Starting Out – Building Your Coaching Business
by Ann Orton
Starting with a story:
At the time I first shared my views about ‘building a coaching business1’ I told this story:
I had a long conversation this morning with a potential coaching client and, at the end of the call, agreed to meet this person in four days’ time. (Update: at that ‘chemistry’ meeting we agreed to work together, without the client seeing other coaches first. The individual liked my background and was particularly comfortable with our common field of university study – physics!) I first heard about this potential opportunity when an email arrived at The Alliance2 asking me to make contact with this individual. A bit of background: the company that initiated the request was a long term company client of The Alliance. In 2007, Alliance coaches were invited to a complex briefing and selection process for a team of coaches to support a strengths-based development project in a major manufacturing organisation (run by an individual in our broader network of contacts, who had trained in the same Meyler Campbell Business Coach Programme we all completed). For those chosen as potential members of the team, a ‘speed matching’ session followed. Several Alliance coaches, including me, were chosen to work with members of a senior leadership team. At that ‘speed matching’ one client choose to interview me because my CV showed out-of-work interests that coincided with his. My clients achieved their goals and felt my support was valuable. However, I have had no personal work from the client company since 2009, and other Alliance coaches had little work in the years immediately following the project. I was put forward for coaching assignment in early 2012 but, after a positive meeting, heard that the individual had chosen the coach from another company. This latest contact came out of the blue earlier this month, when my latest CV, provided in 2012, was passed to the potential client by the HR Director. Since then everything has moved very quickly!
First be a coach
I’ll assume that you really want to be a business coach – that there is something about working alongside people as they seek to become the best they can be that makes your heart sing. If you have doubts about that (whatever your lingering questions about your level of experience and learning) stop now and do something else! There are far too many coaches out there who do love their work and know that this passion reflects in how they are, what they do and what their clients experience and achieve. If your commitment is there, then these coaching-related points are fundamental to successful business building:
- Be a coach ‘always’, using available opportunities both to practice, refine and demonstrate your coaching skills in every aspect of your life. ‘Coach’ through listening, challenging, mirroring, supporting…, whatever the situation or circumstances of the people you are with. Notice their reactions – the pause for thought, the ‘that was a great question…’, the ‘I hadn’t realised how much I use that word…’ – and recognise what you are able to bring to the conversation, however informal the coaching.
- Take every opportunity to learn about coaching, whether formally or informally, by talking to other coaches, being supervised individually or in a peer group, reading, researching, exploring related topics and taking part in CPD activities. Learn which of these approaches best match who you are as a person and which trigger new experiences and understanding – in other words, don’t get stuck in a rut by doing all your learning in the most natural way for you, whether that is keeping your nose in a book or talking to everyone.
- Do great coaching work with your clients, whether the work is pro bono or paid, and recognise what this means about you as a coach (seek specific feedback on aspects of your skills or on the new tool you tried), your coaching interests (the people and situations that stimulate the best in you), and for your business (what they might say about the value of your coaching, who they know, what networks they are part of).
- Know where you get excited and are in flow, passionate, playing to your strengths. Be able to describe these coaching ‘sweet spots’ and work towards refining your approach in these areas (whether with an experienced leader or a young person at the start of their career, at a defined job transition or improving in a current role, within a small entrepreneurial environment or a major corporation).
Then build your business
While the two are intertwined (coaching and building your coaching presence as a business) my experience and personal learning suggest that there are several points to note when building your coaching business. These apply whether you are establishing yourself as an individual coach (the way many people begin) or whether you form or join others in a coaching practice:
- Clarify your coaching offer (see above) with at least a few boundaries (sometimes it’s easier to define what assignments you would not want to accept) and don’t get distracted. There is a tendency for any business, particularly in the early stages, to take any offers of work however vaguely related to their business intent, but ‘the grass isn’t greener …’. Work not aligned to your offer is a distraction, may establish a view of you unrelated to your coaching skills, and may ‘trap’ you into more work of a similar kind. For example, even if the request for training in public speaking sounds close enough to coaching and you have a good reputation in that area, you will experience competition here too, and will risk remaining tied to your past experience rather than future aspirations.
- Take work that moves you towards your vision, is consistent with your strategy, and inspires you. It doesn’t have to match perfectly but there should be something about the work that provides support for your future business and adds to your bank of stories, connections and recommendations
- Treat every contact (whether through previous roles, family, interests or social life) as a potential opportunity to connect, explore and learn but not to sell directly (your friends may desert you!). Network theory suggests that immediate contacts are not necessarily a direct source of work, but that we should focus on the networks of our friends and contacts. Remember that you are not selling but instead having interesting, enlightening conversations and planting seeds for the future.
- Believe in yourself (as a coach you will often work with clients around self-belief – here is a chance to try it!) and be persistent and focused. It takes time to build credibility, reposition from your previous business life and connect with people. Your journey will parallel that of coaching clients seeking to change, so there is learning in your experience, however challenging. The good news is that, while it may take significant time to build a fruitful relationship, relationships are often enduring.
- Acknowledge that there will always be a balance between investment and paid days when running your own business (and the trick when successful is not to do so much of the latter that you neglect the former!). However, this balance will be significantly towards investment at the start of your business (see my story for an example of a time consuming process to gain coaching assignments), and at times this may feel frustrating. And your investment time will include marketing, selling, managing relationships and doing administration. Find interim indicators of success (contacts made, discussions held) rather than measuring only on the basis of coaching assignments won. If you are not actively making contacts, you are unconsciously expecting coaching opportunities to ‘arrive’.
- Be generous with your coaching support. Many coaches spend time in pro bono work, often in areas of intense personal interest. But don’t be afraid to raise the idea of the ‘deal’ so that both sides understand this aspect of the contract. If you want your client to promote you within their network, make this clear at the start. Or if you want access to an event or a contribution to your favourite charity, discuss this up front. My personal pro bono work is typically in arts organisations and with young entrepreneurs. Clients have supported my fundraising, for example my Booby Birds skydive for Breakthrough Breast Cancer in 2011, and provided useful contacts for the future. And remember that it is indeed a small world – the ‘six degrees of separation’ or ‘Kevin Bacon’ theory!
- Consider ‘affiliation’ in whatever form might be helpful for you. Depending on your personal preferences you may work extremely well alone, but for most of us (including Introverts in MBTI terms!) aspects of learning, supervision, marketing, and refining business expertise are more productive and much more fun done with others. And there may be situations where you need to balance your strengths and weaknesses by using others or you know of a coaching assignment where it is inappropriate for you to be the coach or the ‘match’ is not the best.
- Be realistic about the time it takes to build your business. Lead times vary from the ridiculously short to painfully long. My story illustrates in both senses! Research has suggested that people do not think you are ‘bugging’ them until after seven contacts so do go back to people. And an Alliance colleague wisely says that ‘the silence is not always as quiet as you think it is!’.
- Be professional in everything you do. Clearly your coaching should be the focus of your efforts to demonstrate professionalism and, increasingly you will be asked about your arrangements for supervision and continuing professional development. But whether you like it or not, or react in a similar way yourself, some people will write you off if you do not reply to a contact request within 24 hours, and others may dismiss you if your proposals are unclear, have gaps, or include typographical errors. It is worth the effort of investment in items such as an attractive business card, coaching CV (see my story), and statement of coaching approach, as well as ‘standard’ versions of proposals, contracts and invoices which you can adjust accordingly. Remember that something as seemingly unconnected to coaching as a VAT registration sends a message about you and creates an impression. The same Alliance colleague says ‘prepare hard for a lucky break!’
- Learn from what doesn’t work and move on. An aspect of coaching is to help clients build from things that go well, recognise the value of learning from ‘failure’, and be aware of limiting beliefs. Don’t carry untrue assumptions about losing an assignment into your next business opportunity. In my story, I asked for feedback from the L&D contact about the 2012 assignment I ‘lost’ to another coach. I was told that the client had said that working with either coach would have been valuable. One of the other coaches not chosen in the major project might be interested to know that the client chose me because of my interest in the arts.
- Be practical: think through issues such as what it take to cover your costs, how cash flow will impact your ability to pay bills, what you might expect on ‘contact to sales’ conversion rates, where and how much you need to invest in priorities (for example supervision vs. premises), whether you need a website, the time and energy it takes to stay on top of your financial situation. Remember that it takes time to receive income from the work you do, whatever your payment terms and however quickly you invoice. You control your contractual terms, speed of invoicing and understanding of a client company’s invoicing requirements (date of submission, purchase order number), but do not control when your invoice is paid!
Recognise that building your coaching business is a new venture and / or transition which would be a perfect topic for coaching: use it as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and to experience the support that coaching provides!
- Reference1: Meyler Campbell Faculty Clinic on 27 February 2013 with Anne Scoular, part of the CPD programme available to graduates of and participants in the Meyler Campbell Business Coach Programme
- Reference2: Alliance Coaching Limited, www.alliancecoaching.co.uk
- McMahon, G & Oglethorpe, A. (2013), Coaching at Work magazine, Volume 8 Issues 1&2, articles on How to Set Up and Develop a Successful Coaching Practice
- MC Business Coach Programme materials (on flow, strengths, T8)
- MC CPD Programme, www.meylercampbell.com/news/events.html
- Rogers, J. (2006), Developing a Coaching Business, Open University Press / McGraw Hill: Maidenhead, UK
- Scoular, P.A. (2011), Business Coaching, Financial Times Prentice Hall / Pearson: Harlow, UK