What does it mean to be a “coachable” entrepreneur?

I spent this summer as a CEO leading a startup through Excelerate Labs. We underwent a pretty major pivot during the summer, a pivot that probably saved our business.

I think people misunderstand what happens inside this program. They hear its leaders say that entrepreneurs must be “coachable.” And when they hear me explain how we changed our business model, they put these two facts together and say things like “Oh, so did Excelerate tell you to make that change?”

Uh, no. They didn’t. Nobody inside Excelerate Labs tells you what to do. Truly, sometimes I wish they did. It would have been a lot easier.

But in fact what happens is that they ask questions, they provide tools, and they point out problems and force you to confront holes in your business model or your pitch. Then you have to find a way forward by listening to your customers, interpreting a mess of data and making intuitive decisions.

When we found a way through to a successful and more scalable business model, I learned to tell the story of our decision-making in a way that seems logical, linear and even obvious. But this is hindsight talking.

And with the same wisdom of that hindsight, what I think they really mean by “coachable” is a difficult balance between “sticking to your core identity” and “humble and open to other perspectives, ideas and criticisms that can make your company better.”

Because there will be mentors and investors who just don’t get what you are about. For us, it was those who suggested that we change our business from re-using gently used kids’ clothing to just shipping cheaply-produced new clothing straight from the manufacturer. I learned to say to those folks “I’m certain that would be a very successful business, but that’s not the business I am trying to build.” I was determined to stick to my guns on the core values of reducing parents’ consumption and helping them reuse great kids’ clothes.

And then there will be those who get the core but still challenge the execution of your idea: how you are marketing it; how you are defining your customer; what those customers really want from you. One mentor from IDEO said to me “Is your approach really the best way to solve this mother’s problem of constantly replacing her kids’ wardrobe?” I was too scared at first to seriously entertain the question, because it had the potential to blow up our whole business model. But it was exactly this question that led us to the changes we needed to improve and survive. People who can frame those tough questions are incredibly valuable, and being coachable means listening to them.

“Coachable” doesn’t mean young, it doesn’t mean inexperienced and it doesn’t mean easily influenced. It means being open-minded–but not so open-minded that your brains fall out.

Filed under: Company Blog Post,Status Updates — Tags: , , , , — October 12, 2012