be sure to get a feeling for both of these.
The bottom line is that it will be very hard for a non-technical person to evaluate potential CTOs. While I am not interested in writing an eCommerce app, if you want someone with technical experience to help you evaluate potential CTOs, let me know via PM. I'd be glad to help out or give advice.
I had was in the similar position. My background is the technical side of things and I have had a horrible time hiring good marketing and sales help over the years. On this new venture, I think I have found a good one (or should I say he found me).