The Importance of Having a Startup Coach

Giff Constable is a software entrepreneur and product leader with multiple exits behind him. He wrote the book Talking to Humans, now required reading at top university entrepreneur programs and startup accelerators around the world.

Giff has coached several NYU startups as part of the Blackstone LaunchPad coaching team at the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute and understands the value a coach or mentor can bring to entrepreneurs.  He shared his knowledge on how budding entrepreneurs can appropriately leverage the skills and time of an external coach/mentor.


In your experience, why is it important to have a startup coach?

Giff-ConstableA supportive yet objective coach gives you perspective, a dose of hard-earned wisdom, and helps you spot things you are missing. Frankly, anyone in any job can get a lot of leverage from a good coach/mentor, but it is particularly powerful for startup founders because of the high degrees of pressure and uncertainty, and the need for getting into the weeds. A coach can help you see the sometimes-invisible trees. Having a coach is a sign of self-awareness not weakness.

How should an individual or team reach out to a potential coach?

A non-professional coach (i.e. they make their living in other ways) is both hard and easy to find. Hard because it takes a lot of looking. Easy because the looking isn't that complicated. It requires having lots of conversations with interesting people and being unafraid to ask for advice. When you feel like it is safe, it requires lowering the veneer of success and getting honest and vulnerable.

Among your conversations, you will find some experienced people who ask good questions, with whom you have good rapport, and whom you believe you can truly trust. It is often people who don't think of themselves as "coaches." Look for value, not fame.

Once you find the right person, all you have to do is ask. People are busy, but most seasoned entrepreneurs like helping young entrepreneurs who are trying to solve real problems. Your job is to continue earning the right to their time. This is not about money, but rather about your actions.

There are also some excellent professional coaches. It is best to find them through word of mouth. If you want to work with a professional coach, my advice is to work with someone who has a lot of experience.

What advice would you offer an individual on how to maximize their time with a coach to extract the most value?

First, help your coach understand your context, status, strengths and risks in a very efficient and honest way. Second, go into your sessions with specific things you want to explore. Third, figure out how to keep the coach up to speed on your changing context (a simple way is to ask how they like getting updates). Put in the time to make things both concise and clear.

In other words, do the work required to make every interaction "high bandwidth" and make it clear through your actions that you respect your coach's time.

Understanding how an individual or team progresses in their venture can be hard to measure. What should a person do in advance, during and after meeting with a coach?

This is very context-specific. All I can say is organize your thoughts, the questions you want to kick around, and any evidence you want to share.

OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) might be a useful tool here. Check out Christina Wodtke's book Radical Focus for more details on this tool. Not only is the selection of OKRs an interesting thing to discuss with a coach, but you get a built in structure for discussing progress in a focused way.

However, one of the most powerful things about having a coach is being able to let down your guard and talk about the hard, emotional parts of being a founder. This is not about measuring progress at all, but it can be equally powerful.

What has been a positive experience for you as a coach? Are there techniques from those meetings that could help young entrepreneurs?

My favorite experiences have been with people whom I feel I can help, who are willing to be helped, and who clearly respect my time. Then I am willing to give them more of my time. Respecting my time does not mean shying away from asking for my time. It means using the time effectively and taking the conversations seriously. It means if I ask for something (to help me be a better mentor), taking it seriously.

As a coach, I do my best to ask questions rather than be too prescriptive. However, if I do make a suggestion, I expect an entrepreneur to consider it. I do not expect an entrepreneur to take it. After all, it is their business and they understand their context better than I. But they should consider it and have a good case for their decisions. 

In your opinion, what are the top dos and don'ts of coaching for the coach and the team?

Coaches need to avoid being too prescriptive. They need to remember that for all their experience, the startup is not theirs and they are working off of imperfect information. They need to stay humble and remember that the past is not always predictive of the future. They need to have empathy for the team but also be unafraid to provide "tough love." You don't help anyone by ducking the tough issues.

Startup founders need to be unafraid to ask for help, but respect the time of the people of whom they ask. Organize your thoughts. Be straight, open and willing to be vulnerable, but preserve your strength and independence as well. While you should listen to advice and different perspectives, you also need to remember that it is your business and thus the decisions are yours. Just be able to backup your decisions.

Book an appointment with the Blackstone LaunchPad at NYU coach to discuss your idea, validation challenges, customer discovery and more.

Image 1 Source: Talking to Humans
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