In February 2014, Orrick invited me to write a guest post for their entrepreneur blog on why even early-stage founders should consider working with a coach. You can read the full original post here. Or read on below for a slightly abridged version.
When I was an early-stage entrepreneur, I considered—and then quickly dismissed—the idea of hiring an “executive coach.” I assumed a coach would be too expensive and completely out of touch with what it takes to launch a new product from a shed in Menlo Park. Two years later, we reached profitability. But I often wondered how much better I could have performed if I had worked with a coach. So, I left ElliptiGO to found my startup-focused coaching practice.
Coaching isn’t new to Silicon Valley, but it isn’t as commonplace as it could be among startup founders. Mark Suster bluntly highlights the value of coaches to founders: “If you don’t work with somebody like that now, it’s your loss.”
Now, it’s one thing to hear this message from an entrepreneur-turned-coach or an entrepreneur-turned-VC, and it’s another to hear it from current founders who started working with a coach at seed-stage or even pre-funding. I polled a few of my clients to ask why they find value in coaching and why they’d encourage other startup founders to work with a coach. Here is what they told me:
#1: Accelerate Your Personal Growth
“Your ability to personally grow faster than you could ever be comfortable with is the single biggest determinant of whether you will survive and succeed.”
– Ben Knelman, Founder & CEO of Juntos Finanzas
When I first started coaching Ben, we met on a sidewalk bench because he had no office, no team, and was trying to figure out how to turn a college project into a real company. Two years later, he now leads a team that is about to grow out of their Mountain View office space and expand internationally. Ben would be the first to tell you that the pace at which a student-founder-turned-CEO needs to develop executive skills is intense.
The founders who succeed over time are the ones who learn the fastest—not just about product-market fit—but also about themselves. Working with a coach accelerates your learning and helps you develop leadership skills ahead of when your growing team will need them.
#2: Get Emotional Support
“It’s lonely at the top, and it’s so nice to not only turn to friends or a spouse.”
– Julia Hu, Founder-CEO of lark
Founders often confront emotional challenges they don’t share with teammates, investors, advisors or even trusted friends and family. A coach creates a safe space for you to talk through struggles, but a coach will also help you brainstorm your next steps. And they help you feel better so you can get back to running your startup.
Imagine if you could develop your product, pitch investors, and lead your team without the distraction or burden of fear, insecurity, doubt or anxiety—how much better could you perform?
Ben Horowitz of a16z publicly acknowledges that, “By far the most difficult skill for me to learn as CEO was the ability to manage my own psychology.” And who helped him develop that skill? Bill Campbell, the legendary CEO coach to many of Silicon Valley’s most successful leaders.
#3: Have an Unbiased Sounding Board
“You need space outside of your team and investors to work through important decisions.”
– Colin Mutchler, founder-CEO of louder
“Everyone else in your life has some personal or professional bias—having a coach is the only unbiased sounding board you can have.”
– Romain David, Co-Founder of Meexo (acquired by Live Nation)
Founders make myriad decisions every day under massive uncertainty. To navigate this ambiguity, entrepreneurs usually tap their advisory networks of friends, mentors and investors. The best advisors offer shortcuts based on their knowledge and experience. You consult them because you want their expertise and their associated bias.
But what do you do when you have plenty of people to tell you what you should do and no one who can help you figure out what you want to do? A good coach is an active listener, a pattern-spotter, and someone who helps you decide, quickly and thoughtfully, what you want to do. Coaches take on your agenda as their own—without financial, professional or personal bias.
#4: Anticipate Later-Stage Challenges
“In the early days, you’re so busy sprinting to put out fires that you might not take the time to stop and think about the long-term impact of your choices. And yet, even the smallest decisions made early on can significantly change your company’s trajectory. Working with a coach helps me realize which decisions made now might have ramifications a year or two down the road.”
– Maria Wich-Vila, HBS alum and early-stage entrepreneur
If your coach has worked with founders at your stage and beyond—you benefit from the patterns that coach can help you anticipate. Coaches can’t see around every corner for you, but they can help you spot a cliff before you set yourself on a path to march off it.
For example, I’ve helped founders overcome toxic relationships with investors or advisors so I have useful insights for how to avoid those relationships in the first place. I’ve seen the mounting costs of not firing an underperforming teammate quickly enough, so I can help other founders make changes to their teams more decisively.