This week’s article features an interview with High-Tech SeedLab’s very own Ahmed Mostafa. Together with Anna Buchmann, they both make up the coaching team at our 10-month accelerator program for early-stage startups.
Having interviewed Anna and now Ahmed about their role as startup coaches, it becomes obvious that there is not one single right way to do it. There can be slightly different approaches and styles to it while at the end achieving the same goal: getting the founders where they want to be. Anna and Ahmed complement each other well in their style and their domain expertise which is one of the things we like to pride our program with. Read for yourself:
Hi Ahmed, let us start with some fundamentals. What does it mean for you to be a startup coach at the High-Tech SeedLab?
“It means for me to draw on my past experience from roles I had in public policy, think tanks, funds and consulting. It’s about passing on wisdom to someone in the same way you wished others would encourage you. And I find it rewarding, the gratification of helping founders along the way.
As I was saying in our onboarding sessions, working in policy was a bit frustrating because you don’t exert much control over outcomes. And even later in consulting it’s mere advisory. So, you don’t really see what the client does with your work.
Whereas now being close to the ground with founders you sometimes become more operationally involved. This is why I chose the startup universe at large. I told myself I’m going to be supporting startups until I become a founder myself. This is what makes me thrive.”
Interesting! And do you have a specific coaching strategy?
“It starts with a lot of questions and gauging what it is they need help in. Once I understand the full picture I draw on knowledge that would resonate with the founders. If I see that there’s information that is outside of their domain I would bring them up to speed first and show them how to do something, if asked, hands on. And it goes over and above the scope of a typical coach because I do get down to the grind for example in market research or in actually building a financial model from the ground up. And I plug up the numbers myself with them to show them how the process works and how sheets tie together.
The purpose is growth and development. Helping people realize their potential while also generating results. And so the role is more like a teacher/consultant or learning/thinking partner, or just being a bouncing board for ideas.“
Now, tell us about your biggest accomplishment as a startup coach? Is there anything you are particularly proud of?
“I think a big accomplishment for me was building a resource library which is my life’s work. I have been building and indexing it for the past 10 years and a lot of it came from nourishing relationships.
The second is solidifying the ‘Finance and Investment’ workshop to a place where it’s now become really good and received positive feedback from other accelerators. And also everything accompanying it with sheets, templates, and the one-on-one follow in sessions with founders. Thirdly, connecting people with experts, investors, developers or co-founders. I want to continue building on that in the future.”
Since life is not a bed of roses, also tell us about your biggest failure as a startup coach.
“Good question (thinks). I would say my biggest repeated mistake is that when I see something or a startup idea itself that is potentially ill-fated, I sometimes lack the guts or the courage to come through. So, I guess my biggest flaw is not flagging it up either because I am too sensitive to hurt someone’s feelings over their own idea, or at times I just don’t have the courage, thinking that I may be wrong. It’s a bit of a double edged sword because making a strategic decision is not part of the role either.“
What do you enjoy most about coaching startups?
“I enjoy most the dynamism and the versatility, so the breadth of subjects you get into. I like the different functions you have to tap into and the different verticals, and the problem-solving aspect of it and how different functions work in harmony.
When I talk about verticals I mean getting up to speed with subjects very quickly and finding patterns, and by functions I mean that the breadth of it keeps you from getting ‘siloed’ in your career. You don’t become a marketing specialist in a very specific vertical but instead you engage in different functions in several industries and that gives you the spread.
What I also really like is the appreciation of people and the positive feedback you get.“
What would you say are dos and don’ts as a startup coach?
“Dos is engaging and adopting inquiry-based learning rather than dogma. Motivating them to ask questions, turning things on their head, assessing and reassessing. Trying to develop strong problem solvers.
The big no is saying ‘you should do this’, ‘you should do that’, or ‘you’re wrong’ – you know, big bold statements like these. And actually dictating and talking down. Also weighing in on major strategy decisions that are somewhat ambiguous, so you gotta be very careful. So, I could weigh in with more confidence on things that are pure subject matter saying ‘this is how people did it’, but I cannot dictate what decision to take with absolute certainty, I think that’s the biggest no.“
Last but least, what’s your domain expertise?
“My primary area of expertise is finance, market research and business plan writing.”
Thank you Ahmed for sharing your story and giving such honest insights!