The Difference Between Coaching and Therapy

  • May 4, 2020

It’s no longer a secret that running a startup is emotionally excruciating. While it may have been anathema for a founder to disclose that they were seeking support 5 or 10 years ago – or unrealistic for them to even have realized that they could have – now it’s commonplace (almost to the point of absurdity). 

Coaching and therapy are similar-seeming services in a fragmented market where the product itself feels like a secret delivered behind closed doors, so it’s normal for founders to have a lot of questions about what they are and when to engage with each.

​Here’s how I differentiate the two:

Therapy achieves personal growth via relationship

In general, therapy achieves personal growth by focusing on a founder’s relationships. Therapy focuses on the quality of a founder’s relationship to important stakeholders like their family members, friends, colleagues, investors, cofounder(s), and even their therapist. Critically, regardless of what content is being discussed, therapy’s relentless focus is on a client’s relationship with themselves as gauged by the client’s capacity to:

  • identify and skillfully manage their emotions,
  • observe and respond constructively to their thoughts,
  • define and maintain healthy boundaries/relationships, and
  • generally develop a healthy, respectful relationship with themselves in all aspects of their life.

The output of therapy is:

  • an increased awareness and mastery of emotion,
  • greater congruence between a founders’ internal experience and their external life (e.g. you learn not to do the stuff that hurts you because you either learn to stop doing the thing or you learn how to not hurt), and
  • an ability to use that knowledge effectively to maintain, adjust, strengthen, and deepen healthy relationships in the founder’s life. ​

A great use case for therapy is an early-stage founder (pre-Series A) struggling on the path to PMF because that journey is mostly about tolerating feelings of anxiety, discomfort, stress, and hopelessness while maintaining clarity of vision/hope, developing basic skill at communicating clearly and authentically, strengthening relationships through troubled times (e.g. with your cofounder), and continuing to meet your basic needs as an organism in distress. Therapy is also typically better-priced than coaching to match an early-stage founder’s budget.

Therapy is most frequently dosed once weekly, and the cost ranges anywhere from $80-250/hr. Many founders consider therapy a business expense, and the cost is occasionally supplemented by a founder’s health insurance depending on the therapist. In general, you can expect that it will take ~1-6 weeks for you to start thinking differently about yourself, ~3-9 months to start feeling differently about yourself, and ~1+ year for therapy to start transforming your life (if you stick with the process and deeply engage with it). If you’re in therapy but aren’t sure whether it’s ‘working,’ I highly recommend that you initiate an open and honest discussion with your therapist about your concerns. Keep in mind that the relationship is the primary catalyst of growth in therapy, so invest in the relationship with your therapist in order to get the most out of it.

If you’re looking for a therapist, read this blog post: How Founders Can Find (and Afford) A Good Therapist

​Coaching achieves personal growth via startup

Whereas therapy achieves personal growth via relationship, coaching achieves personal growth within the context of a founder’s startup. Coaching builds on the skills that therapy introduces by supporting the founder as they develop leadership skills on top of the strong interpersonal framework that therapy introduces.* If you think about a founder’s psychology as the product both services are designed to augment, therapy is designed to help you deeply understand and refine the foundational MVP of your psychology (your feelings, thoughts, and relationships). Coaching is designed to make the founder’s psychology feature-complete by ensuring that they’re thinking and feeling at a pace that matches – and slightly exceeds – the growth of their company.

To that end, coaching (with me) focuses on the following areas, often simultaneously:

  • Teaching founders how to effectively incorporate appropriate emotion (fear, frustration) into management and strategy decisions, or resolve it independently.
  • Teaching developmentally-appropriate management skills to founders to ensure they maintain a high-performance, outcomes-driven culture (e.g. goal-setting, public speaking, prioritization, delegation, delivering effective feedback, implementing effective meetings, introducing org-wide accountability practices, etc.).
  • Advising founders on the organizational and process changes needed to resolve short- and long-term functional breakdowns by redefining roles and responsibilities, implementing effective meeting schedules, developing internal processes that enable critical collaboration, reorganizing management structure, adjusting hiring plans, or shifting product timelines.
  • Helping founders understand the founder-specific, shared experience of anxiety, depression, burnout, stress, failure, insecurity, and exhaustion while sustaining extremely high levels of functioning.
  • Guiding founders in defining, communicating, and modeling their leadership style, company values, mission statement, vision, and culture to align their companies around shared company norms.
  • Empowering founders to move quickly in making ambiguous and highly consequential decisions
  • Analyzing and redefining deeply-held beliefs and values as related to issues of motivation, burnout, performance, and purpose. Brainstorming plans of action in alignment with updated schema.
  • Leading founders in scripting and delivering emotionally sensitive and strategically complex communications to a variety of stakeholders (e.g. when making layoffs, shuttering a product, holding key stakeholders like a cofounder or board member accountable, resetting cultural expectations, or redefining a companywide metric that impacts their strategic direction).

It’s extremely difficult to define a ‘best’ use case for coaching the way it is for therapy. The list above is what my work focuses on, but coaching is an unregulated field which means there are a near-infinite number of coaches who all have different specialties. I would say if you fall outside of the use case I described for therapy, and you’re a later-stage founder with at least 9+ months of runway, then coaching might be a good fit for you. You’re welcome to email me to ask.**

​Again, because coaching is unregulated there isn’t a typical cadence, structure, or pricing. Most coaches charge the company somewhere between $1000-$10k+/mo. It’s normal for coaches to meet with founders once-weekly or every-other-week (once-monthly also happens but is more rare), and it’s normal to spend 1-2 hours with your coach per session.

Two Common Mistakes and The Advice I Repeat Continuously​

In their hunt for meaningful support, the two most common mistakes I see founders make are: 

1/ Founders hire a coach to scale themselves and their startup before finding PMF. The last thing founders need is someone helping them scale a company around a product they don’t yet have. Time, focus, and energy are a founders’ most valuable resources pre-PMF. The more bloated a startup (and its burn!) is before the product is ready to scale, the more surfaces there are for a founders’ time, focus, and energy to bleed out onto. Many coaches will exacerbate a startup’s slow death by amping up its burn and acting as an accountability holder/forcing function for you to spend your valuable time thinking about org structure, culture, effective management, leadership presence, etc., when the only thing that will save your startup is a product that works and your absolute dogged pursuit of it.

The above advice is especially relevant for founders who just raised a healthy seed post-YC Demo Day. Coaching is great for you if you have enough runway and a clear, undeniable line of sight to your next milestone (ideally, meaningful growth or revenue) and you know you’ll struggle mightily in achieving it (because of the sheer volume of work, because you feel too burned out, you have too many competing priorities, you don’t enough headcount, you have dysfunctional internal communication and/or cofounding relationships, etc). If you haven’t found PMF nor do you see a clear, undeniable path to it, then your focus should be on building your product and finding a therapist who can help you surf the emotional chaos that doing so will assuredly force upon you.

If you’re not clear about whether you’ve found PMF, email your YC group partners to ask. If you think you have a use case for coaching despite not having found PMF (I can name 3), email me to ask.

2/ Founders are looking for a coach who will “identify their unknown unknowns” so they can “avoid common mistakes.” Rather than reasons for you to engage with a coach, these are actually the standard insecurities every founder feels masquerading as a logical-at-first-blush concept. Here’s what’s true: THERE IS NO ONE IN THE WORLD WHO KNOWS MORE THAN YOU DO about your product, the problem you’re solving, your expertise and unique experience of the problem, your insight into its solution, the buttons and levers of your psychology, your team, your team’s expertise, your market, your market right now, the timing of your product+market, your vision, or the first customers you’re pursuing now as an entree into your market. Please re-read this last sentence and imagine me staring you straight in the eyes and passionately, vehemently, fervently, wholeheartedly repeating these words to you. I mean it – take a minute and repeat those words to yourself. DO NOT OUTSOURCE EVERYTHING THAT YOU KNOW. YOU ARE THE EXPERT. NO ONE IN THE WORLD KNOWS MORE THAN YOU DO ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE DOING.

The idea that there exists a person who can foresee the exact stumbling blocks you’ll run into given the complexity of the above tapestry, and feed those blocks into your awareness at just the right moment for you to integrate, understand, and dissolve them, is the unconscious fantasy of your own insecurity. The opportunity here is for you to remember that you are the expert (!), and for you to lean into managing the emotional difficulty of being a founder. Constant failure is a feature of every founder’s world. Uncertainty and chaos are permanent features of every founder’s world. Failure, uncertainty, and chaos are deeply, deeply uncomfortable feelings and it is normal for every founder to struggle with them. A therapist can best help you build resilient and long-lasting tools to tolerate this discomfort and operate effectively despite it. A coach who leads you to believe they can provide you with exactly the right advice for you/your product, at exactly the right moment is someone you should probably run away from, and quickly. 

* This is why I think every early-stage founder should be in therapy. It makes later-stage coaching infinitely more effective and efficient.

** You’re welcome to email me if you think you need a coach but aren’t sure or aren’t sure where to start. I spend a 20% of my time each week talking to founders about what they’re looking for support around and referring them to the coaches or therapists I know who I think would be the best fit. (If I think I would be a good fit for you, then I’ll mention myself as one of your options and tell you why.)

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Amy Buechler

I've worked with thousands of the world’s best startup founders as Y Combinator’s first Batch Director and only embedded Founder Coach.

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