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Setting up shop as an innovation coach

Succeeding as an innovation coach

Starting out as an innovation coach is something special. Just as you’re teaching others how to innovate and succeed, you have to remember that the same lessons go for yourself and your own business. The shoemaker's children don’t have to go barefoot, however. Here’s the bare minimum of things you have to remember.

Take a walk in the forest

Before you begin doing anything, it’s time to think. This is one of those situations where asking the customer won’t help. You have to figure this out yourself.

What kind of work do you prefer?

Would you be seeking longer term engagements with single clients, booking out months at a time? That can be very comfortable, as it removes the need to keep filling your calendar with a lot of smaller deals. On the other side, you risk seeing a lot of downtime between clients, as it is often difficult to put in the sales work while you are 100% occupied with one customer.

On the other side, helping several different customers might be the reason why you wanted to start coaching in the first place. You should be able to charge more for the shorter gigs, so if you can fill your books you could be well off with this strategy - with either more money or more free time.

Are you going solo or building a company?

This choice should be in the back of your head. If you see yourself in the corner office at a successful consultancy, it has to impact the kind of clients you seek out. You want bigger corporations with budgets to take in a few of your future colleagues. Once they’re in, you’ll get out and repeat with new customers. 

Staying solo is a different game. Find your thing and do it well. Over time you’ll build up a roster of clients and nudge your prices in the right direction. 

Getting going

We already discussed that your new coaching business is really a startup, and now it’s time to get started.

Building the references

Ironically, the first thing you need is a set of good references. You’re officially just getting started, so you don’t have any. Still, with a little creativity, you’ll get there. Here are some ideas:

  • Use your experience from a previous job. Unless you were designing stealthy airplanes for the military, chances are your previous employer will say it’s fine to be the subject of a good reference case.
  • Sell yourself cheap. Don’t worry about doing your first few assignments for a very low rate. You need to get started, so something has to give. Offer some hours to a prospective client on the cheap, with a clear understanding that they will be your reference unless you do a very poor job.

Build out your catalogue

Think about what kind of services you want to offer. Innovation comes in a lot of different flavours. Are you helping your customers do Google Sprints? Kickoffs for new and innovative projects? Or perhaps building a culture of innovation?

No matter what, you should specialize. Here you should be back talking to customers again. Set up some coffee meetings and figure out what kind of problems your prospects have? What kind of solutions would you have to offer them?

You’ll have a lot of ideas, but make sure you don’t go for them all. It’s important to focus. Find something you can do very well, then build out from there if you’re successful.

Think about pricing

How are you going to charge for your services? It’s very easy to go for an hourly wage, and most customers will feel comfortable with this model. It might still not be right for you. You should think about the value you provide. Sure, if you provide value through one-on-one talks with the client’s employees, a time based rate could be right. But what if you’re setting up a workshop with 10 people? 100? In that case, it’s clear that you provide a lot more value than the regular hourly rate implies. 

Inspect and adapt

Once you’re off the ground it feels great. But don’t forget to inspect and adapt. It doesn’t matter if you’re flying solo or hiring new colleagues. Take some time off from client work on a regular basis and think: Is the business on the right path? What should be done differently?

Iterating on your business is the most important lesson you’ll give to your clients. Don’t forget it for yourself.

The innovation coach hero is one of the three types of heroes who put Playing Lean to good use in their efforts to help others innovate more efficiently.

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