A Research Paper By Jennifer Keys, Career & Transformational Coach, UNITED STATES
I had the wonderful opportunity to interview two coaching business experts on what it takes to start and run a successful coaching business. They each candidly spoke about the good, the bad, and everything in between on starting their businesses, and they shared it with me to help others hit the ground running. We covered so many topics in this short (okay, kind of longer) interview and they held nothing back. These coaches provided pure gold for any coach getting ready to start their own business.
Interviewer: Jennifer Keys
Interviewees: Michelle Ward & Raquel Hellenga
Starting A Business:
JENNIFER: How Did You Start Your Business?
I heard about this crazy thing called life coaching back in 2008, oh my gosh, and looked into it and said, ‘this is where I think I want to go. This is going to give me the tools that I need. This is the type of work I want to work on with people and decided to basically become the coach that I needed at the time and couldn’t find, which was a career coach that worked with creative people. I found ICA. It checked off so many boxes of the program I was looking for and in August of 2007, I jumped right in. I launched my business pretty soon after I enrolled in the program. My full-time business started in March of 2010 and thankfully, I’ve never had to look back.
I have always been two things: ambitious and pretty much always had a chronic illness. I was diagnosed when I was seven years old with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and so, most of my experience has been with a body that’s less than totally functional. I hit this point about three, four years ago, where I had burned out for the last time.
I had to kind of surrender to the fact that I needed to do things my way. I knew I wanted to start an online business and knew I wanted to be a coach. When I looked around for people like me, I couldn’t find any. So, that’s where my business was born – just about three years ago.
JENNIFER: What Were Your First Few Weeks (Day-to-Day) Like?
I was doing my day job thing 50 hours a week, including commuting, where I was taking my classes at ICA, working with clients. I was blogging, and I was tweeting, and I was taking blogging classes and stuff like that. I could tell you what it looked like once I left and started doing it full time, but while I was juggling all of those balls, I was absolutely sneaking my coaching/business work in at my day job as often as I could. So, I was writing content, or I was tweeting, or I was leaving comments on blog posts because that was actually a marketing tactic back then. I was responding to emails. I was doing those not client-facing things while I was at work. Then nights and weekends, I was either with my clients doing sessions or doing my ICA work, being in the classes, doing my homework. That all looked like that while I was still at a day job.
Then once I left, there was definitely time at coffee shops. That was when I was putting, I think possibly my first group coaching programs together. There was a workbook I was doing. I finally had time to do these marketing things and expand on my offers in a way that I couldn’t when I was just going from day job to personal life to class so that was exciting to just to kind of have that space. Even though it was scary because it was like there aren’t enough clients here for full-time life. But it escalated quickly.
A mix of being incredibly uncertain and really excited at the same time. That was the emotional landscape. My first few weeks in business were charging $25 for an hour guinea pig session with someone in the [Michelle Ward’s] group, and telling people I was meeting at this mixer that I was a coach for people with chronic illnesses, even though I was brand new.
Figuring out how Instagram worked because I had never used Instagram. I’m much more of a Facebook person. And yeah, living on prayer really. And needing the money. Like let me be clear, I was still teaching. I still do teach online a little bit because that works for me.
I think in my case, the fact that I really didn’t have another choice that I could see was hella motivating. I just had to figure it out because I couldn’t keep working for other people.
I think the hardest part for new entrepreneurs is where you know you need to do this. You know you want to do this. You’re ready to put in the work. But there’s that space where you have to supply all of the belief, all of the momentum, all of the confidence when, in reality, you may actually have like none of that.
It felt a little bit like holding my breath and just putting one foot in front of the other and a lot of sweating, just a lot of sweat, with new clients, trying to sell to people [and] not feeling totally confident that I knew what I was doing. But knowing that, ‘Okay! I know what it’s like to have a chronic illness and I am on this journey right now and figuring out how to live my life and make my business my way. I can help other people do that.’
JENNIFER: What Business Operations Do You Recommend Implementing Earlier Than Later?
The client inquiry process. I think that there needs to be something clear and simple to help turn an inquiry into a client. What I work with my [90 Day Business] launchers on is let’s get the process of the onboarding from inquiry until being a client. I feel like that’s important that we have that process. [Also], when I go to your website, or I hear you on a podcast or whatever, I want to go to your website and immediately get what you care about, whether this is right for me. Oh, and getting paid. Making sure you’re set up on PayPal or Stripe or whatever payment processor you’re using so that people could give you money. What’s not super important, is to have every document, everything at the ready.
I think the only thing you need is to pay clients. I would say, you don’t really need anything [other than] a contract and a way for people to pay you. You don’t need a website, you don’t need Facebook. You just need to tell people what you’re doing and get somebody to pay you to help them. So, I had a really bare-bones approach for the beginning. That being said, I [also] think you have to have some kind of rudimentary contract from the beginning. In my first contract, I pulled it out of my ass and wrote it in Microsoft Word. I literally printed it and had somebody sign it because I had an in-person client. That was just like, ‘I don’t give refunds, this is what it entails, this is how you can contact me.’ It was like two paragraphs. I think that’s really important because you don’t have to have everything perfect by any means. Yeah, and set up your pay pal. That’s basically how I operated for the first year.
JENNIFER: What Recommendations Do You Have for Individuals Just Starting?
What I see the problem and the challenge being for the launchers that I work with, is that they [focus on their website and branding] before they know their business messaging, their business mission, how they’re making money, what their package looks like, what’s their elevator pitch, and who are they serving. For the people they’re serving – what are they struggling with, what do they want to walk away with, what are they scared of?
I tell you I’m a big proponent of my five “M” framework, as I call it, of where you need to know your business mission, you need to know the messaging, you need to know the money, you need to know the marketing plan, and then you need the milestones to get it done. If you don’t know those foundational pieces of your business, then it’s going to be a much, much harder mountain to climb.
I think I would go back to – the only thing you need is paying clients and to really get hyper-focused on that. Just honestly eliminate the rest of it. Keep it as simple as possible: sell and coach. Definitely start with something like a result or deliverable that you feel pretty confident that you can help people with. Start with something that feels small and doable to you.
JENNIFER: What Is Your Current Marketing Process, and Which Strategies Have Been Most Successful?
So, I changed my whole business at the beginning of [this] year. I went from being the When I Grow Up Coach from 2008 through 2021 to be the CEO of 90 Day Business Launch. It’s been really interesting because I’ve really niched my business down from working with creative women to help them discover, launch, and build their dream business to just focusing on the launching piece. What I find, for my clients who are just launching who don’t have 13 years behind them, even if the business itself is kind of “brand new,” is talking to their people…just talking to their people.
The people coming into my program have found me through podcasts, found me through referrals, the referral piece is huge for me. Some [have] just been sitting on my [email] list for a very long time and they’re finally ready to make a move. For me, I pay attention to my newsletter list. I have an affiliate program that I started at the beginning of the year, which is exciting. [Also], I stopped doing Facebook ads.
[In] my current process, my biggest focus has been on my Facebook group of Chronically ill Entrepreneurs and Creatives. I pretty much focused on that from the beginning because I knew Facebook. A couple of things that I know work in my business: my Facebook groups, having free webinars, and providing a lot of value on those. And then pitching to people and having one-on-one calls after those webinars. That process works for me. I really think it’s less about the what, and more about how do you best create relationships because that’s going to be different for everybody. Do not underestimate the power of one-on-one outreach and connection. I think a lot of people are scared to do that. There are so many things that can work. Experiment and pay attention to what gets results.
Client / Sales:
JENNIFER: How Did You Build a Successful Client Base? How Do You Get New Clients?
You know that my husband opening his mouth brought me my very first client. Opening your mouth. Just talking to people in my world and being active, you know, at that point, like on Facebook, and sending out my newsletter, all of that stuff helped bring people in back then. I think a lot of it would still bring people in today. I tell my launchers, too, that so many of them are coming from other careers, even if they are opening a business that is related to what they were doing like maybe they were in HR, and now they’re being a career coach, right?
You have to train your people to think of you not as someone who works in HR, but as a career coach and that also takes a while. So, you need to kind of start that process and say, ‘Hi, this is what I’m doing now.
Is this something you need? Do you have anyone that you could think of?’Ask them to do something for you.
Asking for help. [Saying] ‘this might not be you, but maybe it’s someone you know, and could you make me an introduction?’
So, the simplest answer to that is, and I’m taking a page out of Stacey Boehm’s book, but you get to meet people and tell them you’re a life coach, which you can do on the internet, or at a mixer or in all of these different places. I would say really the most important thing is, meet people and tell them you’re a coach. Tell them what you’re doing. Reach out, have one-on-one conversations, ask for the sale. Ask people, they will be your client. And serve them well. Know that they will tell other people and they will think of you. It’s okay to be low-tech and organic in the beginning. I would actually advise that. It’s just about pursuing conversations.
JENNIFER: How Important Is Mindset? As a Business Owner, What Is Your Mindset and How Do You Manage It?
Okay, number one, all the coaches out there, don’t beat yourself up too much about this.
I know you feel like, ‘I should be able to do this! I’m a coach. I do this for my clients. Why can’t I do it for myself?’
This is why life coaches have life coaches. This is why business coaches have business coaches. It’s really hard to do this for yourself. So, I stand behind a formula that I invented, saying that the only way you could get confidence and trust around your business is with time and experience.
(Time + Experience = Trust + Confidence)
So, I want every coach out there, especially if you’re in the very beginning of your business journey, or pre-business launch, to just remember, you’re supposed to not know what you’re doing. You’re supposed to be super scared. I sometimes get more nervous, and I barely have clients like this, where the clients are like, ‘Oh yeah, I feel great! I’m so confident. I know exactly what I’m doing.’ I’m like, ‘what? Something is happening there, what’s happening there?’ Try to just give yourself grace.
I’ll gender stereotype that the women I work with are used to being superheroes in lots of aspects of their life. As adults, we probably haven’t been a beginner in a very long time. So, we kind of wants to skip that piece and go right to being an expert knowing exactly what we’re doing. I want to make sure that you say, ‘I’m a beginner. Would I yell at a baby for not walking? No. So, I have to stop yelling at myself.’
What’s really hard about starting a new coaching business is so much of what we’re doing is really intangible. So, making sure that you have, what I call a plan and review day. Every month for my business for the last few years, I answer these questions: What happened this month that you want to acknowledge yourself for? What went well? What lesson are you taking away from this month? How is next month going to be different or better? What’s the goal that you have? I have a dedicated weekday every month to look at what just happened in the month in my business, count everything, and [think about] what’s to come. That’s a big part of things.
Mindset is THE most important thing. Sometimes it’s easy, incredible, amazing, and fun. Sometimes it’s really hard. I think the most important shift early on for me was realizing that if I just didn’t quit, eventually I would be successful. So, I think starting, you’ve got to be able to grasp on to like one straw that will keep you going in the beginning. Mine was if I just don’t quit, eventually, I will figure this out. Find an anchor to get you going in the beginning. Know that as you progress and as your business grows, it will require you to grow, too. Decide what is it you really want out of life and what do you want to create for yourself because the world is your oyster.
JENNIFER: What Resources Can You Recommend in Terms of Social Media, Coaches, Mentors, Etc.?
I’m really annoyed because I think a lot of that stuff is noise. My clients, in particular, have trouble with the rabbit holes and think that by listening to every single marketing podcast, that then they have a business. It is not the case! What is super important is to find the person or the small group of people that you feel speak directly to you. [Also], the more you could tap into your own intuition and what is good for you, and what isn’t good for you, and make those decisions accordingly, the more successful your business is going to be.
So, if you have a chronic illness, me. Hang out with me, and I will help you.
I will give you some resources, but let me say this: successful entrepreneurs don’t spend their whole day consuming somebody else’s content. They’re spending most of the time putting themselves out there, messing stuff up, and creating. That’s an important thing. I think it’s important to surround yourself with people who are going through the same thing as you, and also people who are where you want to be. As for specific people, oh my gosh. So, Dr. Valerie Rein, I’m a huge fan of her work. Lacey Sites is a huge influence on me. I would say she’s probably one of the people that I’ve followed the longest. If you listen to too many people, you’re going to be overwhelmed and not do anything.
So, if you are going to hire anybody, make sure it’s somebody that’s going to help you make sales. In the beginning, we’re like, ‘okay, somebody just tells me what to do.’ The great coaches will not do that. They will give suggestions, but they will help you figure out how to be that person that makes those decisions.
JENNIFER: If You Had to Do It All Over Again, What Would You Do the Same Way, and What Would You Do Differently?
I would work with a business coach much sooner. I would have asked for help a lot earlier. I think I would definitely let go of some things that didn’t work earlier than I did. I think the main thing when I think of what’s my regret is, there is a really long time in my business where my collaborations were working really well, and my solo offers weren’t working as well. I convinced myself that I couldn’t make this happen on my own. I would have dropped that nonsense sooner.
If anything, I would just move faster and break more things. Just not be scared, but just put me out there even more, faster, and earlier. If I would do anything differently, I think I would be a little more careful about how much I put my ass on the line financially. Only a little bit, though, because I think that taking those big risks can be super beneficial.
JENNIFER: What Is Your Overall Advice on Anything Else That We Didn’t Cover That You Think Would Be Helpful for Future Coaches?
Be yourself. And then the other thing is just like, do not fill up your time with busywork. I swear to God, I swear to God, just stop. Please put down the 5,000 newsletter subscribers in five minutes packages, put down I’m gonna take a month to find the perfect scheduler.
Being really honest with yourself. Open your mouth. Figure out those Five M’s of your business, those foundational pieces. Start telling people what you’re doing. Build a nice website that will do a lot of the heavy lifting for you, and then start talking to people because you’ll have that website to back you up. That’s what’s going to matter. Not all the how to be an Instagram Rockstar, or how to, you know, run Facebook ads or whatever, is not where the start of your business needs to be.
I think the most important thing that I see over and over again is we have to stop pretending our business is this compartment, that’s separate from our mental health struggles, from our relationship trauma, from our childhood trauma.
We have to stop pretending like our business is just a separate thing that isn’t impacted and intimately interwoven with all these other parts of our life because it is. if you’re struggling in one area, that’s going to show up in all the other areas, including your business. So, I would say don’t underestimate how important it is to take care of your own mental health, to take care of your own physical health.
That if you have trauma you’re not dealing with, that’s gonna hold you back in your business. These aren’t separate things. Business is the ultimate self-development opportunity, I think, especially when you’re coaching other people because it will force you to grow and look at yourself. Just don’t treat it like it’s a separate thing. Realize that all the pieces go together.
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