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When to hire your first data leader

By Chris Batters. Chris a Senior Director at Zeren, leading the UK Technology and Product functions, specialising Engineering and Data.

Data leaders can be a powerful asset to any business, no matter the size. But when should you hire your first data leader? What if you already have a technology leader in the form of a CTO or a Head of Engineering in place, what if you are only at the start of your data journey – when is the right time?


This is a question I get asked on a regular basis by the many founders, CEOs and investors that Zeren partners with to help deliver excellent technology talent. And the answer is usually dependent on a variety of variables, which we will cover below.


Many believe that the best timing for your first full-time data hire is when your startup has achieved “Product Market Fit” (PMF) and is confident with its customer base and growth trajectory. However, a pitfall some start-ups fall into is sometimes hiring a “data person” too early, and this tends to be before PMF, making it slightly premature. This is where we sometimes see technology leaders joining an exciting start-up, and on day 1 they quickly realise that due to some of the reasons discussed, the role is not quite what they expected and within a few months they are back talking to the market. As with most things, timing is everything.


Here are a few key indicators that suggest it may be time to bring one on board:


  • When you’re ready to dive deeper into analytics. A data leader can help you move beyond basic reporting to uncover meaningful insights about your customers, products, and operations.


  • When you’re ready to invest in data-driven decision-making. A data leader can help you create an analytics-driven culture within your organization, where data is used to inform decisions and inform the direction of your business.


  • When you’re ready to move into predictive analytics. A data leader can help you use the data you already have to predict future trends and events. This can help you make smarter decisions for your business and put you ahead of the competition.


For earlier-stage start-ups, that are just starting to use data more strategically, a player/coach type leader is usually the best option. Someone who has the hands-on technical knowledge, as well as the experience to manage and lead your team or function, facing off the c-suite and working across the various stakeholders.


Whereas with more later-stage businesses, hiring a more senior Data leader in the form of a Chief Data Officer (CDO) may be the better option, but there will be several factors to consider. First, you will want to assess your organization’s current data strategies, resources and capabilities. If your organization is heavily data-driven, with a complex array of data sources and tools, then it may be time to hire a CDO.


Another factor to consider is the size and scope of your data operations. If your organization has multiple teams and departments responsible for collecting, managing and analyzing data, then a CDO could be a great asset to ensure that everything is working together effectively.


Ultimately, hiring a data leader for your business can be a great move and really instil confidence in your employees, investors and customers that you are taking the next logical step with your business. However, it is important to assess the journey your business is currently on, WHY this data leader is needed, HOW they can add value to your business and WHAT levelling of the type of leader you need.


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