Who Do You Turn to at Critical Moments for Your Startup or Scaleup? A Coach or a Mentor?

Neil Lewis
Sep 10, 2018 · 7 min read

Have you ever had that feeling that you know the answer to your business or enterprise problem is out there, but you just don’t know who to ask?

Or maybe you’ve felt that it is lonely at the top and that when the door shuts on your home office or corner suite that there’s no one to talk to?

Lastly, do you feel slightly jealous that other companies that have raised Business Angel finance, not because of the money, but because everyone needs an angel on their side?

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Well, you are not alone! We all want to have someone who’s on our side!

You may be very good at ‘getting stuff done’ alone or you may have a couple of trusted partners who you can work with, but eventually, all startups will grow into teams (or die at the attempt) and you will need to lead them or stand aside.

Typically, it is at a pivotal moments of change, when your role shifts from solo founder to a partnership of some sort, or you hire your 1st or 25th staff member, that founders typically look around for help.

So what kind of help do you need and who do you turn to?

Why we don’t seek help…

Before I answer ‘what kind of help do you need’ — let me just say this, very often we (yes, myself included) don’t seek or accept help because we can’t be sure that the ‘help’ wouldn’t make things worse!

Yes, that’s right, ‘help’ is a double edged sword. It can work for good…. and it can work for bad and sometimes bad is ‘very bad

In a previous scaleup, when my business partners and I were disagreeing a lot over strategy and our next steps, they lined me up to meet this ‘special adviser’ who they thought could resolve our differences. Great I thought, only to find that this special adviser wanted to start with a 5% share of our (already very successful) business just to join our board. It then turned out that this ‘special adviser’ was really just a way for one partner to pack the board with his mates and get his way!

Other times these passive ‘advisers’ have been called biscuit munchers, because their primary purpose is to turn up at board meetings and eat the biscuits! It’s hard to say that these advisers are always bad for your business, they just don’t really add or do anything, apart from eat the biscuits that is.

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Oh, but they do send in regular invoices!

And yet…

And yet, it is the most human thing to seek out someone to guide us and advise us. Someone who has been there, done that and got a wardrobe of T shirts.

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I know this because during my 20+ year entrepreneurial career, I have often found myself reaching around at moments of pivotal change or when a business came crashing down or a big client dropped us, to find support, advice and help.

And, I have often struggled to find the right person in that moment.

But I believe I’ve solved it. I believe I now know how to find the right person…

So who is the right person…for you?

The right person for you is someone who either solves a particular problem by bringing their external skill, wisdom or network to a particular issue, or…

…they are someone who can help you identify the solution within yourself or your team so that you can resolve the issue from within.

Personally, I label these descriptions as either an external Mentor (or adviser) or an internal business Coach.

Now, different people use the terms Coach and Mentor interchangeably — so, if it works better for you to switch those terms around, then that’s fine.

The key point is this — one applies an external solution (Mentor or Adviser), the other reveals an internal solution (Coach) — possibly to the same issue.

In larger organisations or as your organisation grows larger, you will bring mentors or advisers (eg. your VCs may insist on Non-Execs) in to solve particular problems. I recall spending quite a lot of money on an international sales tax lawyer because our Finance Director couldn’t get a clear answer from the normal sources. And, as she was dealing with about 10 different tax jurisdictions, it made sense to pay someone else to tell us how to deal with our particular issue.

For this ‘purchase of advise’ approach to work well, the team needs to be able to clearly specify the issue they want solved — in this case; how do we bill, collect and pay sales tax advice for a given group of countries and then find the right expert.

But as startups and scaleups are typically in rapid business and customer development that makes it harder to clearly articulate an issue, not least because the issue(s) change(s) day by day.

In fact, it is quite likely that a first time entrepreneur, or even an experienced entrepreneur in an early stage will miss diagnose the issue and therefore, order the wrong solution for the wrong problem with the wrong Mentor. That’s triple bad!

A classic example is when early stage and scaleup organisations tell me their biggest challenge is getting ‘more sales and more customers’.

The ‘more sales’ fallacy…like a ‘doctor, doctor I’ve got a cold’

When I hear that a business wants more sales / more customers, I guess I respond with a ‘…okay, that’s interesting, shall we take a look then…’ rather like a doctor responds to a patient who turns up at her surgery complaining of a cold or just not feeling well…

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The doctor takes the patient’s diagnosis lightly, but the fact that they are asking seriously! In the same way, I hear the diagnosis but seek to take a closer look at what the underlying problem or issue might be.

Of course, unlike a doctor, there is no startup or scaleup stethoscope. So, the only diagnostic tool I can use — or anyone can use — is questions.

And more importantly, the only medicine for a startup or scaleup challenge, is that the founder or founding team choose to change something themselves. It might be that they choose to pivot their business or refocus their brand or target a different customer pain or work with a different team or take a different route to finance or change the founding team or hire someone different or build a different product or create an alternative service and so on and so forth.

But always, to be effective, the solution needs to be sourced from the founder or founding team themselves.

Now, for many startups and scaleups these pivots or choices are life or death decisions for that business and that’s why you need to choose your support very carefully. So how do you do that?

How to choose a great Coach

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(Okay, not THAT kind of coach!)

First, assuming that you’ve read this far, you now know that you are looking for someone with whom you can create a dialogue to explore your challenges. If it isn’t easy to talk to them, then find someone else.

Second, who does the talking? If your coach talks more than 60% of the time, then they are not listening! Ditch them.

Third, in your conversation, did you experience any ‘ah ha!’ moments? Any insights? When you finished did you feel a greater sense of clarity or purpose or focus? If not, then you’ve got the wrong person.

Four, politics matters. Don’t choose someone whose values are too far away from your own. Building a business involves developing a culture that will attract talented people. Hence, shared values around equality and opportunity will matter a great deal.

Fifth, do they ask great questions? Questions that make you stop and think? Questions that make you pause? Questions that make your pulse race and your sense of purpose return?

Six, do you trust them? Simple, plain, down the line, do you trust them? If not, you won’t be open or open to them asking searching questions. If you doubt them, it won’t work. Move on.

Seven, lastly, does your Coach feel the same about you? Do they feel they can trust you? Do they feel they share similar values and outlooks with you? Do they get a buzz from seeing you find those insights or get animated when you talk together? After all, this is a partnership.

Start now

So, if you’ve read this far, then my last advice is to start now. Start looking now. Of course, you may find more than one coach or you may stay with a coach for a few months before moving on to another. However, its important to start finding that coach in the quieter months because when things need urgent and rapid decisions, you need to be able to pick up the phone and speak to someone who can listen, you respect and whose honest reflective feedback you trust.

Good luck! :)

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