Maybe it’s because I grew up playing a lot of different sports. I’ve had great coaches and I’ve had awful coaches. The great ones pushed me to places I couldn’t get to on my own. The awful ones mostly made we want to never play that sport again.
Now apply this to business and startup. A good coach might add a lot of value, provided the skills are already there and the coaching is individualised. A bad coach can take a promising business and crush it.
The key is in identifying good coaches and bad coaches. This is much easier to do in a sports context, where motivation and the adherence to sound, proven techniques are the primary ingredients for success. But the rules for success in business, and especially startup, change almost daily.
For example, the crow-hop technique to throw a baseball has been around for over 100 years. Anyone can learn it in an afternoon and instantly increase their throwing range.
Negotiating a term sheet requires financial, legal, and even technical experience that no amount of positive motivational reinforcement is going to substitute for.
So let’s talk about startup coaching — what it is, when it’s legit, and when it might not be.
What exactly is startup coaching?
Before I get really well-written hate mail, let me assure you that there are indeed legitimate startup coaches out there
Like most scams in startup, even in general business, there are always honest versions of all the sketchy impostors, and this is true for coaches as well. In fact, it’s the success produced by legitimate coaching that winds up breeding sketchy variants. After all, the most believable lies are always based on a nugget of truth — something I pointed out about public investor pitch contests.
In short, startup coaching is intended to make a startup leader or founder better at navigating the challenges in leading their unique startup.
But what I just did there was make a nebulous definition a little less nebulous. And that’s where the issues start to arise. So let’s start clarifying by talking about what startup coaching is not.
Coaching vs. advising
Advisors relay their experience to provide objective decision criteria. Coaches fortify subjective strengths in the decision maker.
A formal advisor joins a startup as a consultative resource in a specific area of expertise. It could be for their experience with a technology or science, sales and marketing, product development and growth, or even within a given industry. An advisor rarely takes on the responsibility for leadership coaching.
I’ve been an advisor to several startups over 15 years. I’ve never accepted an advisor role where I didn’t feel there was already solid leadership in place at the company. On the flip side, however, I’ve never been in an advisor role where I haven’t had discussions with the CEO about leadership and major decisions.
So can an advisor also be a coach? Sure. Can a coach also be an advisor? Maybe.
Coaching vs. mentoring
Coaches and mentors look a lot more alike. In fact, these days it’s pretty much safe to say that most business coaches are actually just mentors for hire. And that’s OK.
Coaches and mentors both work towards the success of the company through an individual. The individual being mentored doesn’t have to be the CEO, or even a leader. A mentor’s job is to relay their experience to enhance the personal professional skills of the person they’re mentoring. And you can say the same about coaching.
If we’re going to split hairs, mentors usually come from the same functional area or industry as the person they’re mentoring. Coaches are more generalists, and offer a wider scope of personal professional advice.
Skills vs. strategic vs. motivational coaching
So there are actually three types of business coaches, probably more, but the lines between the types can get blurry. Much like in sports, a hitting coach helps you with your swing, that’s a skills coach. A strategic coach lays out a game plan to put you and your team in a better position to win. A motivational coach works on your soft skills, like confidence, leadership, and decision-making.
Skills coaching is technique-driven and has quantifiable results. Strategic coaching is a little more personalised but has similarly quantifiable results. Motivational coaching is more vague and the results are usually only measured by the person being coached.
Again, while these kinds of coaches are legitimate in the business world, when you talk about areas like strategy, leadership, and professional growth, well, this is where it gets difficult to tell the impostor from the real thing.
So here’s what to watch for.
There are no secrets to unlock
There is no single secret, or even a free white-paper full of secrets, that is the only thing keeping you from mega-success in business. Or for that matter any other pursuit worth pursuing.
There are only concepts to learn and apply.
Learning and applying take time. For example, there is nothing funnier than a seven-year-old kid trying to throw a baseball with a crow-hop technique for the first time. To do it well takes practice, and to master it takes years.
For the record, in business, if a technique is a well-kept secret, there’s a decent probability that it falls somewhere in the range of mildly to extraordinarily illegal.
There are no guarantees
Every business is different and each takes a different path to success. There is no single or multi-point plan or strategy that can claim to guarantee that you will be successful with it.
The only guarantee that can be offered is that you might get your money back from the coach if you fail. The risks you take building a business far outweigh the costs of being coached.
I wish coaches called themselves guides, because that’s what they kind of are. A guide will lead you up Mount Everest, but not one will guarantee that you’ll get to the top. Or not die.
Coaching doesn’t directly produce an increase in results
Only change produces results. And that change must come from you and be executed properly.
I can definitely go back to sports for this metaphor. Even the best coaches I’ve ever had didn’t improve my game until I changed what I was doing. And there was always that initial period when I hadn’t adopted the technique correctly yet, and that was when the coaching was the most important.
If it’s being implied that you won’t have to make changes to your model or your operations, you might be being sold fairy dust. If you are making changes and your coach is shrugging, your coach might be inventing strategy on the fly.
You should know what “coaching” means
A thorough explanation of what is being offered should be documented and understood before any money exchanges hands. Even if what’s being offered is just time and you’re paying by the hour, that contract should be defined up front.
Never pay for a program without an outline. Never agree to a contract that doesn’t have an out. Ideally, you want your coach to address how they will attack your specific goals. If you like the plan and its steps, then you probably have a good coach.
Why is your coach a coach?
Finally, your coach should be able to document both their experience and previous results in whatever it is they’re coaching.
This should go without saying, but a good coach should not only have a wealth of experience doing what you’re trying to do — both failures and successes — but they should also have a verifiable track record of helping others do what you’re trying to do.
Startups fail because they waste money and resources. But I’ve found that once they get past those mistakes, the thing that kills them most is wasting time.
You might be enamoured with or enjoy spending time with the person you call your coach. Just make sure you’ve got a path in front of you and can measure progress behind you.
This article was originally published on Medium by Joe Procopio
Joe Procopio is a multi-exit, multi-failure entrepreneur. In 2015, he sold Automated Insights to Vista Equity Partners. In 2013, he sold ExitEvent to Capitol Broadcasting. Before that, he built Intrepid Media, the first social network for writers. You can read more and sign up for his newsletter at www.joeprocopio.com