- September 24, 2021
In their well-meaning hunt for 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 perhaps, finding a therapist who can help you surf the emotional chaos that doing so will assuredly force upon you).
If you’re a YC Founder who isn’t sure you’ve found PMF, email your YC group partners to ask and consider their opinion alongside your own. If you think you have a use case for coaching despite not having found PMF (I can only name 3), you can email me for my opinion.
2/ Founders look for a coach who will “identify their unknown unknowns” so they can “avoid common mistakes.”
These are not reasons for you to engage with a coach. In reality, these are 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. There will never be anyone who knows more than you do about all of these variables taken together. You’re it.
Please re-read the last few sentences 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 WHAT YOU KNOW OR WHAT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO LEARN. When you take what you know, or take the questions that are yours to answer through lived experience, and place them onto someone else, you create the conditions for insecurity, a lack of trust, self-doubt, and a crisis of confidence. This is a failure of thinking. 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 before you 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 or highly trained coach can best help you build resilient and long-lasting tools to tolerate this discomfort and operate effectively despite it. They will not give you the answers which are not theirs to give. A coach or advisor 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.