One of the main benefits of the High-Tech SeedLab is the tailored support we offer to early-stage startups. Every team of founders has a designated startup coach who is willing to pull up her sleeves and really deep dive into the biggest bottlenecks.
Last week’s article laid out the differentiations between what it means to be a startup coach, an expert, consultant, mentor or advisor. To give an even better and more detailed view of the job of a startup coach, I interviewed one of our very own: Anna Buchmann.
In the interview we talk about her role as a coach, her strategy, as well as the insecurities that come with the job. Thanks again Anna for sharing your stories and honest insights!
Hi Anna, let’s start with something most people like to talk about: accomplishments. Tell us about your most memorable one as a startup coach.
“Before the High-Tech SeedLab, I mainly coached social entrepreneurs in different parts of the world. I spent a lot of time in India. And I clearly remember one of the teams I was working with: they focused on building a solid supply chain and support system for organic farmers (…). After working with them, I very vividly remember two feedbacks I’ve gotten. On a side note: I actually think positive feedback and coachee success is the greatest proof of accomplishment for coaches.
One feedback I received came from a close partner of the team. He said that he could recognize a “spark in their eyes”, I know, that sounds dramatic, but it’s his words, after we started working with the team. It was so good to know that we could ignite their passion for the cause again. Sometimes you just need someone else to believe in what you’re doing when you feel stuck. We opened a lot of ways for them to become creative and innovative.
About a year later I met the female co-founder at a wedding and she came to me and she took my hand and she wouldn’t let go for the entire wedding. She was so excited to see me again. She was so grateful for all the input they got. I think that’s it. The small things when you see you actually made a difference in people’s lives.”
Oh, such a nice story! How about failures? What was your biggest failure as a startup coach?
“I’m not sure I would call it a failure. But I think there is a lot of personal fear connected to being a startup coach. In the back of your mind you are always scared that you can’t help people. Sometimes teams require very specific input and I can’t give that because I’m not an expert. I have to remind myself of that constantly. What I can do is connect them with people, and help them evaluate different strategies. But often I can’t really solve the problem for them, and I shouldn’t because at the end of the day this is the task of a founder. Solving problems.
The first time I had to coach I had absolutely no experience. I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just actively listening. So I decided to do a coaching course in London and I knew I had a natural inclination towards coaching. But I really flunked in the practical exam and I failed. I was so upset because I knew I could do it. Luckily I had another chance. After the conversation the examiner came to me and said it was one of the best exams they’ve seen in the past decade. One of the things I took away is that sometimes you just need a connection to the coachee. You need to kind of click with and be on a similar wavelength.”
And what is it that you enjoy most about coaching?
“It is the personal contact with the teams. I quite enjoy when people are having an AHA-moment. When you’ve asked a few questions and they realized ‘ah this was what was blocking me’, or ‘this is the best way forward for me’, or ‘I’ve never really thought about this’.
Specifically for the High-Tech SeedLab, it’s also that we work with sustainability-focused startups and I feel like I can create impact on a bigger scale.“
What role do you see yourself play as a coach in the bi-weekly check-ins that we have at High-Tech SeedLab?
“I very much see myself as a hands-on coach. I cannot give teams expert knowledge and insights, but I can give them a space to reflect and talk through challenges. I really focus on asking critical questions – the hard and tough ones you don’t want to ask yourself – and to point out blind spots if I can see them. If they require a specific expertise, I act as a connector and search our network to find the right person to answer their questions.”
Do you have a certain coaching strategy?
“Asking questions is my main coaching strategy. So there are different kinds of questions: sometimes I reflect back to people what they’re doing to see if it makes sense to them. Sometimes it’s clarifying questions when I don’t understand something, which can also help them reflect on the process of what they’re doing. Other times it’s about moving the focus from the technical to the emotional. Because being an entrepreneur is tough, it’s hard and difficult and you also have to make sure that people are taking care of themselves, that they’re doing ok. And then there are the critical questions I mentioned before.
If I want to give advice I always ask people if I can give them advice. Because it opens up a space for them to be in control – I’m not telling them what to do but to rather give them food for thought. I think that’s something quite important and ensures conversations are on eye-level.
Number three would be that I’m a good sounding board for ideas or strategies. Let’s say a startup has two different strategies they are considering. I help them talk through them. Similar to doing a SWOT analysis. What are the risks, long-term implications ect.?
Number four would be sharing ideas if i have some. Because I have lots of ideas (laughs). But again always asking for permission so that they don’t feel like I’m telling them what to do. I don’t know either.”
What are do’s and don’ts as a startup coach?
“I think it’s really important to manage expectations at the start to let people know how sessions are structured and what they can expect from you. In the end it really depends because if you position yourself as a coach and consultant then you will give advice and will say ‘I have read this many studies and this is what they say so you should do it that way’, which is completely fine. But I think you have to give people the space to say ‘I don’t want to do it this way’ without it feeling awkward or wrong.
I also think you should always talk to people on eye level. You are not smarter than them. You don’t know better than them. What a coach does is to get the answers from within you. I know that sounds dramatic but often people already know what to do, or they don’t know that they know yet. So, you ask the right questions to tickle out the answer.
Another big do is active listening. Really pick up on the nuances to identify blockages, limiting beliefs, but also opportunities and ideas.”
We’ve established that as a coach you are not an expert. But what would you say is your domain expertise?
“That’s a good question because I feel like I know a little bit of a lot of things but nothing really in depth (laughs). If I could choose, it would be go-to-market strategy, business model and I would like to know more about team dynamics. I don’t want to say marketing simply because I don’t want to be put in that box (laughs).“
Thanks for your time Anna!
Stay tuned everyone, as next week I will share with you the interview I had with our other very own Startup Coach Ahmed Mostafa.