The global entrepreneurship landscape is buried under the avalanche of news stories about founders securing multi-million-dollar funding to live out their dream of taking the world by storm.
But the heavy snowfall of cash falling from the venture capital sky may be blinding us to the struggles of startup owners along the way, especially those who are undertaking this expedition for the first time.
This is a trap that even the best of investors can fall into. Elite coach Ariane de Bonvoisin has experienced first hand that many venture capitalists and business leaders treat founders as superheroes who can brave anything without having a clue about their personal journeys.
“They’re investing in the company and not investing in the founder,” says Bonvoisin, an executive coach to top CEOs, startup founders, and VCs, who aspires to help clear the vision of investors so that they can better see the importance of coaching.
In her view, it is easy to forget that people are humans. “You give people the label of entrepreneur or founder, but it’s still just a role that people are in. You peel back the role, and that’s where you find the truth,” she told 150sec.
As someone who has sat on both sides of the table—having been an investor and an entrepreneur—she knows well that separating the founder from the business leads to a “dangerous” path that could threaten the survival of the business while sapping the morale of its owner.
Bonvoisin is a swimmer, a ski instructor, a long-distance runner, and a climber who has reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and accompanied a group of students to Antarctica.
What perplexes her is that a professional athlete would never get a sponsor without having a coach because “it implies that they have talent” but a tech startup can attract millions of dollars in investment without any coaching attached to it.
“When you look at the acting world, you see that even multiple Academy Award winners still have acting coaches. They are still given a coach for every role they take without any question. It’s the same in the music industry,” she said.
Ariane has come across investment firms that refuse to invest in a company unless they have a coach but believes there is a long road ahead for coaching to become mainstream among investors.
However, as a wise man once said, even the longest journeys begin with a single step. And who knows it better than Bonvoisin who is featured in a documentary that follows a motorcycle excursion through the highest passes of the Indian Himalayas.
In the case of founder coaching, she argues the first step is to start shattering the taboo against seeking help.
“The perception is if you need a coach, you’re worried or scared or incompetent or are dealing with something you don’t really want to tell your investors,” Bonvoisin said, adding that she has worked with founders whose investors refused to pay for their coaching.
Asked what needs to be done to reduce this stigma, she said using facts and statistics to demonstrate the true impact of a coach can go a long way toward normalizing coaching “because we’re still in an industry that values results, money, growth, and success.”
For instance, she says, a founder can tell the investor they would have raised $1 million without a coach but managed to raise $5 million with the help of a coach or that they taught they were at the pre-seed stage without a coach but raised a Series A round with a coach.
Another example, according to her, is when the entrepreneur can explain they could not hire a VP of sales but a coach helped them bring someone on board that secured new clients and elevated the company’s position in the market.
Celebrating role models.
The other thing is to ask founders to talk about their personal and work-related struggles without shame or fear of judgment, added Bonvoisin, an author who has given a TED talk and keynoted Oprah Winfrey’s O You conference in 2013.
She thinks celebrating successful people who hire coaches—including famous Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors or executives at companies like Google or Facebook—is another link in the chain that can cause cracks in the taboo surrounding coaching.
Bonvoisin also feels the need for increased awareness about different types of coaching that exist.
“When people think of coaching in this industry, they think of it as life coaching or business coaching. To me, coaching is a lot broader than that. For example, investors can give founders a health coach. And there are people who have parenting coaches to help them build a startup with two kids at home that need home schooling.”
Dedicating even 1 percent of the fund to facilitate founders’ access to coaching is a “brilliant” use of money, added Bonvoisin, who has been invited to Google, Amazon, the World Bank, and Red Bull to teach about navigating change and founder and startup wellness.
“It is a very small contribution that has the ability to massively affect the quality of your investment,” she said, emphasizing that there needs to be a return-on-coaching mindset—not just a return-on-investment mindset.
In her opinion, founders should be given the freedom and trust to choose their own coach without having to report the details of how they are using the coaching money because it would be an intrusion on their privacy.
However, investors can make some coaches available or put them on retainer for when founders are having a panic attack before an important meeting or need immediate help with a decision.
She maintains that coaching is crucial because it is a role entrepreneurs do not get from their family, friends, spouse, co-founders, or investors “from which they are usually hiding things.”
“When humanity gets lifted in both the investor side and the startup side, a very different conversation is possible, which is not just about ROI, KPIs, or fundraising goals. And what I’ve seen with the founders is that when the VC shows they care about the founder, the founder will run 10 more marathons for them.”
There needs to be a return-on-coaching mindset—not just a return-on-investment mindset.
~ Ariane de Bonvoisin
As a Tony Robbins certified trainer who assists in a leadership capacity at his events around the world, Ariane can talk for hours and hours about common misconceptions about coaches and the process of coaching.
Many are under the assumption that coaching is expensive, she said, adding that it is also a false perception that a coach is all about the psychology of people and not the real guts of the business.
“A coach can have a bit more of a 360-degree view of the situation, ask questions that no one else is asking you about your business, and add tremendous value even without having direct experience in the industry in question.”
There are a large number of coaches who have worn many hats as founders and investors and can share their knowledge about different aspects of a business, she added.
Another thing she says some people get wrong is that a coach is “very soft and is like a friend that cheers you on or you cry with when you fall apart.”
But the reality is that coaching can be “direct, brutal, and honest” while offering “a very loving, kind, warm, trusting, and safe place to land” at the same time, added Ariane, who landed on the list of Silicon Alley’s top 100 people to watch a few years ago.
Coaching is not ‘surgery.’
Another prevailing myth, according to Bonvoisin, is that a coach is a temporary resource and is for when things are going badly.
“Some think that coaching is like a surgery and is just for a specific period of time when they are dealing with difficult decisions,” she said.
But coaching is a relationship where “you build something together with someone who is your raving fan”, added Ariane who has had her own coach for 17 years and says almost 80 percent of her clients have been with her for more than a year.
Another misbelief she knows from experience is that a coach should be older than the coachee or “is someone like you”.
Elaborating further, Bonvoisin said, “Some people think only coaches who have the same gender, race, or background can understand, coach, and relate to them and that someone totally different to them probably won’t be able to enter their world.”
This is a total myth as “someone who is different often stretches your identity, offers a new perspective and worldview, helps you see blind spots, and expands your beliefs,” Bonvoisin added.
In her world, coaching is like traveling.
“The more you travel to different places, the more you learn, grow, and expand your awareness and consciousness. If you take a plane to a faraway destination where you don’t speak the language and people look different to you and eat different things, what you learn will be exponential.”
People often look for what they are familiar and comfortable with so they gravitate to individuals who are like them, she said.
“It’s easier for people to fly from New York City to Miami for a ‘change of scenery’ than to Delhi. And yet Delhi will change them far more. The same metaphor applies to going on the adventure of coaching,” commented Ariane, who has lived and worked in different countries.
Coaching can be “direct, brutal, and honest” while offering “a very loving, kind, warm, trusting, and safe place to land” at the same time.
~ Ariane de Bonvoisin
As for gender-related misconceptions, she says some are under the impression that female coaches are too soft and emotional.
“But a female coach can sometimes read a situation much better, whether it’s intuitively or emotionally. I think, depending on different times in your life, you might need one or the other.”
Over the years, Bonvoisin has met people who want “really complicated things” and “strange techniques” to improve their performance.
“As human beings, we have resistance to the simple things. And sometimes the most simple tools in your toolbox are the ones that you’re not using—like drinking enough water or sleeping properly,” she noted, bringing to mind a quote from American author Jim Rohn that says “what’s simple to do is also simple not to do.”
How to choose a coach.
On how to choose the right coach, the CEO of Ariane Media said the best way to find a good one is by word of mouth.
While acknowledging that some coaches have gotten a bad rap, she maintains “it doesn’t mean all the apples in the coaching basket are rotten.”
“Definitely interview more than one. Most coaches offer a free introductory session. Do some due diligence on the coach. Ask them who they have coached, ask for testimonials, or ask to speak to other clients they’ve coached,” she told founders.
Bonvoisin says it is important to understand why they are a coach, what they love about coaching, what training they have had, what aspects of coaching they appreciate, why they think they have been an effective coach, what their gift is, and how they choose their coaching clients.
Entrepreneurs can also ask a coach whether they have any specific industry experience “if that’s important to you”, and how much they want to be involved in “your life aspect versus your business aspect,” she added.
Bonvoisin insists people should choose “a person that you’re going to trust more than anyone in your life without feeling judged by them.” She says it is not a good sign if “you don’t look forward to speaking to your coach or getting an email from them or if the coach is trying to impose a change on you and has too many strong opinions.”
“And then the ultimate thing I always go to at the end with everything is: What does your gut tell you? It really is an intuition thing. You can hear that someone’s been trained at Harvard and coached the founder of Google and has done a TED talk, but if it doesn’t feel right to you, it’s a no.”
‘You can’t fix what you can’t see.’
Reiterating the significance of coaching, Bonvoisin said some people “keep doing what they’ve always done and keep getting poor results because they can’t fix what they can’t see.”
“For example, you may not be able to see the way you’re asking for money. It may appear like you’re getting a lot of money until you work with a coach who’s going to show you not what your verbal communication is, but what your energetic communication is.”
She says a professional coach can help people realize their inner life is determining their outer life and that the way they are viewing the world is what is impacting the world they see.
The elite coach sees entrepreneurs as “master storytellers” who are telling a story to the outside world, to the press, to their clients, to their investors, to their colleagues, and to people they want to hire.
“And yet the most important story is the one you’re telling yourself,” Bonvoisin said, adding that a coach can help founders break free from the shackles of limiting beliefs and tell themselves a more “empowering” story.
Disclosure: This article mentions a client of an Espacio portfolio company.
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