In our practical advice series Stuff They Don’t Tell You, James Cartwright offers tips to navigate all those questions that sometimes go unanswered in the creative industry. In partnership with Mailchimp, this specially-commissioned four-part series focuses on what small businesses can do to take their company to the next level.
Illustrations by Ping Zhu.
If you read Forbes, Inc, Fastcompany, Marker, or pretty much any other website publishing articles about ‘entrepreneurs’, you’ve likely been led to believe that business owners are stoic, solitary individuals who get up before they go to sleep, exercise throughout the working day and never, ever ask anyone else for advice. You’ve been misled. They’re regular folks, just like you, and sometimes they need help.
“In Spanish we have a saying, ‘la soledad del empresario’,” says Veronica Fuerte, founder and director of Barcelona’s Hey Studio, “‘the loneliness of the businessman’, because when you’re the boss, you have to make all the decisions by yourself.” In English, there’s a similar maxim, ‘It’s lonely at the top’, which sounds a lot less poetic but the meaning is pretty much the same; running your own business can be a solitary affair.
But the idea of the lone wolf is wildly inaccurate, says Mailchimp CMO Tom Klein. “By definition, running a small business means you have to juggle multiple roles and skills. While it’s important to have a healthy sense of self-reliance and determination, when starting a business entrepreneurs are likely to be instantly overwhelmed by the things they don’t know how to do. At every turn they have to make a decision—do I figure out how to do it on my own or do I need help?”
Sure, there are plenty of things you’ll be able to handle alone, but pretty soon you’re going to need to ask for advice. Perhaps you’re having trouble with how to pitch to a particular client; maybe a supplier is consistently letting you down; you could be having difficulty giving constructive criticism to a member of your team. “Nobody teaches you any of this stuff in school,” says Veronica. This is exactly where a business coach could help.
When I say business coach, I’m not talking about a besuited sexagenarian who’ll charge by the hour to regale you with anecdotes from corporate life, but instead a trusted person or people to turn to when it all gets a bit much. “Supportive networks are super important,” says Seetal Solanki, founder of London-based materials consultancy, Ma-tt-er. “I’m lucky enough to have people around me who offer different perspectives, which makes me consider an even more holistic approach to my practice.”
“Coaching can come from a lot of different places,” says Tom. “A coach can be a person, technology, tools, or peer groups. It can be anyone or anything you trust and whose advice is relevant to you. Someone or something who is primarily interested in your wellbeing and in your business success. It can also be productive to have a counsel or set of people who advise you. In my past, I’ve found it more helpful to curate a network of people who are coach-like, but each with his or her own specific domains of expertise.”
Coaching can even be found close to home, like in your actual home. “My parents run an industrial metalwork company,” says Veronica. “My father founded it when he was 16 and my mother and brother work there now. I’ve learned a lot about how to manage a company from them ever since I was a kid, just listening to them discussing work all the time at the dinner table. They taught me about how to be constant, how to work hard, how to be professional, and about how important it is to love your work.”
Sounds good, doesn’t it? So how do you go about choosing the right kind of coaching?
Love is important, experience is essential
It's important to approach finding a coach as you would any service and make sure they're the right fit for what you need. “You need someone who understands you and the nature of the business you’re in, or someone who is willing to get to know your business,” says Tom. “Also, someone with a breadth of complementary experience that’s really relevant to you.
“It’s also important to find a coach that pushes you to get out of your comfort zone and do the business version of eating your vegetables. That can be anything from expanding your product offering, having a difficult conversation, or finally getting your audience organized. Find a coach whose personality works with you and who will hold you accountable.”
If one person won’t cut it, choose many
“At the very beginning I got a huge amount of advice from the East London Small Business Centre,” says Seetal. “They helped me figure out a business plan and create a mission statement and strategy to take the necessary steps to make my pipe dream a reality.
“Throughout the four years I’ve had Ma-tt-er I’ve also had some supportive people beside me. Minesh Parmar, my husband, really helps me put things into perspective. My friend DK Woon has been the best sounding board for me and is one of my best buddies. He’s a historian but also commercially minded: an all-rounder. Arabella James is a brilliant strategist and incredibly passionate about sustainability. She’s been a huge supporter from the day I launched Ma-tt-er and has offered an abundance of sound advice on how to value myself, which is a lifelong lesson to learn.”
Know your strengths and weaknesses
“A lot of the time, people who are passionate about their craft, product, or in expressing themselves through making something, turn that passion into a business,” says Tom. “They’re not ‘career CEOs,’ but ‘accidental business people’ – creative people who find themselves running a business. Having to catch up on business stuff while continuing to manage and grow a creatively-driven organisation can feel isolating.”
This is where a business coach could be especially helpful, to help recognize your strengths and weaknesses and give you the support necessary in the areas you struggle the most.
Accept that the help you need will change
When Veronica founded Hey, her long-term partner was a creative director at a large company and offered her a lot of support and advice. Three years ago, when they broke up, “I lost all of my advice at once. When that happened, I decided that I needed help. I didn’t feel like I had the tools to manage my company, so I got a personal coach.
“Now, when I need advice I go to her for help. She doesn’t advise me on how the business is run in terms of finances and clients, but how to deal with the people who work for me and make sure that everyone is happy. I think my team would agree that things are better now. Everything is working well.”
Keep your coaching appointments regular
At the very least, you should think of coaching as a quarterly check-up on the health of your business – like going to the dentist but without all the physical and psychological trauma. Or book in appointments as regularly as you need.
“Now I meet with my coach every three weeks, more or less,” says Veronica. “But I can call her if I have a small problem day-to-day. Sometimes I don’t make important decisions until I’ve spoken to her. She never gives me a solution but she asks me more questions to let me find the answers myself.”
Don’t forget about your gut
A coach is one thing, but your great ideas are the reason you’ve got this far already. So keep trusting your gut. “My gut is definitely still my compass,” says Seetal. “I need to listen to it a lot more than I do because it is always right. I think intuition is highly underrated and I learn so much about myself through trusting in it.”
WePresent and Mailchimp have partnered to support creatives in business. This series of Stuff They Don’t Tell You focuses on how creative companies and individuals can define their brand and scale up their business.