You spent more than 5 years working in IT. Changed a couple of companies. Got decent compensation. Educated a dozen of juniors. Now what? At this moment in career, the most common path is to start changing big companies in search of a raise that will give more than 10% to salary. In this article, I wanna share another path that can make you earn $100-$300 per hour and generate a passive income. It is a path of being a CTO or consultant.
How to retire as a software developer
While thinking about a career start with an end in mind and imagine what your retirement would look like. I believe that to comfortably live in Ukraine you need around $1500 per month, a house, and a car. Let’s say that a house in Kyiv and a good car will cost you around $200k. You will also need around $300k more to invest in low-risk stocks like the S&P 500 with a 6% annual return excluding inflation, which will generate an average of $1600 per month.
So, I believe, that you need to have $500k total, to comfortably retire in Ukraine.
The average senior developer salary in Ukraine is $6000. Every person who thinks about retirement and lives in Ukraine will save at least 30% of it in the retirement account, which will be $2000 per month. Assuming you need $500k to retire and the annual interest of the retirement account is 6%, as a senior developer, you would need around 14 years to retire in Ukraine. It does not count unexpected expenses like surgeries, traveling, marriage, etc. If counting that it will take around 20 years to retire. If you wanna retire in Europe, it may take you up to 25 or even 30 years.
So it is definitely a lot of time. Assuming that you finished university when you were 23 it takes on average 5 years to become a senior, You will retire at the age of 48, which is still good, compared to the average retirement age of 65.
However, we are talking about a minimal retirement plan, it will not be a luxury kind of retirement. You can live comfortably, but you won’t be able to travel through the world, change gadgets every month, and have fun investing in startups. But what if you had the ambition to retire at the age of 30 and retire with a luxurious life? What would you do?
Sell your startup
Startups fail often, but you need to sell only 1 to retire. Only 1 luck moment and you never have to work again. Here I am talking not only about Silicon Valley startups but about any kind of tech products. There is a demand for everything, you don’t have to build the next Facebook to retire. Even businesses like a CRM, LMS, CMS, or even a chatbot can be sold for decent money.
As a startup CTO, you will own at least 10% of the company you are working with, especially if you were one of the early employees. While owning 10% of the company you want the company to be sold for at least $10Mil so that you get $500k to yourself.
You won’t be able to save money for retirement while working as a CTO of an early-stage startup, but you will build your expertise and grow liquid capital in the face of shares. Expertise will open you a path to becoming a Fractional CTO.
Trying to sell a startup is a casino kind of approach toward retirement, sometimes you just have to get lucky. If you get lucky for the first time, as a CTO, you may need 2-3 years to retire in Ukraine. On average it takes 3 startups to actually sell one for a decent money. But when you sell, it may give you much more than $500k, We can be talking about $ 10-20mil if the company was actually successful and you were the initial founder.
Become a Fractional CTO or Consultant
You will work with different companies at the same time and you will work with every one of them 5 – 10 hours per week. As a Fractional CTO or consultant, you will be paid around $100 – $300 per hour. From a single client with whom you work 10 hours per week, you will get around $6000 per month, on average. If you decide to become a full-time Fractional CTO you will have around 3 such clients at the same time, so you will earn about $18k per month.
While living in Ukraine, you will be able to save at least $15000 per month for a retirement account. As a Fractional CTO or consultant you would need 3 years to retire in Ukraine. But, you need to be a good Fractional CTO and have past experience with your own startup. So if you wanna be a Fractional CTO, become a CTO first and spend at least 3 years building your own startup.
Become startup advisor
If the idea of putting all your eggs in a single basket sounds too risky, you can try to become a startup advisor and work with multiple projects at the same time in exchange for equity. Usually, technical advisors get 0.5% – 1% of company equity in exchange for 5-10 hours of their time per month. While being an advisor you are mostly getting paid for connections you have and decisions you suggest, so it is not super time-consuming if you have decent knowledge.
With such a low engagement you can be advisor to 10-15 startups at the same time and own equity in all of them. Assuming you will own 1% of the company you need about 2 startups to be sold for $25Mil for you to complete a retirement goal. I haven’t been a full-time startup advisor but I could predict that you may need 6 years to retire as a startup advisor.
However, you need to have past startup experience to even be eligible to be an advisor. So again, you would need to start by running your own startup for 2-3 years before becoming an advisor.
In addition to the route of building risky product startups, you also can build something which is less risky and less scalable, like an agency. As an agency, you will charge around 30% for every engineer. The average salary of the engineer will be around $6000, so you could get $2000 per month from a single engineer. It may sound like easy money but you will get a lot of stress running this thing.
You need to be a guarantor of successful projects as well as a mentor to all employees and a facilitator of disputes. An average Ukrainian agency has around 20 employees which will generate around $40k per month. You would need to spend at least 50% of that on business development, rent, hiring, etc. In the end, you may pull $20k per month from an average agency business. As an agency owner, you will need about 3 years to retire.
To start a successful agency business you need to have a lot of experience. So even if you wanna go this route, I would start as a CTO on your own startup, It will give you the reputation and network that you would need.
How to become CTO
To create an agency or become a fractional CTO, consultant, or advisor you need to have relevant experience in industry. So CTO is the next step in the career of any senior developer. If you get lucky – you retire from your first startup. If not, you just become a consultant and earn $100 per hour. But it is not something that comes naturally. it is not like you become a junior engineer, then middle, then a senior, and then with experience, you become a CTO. You need a unique skillset to be a CTO and before becoming one you need to go through a couple of additional stages of career development.
Become a full-stack
Also, in a small pre-seed startup, as a CTO, you will be the main coder. Most of the time, you will be a single coder. It is very important for you to be able to cover all aspects of product development. Set up the front end with a healthy state management. Set up the backend with CI/CD and automatic linter. Set up scalable deployment process using K8S and AWS. Set up observability using Prometheus and Grafana. Set up analytics using Google Analytics and Fullstory. Set up a landing page using WordPress.
The CTO is the person who can be responsible for the delivery of the product. To be able to confidently do it you need to understand how everything is working from the inside out. You may not know the details, but you need to know every part of your architecture. As a full-stack developer, your value comes from being able to work with technologies you have never been working on before. You at least need to know that those technologies do exist and what are their use case.
Become a product manager
When startup growth the responsibility of a CTO is shifting from coding to management. You need to be able to communicate with every stakeholder and build a technical roadmap that will include everyone’s requirements. This moment usually comes after raising the Seed round. You will be spending most of your time analyzing your product, and your tech, speaking with the team, and finding better ways to do things.
As an example my recent case. The guy was running an analytic business by selling subscriptions for research. He was using WordPress as a platform for managing subscriptions and writing articles. With time, his business became big and he wasn’t able to scale WordPress.
Instead of contacting some experienced CTO or advisor, he decided to hire an agency from Ukraine which spent 6 months and $50k to build a clumsy Django project which was utilizing Django admin as a CMS for writers. They also used React on the front end which killed the only purpose of the blog – SEO.
When I came I suggested they avoid migration at any cost and try to use Headless WordPress instead. In fact, I never used headless WordPress myself, I never used Next.js and I had only 1 small project in Python. It still took me about 1 hour to analyze and find the best path forward for them.
Become a leader
After some point, it is a common practice across VCs to fire the original CTO and hire a new one. They mostly do it because of this point – leadership. Engineers usually are bad leaders. If you wanna be a CTO of Ser A+ company, you need to be a leader.
At this moment your decisions will be your main responsibility. You would need to make strategic decisions about where your company is moving, which partners you wanna acquire, which technologies you wanna invest in, and whom you wanna hire or fire.
You also will be responsible for building a culture inside of the team. You will decide if the job feels like a prison or like a summer vacation. You would need to work with scrum masters and managers. You would need to participate in business meetings and give speeches to the press.
Tech leadership comes from the ability to inspire your team. If the team loves working in your company, they are motivated to come to work every day and they are freely contributing their idea to company development – you succeeded in this role
Become a businessman
Through your career as a CTO, you will have a co-founder who deals with business stuff. They will be figuring out our incorporation, KPIs, investor deals, accounting, and all other paperwork. But business is not only about paperwork, it is about strategic partnerships. As a CTO you are the business owner of your company. The same as every other chief. If you aren’t able to understand discussions that are going on during board meetings, you will be manipulated by other stakeholders to vote for decisions they wanna make.
You need to understand how business and entrepreneurship are working to understand what business needs from your department. You also need to be able to analyze what other businesses may need from you. Then you start aligning your goals and the goals of your partners. That is how you build a business strategy.
Don’t stop your career growth after becoming a senior. It sounds like a lot of money but you still would need to spend 15+ years doing comparatively not that fun job. Becoming a CTO will give you a win-win situation where if you sell the company you retire instantly, and if you don’t – you become a tech consultant who works 20 hours per week and earns $15k per month.
The hardest part in all of that is to find partners. Platforms like https://kavun.org.ua/, https://www.upwork.com/, and https://www.startupschool.org/ can help you to find the right people. Just go there, create your profile, and start passively visiting it once a week. Talk to the community, check other projects, and one day – you will get lucky to find people and projects you wanna work with.