Why your company needs a chief technology officer

Some of the most vital and important roles in the upper management of a startup or business are the Chief Product Officer and the Chief Technology officer. Especially in technology- and product-based fields of entrepreneurship, without a strong leader in these categories, it can be extremely difficult to get off the ground. To understand how these members of the team can work to steer your company to success, we spoke with Mohan Rao, Chief Product and Technology Officer at StreetShares.

ABERMAN: Well, when you started out at StreetShares, it was a very straightforward company, just serving loans on the basis of StreetShares’ platform, but my understanding is that the financial services industry has discovered you guys in a big way, and you’ve got a lot of pressure to grow. What’s it looking like?

RAO: Yes. So, what we’ve been doing is building small business banking in a box. We’ve been building out the product side, and we’ve seen increasing demand from banks and financial institutions for our technology. So, we’ve been converting our product into a platform, and offering this as a service to the banks.

ABERMAN: Now, for those of us that don’t necessarily know the difference, what’s the difference between doing something as a product for a customer, vis-a-vis creating a platform for a bunch of people to use?

RAO: Yeah. So, if you step back and think about what a product is, and what a platform is, a product, as you know, you’re solving a use case, or a set of related use cases. But as a platform, it’s really the underlying infrastructure, the data, the common services to solve multiple products, or be in multiple markets. And essentially, it is a way to get multiple products built with a common services framework, which is the platform.

ABERMAN: So it would be the difference between, say, a ride sharing app that operates in a particular city with a fleet of taxis, and an Uber.

RAO: That’s right. That’s right. So, if you want to take a financial services example, maybe your platform is a payments platform, and the individual product is an e-commerce product, or a peer to peer product, or a POS product. So, the payments platform is common between all of them, but then you have individual products serving different segments.

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ABERMAN: It’s interesting to me, because having worked in technology in both sides of the country a lot over the years, D.C. tends not to be a place where people think about technology products, and certainly not platforms. Whereas Silicon Valley, everybody’s trying to build platforms. What’s it like for you, as a chief technology officer, product officer, to try to build a technology platform company that many people say should be built someplace else?

RAO: Yeah. There’s no reason why you cannot do that in D.C. You’ve got some great engineering talent that’s going to be very important. So, when you think about building a platform, you’ve got to think through, what are the common use cases between all of these different products or markets that you’re going to support? So, you’ve got to think of the common data that’s going to be useful for everybody. The common infrastructure. So essentially, you’re creating a very API-based product, that then serves and powers multiple products. So, the engineering tends to be complex.

The product management side of it tends to be complex, because by definition, a platform cannot have a long tail of rarely-used features. It needs to be the common denominator of all of the different products that you’re going to serve. So, you’ve got to really have a good idea of what you’re building, why you’re building, and how you’re going to go about converting your product into a platform.

ABERMAN: So, as you look at this, and you’re looking at growing a business that’s fundamentally creating an ecosystem, to use another word, a way to connect veterans, and people who need microloans, with the enormous amount of money that’s out there. Your view is that, really, the only reason why we don’t have more of those type of businesses here is only that we don’t have entrepreneurs with particular insights around industries where it makes sense to build them.

So, for example, StreetShares, your founders came out the military. I mean, they had a very strong mission of solving this problem. So, there’s no reason in your view why, as other people come out of the military or other places, they can’t create similar platforms to solve other big social problems here in D.C.

RAO: There’s no question that we can do it. If you think about our company, there are really three segments. There is the military veteran segment, where there are certain employees, and they’re close to our customers, they are able to articulate the pain points that our customers feel. And then equally importantly, we’ve got bankers, people who come out of the banking industry, that’s very important from an overall credit and risk standpoint.

And then we’ve made our technology team very strong as well, and that would be the third component that we’ve added. And the combination of all of these three are very important. It’s not enough just to be a bunch of technologists, or a bunch of bankers. It’s the combination of people who know your customers really well, people who can manage credit and risk really well, people who can do compliance well, and also support all of that through technology and enable that development.

ABERMAN: So it sounds to me, for example, like, if somebody hasn’t done it already, there should be a platform built to enable FAR-based contracting, as an example. So, any process, any ecosystem, is amenable to this. If I’m listening to this, and I’m currently in a technology consulting business where I’m selling time by the hour, or maybe I’m selling time in blocks. How do I migrate? Why and when do we need a chief technology officer, or chief product officer?

RAO: That’s one of the questions that I get often in terms of, I really need a CTO. You know, when you’re starting a company, you probably don’t need a CTO. You can get away. If one of the co-founders is a CTO, that’s a huge advantage, I think, if you’re building a technology business. But generally, you want a CTO when you believe that the technology needs are becoming overwhelming. Right then, you need a CTO, or your technology needs a serious upgrade, and you need the management talent to deal with that. So, that’s when you need it. Or when the current technology team needs a leader, that would be the third case. And lastly, I would say, and this is really important: if you want to use technology as a weapon to push your business forward, you really need a CTO.

ABERMAN: You need someone who understands the technology. What about a Chief Product Officer, when do I need somebody to fill that role?

RAO: Yeah. So if you think about the relationship between a CPO and a CTO, CTO is mainly concerned about building things right. And the CPO is thinking about building the right things. So, building things right, and building the right things. And then the CPO is also concerned about the product market fit, the product market sales fit, thinking about pricing and packaging and all of that. So usually, in most startups, the founders themselves are the CPO. So, they are the ones with the product vision, or somehow they have an early employee who has that vision. Usually it’s the founder. At some point of skill, the founders specialize in other things, and they bring a CPO on to worry about things like product market sales fit.

ABERMAN: Very interesting. Well, I really appreciate you coming on, and I’m glad to get the update on StreetShares. I’ve been following the company closely all these years. It’s great to hear of your success. That was Mohan Rao of StreetShares.

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