Coaching as a business: Getting used to the reality of “You eat what you kill”

By Andrew Neitlich, Founder and Director, Center for Executive Coaching

I have found that most coaches have values that sometimes make it hard for them to live with the reality that, as in any other professional services business, you eat what you kill.

This past weekend, I got a real-life experience of learning to kill in order to eat. It relates to how I got my coaching practice started, and my intent is that it gives comfort to coaches who are uncomfortable with aspects of attracting clients and closing deals.

Now, this is a fishing story, and I will try not to ramble on like many fishermen:

Over the Thanksgiving holiday I spent a few days on an island with the intent of learning everything needed to catch fish without anyone else’s help. That meant learning to cast a net for bait fish, and then catching bigger fish with the bait fish so I could actually get a decent meal.

My family comes from a long line of what we call “vegetarian fisherman,” meaning that we like throwing lines in the water and usually come up with seaweed. Therefore, no one should be surprised that the process started off inauspiciously. I had purchased a casting net to catch bait fish, which is that net you see fisherman throw into the water in a perfect circle. In my case, I managed to get the net tangled fifty different ways before I could come close to casting it properly on the sand for practice, and then in the water for real.

But then, when I felt ready to actually catch something, there were no bait fish to be found. I discovered that I had to wait, and wait, and wait, until a school came by. It took two days just to wait for a school to pass close enough to shore for me to maybe catch some bait. At first, in my excitement to finally see some bait fish, I threw a series of rushed casts and caught nothing. Once I got my first decent throw of the net into the water…I still didn’t catch any bait fish. It turns out I was closing the net too soon, before the bait fish could get stuck in it.

On the last day of the weekend, a few hours before we had to leave, I finally caught a netful of a few dozen bait fish.

Now it came time to catch an actual eating fish.

Of course, once I figured out the right way to put a live bait fish on a hook, the waters were quiet and nothing bit except slightly larger bait fish trying to steal my bait. An hour or two in, I caught a couple of fish that were too small to keep, and threw them back. That didn’t stop me from tangling my line a few times, losing plenty of hooks and weights, and entertaining passersby and my wife and kids watching from the shore.

About 30 minutes before I had to catch the ferry off the island, I caught a flounder that was big enough to eat. Sure enough, right about that time, I noticed that the water was teaming with fish of all kinds: snook, white fish, even a three-foot shark checking things out.

Regardless, I was perfectly satisfied to filet the flounder, fry it up in some olive oil, and share it with my family.

To you, none of this might be a big deal. But I enjoyed a great feeling of satisfaction for learning something new and really cool, resulting in a tasty meal. Is this process natural yet for me? No, but I can see that – if I keep practicing – it will be simple and easy in a short time.

As I sat on the ferry departing the island, gloating over the flounder and picking some small flounder bones out of my teeth (still have to work on using a filet knife properly), I couldn’t help but see the parallels with starting my coaching practice almost two decades ago. Things went the same way, although over a series of months rather than a long weekend.

When I first started, I made so many mistakes – the equivalent of casting a net all wrong. I didn’t know how to talk about what I did in a way that got prospects interested. I didn’t know how to get my name out there. I didn’t know how to appear credible. In selling conversations – which terrified me — I didn’t know how to tell if a prospect was qualified or not, how to avoid wasting time on people wanting free advice, or how to close deals efficiently. Words that come to mind include: awkward, rushed, and scared.

In fact, when I first started, I didn’t even go to waters that had any fish in them.

Eventually, with patience, I figured things out. I discovered how to find the waters where the prospects are. I found ways to get my name out there, and attract clients in ways that felt authentic and natural.

In fact, the motto “You eat what you kill” doesn’t even feel accurate anymore. Clients come to me now through a process that feels so natural that I don’t feel any of the brutality or hardened edge that the phrase denotes.

Look, I could have used any number of metaphors here about learning or doing something for the first time: first kiss, learning to play guitar, learning to ride a bike, learning martial arts. It doesn’t matter, except that the hunting/fishing metaphor is so apt because we are making a living with our practices. Also, I’m still smiling while I think of my experience on the island.

If you are a new coach, or want to get into coaching, please remember that you are always going to be in two businesses: the business of coaching, and the business of business development. Business development can feel like being on an island forced to figure out how to catch your own fish. Initially it is terrifying. Sometimes, even in what might seem like a great target market, prospective clients don’t show up – and for no apparent reason. But if you are willing to keep trying, failing, learning, and trying again – being patient and having faith throughout — eventually you will land that first client.

That first client creates such an exponential increase in your confidence – let alone opportunities for add-on work and referrals – that it is generally the breakthrough a coach needs to keep moving forward. It takes much less effort to get the second client than the first, and the third than the second, until it becomes natural. Fish don’t refer other fish to your line, but clients do!

So, before you think about starting your own coaching practice, ask the following questions:

  • Am I willing to do what it takes to learn how to fish, including getting through a rough and awkward learning curve?

  • Do I have the stomach for the business of business development, knowing that – at least at the beginning — it is an unforgiving business?

  • Will I persevere when it feels like my line keeps getting tangled?

  • Am I willing to come up with new strategies when it seems like there are no fish in my waters?

  • Am I coachable and willing to learn from others who have done it before me?

The good news with coaching is that you can find guides who have been there and done that. I guess that’s like hiring a charter boat and seasoned captain. If you are willing to get your net tangled, lose some hooks, and keep casting, good things will happen.

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