September 23, 2014
Dear Aspiring Coaches,
I get your emails about once a month.
You’re thinking about getting into coaching and you want to learn more before you take the leap. Or you’re just starting to get into coaching and you want some advice on how to make your business more successful. Sometimes you want to know about my experience: what’s been hard; what’s been fun; and what was unexpected. Other times, you just want to drill down to tactics — what types of client lead gen were most effective; how I decided what to charge; and who did my website.
But most of the time, what you really want to know is how I did it.
And so I give you a 5-min version of the story followed by maybe 25 mins of advice…but I think we both hang up the phone hungry for more of a connection. I wonder if I could have helped you more by sharing a more nuanced answer even if it’s messy, long and not always so clear or linear.
When I was starting my coaching practice three years ago, I also had phone chats and coffee dates with “successful” established coaches. And I would ask them some of the same questions you ask me now, Aspiring Coach.
Three years later, I still feel grateful to the coaches who made time in their busy lives for me. Their suggestions were often insightful, their advice usually helpful—and their stories were pretty cool, too.
So, dear Aspiring Coaches, I am sharing the story of Foothold Coaching with you now to pay that professional kindness forward.
Here’s the real, long, and mostly unfiltered story of how I did it—or more accurately, how I am still doing it. I’ve woven in advice, wisdom and tactical suggestions, and then summarized them all in a single list at the very end.
My story is my own so I don’t expect you to connect with every chapter — but my sincere hope is that you’ll find some thread of connection in this and that some of the advice will be useful to you as you pursue your own journey of becoming a coach.
Chapter 1: The Intersection of Lionel and Love
My story begins before it begins — that is to say my path to becoming a coach emerged well before I consciously started to walk down it. This was something I could only see in hindsight.
It started with why I decided to go to business school, and that started with the moment I articulated my professional mission in life: I want to help passionate companies run better.
My career up to that point had been full of passion. If there was a group of people who cared about some deeper cause—I was there, working, to help it happen better.
I was the 13-year-old captain of the soccer team who charged my teammates up with inspirational speeches before big games. I was the 16-year-old enviro non-profit board member who came up with fresh ideas for fundraising. I was the 20-year-old who lived in a rural village in the Indian Himalaya for a year so I could evaluate an NGO’s social forestry projects as investments in natural capital and help them attract more philanthropic funding. I was the 22-year-old head TA for an Earth Systems course who would film her TA team meetings. I’d then watch our “game tapes” to figure out how we could work together more effectively to teach our students about climate change and ecosystem preservation. I was the 24-year-old who helped a mining company in the deserts of northwestern Argentina run their community engagement program better. And then, I was the 25-year-old corporate social responsibility consultant who kept volunteering non-billable time to help her consulting unit improve project planning and feedback/review practices.
So, at 26-years-old, I asked myself, where does someone go? what does someone do? if they want to help passionate companies run better. The answer emerged from some combination of my Big Sister and a business magazine article: Get an MBA.
I remember reading about the Stanford GSB and deciding that it was the business school for me for two reasons: 1) their unique-among-b-schools Arbuckle Leadership Fellows program; and 2) their tagline: Change Lives. Change Organizations. Change the World.
I wanted in.
And then I got in.
And then I went.
And then I became an Arbuckle Leadership Fellow in my second year.
And then I sat down in a window-less study room in the old GSB South building with one of my first-year students who was a member of my “squad” through the Arbuckle program.
And it’s not an exaggeration to say that my path to becoming a coach finally emerged at the end of a single conversation with a single student at the end of a single coaching conversation. (Hi Jonathan!)
It was the end of Fall Quarter and I was meeting with Jonathan for a “coaching” session. I don’t even remember what I coached him on, but I do remember his remark as we wrapped up: “Anamaria, you’re really good at this, and you seem to enjoy it so much as well.” I remember slumping a bit in my chair in relief, as if he had just unloaded a burden from my shoulders. “I do love doing this so much, Jon. There is going to be a big hole in my life when Fall Quarter is over and this program ends.”
I left our meeting with a strange mix of emotions. Joy — that I had gotten to coach someone and do it well and feel exhilarated every minute of it. But also Sadness and Fear — that hole was starting to look so real and it would feel so empty. How could I not keep doing this in some way?
So, I enrolled in the GSB’s two-quarter long course in Coaching taught by the awesome and legendary Carole Robin. Because I had to keep doing this and learning this.
Many powerful things happened to me both personally and professionally in that course. I met my “then-master-coach-and-now-most-treasured-coach-and-mentor” Ed Batista. I found my “peer coach and MBA best guy friend” Jason. I connected with — and then lost—one of my coaching classmates Roanak who died suddenly from cerebral malaria while on a Spring Break international adventure. This was just a few weeks after he wrote me a note about how much he appreciated how I used intuition so naturally in my coaching.
But even against a backdrop of profound moments, the one most relevant for you, Aspiring Coach, is this one:
During one of the lecture portions of the course, our professor Carole was talking about active listening and coaching from a place of curiosity. One of my classmates raised his hand and sheepishly-but-kind-of-brilliantly asked “So, what do you do if you just don’t feel curious about your coachee during the conversation?”
Carole, without missing a beat, replied: “Well, you have to love them. You don’t have to love all of them, but you have to find something to love about the client you’re coaching — even if it’s something small. Because if you love them, then you will be curious.”
It was the puzzle piece of my career that I had never known was missing.
Because, as you know, I gravitated to passionate people who loved their cause, who cared deeply about something—and I loved them for loving it so damn much.
But for me “loving” them had always felt a bit dangerous — like that raw vulnerability and intimacy might overpower them or me. I had convinced myself that “love” like that had no place in running a business or leading a team.
And then, there was Carole saying that it had a place in coaching.
And so love my “coachees” I did.
I loved DG for always trying stuff that made him uncomfortable. I loved MM for her quiet courage to explore very alternative post-MBA careers. I loved VL for his perseverance through his first year while also healing from a crushing personal loss that would have caused others to give up on “school” altogether.
And when Roanak died suddenly over Spring Break, I thought to myself…if I had died, who would I have wanted to coach DG, MM and VL if I couldn’t be there anymore? And it was Roanak. So, I emailed Carole and told her if any of Roanak’s coachees wanted to keep working with someone, I’d volunteer to take on more. So, that’s how I started coaching BH. And I loved him for his intense journaling and his determination to keep working with another coach even as he was grieving the loss of his first one.
And then, I completed my MBA program, but I didn’t become a coach.
To be honest, I don’t think I even considered coaching as an option at that point. I walked away from the GSB knowing I loved coaching and even saying to friends: “Oh, sure, when I’m old and have gray hair and have had four successful exits—then I’ll become a coach.” I was already focused on my next group of passionate people, an early-stage startup team that had developed the world’s first high-performance outdoor elliptical bicycle.
I had joined ElliptiGO the summer between my two years of business school. My taxID in our Intuit account was 0003 because I was the third person on our payroll after the two founders. I was living the Silicon Valley dream, and it would have been painfully cliché if it weren’t also so charmingly real: My office was a shed in Menlo Park. I worked alongside one of the founders in a rectangular garden shed full of bike parts, boxes of energy gels, and files. We had AC and electrical: two doors at either end of the shed and a two naked light bulbs overhead. We fondly called it Shedquarters.
The first thing I did on my first day of work was build my own desk. The second thing I did was set up elliptigo.com email addresses to move everyone off of their Gmail and Yahoo accounts so we could look like, um, a real company. And the third thing I did was to start figuring out how we were going to turn elliptical biking not just into a new category, but a whole new sport. (Note: Five years later, the company is still working on #3, but making a ton of awesome progress.)
After the summer, I worked part-time during my second year of business school. When I wasn’t learning how to coach, I was learning how to launch a new product, promote it and sell it better. I joined ElliptiGO full-time a few weeks after I graduated as the Director of Marketing.
Over a two-year period, we grew to a team of 10, expanded internationally and even reached profitability.
But I wasn’t happy.
By the Spring of 2011, ElliptiGO had evolved and the problems they needed the person in my job to solve—well, I just wasn’t that excited about solving them anymore. I was feeling deflated and lost. And the full story of how that happened is, well, another story, but there were three key moments during this time:
First: One of my favorite responsibilities at ElliptiGO was managing our relationships with our sponsored athletes and one of my favorite athletes was Coach Jenny Hadfield. During one of our many phone conversations, I remember casually remarking to her, “Jenny — I think I secretly want your job. You get to coach runners, and then write about coaching runners and then coach runners some more. And you have such a positive impact in the world.” I had a fleeting moment when I thought to myself “I want her job! What am I doing here?”
Second: Remember my best friend Jason from coaching class? He and I reconnected in January of 2011 and started a long-distance peer coaching “experiment” that would last over two years, through marriages, and babies and career transitions. He was working in private equity in NYC and I was at Shedquarters in Menlo Park and we would talk every week by phone peer coaching each other for free. It was how I held onto coaching in between Stanford and the moment I started coaching full-time.
Third: and perhaps, most importantly, my husband Jack and I went to see the film The King’s Speech over the holidays of 2010. Like many people at the time, I was riveted by the film and couldn’t stop raving about it. On a run the next morning, I asked Jack, “Would you want to be Lionel or the King?”
[If you don’t know the plot, Lionel is the speech therapist who helps King George VI overcome his stutter and deliver a pivotal speech during World War II. The film is one of the greatest cinematic tributes to coaching that I have ever seen.]
Jack responded and then turned the question back on me. I stopped in my tracks (literally) and I told Jack that I wanted to be Lionel. As much as I talked a big game about being a startup founder someday like ElliptiGO’s two founders, what I relished most was the behind-the-scenes role of the coach; the person who is helping Kings (or Startup Founders) shine.
In hindsight, those three moments indicated to me that I was on the path to coaching, but at the time I was still pretty clueless.
To be honest, Aspiring Coach, I sometimes skip this step when I tell this story live. It’s much easier shorthand to just say: “I left ElliptiGO to start my coaching practice.” That statement is true in effect—but it actually took me months to figure out that that is why I left.
What really happened is this: I left ElliptiGO in July 2011 with a broken heart, crushed self-confidence, and no semblance of a plan for what I was going to do next professionally.
Chapter 2: Getting Started Without Ever Deciding To
I’m an extremely action-oriented, problem-solve-y, resourceful person so unemployment “with no plan” was a strange land to find myself in.
I gave myself the month of August to just rest and not “be looking for a job.”
I went to Safeway and bought 16 magazines that I didn’t habitually read in my adult life and committed to read each one cover to cover. So, I left HBR and Entrepreneur on the shelf and bought things like Psychology Today, Home & Garden, National Geographic and even a few automotive magazines. I circled paragraphs and articles that I was surprised to find interested me. I was searching for patterns; an “aha” moment that would point me to the right next step for my career. I read a lot of interesting things, but gained no meaningful direction.
I also remember eating often at Goat Hill Pizza in Potrero Hill with my husband. They have these white paper placemats that kids (and adults) of all ages like to decorate. So, before our pizza would come out I’d shove my plate aside and draw out an “ecosystem of career clusters” (my own words—clearly even my metaphors were confused). In which I’d detail out the different paths ahead of me. I would routinely sketch out a “coaching” cluster and then scratch it out vigorously with my pen. Nope, I was not going to pursue coaching.
In September, I started to interview for jobs half-heartedly with my professional confidence running on fumes. The top of my resume said “marketing” so I fell into that label. I interviewed at startups for various marketing jobs and fell in love with founders, but kept saying no — this isn’t it. This isn’t it. I started to cry more often.
Then, I got intro-ed to the VP of Marketing at a fast-growing tech startup in SF. She was a Harvard badass, strong, articulate—and she saw right through me. (At least, I think she did.) At one point in the interview, she was trying to help me figure out what area of marketing I should pursue. She drew out a Venn diagram on the white board which consisted of three circles. “These are your Passions, the things you care about, these are your Talents, the things you’re good at and have the ability to do; and these are your Valuables, the things there is a market for; the things people will actually pay you to do. What’s in the middle for you? In marketing?”
I stared glumly at her three circles because the answer I yelled in my head when she asked what was in the middle for me was: “COACHING!” but the answer I said out loud when she clarified to “in marketing” was some mumbled trailing off version of “Um…I guess….customer engagement….”
Now, the way I wish I could tell this story is that was the moment I got up from the table and said, “Excuse me badass Harvard lady, I realize I don’t want any job you could give me, I need to go be a coach! Okaythanksbye!” and marched confidently out of her office. But that’s not how it happened.
What actually happened was I limped through the rest of the interview. (It still makes me cringe to remember it.) And then I barely made it to the elevator before bursting into tears. I felt lost. I felt hopeless. I decided to stop the interviews and instead decided to use my time to “catch up with old friends.”
So, I started reading through my Facebook feed and a friend of mine had posted about Ben Knelman’s school-project-turned-startup getting some press coverage in Forbes.
I had met Ben when I was at the GSB — he was an undergrad/co-term student in Econ & Russian Literature taking an “innovative brands” course with me. He was (is) this disarmingly sincere, sweet Minnesotan guy. And he cared —so damn much — about a project we worked on together for that class. He cared in a way my other classmates simply did not. And it unlocked in me something I didn’t know I had locked up for a while—the joy of getting to work with someone passionate and help them do whatever they’re doing even better. We had lunch once again before I graduated when he told me about some of his first user experiments with a potential venture—and we talked through whether he would put more schooling on hold to pursue this venture. I was so proud of him. And while I couldn’t tell you where my faith came from, I just believed in him. And I knew it would work out for him. We hadn’t spoken for years, and then there he was in Forbes on my Facebook news feed!
I emailed Ben out of the blue and asked to reconnect. We met for lunch at Fremont Park in Menlo Park and initially, to my disappointment but also amusement, Ben treated it as a recruiting meeting. He spent half of our conversation trying to convince me to join his team at Juntos Finanzas (He was hiring for the first time…this time I could upgrade to employee #2!) I was deeply flattered, but immediately told him: No, I was done with doing marketing at early-stage startups. But we kept talking. I remembered how much I loved Ben and I fell in love with his vision and the mission of Juntos. Our conversation fulfilled me in a way nothing had for months.
For a week, I could not get Ben and his startup out of my head. Had I made a mistake in saying no? Did I want to give early-stage marketing another shot? What was the magnet pulling me back to this? Why couldn’t I just let it go?
I went to a career fair cocktail hour at the San Carlos Club hosted by Shutterfly and talked with some people there before running away to have dinner with my Big Sister down the street at Positano. I was halfway through my second glass of red wine when I started talking to her about being a coach. And then Big Sister Chief Instigator that she is said, “You know, maybe you should just be a coach.” And I said, “Yeah, you’re right, maybe I should just do it.” And then I think I laughed, and we ordered dessert.
The next day I emailed Ben and pitched him my idea. It was an “experiment” to test if I could figure out a way to make executive coaching accessible, affordable and valuable to early-stage founders. I offered to coach him for five sessions for free and the only compensation I would ask for was his feedback.
I hit send and then started to wonder if Ben was too busy hiring his team, raising money, and building his product to write me back. He emailed me back within two hours and said “Yes!”
Then, on September 23, 2011 (exactly three years ago today) Ben and I met for our first coaching session. Neither of us had office space and we were too cheap to even buy a coffee at Starbucks, so we met on this sidewalk bench at the corner of Homer and Bryant in downtown Palo Alto.
And I coached an early-stage founder for the very first time.
And I loved it. (He did too.)
We agreed to meet again.
On October 5, 2011 Steve Jobs passed away. Many people mourned his passing on the internet and on my Facebook feed. I remember feeling inundated with stories, memorials and quotes from Jobs. This is the one that stuck out to me most at the time:
Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
That Jobs quote leaped out at me because I had written this in my journal at the end of September:
I feel like my audacious and ever-buoyant little heart just went ahead and made the decision without my anxiety-ridden mind. “Mind,” says my Heart, “you can just worry about the implementation.” Seemingly so sudden and yet so imperceptible, the question changed from “How could I do this?” to “How could I not do this?” Despite all intentions to the contrary, I seem to have fallen in love. Stubborn and compelling and do-anything kind of love.
The “this” was coaching. And yes, I had fallen in love.
And that was terrifying.
Because I had left ElliptiGO with no plan, but plenty of explicit intentions and desires.
I told people I wanted my next job to be in a real office—no more sheds and living rooms.
I wanted to work with people who had experience and knew what they were doing, not people who were smart and scrappy but still clearly making it up as they were going along.
I wanted regular happy hours, and colleagues and some formalized “professional development” so I could “develop skills.”
I certainly did not want to start my own business or work for myself or work by myself. Hell no.
So, when people ask me when I “decided” to start my own coaching practice, I never quite know what to tell them.
It wasn’t a decision.
It was my heart and my intuition that already knew what I wanted to become. My mind actively ignored every subtle and blazingly obvious sign it had witnessed over the past few years. Intellectually, I crossed coaching off my list nearly every chance I got.
I never decided to start. I just started.
Chapter 3: Telling People I Started
I sat down with Ben again on that same bench two weeks later for our second coaching session. And then once again, another two weeks later for our third session.
About 10 minutes after we had parted ways at the end of our third session, Ben called me on my cell. I was walking back to the station to catch my train back to SF and by the time I had reached the platform, he told me that he was getting so much value out of our coaching sessions that he wanted to know if I offered gift cards. He wanted to buy one and “gift” some of my coaching to a founder friend of his. I was so blown away by his offer I boarded my train in a daze.
Ben had no money and must have been living out of someone else’s closet at the time, but he wanted to invest what little savings he had in sharing my coaching with another founder. That was the first moment where I dared to let myself think that this could actually be a business.
I took a picture of my first check from Ben—like the mom n’ pop restaurants who post up their first $5 bill on the wall above the cash register. I was giddy.
I met his founder friend, Julia — this time we upgraded from the bench to a Starbucks in downtown Palo Alto. And I started coaching her.
Two clients. Check.
Around this time, I started making more moves to make this business about more than just Ben and that bench.
First, I hired my own coach. I was still months away from any real revenue, but I knew how much I believed in coaching. If I was going to ask founders to invest in my services before they had funding, I had better be willing to do that myself.
I wrote to Ed Batista, my master coach from the GSB. We hadn’t spoken often since I had graduated, but I still felt very connected to him. It was in his living room that I said, “Okay. I am going to leave ElliptiGO” out loud for the very first time.
In my e-mail, I told Ed that I was building a coaching practice and asked if he’d be my master coach again. We met on a bench at the GSB and he told me yes—on one condition—that I stop calling him a master coach because that title made him uncomfortable. A promise I kept until writing this story.
Aspiring Coaches of the World —this is one piece of advice I will always give you. The best way to learn to be a coach is to work with a coach.
Ed was The Best Business Decision I Ever Made.
He graciously offered me a discount off his normal fees, but I’ve proudly given him raises so as Foothold Coaching grew I could pay him just as any GSB alum executive client would. He has been my coach ever since. (I think we’re going on 60 or 70 sessions by now.) Our coaching relationship has evolved over the years, at times there’s been mentoring, training, advising and teaching mixed in, but there is no doubt in my mind that I would not be where I am today without Ed. (And remember when I left ElliptiGO and resolved to work with people and learn from people who “knew what they were doing”? Well, I work with and learn from Ed. Check.)
The Fall of 2011 was a busy time. I recruited clients #3-#6 for the ongoing experiment. At first, I started everyone as a free trial (even Julia’s first sessions were funded by Ben). Some coaches will tell you that you should never give anything away for free even when you’re getting started. I would say something similar, but with one additional clause.
Don’t ever give anything away for free for longer than it benefits you.
It wasn’t that long ago that I was a busy entrepreneur myself and I got hit with solicitation emails all the time. Pay me to do this! Buy this from me! And the few ones that would get my attention were when smart people were willing to do some initial valuable work for free, and then I could “pay” them in referrals/testimonials or the chance to come back to them later and hire them for cash. “Getting something good for free” doesn’t happen often, but sometimes if you catch someone early enough in their career or pre-launch you can score a deal. I wanted to be that “deal” to my first generation of clients. And, as you’ll see later, I eventually stopped giving it away for free.
A few more answers to the questions I often get at this stage in the story:
How did I come up with my name?
Enter Big Sister again this time as Chief Branding Strategist. (She’s multi-talented that sister of mine.) I bought her chips and guac at our local Mexican joint and we spent an afternoon brainstorming potential names and Google-ing possibilities. I kept saying, “Coaching is about support. It’s about support.” She typed in “support” into an online thesaurus and read all the synonyms out loud. It was a long list. (Turns out there are a lot of synonyms for support.) Part way through the list she said, “foothold? foothold! What about foothold?”
I was not a big rock climber, but I had done it enough to understand firsthand what it meant physically to have a foothold and I knew in that instant that was the perfect metaphor for what I was hoping to do. Coaching would help early-stage founders make it to their goals faster and without exhausting themselves in the process. Foothold Coaching was born.
What kind of branding did I do?
Very little. I spent an afternoon on my living room floor with index cards and markers to brainstorm and pare down to my key brand values. The most central value for me (then and now) is Helpful. If my coaching, my writing, my presence is not helpful—then it’s not good enough. And to this day, the best feedback my clients can ever give me is that I’ve been helpful.
My first business cards were ugly—so ugly in fact that I hesitated to give them out to anyone. (Hint: Your first business cards don’t need to be gorgeous, but they shouldn’t be so ugly you want to hide them from the world.) So after several months of suffering my ugly business cards, I got on 99designs and hired a designer from Indonesia who created my super cool Foothold Coaching climber logo.
How did I build my website?
I built my website myself, with some help. As a former startup marketing generalist, I knew my way around a CMS and I knew how to purchase a domain, pick a hosting service, and fill out the content on a website template. I used a WordPress theme I purchased. Big Sister transformed herself once again into Chief Photographer and Web Copy Editor and over Thanksgiving weekend 2011 we finalized my website and I launched it the following week.
I know other coaches who also run their own websites, but in general, I don’t recommend this path for Aspiring Coaches unless they a) have experience building websites and b) really love that type of work. Your time and focused attention in the early days are so precious—don’t waste them trying to learn WordPress or how to edit a CSS file. Yes, as a coach in the modern Internet era, you absolutely must have a website even if it’s nothing more than a glorified online business card establishing your professional credibility and sharing your bio and contact information. But there are no extra points for building your own site.
How did I source my early clients?
Well, Ben was a gem of a first client and I love telling the Julia gift card story, but there was a lot more work that went on during those first few months. (Or really, the first two years…as you’ll read below.) The key thing for me (and for you) is telling other people what you are doing and asking for their help and referrals. That might sound almost too basic to be worth pointing out, but I think there are more and less effective ways of telling other people what you’re doing.
I had people tell me that launching an entrepreneur coaching practice should be easy or straightforward. I remember having breakfast with a well-meaning GSB classmate of mine who said “Gosh, if all you need is 15–20 founders to coach you could recruit that from our graduating class alone.” So, that’s one place I started. I’m embarrassed to confess, though, that it took me 4 hours to write a single email to a single classmate of mine from the GSB asking him to participate in a free coaching trial with me.
I wrote a longer post about this phenomenon as I see it attack other solo founders, but suffice it to say “email outreach to classmates” wasn’t particularly time-efficient for me. I learned something important from that experience, though. The barrier to faster action was fear, and that fear was coming from a good place—that I cared deeply about my new coaching venture in a way I hadn’t cared about anything since my early days at ElliptiGO.
Our tendency is to protect what feels vulnerable and that’s why paradoxically an aspiring coach doesn’t want to tell anyone what they’re doing. It’s too fragile. But whatever you do, don’t spend 4 hours on a single email. (Or at least learn as quickly as you can what’s holding you up so you can move more swiftly than I did.) It might feel counterintuitive, but the fragility and vulnerability of your new practice is precisely why you must tell everyone and anyone what you’re doing. And tell them in a way that they can help you. Short emails with clear asks and compelling guidance of “Oh — so-and-so just launched her coaching practice and she’s looking for these type of clients.” Or “Oh, I get it. He wants me to forward this to 2 people I know who fit exactly this type of client who he is looking for. By the end of the month. Ok. Got it. I can do that.”
My lead gen has evolved over the years, but in the very beginning I sourced new clients from a few different places: other coaches, friends/professional contacts, and registering a coaching profile with noomiii.
What kind of networking did I do, especially in the beginning?
In the very beginning, I’m not even sure I called it networking. I think I just called it “learning.” I’d meet up with old classmates who were founders, investors and advisors who worked with my target client base. I collected ideas. I learned a ton. I kept myself inspired. Some of the most useful “networking” I did in the early days was talking to other executive coaches. Here’s what was unexpectedly valuable about it:
1) They challenged me to move faster.
I remember sitting down to lunch in downtown Palo Alto with an executive coach Ed had introduced me to, Pam Fox Rollin. I had swallowed maybe one bite of falafel while telling her about how many free trials I was doing; how I was successfully converting many of those free trials to paid clients; and how now I was looking for more client leads to fill my pipeline. And she said, very crisply, “So it sounds like you’re done with free trials, then.”
It wasn’t a question.
I could sense her deep kindness even as her direct-ness made me a bit uncomfortable. I must have stuttered a bit and choked down some more falafel. My free trials had been working for me. I hadn’t been planning to give them up, but I just said. “Yes, I guess I am.”
And that’s how I stopped giving extended free trials to individuals. I realized that while they made me feel comfortable they were no longer benefitting my growth. So, Pam, thank you for helping me to move more quickly into a higher revenue trajectory and grow more quickly. At the time, I didn’t even realize I needed the push. That’s masterful coaching.
2) They annoyed me in useful ways.
I remember many conversations with experienced, badass and yes, older, coaches who informed me that “working with entrepreneurs would be tough and probably impossible.” Or that my “training wasn’t nearly enough.” Or some other less-than-optimistic response.
I remember thinking ruefully, “For people who are professional helpers that wasn’t a very helpful conversation.” Fortunately, my annoyance at their comments only fueled my persistence. I thought they were wrong or at least short-sighted in their assessments. So I decided, over and over again, to keep going and tune out all that “advice.” And in retrospect, it helped me spiritually to have a “traditional” approach and mindset to coaching that I was fighting to disrupt in my own way.
[It turned out that my training has been enough, and that working with entrepreneurs is tough (in some ways) but definitely not impossible.]
Aspiring Coaches of the World — I worry sometimes I am that unhelpful and overly biased coach to you. I talk to one of you about once a month and I usually am driving while we’re chatting because that’s the only 30–45 mins of time during the day not claimed by someone else. I usually ask you if you’ve tried coaching anyone yet (for free or for payment) and you usually say no.
So, then I try hard to not get annoyed when you ask me about what market research you “should do” or ask me how much training you “should do” because I worry you’re going to be the next in a long line of aspiring coaches who isn’t going to start. I’ve talked to over 30 of you since I’ve started my own practice and I rarely hear from any of you ever again. I assume most of you gave up before actually starting in the first place. I’m cool with career exploration (I’ve clearly done a lot of that myself.) But if you want me to invest some time in you, I want to know what you do with it…even if it’s that you decide after trying coaching for 6 months to start working as a pet store manager. If you care about it, I’ll be happy for you. I promise.
In hindsight, the “unhelpful” coaches I talked to when I was starting out—I wonder if they too felt a bit tired, a little disillusioned and saw me as just another person who would take 30 mins of their time and never actually do anything with it. (Maybe I should send them this post!)
3) They helped me to adopt a long-term view.
I remember a fascinating conversation with Justin Sherman where we talked about the long-term significance of certification and professionalization trends in the coaching industry. At the time, I remember thinking I don’t even know where my next client is coming from or if I will still be doing this in a year, but there will come a time when I just might appreciate the big-picture-strategic thinking going on here. (Thanks Justin!)
And I remember asking Jeff Balin when he thought back on his first year of coaching, what suggestions did he have for me for building my practice in its first year. And he immediately responded with some truly prophetic advice: “Well, the first thing is that you don’t build a coaching practice in one year. It takes three years to build a successful practice.” At the time, I was working with 14 clients and was feeling pretty invincible. But, yes, Jeff it did take me three years. And I’m so glad you told me that because otherwise I wouldn’t have survived the next few years.
And perhaps my biggest (and most material) surprise:
4) They referred me to clients. A lot of clients.
The coaching marketplace is a difficult one for consumers to navigate. Startups like noomii, clarity.fm, and popexert have made their attempt to make this market more search-able, but the experience of most clients is they still find their coaches through word of mouth or web search. I understood that intuitively when I started my practice and I spent a lot of time networking with other founders, investors, startup lawyers, incubator/accelerator staff because I thought those would be the people who refer me to the most clients. And those have been somewhat fruitful pathways, but no, the #1 best referral source to other clients, for me, has been other coaches.
Aspiring Coaches – If most of the coaches you know or connect with are your direct competitors, this might not be the case for you, but otherwise pay attention to this one because it made a material difference to the growth of my business.
There are many successful coaches who grow their practice to full capacity and then look around and say, “Okay. Now what?” Some turn to technology, webinars, writing or large-group trainings to scale their impact. Some form alliances with other coaches and start small companies or agencies to work together as a group of loosely or tightly-couple practitioners. And still others focus on doing better and better work with even more awesome clients and simply grow more selective and charge more as they go. But at its fundamental core, there are only so many individual clients a coach can work with one-on-one at a time. High-quality individual coaching simply doesn’t scale.
When I can’t work with a client OR a client isn’t quite a right fit for me OR a client simply can’t afford me — but I still want to help them — what do I do? If only I knew another coach to refer them to….
For me, the best referrals from other coaches were from: 1) Ed (because he’s an excellent coach, oversubscribed and was in a deeply informed position to refer me and know my skill/approach since he trained me. And 2) a handful of other startup CEO coaches who I’ve met in the SF Bay Area. They tend to work with later-stage startup executives and so whenever a prospective client came along that was too early for them (and also couldn’t afford them) they could send them to me. It also turns out that when someone is out there searching for a coach then they convert from a lead to a client at a much higher rate. I’ve tried free trials, free seminars, speaking at conferences, blog writing, guest post-writing as a way to reel in the prospective interested client. But nothing is as powerful as when you can connect with someone who is already looking for a coach. (In other words, it’s much better that they find you than that you seek them.)
This leads to two important implications for you Aspiring Coach: 1) have a bomb-diggity website that showcases your coaching awesome-ness and will dominate natural search for your coaching specialty/target client; and 2) connect with other successful coaches with whom you are not a direct competitor and who have referral bounty to share and then earn their referrals. With some coaches, this might mean offering a referral bonus (typically a % of what you earn from a client they refer for up to a year of work). With other coaches, it might just mean being awesome, impressive, sincere and communicative such that they know you have capacity and are doing good work with other clients (i.e., if I refer someone I care about to you, you’ll help them well and not screw it up).
[Note: If you are an aspiring coach who wants to specialize in helping people make career transitions (not necessarily the nitty gritty of the job search but more career-life vision stuff) OR you want to coach 20 or 30-something lawyers who want to leave law and find more meaning in their life—please contact me. Those are the top two referrals I get asked for when I tell random people I meet about my job. Seriously. There is good money to be made there.]
Connecting with other coaches also creates opportunities for collaborations you can’t even imagine right now. I’ve earned coaching gigs at Stanford and with other larger startups directly thanks to other coaches.
Anything else you’d recommend for someone who is just starting out?
Sometimes I get asked about books and there was one book I did read because I found it in the business center of the Main San Francisco Public Library so I got to skim it for free. I think it was this one. But, in truth, it might have been something else, so please take that to mean this was probably useful, but not particularly memorable. I do remember reading one portion that offered some important validation for something I had stumbled upon on my own:
The critical importance of client focus.
I can’t claim clairvoyance or that I could predict how important this would be to building my practice. On this one, I truly think I got lucky. What I’ve discovered is that my coaching story is a bit inverted from many coaches I know. Most coaches I know fell in love with coaching, much like I did, and so they set out to become a coach. Along the way they discovered their client niche and then developed expertise and credibility in working with those types of clients or companies or industries or subject areas.
As you’ll recall, I got into this work because I loved early-stage founders and I wanted to help them. And when I thought to myself how I could be most helpful—that’s when I connected the dots backwards and forwards to coaching. So, for me, I was blessed with a specific client focus from the start. I had clear brand and product differentiation from that very first session on the bench.
I can’t tell you the most effective way to find your client niche or focus—but I will say that I don’t think I could have built my coaching practice if I had not had focus. Focus was important to me for three reasons.
1) It made it much easier for people to remember me and refer me.
Here’s an illustrative story: I once hung out with a group of other coaches and we all went around the circle to share a quick blurb on who we worked with so we would all know what types of clients to refer to each other. I went first: “I work with early-stage entrepreneurs. Pre-funding through Series A. Mostly tech startup founders. They’re usually 25–35 years old. I meet in person with clients from San Francisco to Mountain View and coach anyone in the U.S. or Canada by phone/skype. I want executive coaching to be accessible to my clients so I charge a sliding scale rate based on where a client is in fundraising/revenue cycle.” Fairly simple. And pretty darn clear.
Other coaches had similarly clear ideal client profiles. But I was bit startled to hear a few other coaches say things like: “I work with clients who are open in their hearts to personal transformation.” And that was it.
I too love clients who have open hearts and are ready to do some transformative work together. They’re the best. And I believe that a coach who would say something like that obviously cares deeply about their clients and isn’t afraid to talk about prospective clients in a sensitive and vulnerable way.
But I got stuck on the pragmatics: how would I know who to refer to those awesome coaches? No one at a cocktail party has ever told me their cousin/neighbor/friend has an “open heart towards personal transformation” and “could I refer them to a coach who specializes in people like that?” And I’m betting no one ever will.
Aspiring Coaches — make your referral blurb clear, memorable, repeatable. Give me the easy categories my brain craves. Demographics. Geography. Background. Industry. Type of Problem. etc. Make it easy for me to know exactly whom to refer to you. I may not know your next client now, but I will meet him or her eventually and I’d like to send them your way if I can.
2) Having client focus from early on helped me to be more selective across everything.
This helps when you have limited time and money to spend on marketing and networking. And it will embolden you to say no to prospective clients. Because trust me—when you’re new and hungry and your coaching dance card is far from full—it is incredibly tempting to fill that calendar with clients who want to work with you. If you’re a talented coach, you can, in truth, be helpful to anyone—but just because you could help anyone doesn’t mean you should. By articulating and sticking to my “early-stage founder” focus, I turned down lucrative prospective clients from large corporations, lawyers who wanted to leave their jobs, former classmates searching for jobs, and nonprofit executives, among others. The first time I declined a lead who wanted to work with me and was ready to pay me well was, well, painful. But it got a lot easier after that, and I am so thankful I stuck to my focus.
3) Holding to a specific client focus made me an even more valuable coach because I could start to bring pattern recognition across clients into my individual practice.
Every time I said no to a client, I increased the equity and credibility of my brand. And now it feels awesome every time I tell a prospective founder: “All I do all day long every day is coach people just like you. Not only can I help you spot patterns across you, I can also help you spot patterns or traps I see across all my clients who are struggling with a similar issue at a similar stage.” For my clients in particular, That Means A Lot.
Chapter 4: Let’s Talk About What’s Hard = Money & Loneliness.
At this point, I’m guessing you’re wondering about the money. (Or if not, you should be wondering about it.) I have a few things to say about the money.
1) It’s important to talk about the money. But too few Aspiring Coaches ask about it. And too few Successful Coaches push Aspiring Coaches to talk about it.
I will forever be grateful to Dale Larson and Marcy Swenson for pushing me to talk about the money. We met for breakfast at Toast in Noe Valley in early 2012. Dale and Marcy have been working with startup CEOs for several years. They’re great coaches and good people.
As we sat down to breakfast, I told them my story (albeit a much more abridged one than the epic tale I am laying down here) and started to ask for their advice about several aspects of building a practice. About 20 minutes in to the conversation, Marcy asked me about my coaching rates and my revenue goals. I remember exhaling audibly and feeling nervous to share my rates with her. Was this gauche? Would it be weird?
And then I remember her saying this: “The hard thing about coaching isn’t the coaching. The coaching is the easy part. The hard part is the money. So, we’re going to be a lot more helpful to you if we talk about the money.”
So, we talked about the money.
I told them my current rates and my financial goals. They shared their rates with me and the evolution of how they decided to charge more and value their services more. They both pushed me to be charging more and set a minimum bar even with my pre-funding broke-ass boot-strapping clients. It was a profoundly important moment for my practice.
So, Aspiring Coach, if I really sense you have drive and potential I will quote Marcy back to you and push you talk about the money. I’ll ask you about your rates and your financial goals. I’ll tell you all about my rates and how they have evolved over time. I’ll tell you how much money I have made every year since I started. (See Chapter 9 below for the details.) You might feel a bit taken aback by my level of candor, but I think you’ll also appreciate it.
2) I have no data to back this up, but I am going to guess with conviction that no coach ever failed to build a successful coaching practice because of their coaching skills. The coaches who fail aren’t bad coaches, they’re bad small business owner-operators.
Aspiring Coach, if all you want to do is coach clients all day, please do not start your own coaching practice. Because you simply won’t make it to the point where you get to coach clients all day. The first year (or more) of your coaching practice will be spent nurturing your business. You’ll need to be Chief of Everything and your own executive assistant as well. Depending on how much money you can invest in paying others to help you, you will need to: build your website (or at least lead the direction of it); create and run all your own marketing promotional activities; prospect and close sales leads; refine your product/service offering; and set up your own accounting and invoicing. (Helpful hint on the last one: Make sure to bypass QuickBooks altogether and head straight for Freshbooks—it’s a vastly superior service offering for coaches like us.)
If the thought of learning how to run your own small business is exciting (or at least not terrifying) that’s a good sign.
3) You do need something to drive the urgency with which you build your practice. For some of you that might be money, for others it might be something else.
I have a coach friend who wasn’t hitting the revenue goals he set for himself in his first year when he started out. His wife sat him down and basically told him he had a family to support and he needed to get his sh*t together and start earning the revenue he had set out to make. He doubled-down on his focus to close leads, hit his financial goals, and never looked back. When he told me that story, I felt admiration for him, but also gratitude that my husband never had to put pressure on me in that way.
I started my coaching practice with a luxury asset on my side: my husband Jack. He was (is) the best angel investor a coach-preneur could hope for. When I told him about my plans to experiment with coaching full-time, he was incredibly supportive. He never asked me for a financial plan, but I insisted on giving it to him anyways. I made him his own “Foothold Coaching Angel Investor” t-shirt, which he has worn so much over the last three years it is threadbare, hole-y and bleach-stained. He still wears it.
I told Jack not to invest in me just because he loved me and wanted me to be happy, but because he was willing to risk a few years of my contributions to our family’s income on this. I’ll never forget what he told me: “I realize this is a risk, but this is a really easy decision for me. I see the financial opportunity and you becoming a successful coach is a bet I am willing to make.” I felt touched until he followed up with, “Now, if you had pitched me your plan to start a running store in downtown San Carlos, I might not be lining up to place that bet…” And then I lovingly rolled my eyes. (As you may have seen above, running store owner was a career cluster I had crossed off the placemat long before.) But that’s how I knew he was being real with me. My husband bet on me and, as it turns out, he was right. His bet is paying off.
I used dates and life events to build my practice with my own sense of urgency, but I was blessed with a financial backer who believed in me even when I didn’t fully believe in myself.
The financial pressure of being the sole breadwinner in my family or needing to earn enough to make rent at the end of the month was not part of my story. And Aspiring Coach, I can understand that it might be part of yours. Like my coach friend, I hope you find it motivating and inspiring to focus in a way you’ve never focused before.
Okay. So now that we’ve talked a bit about money, next up on the “things that are actually hard about coaching” list = Loneliness.
Aspiring Coach, especially if you’re a die-hard extrovert—this one might throw you for a loop. It turns out that coaching can be a lonely job.
It felt almost disturbing to me at times. During these 75-min portions of the day, I was fully immersed in deep and meaningful connection with another human. But then the coaching session would end and that human would go back to his or her startup team and I would go back home or head to a café to work by myself. Even when I tried to fill my calendar with networking conversations, I still ended up with big yawning gaps in my work day. It was all too easy to just start doing laundry instead of pushing forward on another Foothold task. I needed to get out of our apartment. I needed a work buddy.
And then she magically appeared! In November 2011, I ran into Katherine—a classmate of mine at the GSB who had just moved back to the Bay Area. She was trying on her own version of entrepreneurship as a one-woman remote office of her Chicago-based real estate firm. Neither of us had office space and we both missed having colleagues.
So, we started meeting at my local Panera. We’d plug in our laptops and just work together. We’d stop for lunch and chat and then get back to work. I cannot stress enough how vital Katherine’s presence was to me in the early days when so much of my work was solo (building my website, networking outreach, developing my coaching materials; devising marketing strategies). She was my colleague. We worked together off and on for about six months while we were both moving forward with our ventures.
Aspiring Coach —I hope that you too can find your own version of Katherine. Having a friend/colleague like that can help smooth out the peaky emotions of an early-stage coaching practice. It was a high when I was coaching and a low when I was staring at my inbox. Katherine not only made it more tolerable — she made it more fun. Love you K!
On January 23, 2012 I went to City Hall and registered my DBA name and got my business license to officially run my business from San Francisco. I picked that date in particular because I got a kick out of being able to always say, “I started my first business before age 30.” The very next day, January 24th, was my 30th birthday — so I sneaked it in under the wire.
In four months, I had gone from coaching Ben on a bench to working with 6 paying clients, having an established rhythm with my coach and my work buddy, and my virtual “shingle” was up via my website. I made it Facebook-official. Foothold was open for business!
From January to June, I grew my practice. I networked and learned and coached. By June 2012, I was working with 14 paying clients and had signed a summer coaching gig with CODE2040. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved running my own business. I was kicking ass.
And then life, quite literally, happened.
Chapter 5: When Life Gets In the Way
Jack and I were committed to me nurturing Foothold, but we also wanted to move forward with our lives together. So, we set out to buy a house and have a baby. Now, for those of you who have tried to do either, you know there is no effective way to control the exact timing on either so, of course, what ended up happening was that on June 1st we closed on our dream fixer-upper house in San Carlos and then a week later I took the test and found out I was pregnant. Life! Happening!
This is where my story may diverge sharply from yours, Aspiring Coach. I certainly don’t recommend trying to care for three babies at a time. And I would never tell any entrepreneur to split their focus in three ways at once—but perhaps you are living (or are about to live) your own version of this.
Are you planning on getting married? Planning on moving? Any other big life changes looming on the horizon? I won’t say don’t do them if your practice is new. I will say be prepared for how Life will affect your fragile young practice. It might limit it or threaten it. It might force a renewed sense of focus that will actually help you more than it will hurt you. It might do both in a very confusing way all at the same time.
I’ve chronicled my struggles of being pregnant (and sick) in another post on Medium because of how much it helped me to relate to startup founders or really anyone who is unhappy when they are doing something that’s “supposed to be” cool and awesome.
I learned two things from this period of my life that might be helpful to you, Aspiring Coach, whether Life is getting in your way right now or not.
1) This is a chance to test for product robustness.
When I was pregnant, I had “morning” sickness all the time. I had this one client who I would meet with at a certain café in San Francisco on the other side of town. I would get there 20 mins before our appointment time so I could throw up in the bathroom and pull myself together before meeting her. Then, after she left, I would go back to the bathroom and throw up again. In between vomit sessions, I coached that founder well and only months later did I ever tell her how sick I had felt. (She is still a client of mine and closed a Series A earlier this year.) At the time, I remember thinking. Well, this is a sign, that yes, I really do love what I do if I can summon the resolve to do it when I feel so awful. And second, hey, I must be pretty good at this if I can still serve clients so effectively. How good of a coach will I be when I am no longer devoting so much energy to fighting off nausea?
2) Being distracted by your Life doesn’t make you less of a Coach.
I won’t sugarcoat this. Getting pregnant (and sick) and buying a fixer-upper house severely limited the amount and quality of focused attention I could devote to my business. It slowed my revenue growth in a pretty substantial way. (See Chapter 9 for a full report of the fiscal impact.)
I was so overwhelmed by the pregnancy that I made a decision to prioritize my existing client base, but put everything else about my business (networking, marketing, planning, growing) on hold. My husband and I went into triage mode. He took over the project planning on the renovations. Big Sister came to the rescue (again) and led all of our interior design. But I still got hit with time-sucking ask after ask.
I spent an embarrassing number of hours on choosing a sink for the kitchen. No, wait, not on choosing the sink—but on choosing the depth of our sink. Who knew that was a decision that would take me hours to make?
I am fully cognizant of the fact that these were “great” problems to have. I am grateful for what I have; what I got to do; and that I had the luxury of a Life that would distract me from my coaching practice in these ways. I certainly don’t want to come across as asking for your pity: “oh poor me — I get to have a baby and build a dream house.”
But what I do want to share is that of all the myriad destabilizing impacts Life threw my way at that point — the biggest hit was to my confidence.
If you’ve followed my story until now, you know I was a little audacious, a little naïve to think I could do this thing when many other experienced successful coaches told me it would not work. I must have had deep reservoirs of confidence, but now I was feeling apologetic for having a Life. I started to think I couldn’t rightfully call myself someone who was building a practice if I was letting (choosing?) these distractions.
One of the few networking events I went to while I was pregnant was a group meeting of startup coaches in San Francisco, and I remember feeling slightly panicked about whether to tell them I was pregnant. I feared they would write me off. I didn’t want to be labeled as someone who “just” got into coaching because it’s flexible and family-friendly. I didn’t want to be seen as less of a Coach.
I also remember sitting across from Ed during one of our coaching sessions when I was at Peak Nausea. I had a box of Hot Tamale candies and a box of cheddar crackers in front of me because I needed to alternate eating one of each every 4 minutes or I would throw up on Ed. (I’m not exaggerating.)
We talked about how I was struggling and I remember sheepishly ducking my head and confessing to him — my teacher, my mentor, the person who had invested so much in me — that I was afraid that since I got pregnant he would think I wasn’t “serious” anymore about building my practice. Ed looked right at me and said:
“Are you kidding??!! Anamaria, you’re as serious as a heart attack.”
Now, perhaps not Ed’s greatest choice of metaphors since I felt like my practice was in the intensive care unit during those months—but I took his point to, well, heart.
When my Life got in the way it made me less focused. It flat-lined my growth. It resulted in me missing my revenue goals for the first two years of operating my business. And as Big Of A Deal as those seemed at the time, in retrospect, those were all temporary challenges and fixable with time and renewed focus.
The real damage was that I took those setbacks a bit too seriously. I let them infect my mindset. I lost some swagger. Even when I was feeling decent, I started cancelling meetings because I didn’t feel perfect. As my pipeline of client leads dried up, I felt more hopeless instead of more determined.
Chapter 6: Giving Up (Almost) and Extending The Emotional Runway
I went on maternity leave at the end of January 2013. I had 9 active clients (that’s about 50% capacity for me).
Startup life (not to mention life with a newborn) is dynamic and sometimes it’s hard to plan even a few months in advance, so I told all my clients that my intention was to start coaching again when my daughter was 2 months old. I told them I didn’t expect them to restart with me right away. I would reach out mid-April and we’d figure out the schedule from there.
My daughter was born in February and by end of April I was reaching out to clients to see who wanted to re-engage in working with me.
Guess how many of my clients came back?
I felt crushed.
I felt like I was starting over.
And in a certain way — I was.
April through June of 2013 were dark and blurry moments for me and my coaching practice.
I knew I loved coaching and I wanted to make it work, but I didn’t know how to get back to building my practice.
I knew I loved my daughter and I wanted to make my coaching practice work for her, too. Because if I was happier and doing something I loved, I knew I would be a better mom for her.
And, since I had read “Lean In” when I was pregnant, even the specter of Sheryl Sandberg seemed to loom over this decision. Was starting my practice right before having a baby a sign I was leaning in or leaning out?
In between diaper changes, I tearfully confessed to Jack that maybe, just maybe, I should give up. I could hang with the real baby for a while with zero stress or guilt about the business “baby” I had been neglecting. And then I could go get a “real” job whenever I felt ready. Maybe, just maybe?
Two things happened during this time that saved me from actually giving up.
1) I told my coach Ed how much I wanted someone to save me from myself. I told him how much I wanted someone to just shake me and say “Are you crazy? Are you an idiot? You’ve come this far and you’re going to give up now??!! So, what if you have to start over. You’ve built it up before so you can build it up again. Don’t you dare quit!!”
And then Ed said, “Well, I guess you just told yourself that then.”
And that was that.
2) I decided to extend my emotional runway. I work with entrepreneurs and startup leaders who often talk about “runway” which is the term they use to refer to the cash they have left in the bank to run their business, as in “We have 3 months of runway left before we need to close our next round.”
I rarely used the term runway with my own coaching business because I never raised money to build it. My “angel investor” was my husband and his willingness to watch our family’s net income be negative month-after-month while he was waiting (betting) on my income to bring us back into the black again.
But, if Jack was the one placing the bet, it was me who was agonizing over the numbers and the odds every month. And it was negatively affecting my mindset and my resilience. I came to realize that “runways” are not limited to cash in the bank.
Through my own struggle and through coaching entrepreneurs, I realized there is another runway — an emotional one—that is different for every person. It tells us how many months of optimism, hope, and emotional fortitude we have left to keep pursuing our venture no matter what the setbacks, no matter how slow the progress. A few months after my daughter was born, I felt as if I had run out of emotional runway. So, I decided it was time to re-contract with myself for an extension.
I typed it out, printed it, and taped it above my desk so I would face a physical reminder of it every day. “Congratulations!” it said “You’ve just extended your emotional runway to July 2014.” As if I had just unlocked the next level in some mobile app game.
I gave myself a year. A solid 12 months free of hormones, nausea and house decisions—a year to focus as much as I could on (re)building my business. If I could prove to myself that I could build it and achieve the financial success I wanted—then I would keep doing it. If not, then come July 2014 I was going to quit coaching forever.
Realizing I had an emotional runway and then deciding I would explicitly give myself an extension helped me to re-focus in a way I had not been able to for a year. It helped me to stop grieving for what had been lost. It helped me to move forward.
Chapter 7: Why Hello Marketing…And So, We Meet Again
And so I moved forward.
In June 2013, I dusted off my old marketing and networking plans and started attacking things with a new sense of energy. I was building up resilience again. There was nothing radical about it—I wasn’t doing anything new per se and even Ed said at one point, “Maybe resilience is just about trying the same things again.”
So, while there was nothing new, the difference was that I was doing things again. I wasn’t making elaborate plans. I was just focused on execution. I was getting sh*t done. Learning from it. And moving on.
Some things turned out to be a waste of time and money.
I bought a booth at the outdoor expo of The Startup Conference. I talked to several prospective entrepreneurs about their leadership challenges as they whizzed around the expo.
Cost = $500 plus booth/photocopying costs and a day off from coaching
Client leads generated = 0
Other things turned out to be more fruitful. I got invited to a summer BBQ event at a Sand Hill VC office. I forced myself to go. (As much as you can drag yourself to drive somewhere, I dragged myself.) And then I forced myself to stay. And I enjoyed myself for a while, but I wasn’t meeting any actual client prospects or making any lasting connections. They served food. I went to eat in a corner. (Yup, I was that person at the networking event who seems to be connecting more with the fruit kebabs than the people.) And at the cocktail table, I met a young woman who it turned out was a Thiel Fellow and I thought she was impressive and we talked about the training opportunities she received through Thiel’s 20 Under 20 program. She offered to introduce me to the program director to see if she might be interested in adding leadership coaching to the mix.
Cost = $0 plus the discomfort of attending the type of event that makes me very anxious
Client leads generated = 1 introduction to my first group coaching client
That connection over fruit kebabs was the first time I ever tiptoed into “group coaching” or training. I think back to that first group coaching session and I’m not sure whether to cringe or laugh at how ugly my slides were and how clumsy it felt at times. I was doing something new for me. Turns out that as I ugly as it felt, it had a meaningful impact on the participants and I’ve been invited back to the Thiel Foundation for other group coaching sessions. And I’ve turned that experience into other group coaching gigs at Stanford and other entrepreneur communities in the Bay Area.
And it would never have happened had I not pushed myself to Just. Go. To. The. Networking. BBQ.
Aspiring Coaches take note: Few (if any) coaches are what I call “pure” coaches in that all they do for their business is coach clients 1-on-1. Most coaches I know are also group trainers, or blog writers, or instructors, or consultants, or facilitators, or book sellers of some sort or another. For a while, I was determined to be a pure coach. Then, I too, got curious about ways to scale my impact and diversify my revenue streams. I write my own blog. I offer group coaching and training sessions. I facilitate for the Interpersonal Dynamics program at the Stanford GSB. It might be useful for you to think about this now—what other type of work do you enjoy? What would product or service expansion look like to you? What work might you say yes to? And what will still be a no because it’s not in your focus zone?
I remember telling Ed at one point that the marketing challenges I was facing that Fall felt so similar to my early days that it was disheartening and demotivating. He offered me a useful metaphor. “It’s like you’re a screw burrowing into a wall. On the one hand, your motion is circular so you feel like you’re seeing the same landscape over and over again. But with each revolution, you’re also moving deeper and deeper into the wall—so yes, you might be facing the same problems but you understand them better now, you can dig deeper into them and maybe this time you can solve them with wisdom you’ve gained since the last time you’ve seen them.”
One of my biggest hang-ups about marketing was something with which many Aspiring Coaches struggle—how do I market the product when the product is, um, me? When the product is you, it’s kind of impossible to not take potential customer rejections personally. When the product is you, it’s easy for promotion to feel like shameless bragging. When the product is you, any act to market yourself can feel deeply vulnerable.
Aspiring Coach —if those sentences ring true, I feel you. And…you need to get over that as soon as humanly possible because that mindset will kill your business.
It reminds me of something I often to say to my clients. “Don’t confuse what might be comfortable for you to do with what will be effective to actually get it done.” It may feel uncomfortable or vulnerable to market yourself, but don’t let that be what holds you back from trying all sorts of different things to market yourself and your coaching practice. Don’t stop at what’s uncomfortable. Push through that to figure out what’s effective.
One thing that had been on my “marketing tactics” list for months was “speak at an entrepreneur conference” so one evening I sat down to make “a list of startup conferences I could apply to.” I Googled around a bit and added one conference to the list and then another and then I stopped. This was planning, not doing. I didn’t need a list of startup conferences, I needed to speak at one and then figure out if that was worth repeating. So, I looked again at the conference that was at the top of the list and decide to apply. I emailed my long-term client Julia to see if she’d be willing to do a talk with me at Failcon—we’d do a coaching-style interview onstage to share what she and I had learned together about coaching her through raising different rounds of funding. She emailed back right away and said yes and I fired off our application that same night. We got in! (I later learned that we nabbed one of three spots from over 75 applicants so they weren’t as desperate for speakers as I initially might have thought.) We spoke onstage at Failcon in October 2013.
Cost = $0 and several hours of my time to prep myself and Julia for the talk.
Client Leads Generated = 3 (and one of those clients has in turn referred me to 2 others and made other important connections for me)
So, sure, the event was productive for me in terms of client leads, but it also helped with my brand and my credibility. The audience in attendance (including other startup coaches) respected me more for having a compelling client story to tell on stage. And that also likely led to more referrals over time. (See Chapter 3 above.)
There is so much I want to say about marketing, especially when you’re building a practice, but I will limit myself to the one question I wish an Aspiring Coach would ask me because I think it has such important implications for the mindset with which you approach marketing.
Did you fake it until you made it?
There will come a time for you, Aspiring Coach, when you may have to adopt your own version of “fake it until you make it,” and you’ll need to draw your own line about what “faking” is acceptable to you.
I will give you some examples.
1) Let’s say you start your practice and you have a mix of clients: 3 who are paying you your full rate; 5 others who are paying you a discount because they might pay you in referrals down the road; and 2 others whom you are coaching for free because it will be so valuable to your brand credibility to coach those individuals or the companies they represent. Now, when you’re in conversation with your 11th prospective client, how many clients do you tell them you have? 3? 8? 10? And if you say 10, do you clarify which ones are paid vs. non-paid?
2) Let’s say you’re expanding into coaching a certain type of client who represents a frontier of sorts for you. A new type of problem, industry or category. So, you have one client in your portfolio who represents that new area. When the second person comes along in that same category and asks about your experience coaching, do you say:
a) “Yes. I coach people like you.”
b) “Yes, I’ve recently transitioned into working with people like you. I have one client who fits your profile.”
3) Now, let’s say you list clients and the companies they work at on your website’s client list or testimonials page. If you worked with just one individual at a company with 5 employees, would you put the company’s logo on your website? What if the company were 500 employees? 5,000 employees? Would you ever just put in the logo of a legit corporation on your “clients” page and say “my clients work at companies including BigAssCompanyYouKnow” when in reality only one of their thousands of employees ever worked with you?
There have been many times over the 3 years of building my coaching practice where I debated what was acceptable “faking it until I made it” and what was unacceptable misrepresentation of the truth.
I would not build my practice on lies—and I would have never been able to build my practice if I told everyone the most precisely accurate thing every time I was asked. (And while other Successful Coaches might claim otherwise, I find it hard to imagine that they never faced a moment when they were building their practice that they didn’t need to hustle a little bit and blur some details to get in the door.)
So, for the examples above, I would tell people I had 10 clients. And I would usually tell people “I coach people like you” if I thought that I could serve them well, even if they were technically my 2nd client in a certain niche. But since I coach individuals and not whole companies, I have never used big name company logos as a quick pump to my street cred. Those were my lines. I know other coaches who draw different boundaries and I don’t begrudge anyone their decisions. I find it helpful to have a rule of thumb that guides me when I feel like I’m in a gray area. You’ll have to discover your own. Mine is this:
I will not outright lie to anyone about my work. But I do provide less precise answers when I sense that “If I gave this person the most precise answer, they will not give me a chance. And I know that if they gave me a chance, I could do some really excellent work here. ”
All of this is not to say that I didn’t lie to myself along the way of building this business. Although I prefer to think about that as audacious naivete because that’s way more charming than “denial” — I am sure there was some self-preservation going on a lot, especially in the early days.
The moment I realized how much tunnel vision I did have for the positive (even amidst all the self-doubt I’ve described above) is towards the end of 2013 when I was back in the double digits of clients with leads in the pipeline. I was catching up with a friend from business school. I told her how many clients I had, how much money I was making, how happy I was. Then, she said:
“Wow! On some level, when you started this business you had no right to do it. I mean, you had no experience, no brand, nothing. And now you’ve done it!”
No experience, no brand, no “right” to be doing it. Huh. And that was what one of my genuinely supportive friends thought. What had the haters been saying?
I’ve thought back to her saying that a lot. I wasn’t mad and I wasn’t hurt. I was mainly amused and perhaps a bit humbled.
Because until she said that, I never considered for a moment that I had no right to be doing what I did.
Where she saw “no experience” I saw my training at Stanford, my peer coaching with Jason, and my comfort with the notion that I would learn quickly on the job.
Where she saw no brand, well, I guess she was right in that Foothold Coaching was nothing to nobody for a while. But Anamaria Nino-Murcia had a brand. (See above about the product being yourself.) I went back in my head to that lunch with successful coach Pam Fox Rollin. She and I were talking about networking and how to generate the most referrals and she told me “I’m guessing that over the course of your career you’ve left a trail of Anamaria fans in your wake. Those are the people to whom you should be reaching out and letting them know you’re coaching. They’ll be helpful to you now.” It was useful advice and I think I intuitively was already doing that, but I did it more, especially in the early days.
So, Aspiring Coach, whether you’re mid-career or fresh out of college and are jumping into coaching for the first time, consider starting to network with your fans — even if your fans have nothing to do directly with your target client base.
Your coaching practice may have no brand, but you do. And if even one or two of your fans have a cousin or a neighbor or a former college roommate who could be a referral source in the network of your prospective clients—boom. It’s a starting point. Get after it.
And, Aspiring Coach, there is no Coaching Practice Fairy out there right now who deems some as worthy and other as not. There is no one who grants you the “right” to start or not. There are no barriers to entry in our industry (for better and for worse—as I’m sure there are a lot of charlatans out there calling themselves coaches). This may change in the long-term. Coaching may evolve to become more like the therapy market and you’ll need a license to practice or call yourself a professional coach. But until that day, there is no organization or body that makes you legit.
But what about certification? You’re asking.
I’ve asked this question to several successful coaches and discussed it with several more aspiring ones. Here’s what I’ve heard:
1) Certified coaches will generally tell you to get certified.
2) Non-certified coaches will mostly tell you not to bother.
I haven’t gotten certified, but I won’t go so far as to tell you not to bother. I would recommend you look at the market you want to serve and the level of formalized training you want/feel you need and then make some decisions based on those two factors.
In three years of working with startups, I have never been asked by a prospective client if I was a certified coach. They usually don’t even know coaching certification exists and, even if they did, I am guessing most wouldn’t care. They care much more about who else I’ve worked with, my track record, if they believe I can help them, if they sense a “personal fit” with me, and whether they can afford me. If I were trying to coach execs or managers at large companies with robust HR departments, I would probably pursue certification because organizations like that are much more likely to ask for certification.
I do keep track of the hours I coach just in case some day I do decide I want to get certified. And if you’re curious, I have logged enough hours to be at least at the equivalent of the PCC level of ICF’s coaching credential scheme (That’s between 750 and 2,500 hours of paid coaching.)
Chapter 8: Finding My Best Friend At Work
I took a Gallup employee engagement survey only once and it was back in 2007 or so, but to this day I vividly remember one of the questions on the survey.
Do you have a best friend at work?
That question seared itself into my brain for two reasons. One, my “best friend” at work had recently just left the company under sad and contentious circumstances. I remember checking “No” with a flash of anger that trailed off into wistfulness.
Two, and all sadness aside, I remember thinking “How fascinating!” I was surprised to see that the experts at Gallup had discerned that particular question would generate insightful data about levels of engagement. It seemed so out of place with the other questions about how you felt about your work or your management. And yet it was meaningful. Losing my best friend at work did leave me feeling more alone, less engaged and less hopeful for the organization’s future.
I haven’t taken an employee engagement survey since starting Foothold, but if I did I would proudly, excitedly and gratefully check “Yes!” to the best friend question.
You might be asking: How does one have a best friend at work when one is a company of one? I don’t know if enough coaches consider this when starting (and growing) their practice. We might be sole practitioners, but we still need to take steps to ensure we are engaged fully in our work.
As I talked about earlier, starting a coaching practice can be a lonely journey. I’m definitely not as lonely as I used to be. Two years ago, if I had a long afternoon with no client or networking appointments scheduled I would feel anxious and dread that time. Today, I would look at that same sized hole in the calendar with elation (time to write! time to think! time to dream up what’s next for my business!)
Finding my best friend at work was never something I set out to do, but it’s something that happened and, Aspiring Coach, I can tell you that I would feel significantly less fulfillment without his presence in my life. My intention in sharing this story is to inspire you to think a little more proactively about how you might find your own version of a best friend as you build your solo practice.
In November 2013, I was talking with a client of mine about managing her emotions more effectively. She asked me how she could build skills in emotion regulation and so I started to tell her about the work I do with Interpersonal Dynamics T-Groups at the Stanford GSB. “That sounds so cool!” she exclaimed, “How could I do that without getting an MBA?” I told her half-jokingly, “Hmm…I’ll get to work on that.”
Later that day I went to the GSB to facilitate a T-Group and I met up with one of the other facilitators in the course, Michael Terrell.
At that point, Michael and I were friends with a ton of respect for each other. We had trained as facilitators together and he was building his own consulting-coaching business roughly around the same time I was building Foothold. I often used to joke that Michael was like the younger brother I never had. I imagined him as my younger brother who had grown up and had become this impressive man that I’m partially proud of, partially in awe of, and partially I still want to just tease him mercilessly because he’s completely ridiculous sometimes.
I can’t remember if it was a fully conscious decision, but if I was ever going to attempt to bring T-Groups to the startup community, I just knew I would do it with Michael.
So, I asked him.
And he said yes.
And then we made it happen. (Our first T-Group For Startups – TGFS Weekend took place in February 2014)
And then we made it happen again. (TGFS 2 = May 2014) And again. (TGFS 3 = August 2014)
And we have dates set for TGFS 4 and TGFS 5 and we’re both excited about what the future holds for this thriving side venture.
And somewhere along the way, Michael stopped being my imaginary younger brother and started being my “co-founder” and my best friend at work. We have inside jokes. We have top-secret post-TGFS weekend dance routines. We email stupid YouTube video links to each other. We talk about what’s going on in our lives outside of work. We keep tabs on each other. And we have this barrel of shared memories from our work together—moments that made us laugh; events that made us cry; experiences that infuriated us, and incidents that helped us grow.
Having Michael as my best friend at work has added a richness to my coaching practice that I never realized was missing in the first place.
I suppose the technical term for this is “collaboration.” And Aspiring Coach, it’s something coaches do a fair amount. I’m going out of my way to tell you this because no one spelled this out to me when I was getting started. I adopted this narrow view that the story of my coaching practice was mine alone. I sensed coaches might come in and out of the story, but I never thought they would be principal or recurring characters. I fell into collaboration by accident because I felt inspired to help my clients in a new way, and I thought it would be tactically smart and potentially fun to do it with Michael. I got so much more from that decision than I ever expected I would.
You might build coaching friendships through collaborations like mine with Michael or you might build them through more casual or personal connections. I know other coaches who just “get together” with coach-friends once a month or so…grab a beer or a coffee and just talk. That sounds awesome, too. Even if you stay a sole practitioner forever, I hope you can find friends to share this journey with — because it’s valuable for your business and your growth, but also because it will deepen your engagement with your work in satisfying and surprising ways.
Chapter 9: How I Did It — The Story In Numbers
By January 2014, Foothold was starting to take off again. I had 10 active clients, more on the way, and I was dramatically increasing my monthly revenue through group coaching gigs and experiments like TGFS. Around this time I was also reading about hedonic adaptation — the concept that humans adapt fairly quickly to things that give us pleasure such that over time we take less and less pleasure in those same things so we keep raising the bar for what will make us happy. (And if you want to learn about hedonic adaption in pictures—try this post.)
Much like a dog futilely chasing his tail, you can never win if you rely on those things for sustained long-term happiness. By March, I was starting to notice some hedonic adaptation with my monthly revenue. I was seeing numbers that would have made me ecstatic the previous year, but they were no longer making me happy. I started to worry that I’d never be satisfied in a recurring and sustainable way.
So, later that month, I sat down and wrote out a fixed set of financial goals for the year—and vowed that no matter how good things got I would not revise upwards. I would be happy with doing what I set out to do and I wouldn’t keep trying to raise the bar on myself.
So, let’s talk about the money again, this time in a bit more detail.
For simplicity, I am going to normalize all my financial info to small numbers relative to my annual financial goal.
Let’s say my financial goal was to generate $100 per year in business revenue and walk through all the numbers that way. (In other words, I divided my real annual financial goal by X to get $100, and then I divided all the other real numbers by that same X to get the numbers you see below as relative to the $100 goal. So, all these ratios are completely real—it’s just the actual numbers that are not.)
When I left ElliptiGO, I was making the equivalent of $83.33 in annual salary. I knew I wanted to make more than that with Foothold to keep growing and to compensate for no longer having equity be part of my compensation. I cross-referenced that with what Jack and I wanted our family income to be and we decided that my contribution needed to be $100/year so that’s how I set my $100 annual revenue goal. I didn’t necessarily need to get to that revenue figure in year 1, but if I could get to that level and sustain it, then I would continue building and growing Foothold. In the first six months of Foothold, I met other startup coaches who: work with later-stage companies; charge more per client; and had been doing this work for 5–7 years. I learned that they made between $222-$277 per year, substantially more than my goal. So, they were confident I could hit $100/year even though we were serving different markets. I also met with a mentor of mine who works as an independent startup advisor/consultant and she thought I should “definitely” be able to earn $66.67 in my first year when I was building up the practice, and then I could grow and expand from there. These were the only data points I used in thinking about my planning. In Fall of 2011, I decided that a “realistic goal” for my first full year of operations in 2012 would be to earn between $70.66 and $79.11.
Now, as you read above, my first year of Foothold was six months of building followed by six months of getting sick, depressed and hitting a growth wall. In 2012, I earned the equivalent of $37.27 in revenue. That was barely half of my “realistic” goal and a little over 1/3 of my ultimate goal. You can see why I headed into my maternity leave feeling pretty dejected.
In 2013, I didn’t work at all for 3 months and I was rebuilding my practice for several months of the year. By year end, I had earned $44.33 in revenue. Year 2 was better than Year 1, but not by that much. Again, you can start to understand a little more why I considered giving this all up.
But I’m glad I didn’t.
From Jan-Mar 2014, I earned $21.11 in revenue. I quickly did the math and even if my revenue growth stayed flat I would earn $84.44 for the year. Now, that was more like it!
At the end of March 2014, I wrote down my financial goals for Year 3 and promised myself that a) if I didn’t hit the “Must Hit” number I would quit; and b) I would not revise these numbers upwards. I would be happy with the bar I set.
Here is what I wrote down:
MUST HIT = $83.33 TARGET = $88.88-$100.00 YES! = $100-$133.33
So, how am I doing? From Jan-Aug 2014, I have earned $108.79, but to give you a fuller picture my expenses also went up because I’m doing more collaborative work, paying contractors, renting conference room spaces—so my net income for that same time period was $83.23.
And I still have 4 months left in the calendar year. Right now, my conservative estimate is that I will end 2014 earning between $134 and $144 in revenue.
I hope that sharing these real ratios with you offers a helpful perspective. Things can change (relatively) quickly when you’re building a coaching business. Your growth may not be linear (especially if there is some Life getting in your way). And sometimes you just need to survive the lean years in order to be around for future years of plenty. Just because you make 30% of your revenue goal in Year 1 doesn’t mean that in Year 3 you won’t be making 130% of your revenue goal.
And, for some of you, it may indeed take 3 years to build your practice.
Chapter 10: Compassion Fatigue and Caring For Thyself
Aspiring Coach, the last four months of building my coaching practice have felt like the beginning of a whole new era. They’ve been full of some new “great” problems to have—but even great ones are still problems.
This past summer, I uttered out loud the phrase Successful Coaches tell me all the time, but I’ve always struggled to imagine saying myself, “There are so many opportunities coming my way—too bad I can’t clone myself.”
I even spent 20 minutes contemplating if I should hire someone. Hire someone!
When I was starting out, one of my mentors gave me some very useful advice. She said “Even though it’s hard to imagine being too busy right now, you will get there someday. Make it a goal of yours to never get to 100% capacity. Try to shoot for 90% capacity. That way you’ll always have 10% available to jump on the opportunity that you can’t even imagine right now.”
For years, I could only dream of 90% capacity. And then over about a three-month period earlier this year, I ramped up so quickly that I got 110% too busy. This is something I regretted. And it took me 2 months to dig out and restore myself to 80–90% again.
Ed and I have discussed balance and setting life-work boundaries before, but it wasn’t until this year that I realized how deeply necessary it is for a coach to manage those boundaries effectively. He told me, “It is our job to show up whole and balanced for our clients because their lives are often wildly out of balance.” If it’s your job to support someone else, you need to be stable, focused and calm. And by mid-summer 2014, I was losing touch with that. I started to experience compassion fatigue. In part, the fatigue set in because I was working so intensely that I was neglecting my sleep, nutrition and exercise. But another important factor for me was that someone very close to me was struggling with a serious illness and I, the consummate action-taking-problem-solving-super-coach, could do nothing to help. That frustration, sadness, grief and impotence started to spill over into my work with clients.
One of the things that my clients tell me they value me for is how calm I am. But, for about a month, I felt frantic while I was coaching. I alternated between feeling desperate to “save them” and then feeling angry or exasperated with them (with me?) when I couldn’t. I kept telling Ed that I felt like I was reaching up to this metaphorical shelf for a jar of something (compassion?) that wasn’t in the right place. And I just kept reaching for it and reaching for it until I started to worry it just wasn’t there anymore. And it all just made me more frantic.
Coaching is a caring art. We share the privilege with nurses, therapists, doulas, social workers and all the other people who get to care for other humans and help them in some way. It’s an awesome and deeply fulfilling job, but it’s not always an easy one. And it gets really tough when you’re not caring for yourself. (Ed writes about it as the importance of securing your own oxygen mask first.) I needed to make some changes quickly. I needed to manage my coaching-personal life boundaries better. And I needed to make some emotional space for me to grieve and cope with how my loved one’s illness was affecting me. I started declining all new opportunities and made some mild cutbacks to my workload. It took a few weeks, but I now feel much better. I think I still have some work to do to address my compassion fatigue, but I feel more hopeful now. And I’m glad I now know the warning signs because I anticipate that I may face these types of challenges again.
Aspiring Coach, in your haste and enthusiasm to care for others and grow your business, please make sure to care for yourself. Do it because it will make you a better coach. Do it because it will keep you coaching longer. Do it because we’ve never met, but I care about you and I want you to be the happiest and most badass coach you can be.
Epilogue: The Better Practice Is The One That Is Built
My coaching practice is now three years old, but it’s still a work in progress. I’m launching a rebranding and overhaul of my website. I’m figuring out how much to expand my client range without losing the focus that helped me build a successful practice. And I am navigating the challenge of wanting to earn more without sacrificing my mission of making executive coaching affordable to early-stage startups. And that’s just what’s on my mind for the rest of this year. What about the next three years? Or the next thirty?
There are days when I look at what I’ve done over the last three years and I feel a bit self-critical. I feel convinced most people would be unimpressed with my progress. Couldn’t I have built this faster? What if I hadn’t let Life get in the way? Why did I choose a less lucrative client set? I have an MBA from Stanford — shouldn’t this have been a breeze? Was it actually that hard or did I somehow make it more hard on myself than it needed to be?
And then there are other days when I feel like an f-ing superhero. There were smart people who thought I had “no right” to be doing this, and yet I somehow got other smart people to pay me their hard-earned money and then tell others my coaching was worth it even when you’re early-stage and you don’t have that much money. I made executive coaching a whole lot more accessible for a lot of people. I built this from nothing. And it’s legit.
And — oh yeah — I’m helping passionate people run their passionate companies better.
In closing, one final piece of advice from coach-to-coach:
Ed and I have a way of using the word “better” that we apply to a lot of situations. It’s similar to the adage: “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” So, when you’re dragging your feet on an outreach email, we’d say “The better email is the one that is sent.” And, if you’re agonizing about presenting a talk at a conference, “The better talk is the one you present.” Or, if you’re frantically over-rehearsing a sales call, “The better sales call is the one you make.” It helps to remind us that taking action is what counts the most. It’s never enough to think about doing something, if you never actually do it. (Or at least, if you never try to do it.)
So, Aspiring Coach, if your journey to build your own practice ever feels slow, painful, ugly, or fundamentally flawed, please just remember this:
The better practice is the one that is built.
Appendix: Summary List of Advice For Aspiring Coaches
I could summarize it all with #1, but for those who want more specifics I also included #2- #23.
1. Get in touch with what aspect of humanity you love helping. Then, get out there and start helping that subset of humans. And then start telling people what you’re doing so they can tell those humans how you might be helpful to them. And then take care of yourself in whatever way you need to keep loving that subset of humans and helping them. That’s it. That’s really all you need to do.
2. Look for clues in your personal or professional past that might hint to you that coaching is at your own intersection of Talents & Passions.
3. Start coaching. You start a coaching practice by starting to coach (whether you do that on your own or through a program) and then exploring whether those people will pay you and how much.
4. Find, hire and work with your own coach. This would ideally be someone who believes in you and can be a coach, a mentor, a teacher, a friend and eventually a colleague. That story of mine you read above—it never would have happened without Ed. Aspiring Coach — find your Ed.
5. It might take you three years, not one year, to build a coaching practice. That’s okay.
6. Don’t ever give anything away for free for longer than it benefits you.
7. Have a branded presence (website, business cards, business name, logo) that is not so wonderfully perfect it takes you too long or too much money to create, but is also not so cheap and ugly that you’re embarrassed to share it with people.
8. Tell people you’re coaching and ask them for help and referrals. Tell your friends. Tell your fans. Tell other coaches. And then figure out what are the most effective ways to tell people (how to tell them and who to tell) that will generate client leads for you. Repeat.
9. Do talk to other coaches to get their advice on how to build your practice. But don’t forget to a) impress the heck out of them and b) follow-up with them and keep them updated on your progress. They might be incredibly valuable referral sources or collaborators down the line.
10. Find a clear and specific client focus. Communicate it in a way that makes you memorable and easy to refer. Use that focus to say no to opportunities and prospects that don’t fit your brand. Turn that focus into added value or competitive differentiation.
11.Talk about the money. You are building a business after all. Don’t forget that coaching is usually the easier part. Building a business and making money is usually the harder part.
12. Do not start your own coaching practice if you’re not excited to own and run your own small business.
13. If you can, try to not let Life get in your way. And then, when it does — roll with it. Embrace it as a test for product robustness. Adjust your goals. Push out your timelines. But don’t let it make you feel like less of a Coach.
14. Consider what else besides 1-on-1 coaching you might pursue to generate leads and diversify your revenue streams. (Training? Consulting? Curriculum Development? Writing? Facilitating?)
15. Market yourself even if it feels uncomfortable and vulnerable. Don’t confuse what’s comfortable with what’s effective.
16. Come up with your own rule of thumb about how you will handle “faking it until you make it.” You decide how much and under what circumstances.
17. When deciding about formal training or certification, look at the market you intend to serve and how meaningful those official stamps will be to your target market.
18. Log your coaching hours (both paid and unpaid). That might come in handy if you ever decide to apply for certification.
19. Enrich your practice by developing your “best friend at work.” Try out collaborative partners and see who fits well with you. Make time to connect more casually with coach friends. Find your Michael.
20. Don’t be alarmed if you only hit 30% of your revenue goal in Year 1. If you can extend your financial and emotional runways, you might be hitting 130% of your revenue goal in Year 3.
21. Don’t ever let yourself get 100% busy. Try to max out at 90% busy so you always have at least 10% of time/energy available to respond to a cool future opportunity you can’t even imagine right now.
22. Care for yourself and strive to live a whole and balanced life so that you can care most effectively for others.
23. If (when) your journey to build your own practice ever feels slow, painful, ugly, or fundamentally flawed, please just remember this: The better practice is the one that is built.
P.S. Aspiring Coach, thank YOU for reading my story. I hope you found it helpful in some way.
If you want to connect, please feel free to leave a note in this post or send me an email. If you share with me what you found most helpful about this post and what you’re still struggling to implement, I will try to respond by replying to your note/email or doing a short phone chat while I’m driving somewhere.