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Top 5 Mistakes New Coaches Make (and How to Avoid Them)

September 22, 2016

All too often I see new coaches struggle to get their business off the ground.

And it starts with focusing on the wrong things. Many times, new coaches focus too much on creating the structure around the business and don’t focus enough on finding the business. Sure, the organizational stuff has to get done, and focusing on the wrong things can be an exercise in self-deception.

In this post, I detail the five most common mistakes I see new coaches make (and some established coaches too) and how to avoid them to create a thriving coaching business.

Wasting too Much Time Getting Your Business Set Up

You probably received lots of advice when you announced that you were going to start your own business. You were likely told that you need to:

  • Write a business plan
  • Create a website
  • Develop a logo
  • Get established on social media

While these tasks do eventually need to be accomplished, they’re not your first priority. Your first priority is to coach. You don’t have a coaching business if you’re not coaching, and you’re not coaching if you don’t have clients. Too many coaches distract themselves with these so-called “necessary” tasks while putting off the truly essential and potentially intimidating work of getting clients.


Initially, I found the process of getting clients to be quite confronting. I felt like I was selling myself (and who would want to buy me?) :(. When I stopped thinking of selling myself and instead gave prospects a sample of the coaching experience, the coaching sold itself. And I stopped feeling quite so scared and quite so unworthy. All you really need to start your business is a solid LinkedIn profile and the courage of your convictions about the value of your coaching. You can tackle the other tasks as your client roster builds.

Lack of a Clear Target Market

It’s easy to think that as coaches, we can coach anyone. While that is true to some extent, we want to be defining our target much more narrowly.

You may think that by narrowing your target, you end up excluding too many people. The truth is that when your target market is clearly defined, people can recognize themselves in it (and their friends and colleagues too). When they see and hear you articulate who you work with, they will feel drawn in because it speaks directly to them.

My target market is 35 – 45 year-old male, CEO/Owners of businesses with $5 – $50 million in revenue. They are high achievers who work hard, play hard and are athletically inclined. Articulating this target market alone has gotten me business. Because it encourages the question, “Why? Why male? Why athletically inclined?” and that’s just the opening I’m looking for. Do I work with clients outside of that narrow target market? Sure, I do. I’m not that crazy! And that target market articulated that way gets me business. It’s my foot in the door.

How do you choose a target market? While there is no single, right answer, here a few aspects to consider:

  • Who you are attracting and attracted to
  • Who and what you are interested in
  • The kind of work you want to do and the environment you want to do it in
  • Who is paying (personal or company) and the impact of that on your earning potential
  • Your past experience, education, skills and what you have to offer the client that’s unique to you

Also, by identifying a clear target market, you create the opportunity for people to refer business to you. Realize that defining a target market too broadly will hurt you more than help you.

Charging Too Much

Your coaching business is, after all, a business. So it’s only natural you will want to make money from it. Unfortunately, I see a lot of new coaches charge too much at the expense of getting valuable experience.

As a new coach, your top goal is to get as much experience as you can. When you forfeit clients because of fees, you lose the opportunity to enhance your expertise in your craft. The key to charging fees that support you is doing work you are proud of. And that only comes from experience.


When I moved to the DC area, I didn’t know a soul and didn’t have a single client. I found my first client on the metro. He was an artist who overheard me telling a friend what I do. He said, “Pardon me, I need some of that.” (I gave him my card and my “artists” rate). My second client was a woman who’d catered an event I was involved with. She said she was leaving catering to head a non-profit. I offered her six free sessions and after, she became my second paying client. My third client, I met because his yoga mat was next to mine. The conversation went something like “You’re a CEO, right? You need a coach, don’t you?” And it turns out, he did. Opportunities to coach are everywhere, and the key is to just get busy uncovering them.

Being a Generalist Instead of a Specialist

If you went or are going through an International Coaching Federation (ICF) accredited coach certification program, you know that the ICF sees coaching as all process and no content. Meaning the coach has the questions (and the structure and the process) and the client has the answers (the content). And that’s what coaching is. And everything else is something other than coaching.

That’s fine. They’re the ICF. They can define what coaching is and isn’t. And I’ve found it’s tough to build a coaching business on that definition of coaching. Virtually every coach I know who makes a living coaching either combines what the ICF refers to as “consulting” with their coaching or they’ve made a career out of coaching other coaches. To be clear, these successful coaches aren’t consulting per se. They are simply incorporating their knowledge of a specialized subject matter into their coaching.

Specializing in a subject matter is another way to differentiate yourself as a coach and provide unique value to your target market. Your specialty can be anything that’s meaningful and desirable to your target market. And you can develop it as you go. (You don’t have to be an expert to start.) Your specialty will help you both differentiate yourself from other coaches AND make you more valuable to your clients.

I have three specialties: 1) understanding the role of the CEO (many new CEOs don’t clearly know what that means), 2) developing functional partnerships (because many of the clients are in partnership with others) and 3) leading with emotional intelligence, because that’s important for pretty much everyone, particularly CEOs. All of these specialties build upon each other, differentiate me as a coach and make working with me much more valuable for my clients, allowing me to charge more.

Being Territorial

My experience is that many people in professional services (including coaches) are surprisingly territorial. If a coach, consultant or other professional has a client, they tend to be very protective of that relationship and not refer in other professionals. The cost to us coaches of being territorial (beyond the lost chance at karma credits) is that we miss the opportunity to develop a close working relationship with a professional in a contiguous space.

A good percentage of my clients have come as the result of referral relationships with colleagues in contiguous spaces – finance, training, leadership development, organizational development, other coaching specialties. I’ve found that clients who purchase one of these services are likely to purchase many of these types of services. One of my clients recently told me that he has seven coaches. Yeah. That’s right. Seven. And one of them I referred to him.

What’s the moral to this? “Do be a Do Bee and don’t be a Don’t Bee.” Huh? Pardon my Romper Room allusion.

Do have an abundance mindset and share the wealth. Identify other types of services that your target market might consume (e.g. personal training, financial planning, nutrition, estate planning, organizational development) and seek out like-minded colleagues in those spaces. Get to know them, what they do, the value they add and how to advocate for them. Then, look for opportunities to refer them. Hopefully, over time, they’ll respond in kind. The good news about so many helping professionals being territorial is that it makes it so easy to spot the few with an abundance mindset.

You have the power to create your own community of advocates. Not only will doing so help you grow your business, you may find that it eases some of the loneliness that can arise when you’re a “single-shingle” solopreneur. It can be lonely at the top. Especially when the top and the bottom are the same place.

Have you encountered any of these challenges in your own business? Feel free to let me know by leaving a comment below.


Posted in: Business of Coaching|Coaching|Coaching Resources

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