For novices, writes Marie Taylor, starting a business is like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro walking backwards and juggling with other people’s wallets.
If you haven’t developed and run a business before, it’s like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro whilst walking backwards and juggling with every willing person’s wallet you can get your hands on. It’s fun, scary, can be a bit risky, and creates frequent bodily surges of adrenaline and cortisol.
So coaching a start-up business often focuses on imparting the crucial lesson to be realistic. It’s important for a start-up founder to realise that their great business idea, technology or product is just that until it is a legitimate business making a profit.
Founders can also be unrealistic about the effort, business planning and market research required at the beginning. Getting the balance between keeping a client motivated yet realistic can be a challenge for the coach. One of the most valuable contributions a coach can make is to hold up the mirror to help founders and the management team see their business from the perspective of others.
The key concerns of the founder in the first few years are about understanding how to do business whilst developing their products for their target market. The focus tends to be on the challenges of developing infrastructure, recruiting employees, suppliers and contractors they can trust – and, of course, finding customers or creating a market for products in the right domestic or global locations.
Start-up founders need to ensure that the product gets to market and that quality can be sustained through all the logistical hoops that developing a new business may present. They want to grow their business, often bringing investors on board who will support them whilst taking a share of the business that they can tolerate. There are myriad coaching issues around helping founders to get clarity on what, why, how, who and where.
Start-up founders also need to be aware that a highly intelligent workforce filled with PhD and masters graduates doesn’t necessarily translate into great people management skills to engage, inform, influence, set expectations, and focus on business outcomes.
They also need to be sure not to confuse eccentricity and intelligence with creative ability: people who are considered “one-offs” by business leaders may be creative and may be invaluable – but leaving them alone to create and deliver can be akin to leaving a small child in a room full of dynamite and dry sticks and asking them not to touch anything. So encouraging people to create isn’t enough – people also need to be able to execute ideas appropriately or hand them over to people who can. And there’s an important role for coaches in helping founders to be realistic about this.
Marie Taylor (MBA 2001) was a Fellow in Human Resources in the Organisational Theory & Information Systems subject group at Cambridge Judge, a professional executive coach and co-author of the book, Business Coaching & Mentoring for Dummies, published by the “Dummies” brand of publisher John Wiley & Sons. Marie sadly passed away in 2017.