At First Summit, 7CTOs Takes Baby Step to San Diego Tech Buildup

A lot of ink has been spilled on the subject of building tech startups and creating entrepreneurial communities for tech innovation.

But to Etienne de Bruin, a disproportionate amount of attention has focused on the tech founder as CEO, and what it takes for a CEO to build a tech business. Search for “CEO books” on Amazon, and the search results from the world’s largest Internet-based retailer return just over 8,000 titles. A search for “CTO books,” on the other hand, yields about 540 titles.

As a software engineer and self-described “tech guy,” de Bruin says he is more interested in the tech founder as CTO—chief technology officer—and what it takes to scale software technology, build technical teams, and acquire leadership skills. But where it is relatively easy for CEOs to find executive coaching at networking organizations such as Vistage and YPO, de Bruin says there are scant similar resources for CTOs or CIOs (chief information officers).

So in 2013, de Bruin and consultant Michael Saul founded 7CTOs, a professional development business created to help CTOs build a network of like-minded peers, share their problems, and learn leadership skills. “For me, [the value] is in the mixing of the very young, vulnerable startups with the CTOs of well-established companies,” de Bruin said.

Some venture capital firms, notably San Francisco’s First Round Capital and San Mateo’s Sierra Ventures, have created networking organizations for the CTOs and CIOs of their portfolio companies. Both organizations see advantages in strengthening their respective CTO communities, and convene regular meetings—including an annual summit—for professional development. They also use their respective networks as a resource in strategic investment decisions, gaining insights about emerging technologies, and other business innovation trends.

Mike Krenn, executive director of the San Diego Venture Group, said he is a fan of de Bruin and the idea behind 7CTOs. “He is probably, more than anybody else in this town, getting CTOs to collaborate and work together, and to build their community,” Krenn said. “We definitely support what he’s doing.”

7CTOs convenes monthly meetings in small, facilitated groups of seven CTOs (hence the name), which de Bruin says is an ideal number for building relationships, sharing problems, and learning new skills. The purpose of these confidential forums is to help CTOs develop a strong innovation mindset, become better leaders, and foster an honest exchange with peers.

7CTOs also holds monthly regional networking meetings for members and organizes service projects to help address civic issues and concerns. Last week, 7CTOs held its first national CTO conference, which offered separate tracks on technology and leadership, and featured mostly local speakers.

About 100 people registered for the conference, de Bruin said, including CTOs from Canada; Texas; Portland, OR; and Los Angeles. Matt Aimonetti, the co-founder and CTO of Santa Monica, CA-based Splice (and the keynote speaker) said he sees the value of 7CTOs mostly in that it provides “a trusted environment where we can talk. The value really is to network.”

DeBruin and Saul said they hope that 7CTOs can eventually have a broader impact on the innovation community in San Diego. “The community benefits from our success,” Saul said. “We have to get the best of the best into our city.”

Whether 7CTOs will in fact help to strengthen the broader tech community in San Diego remains to be seen.

Unlike YPO (which operates as a not-for-profit organization), 7TOs is a for-profit enterprise (like Vistage). “It is a for-profit thing,” the venture group’s Krenn acknowledged. “But at the end of the day, [de Bruin’s] heart seems to be in the right place.”

Generating awareness for 7CTOs represents “our No. 1 plan of attack,” said de Bruin, who hopes that someday the annual 7CTOs summit will be as big as the annual Comic-Con International conference in San Diego. He even included a free comic book in each attendee’s registration packet.

“This conference to me is that baby step toward massive awareness of this place as a tech scene,” de Bruin said.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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