Are you an entrepreneur who wants to know more about business coaching? You’re in luck.

My name is Sven Opgenorth, and I am a founder and start-up coach. I’ve got a background in programming and studied business administration & entrepreneurship. My passion has always been social entrepreneurship. I have started two social start-ups so far: one to help with the refugee crisis in Germany, and one during the Covid crisis.

Next to starting my own ventures, I got more and more involved in coaching early-stage start-up teams at the Technical University of Munich, and in the government-funded EXIST program. 

By now, I have organized several week-long Design Thinking workshops, and am regularly coaching at hackathons, seminars, and start-up competitions. My specializations are intensive coaching for early-stage companies, as well as workshops to help teams deliver more authentic pitches on the basis of acting techniques.

I believe that business coaching is a great way to give back knowledge to the community, and support young teams in achieving success.

Besides that, you can probably find me in a Starbucks, talking to one or more people who want to found and are looking for ways to start!

What Is Business Coaching, and Why Does Your Start-Up Need It?

My favourite definition of a coach is to be someone who guides people on their individual journey. 

A coach is not, for example, a trainer who tries to teach a specific skill, nor a consultant, who advises teams on one specific problem. 

Instead, you as a coach are there as an external perspective, as an opportunity for the teams to bounce back ideas, and to help people get back on track to achieving success. 

How does that happen? 

Most of the time, coaching has two main aspects: the team and the process.

The Team Side of Business Coaching 

A coach is useful to help start-ups with team building. As “superficial” as this sounds, I actually believe this is the biggest gift you can give to a team. 

Based on all the teams I have coached in the past, the actual start-up idea or business is never truly the root of problems. Usually, start-ups get into trouble due to team conflict or a clash of personalities. 

In a start-up, you will always face challenges, and failures. Only if the team is flexible enough and trust one another, will they always withstand and eventually find a product-market fit that is right for them. Only teams that obsess about failure actually fail.

However, building up a fundamental team spirit is rarely initiated by the team itself. 

Therefore, a coach should be the one outside person to propose icebreakers and team-building games. While these exercises come across as “awkward” and insignificant, they can be vital to team building as they create vulnerability – the basis of a good team dynamic. 

When you meet your team for the first time, the most awkward but most important task is sacrificing your own seriousness, and creating a “safe space” for openness and failure.

The second most important thing is perspective. Things like celebrating achievements and milestones can make all the difference in your team. There’s a good analogy to illustrate this. Think of two bricklayers working next to each other. When the first one is asked what they are building, they say, “A wall.” When the second is asked, the answer is “A cathedral.” 

No guesses who is the most motivated worker there! It’s easy for your team to get lost in the details. As a coach, working with the founder to remind them of the bigger picture is important for motivation.

The Process Side of Business Coaching:

The second aspect of coaching is to be the primary flag bearer for the Design Thinking process. This is more straightforward, and usually what teams already expect from you as a coach.

Based on your past founding experiences and your knowledge in the start-up space, you will:

  • Remind teams to stay customer-oriented.
  • Help them find quick validation strategies for their ideas.
  • Guide them through brainstorming sessions.
  • Provide further insights and contacts that might help them.

Once you start operating from such a “birds-eye” perspective by coaching multiple teams, you will realize that most teams face the same challenges in the beginning. 

For example, they might already be developing their product, without having talked to real users first. As a coach, it is then your job to push them out of the building, and into real-life interviews. 

Often, teams might follow a scattergun approach. They come up with thousands of ideas for features that their product should have. As a coach, help them to focus on one specific problem, with one specific minimum viable product. It’s important to remind teams to, “First boil a cup of water, before trying to heat up the whole ocean.”

Lastly, start-ups often forget the one thing that should really matter to them: finding a first, paying, customer. Teams will have many wild discussions about features, possible routes to markets, and developing hundreds of partnerships in their big vision. This approach will only lead to months of work. In the end, it is then realised that no customer wants to pay for their product. As a coach, help your teams to first validate the core of their idea. This is done by convincing ONE person to pay ANY AMOUNT OF money for their work. 

With any challenge, the best way to give your team a new perspective is by showing them you made the same mistakes in your endeavours, and want them to save the time and effort you invested.

How to Make the Leap From Founder to Coach

Usually, the journey to becoming a coach starts through a happy coincidence.

When I founded my first start-up, I joined an incubator for social entrepreneurship in Frankfurt. During the program, there was a team I really clicked with that struggled with the process and didn’t understand how to get to market.

That’s when I started sitting down with them, telling them about my experiences, asking them, “How can we look at this from a different perspective?” This is how I found my passion for helping others fulfil their start-up goals.

Once I realized I enjoyed this process, I sought professional training in coaching. For the process side of coaching, having founded a company, having crashed against some walls, and knowing what you’re doing is probably enough. But for the team aspect, professional training can make all the difference to your practice.

Personally, I think the team is at least 50% of the coaching process. Learning all these different techniques about pacing, creating rapport, team building, and what kind of exercises you can do, is best done with the help of a professional trainer.

The Two Biggest Business Coaching Sins to Avoid

Everybody makes mistakes – and that’s fine! 

For coaches, there are two typical types of behaviour that I like to avoid, as they usually lead to very unproductive coaching sessions:

  • Forcing an opinion. As mentioned before, a coach should only guide people within the process, he should not force direct solutions on them. As soon as you as a coach say “I think option A is best”, you might become biased. Or even worse, the team thinks you might be biased, and will try to defend the option they prefer most against you. In any way, try to be an OUTSIDE PERSPECTIVE in the discussion, instead of being A PART of the discussion. That is, make sure the team makes decisions in a customer-centric, data-driven, and lean way. But don’t make the decision for them. Whenever a team asks me for my opinion, I immediately say, “What I think is irrelevant. Only what the customers think is relevant. So try to find an answer within your data and feedback from the market”.
  • Engaging too much in academic talk. Start-Ups, especially the ones starting from universities, are experts in academic analysis and brainstorming. When you help a team as a coach, try to avoid “just being another brainstorming voice”, listing all the distant possibilities and visions one could pursue. Instead, push the team to go out of the building, test their hypotheses, and find a first paying customer asap. Be the person that reminds the team what their actual goal is: Being active on the market. Amongst my favourite tools to use for helping people test their ideas very quickly with real users is called “Pre-Totyping”, you should definitely try it!

Tips and Tricks to Become a Better Coach

If you’re considering embarking on your business coaching journey, I’ve compiled a few pieces of advice to help you get started:

  • Create rapport. This is vital to integrate into a team as an external coach. There are many theories around it such as pacing (imitating language, breathing, etc) or active listening (nodding, confirming, repeating words, etc).
  • Create vulnerability. For me, it really pays off in the beginning to create vulnerability, not only between the team members, but also between me and the team. This is a particularly big issue if you’re coaching as part of an incubator. If you get matched to a team, and they present their idea to you, they will always try to make it sound good because they think you are judging them as part of the incubator team. That’s when it’s really important to say “No, I’m actually not responsible for your future funding. I’m not responsible for giving you any contracts. I’m just here to help you”. Talking about your own previous challenges and failures when founding start-ups can help teams open up about their worries.
  • Use guiding questions. Questions like “Why?” “How?” “Where?” “When?” “In what way?” can go a long way in helping you understand a team and a start-up project. So instead of just voicing your opinion, try to get as much information as possible from the team in front of you.

If You Need Help: Build on the Community

Do you want to become a start-up coach, but still have outstanding questions? 

Just as we would tell every start-up team: Just go out there and try it!

The entrepreneurship community is a wonderful place full of inspiring and motivated people! Start by reaching out to some of them, asking for their advice and opinion, and maybe offering your first coaching for free.

And of course, if you need any further assistance, you can also always feel free to reach out to me!

About the author

EWOR is a school conceived by Europe’s top professors, entrepreneurs, and industry leaders. We educate and mentor young innovators to launch successful businesses.

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