Finding the right coach for your pre-revenue startup.

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Last night I was at dinner with a mentor, and we were discussing my goal of writing an article every day. So far, this goal hasn’t been easy, but it also hasn’t been the hardest thing that I’ve done. He asked me a great question: “why?”

I told him that my purpose is twofold. First of all, I think it’s important for me to process my daily activities and everything I’ve learned that day. Secondly, I want to share knowledge with my community. 

I have monthly calls with the CEOs of all my startups in our 50+ company incubator. The one-on-one time is great. However, I am now trying to build a better scale for sharing knowledge. I want to write enough that I can prescribe content to my startup CEOs and LPs. I’ve also been building quizlets for the content. I’ve historically provided recommended reading to CEOs that I coach, but I never knew if they actually read those articles. 

Of course, there are already tons of articles about startup challenges and how to navigate them. But there’s very little focused on the seed-stage dynamic. The knowledge base I’m creating is specifically for pre-revenue startups and their investors.

Troubleshooting a post-revenue startup is a different set of challenges, skills, and tactics. I used to play pickup soccer games and also played in leagues. Pre-revenue gameplay looks a lot more like streetball than it looks like an organized sports league. The players are the coaches—at least to start—and there aren’t a lot of practice sessions and drills. Everyone shows up with their current skill sets and playing styles, with a single goal of winning (and maybe having some fun, too). 

But if you really want your seed-stage startup to be successful, at some point you’ll need two things: access to a relevant knowledge base, and a coach who can help you through the process. If you’re in one of Shadow Venture’s Lab programs, we’ve got you covered. If you’re a tech startup innovating in the built environment, apply. If you’re a seed-stage startup in a different sector, please do read and learn from my articles. But you also need to find a coach.

Here are some tips for finding the right coach:

  1. Experience is crucial. If they haven’t built a startup from scratch (preferably bootstrapped) then they are not a fit. 
  2. They should be active. It’s very easy to find someone who’s retired to help coach you. After all, they are probably well-connected and have a lot of time on their hands. But the reality is that if they haven’t been active, they may not be moving at your pace.
  3. They may not have the most up-to-date skills. Their connections may have aged out. And if they aren’t active, they don’t add much social equity to trade on.
  4. They should know your business model well. If they haven’t built a business similar to your business model, then they won’t be a lot of help. A football coach can help motivate you and give you fitness tips, but you’re playing soccer. A football coach can’t help you with your dribbling and your shooting.
  5. Cultural temperament. Work with a coach who understands the culture of startups. Working with few resources and a lot of tasks isn’t easy. Your coach is there for accountability and to help you solve problems. They need to understand the context of your work and how to keep you focused.
  6. Functional expertise. Expert is at the root of expertise. Your coach needs to be an expert in at least one area (a market, a business model, etc). They can be more of a generalist from there, but a pure generalist won’t coach you on the details. They’ll stick to surface-level help. 
  7. Titles don’t matter. It is attractive to have a coach with a great title. But don’t focus on this window dressing; focus on their tactical skills.
  8. Think globally. A coach doesn’t have to be close by. You don’t have time for long coffee and lunch meetings with your coach. In fact, the distance could be helpful; it might make you more intentional about scheduling regular time with them.

So how do you find this person? Start looking at your network. See what introductions your connections are willing to make for you. And it’s important to note: the person you’re looking for doesn’t have to be your coach for the rest of your life. They may just be your coach for this season.