The one question I regularly get asked from colleagues, peers, and potential clients is: “How did you build your coaching business to where it is today?”
I’ve been a full time coach for almost 8 years now and here is my unfiltered story of how I did it and how I am still doing it.
I know that some of you like stories and some of you like actionable advice with exactly what you need to do. So I’ll give you both.
My story is my own so I don’t expect you to connect with every detail, but my sincere hope is that you’ll find some value, wisdom, and nuggets of advice that will be useful to you as you pursue your own journey of becoming a coach or growing a coaching business.
Truthfully, I’ve always been a coach. I just didn’t realize I could make a living at it until about 8 years ago.
I’ve always been a pretty big nerd when it comes to learning, self development, and wanting to help people. I have early childhood memories of making custom audio recordings of helpful advice for my friends.
I have no idea if I helped anyone back then but I remember how good it made me feel to create something unique that was intended to make someone feel better.
In college I stumbled onto the personal development, self-help, leadership section at the library. I dove in headfirst and read anything I could find… mostly books from Wayne Dyer, Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins, Brian Tracy and Jim Rohn. I was reading books written for senior executives and implementing the concepts with my friends and classmates.
At school I was involved in anything that would allow me to practice what I was learning from all the books I was reading. You’d see me all over campus, putting together expert panels for the College of Business, hosting events for the Marketing Club or convincing executives at Nike, Wieden & Kennedy and Intel to let a small group of college students drive from Corvallis to Portland and shadow them for a day.
Looking back, a lot of what I did came from a place of needing to feel significant or liked. I’m sure I annoyed some people along the way. But my intentions were good and I really did want to help others and open possibilities for my fellow classmates.
After college, I began a career in software sales because I thought that’s where I would have the best chance of implementing the skills I had learned while making a lot of money. I was mostly right.
There is no better self development program than learning how to sell while constantly facing rejection. I hated sales until a wise sales manager taught me how to be curious and build relationships. That’s when I began to learn the power of being curious, having empathy and asking great questions. I started to see my sales career as a path of self development and building relationships with people. And the better I got at it, the more money I made.
In my third sales job I had an actual sales coach – someone who helped me set goals and work through mindset issues to reach levels that were previously unimaginable to me. It was a complete game changer. I was hooked!
I’ve had a coach in some area of my life since 2003. Having a coach was always important to me. It has allowed me to achieve more than I could have done on my own. It didn’t matter if it was in sales, health, relationships, business or life, things always seemed to go better when I had a coach in my corner.
Life was good, I made great money, and I almost enjoyed going to work every day.
And then I got laid off for the first time.
The startup company I was working for was acquired by a bigger company and my life shifted overnight. I was told that my role was “redundant” at the acquiring company and that I was no longer needed.
This was a wake up call and it really impacted me. I had built my life (and my identity) around being good at sales, making a lot of money, living in a new house, leasing new cars, having an expense account, 401k, etc. When my job ended so abruptly, it challenged me on so many levels..
I used the layoff as an opportunity to try something different and uprooted my life in Portland to move to Boise, Idaho and become a partner in a real estate investment company.
Over the next four years I learned a lot about being an entrepreneur, running a business, and taking risks. I was the owner or part owner in four properties when the real estate market crumbled in late 2007-2009 and I got wiped out financially.
And then I got divorced.
A funny thing happens after you experience you first big blows in life. Everything comes into perspective quickly.
Status doesn’t matter. Fancy houses, cars and gadgets don’t matter.
Only the simple things matter.
I made my way back to Portland in March of 2010 and I committed to becoming a coach and being in the service of others.
I went to work for a coaching company called Inside Track where I became a certified coach and immediately started coaching a roster of 90 people – mostly adult students in the Academy of Art University remote studies program.
This was fantastic! I got to coach people who were on a path of realizing their passion. I coached interior designers, photographers, fine artists, fashion designers, illustrators – people that were dedicated to realizing their creative dream of becoming something more.
I refer to this time in my career as coaching bootcamp. I loved the coaching but I hated the pace. I started to feel like a coaching robot. Coaching 90 people started to feel like a grind.
And the truth is that I was still feeling really sad and resentful about financial failure, failing at a relationship, failing at a job… failing at life. And the thing that brought me the most happiness was simply serving others.
I kept coaching at Inside Track for almost a year and then I decided to go back and get another job in software sales. I needed to get back on my feet financially and do something that would give my confidence a boost.
I was enjoying the work but I couldn’t get the coaching idea out of my head.
In 2012, I sent out an email to friends telling them that I would coach them with whatever they needed. People responded. I coached some of them on their careers, I supported others in their side hustle projects, and I helped some with their self care.
And I coached them all for free.
It felt good to be serving others in such a joyful way.
In August of 2013 I was laid off from my job… again. This time I was more prepared. The layoff was still unexpected but I had been practicing what it felt like to be a coach and I had saved up some money to make the transition to coaching full time.
Then in June of 2014, I decided to make things more official. I began using the coaching tools I’d learned to help anyone who would listen.
Throughout the course of the next several months I provided hundreds of hours of pro-bono coaching through a project I called ‘The People First Project.’ The idea was simple – coach and serve 100 people, add value to their lives, and if they wanted to keep working with me, make them an offer.
It wasn’t my initial intention, but the more I served people, the more they wanted to step up to support me. I was building social capital at a rapid pace. People who I looked up to kept telling me, “Let me know how I can support you in the future. Whatever you need, just ask.”
By September ‘The People First Project’ was complete and I had coached 68 people for free. As a result, 12 of those people became paying coaching clients.
I was coaching them whenever and wherever they wanted. I was having so much fun that I hadn’t really put any boundaries in place.
Then my coach challenged me to sit down and intentionally create my ideal work-week.
I decided that I would coach nine clients every week, three on Tuesdays, three on Wednesdays and three on Thursdays. I would coach them each for an hour, with my coaching sessions at 9:00 am, 11:00 am and 1:00 pm on those three days.
I was enrolling clients to coach with me for three months. It hadn’t occurred to me that I could ask clients to work with me for any longer than that.
As my existing client agreements came to a close, I decided that I would ask them if they wanted to continue coaching with me, but this time to commit to a longer coaching period. I also decided that I would raise my rates from $350 per month to $650 per month. My clients were getting good results and many of the coaches I knew were charging $1,000 or even 1,500 a month, but I only felt comfortable setting my rates at $650 per month and even that felt like a huge stretch.
I anchored my new rates at $650 per month and I asked clients to work with me for six months instead of three. Half of my current clients continued working with me and half decided I was too expensive.
This is where I had an important realization. I was now making the same amount of money with half the effort. This allowed me to show up even more focused for the clients that stuck with me.
I was making almost $4,000 per month and I was thrilled. This covered my expenses and I was relieved that my business was making headway.
Then I went through a dry spell where I only enrolled one client in the next three months. I freaked out a little bit and thoughts of homelessness and poverty started dancing in my head.
Little did I know that I was just going through some growing pains and that this is a normal part of launching a new business. Seth Godin refers to this as The Dip.
As I was contemplating my coaching future, I had a conversation with a potential client that would change my coaching practice forever. An aspiring coach had reached out to meet me for coffee. I remember heading into the meeting with zero idea that she would ask me to be her coach.
I’ll never forget that coffee meeting. I showed up fully in support of her dreams and desires. And before the end of the meeting, she told me that she wanted to hire me as her coach.
I told her my rates and she said “I’ll only hire you on one condition. You need to raise your rates to the amount that I think I need to pay you to make this worthwhile.” I can only imagine the look on my face. I thought I was being punked.
I went home and created a proposal for this potential client at $1,000 per month. She happily agreed to the rate and we worked together for over two years.
Looking back, the clients who invested the most in themselves had the best results. Funny how that seems to work.
And as I got more confident in my coaching abilities, I started charging more.
I raised my rates to $1,000 per month. Then my coach challenged me to raise my rates again and I was pretty sure that people wouldn’t pay more than $1,000 per month for coaching but I agreed to give it a try and see.
It turns out that the right clients were happy to pay $1,500 a month for great coaching.
Then I raised my rates to $2,000 per month for three sessions a month instead of four and I included a 2-day personal retreat if they committed to a year long coaching agreement. It just felt right.
With only a handful of one-on-one clients, I created enough value to build a coaching business just shy of $170k per year in my second year as a coach.
Since then, I’ve added a peer-based group coaching program called The Council of Visionary Business Builders. I run one or two cohorts per year with each group of 8-12 people joining forces to create massive shifts in their business over six months. It’s a curated experience with elements of 1:1 coaching, peer mastermind, a 3-day retreat, and a couple of in-person intensives.
And recently I’ve been experimenting with sliding scale pricing based on the level of the client and the amount of support required. I’ve charged as low as $800 per month and as high as $3,000 per month – all in six month agreements.
I’ve also stopped offering the 2-day adventure immersion retreats as part of my standard coaching offer. I did 16 of these in one year and I realized that it was just too much. So now I only offer these upon request or if it feels right.
So here I am today.
I sell only two things:
- One-on-one coaching – sometimes with a half-day or retreat add-on.
- A six-month group coaching experience.
I don’t go to networking events. I don’t spend hours every week posting to social media. I don’t run Facebook ads. I don’t do cold outreach on LinkedIn. I don’t have an automated evergreen webinar funnel. And I’m not dismissing any of these tactics, I just never thought I needed them to build a simple and fun, almost $200k per year coaching business.
The sustainability of my business, and more importantly, the preservation of my sanity, have always been the leading indicator of my actions.
In a world full of complex business models and marketing strategies, I’ve been a huge proponent of keeping things very simple and focused. And I’m here to tell you first hand that you can absolutely build a successful, viable, coaching business without adding a bunch of complexity.
Never let anyone tell you that you can’t build a simple and highly profitable coaching business that works for YOU.
Exactly 8 years ago I was given notice of an impending layoff. I was coaching for free, I had no website, no email list, no social media presence, and no idea if I could make it as a coach. But I trusted myself and my ability to figure things out.
I’ve had dips in my business. I’ve had clients quit. I’ve run discount specials to cover dry spells. I’ve given refunds. I’ve had plenty of things not go as planned. I’ve been scared that I will have to return to a job and that all this is just a temporary illusion.
But I keep stepping forward. And believing that I can learn what I need to learn to get better and weather the storms ahead.
My coaching business isn’t perfect, but it allows me to do the work I love and to go to bat for my clients’ dreams.
I love helping others bring their crazy ideas to life and chase an important vision.
And, for me, nothing is better than that. The money is simply a by-product of the value I provide for my clients and my willingness to ask the hard questions that most people would be afraid to ask.
I wish I could say that it was all part of my master plan, but I just keep playing to my strengths and following my heart.
And that’s all you have to do.
Grow and serve. Grow and serve. Grow and serve.
So here are what I think are the key takeaways from my coaching story. And I’ve included some actionable takeaways for you to IMPLEMENT instead of just reading this and moving on with your day.
The Key Takeaways
1. Coaches Coach
Early in my coaching business I was getting distracted by creating content, starting a podcast, and about a million other things.
I had a mentor ask me what all of this had to do with growing my business and creating clients.
She called me out. And she was right.
She challenged me to simplify and do three things…
- Create value.
- Serve relentlessly.
- Make offers.
I committed to do just these three things for at least three months. This is how the ‘People First Project’ (mentioned in my story above) was born. I committed to having nine coaching conversations every week for three months until I had 9-10 paying clients.
It was that simple.
Was this easy? Absolutely not. But I made a commitment. I decided to get on the phone, get on Skype, or meet people for coffee and deliver massive value, and see what happened from there. I decided to show up fully and coach because that’s what coaches do.
I would have people respond to my offer by saying things like…
“I don’t really have the money to pay you and I don’t want to waste any of your time… do you still want to meet?”
I would write them back and say:
“Yep. I’m a coach. And coaches coach.
So I’ll talk to you on Thursday at 1:00pm.”
Maybe this person would work with me in the future. Maybe they’ll refer someone to me. Or maybe they’ll just never forget the day that guy got on the phone with them and changed their life.
IMPLEMENT: If you have client openings in your schedule, then offer to serve someone deeper than they’ve ever been served before. Not just anybody, but someone who you would absolutely love to work with. If you don’t have client openings in your schedule, then stand up and do a celebration dance. You deserve it.
2. Go To Where Your Clients Are
Repeat after me:
“I cannot start a business by sitting at home all day. I need to be in front of actual human beings as much as possible.”
I’ve built my business by going to where my clients are. I’ve been to eight World Domination Summit’s (all filled with exactly the kind of people who I enjoy working with). If I had to guess how many clients I’ve met from just this one event, I’d say at least 10. That’s worth $80k-$100k to my business.
Whenever I show up at events like WDS, I’m absolutely certain I’ll recoup the investment (probably on the first night).
I’ve also attended and spoken at events hosted by coworking spaces like WeWork and CENTRL Office, as well as organizations like OEN and Pregame to name a few.
You have to go to where your clients are. Not to sell them, but to deeply understand who they are, what their pain points are, and how you can best serve them.
IMPLEMENT: Choose a conference, workshop, or event to attend in the next 90 days. Purchase a ticket or flight to make sure your commitment is set in stone. Go to where your clients are. They certainly aren’t going to come to your house or apartment (that you haven’t left in the past four days).
3. Bring Awesome People Together
This is one of my very favorite things to do. I frequently host client appreciation events, dinner events, or a potluck in the park with other inspiring entrepreneurs. I’ve recently hosted or co-hosted multiple events in Portland and one event in Nashville.
Just this past Friday I hosted an Alumni gathering for everyone that’s gone through the Council of Visionary Business Builders.
Because it will be fun.
One of the best things I ever did for my business was host a monthly dinner series called ‘Inspired Table.’ I came up with the idea when my coach asked me, “What would you do for fun that you’re not currently doing?”
Every month for a year, my wife and I would host 8-10 people for a private dinner event. We would invite people that inspired us. That was the only prerequisite. We invited entrepreneurs, executives, philanthropists… as long as they were doing work that inspired us, we’d invite them to our monthly dinner series.
Every month we’d connect with a new group of people in an environment that was fun and memorable.
Remember, there is never a bad reason to bring awesome people together.
IMPLEMENT: Host a meetup or gathering in the next 90 days. Make a list of your favorite people in the local community and invite them all for dinner or drinks. Tell them, “You are all the favorite people I know and I want you to meet each other.”
4. Ask Questions That Everyone Else Is Afraid To Ask
Do you know that feeling when you think of asking that really deep question, but you chicken out? It’s the question that feels too bold to ask. It’s the one that a “polite” coach would never ask.
The question might sound something like this: “Where are all the places in your business or life where you habitually hold back or hide out and what is this costing you?”
I do my best to speak my truth in every moment and ask questions that I’m sometimes afraid to ask.
And when I do, nine times out of ten, the conversation goes to a new depth that brings a level of awareness that wasn’t there before. And the person is deeply grateful that I had the courage to ask them the question that they had been waiting their entire life to be asked.
So, what questions do you ask?
Try something around Love, Money, Sex or Death.
That will get you somewhere fast.
IMPLEMENT: Ask someone a bold question every day this week. There are dozens of opportunities passing you by on a daily basis. People are craving truth and depth. Today is the day you start showing up bravely, not from a place of ego, but from a place of service.
5. Relentlessly Serve Others
When I first started my coaching business I was inspired by my friend Shenee Howard to serve others by offering my coaching to 100 people. I called this exercise the People First Project and my goal was to have 100 coaching conversations and serve people as deeply as I knew how.
This aligns perfectly with my view of marketing which can be summarized as…
- Build connections with people.
- Be relentlessly helpful.
The People First Project was my way of reaching out and connecting to people in a simple and helpful way.
And the beautiful thing about being helpful in this way?
I had the opportunity to practice my coaching skills, be helpful and not worry too much about selling anything. If someone wanted to talk about hiring me as their coach, fine. But I’d let them bring it up. My goal was to connect with people and serve them. Period!
The ironic thing is that I didn’t end up talking to 100 people. I talked with 68 people in three months and that seemed like the right place to wrap up the project.
And the very organic result of this project was that I had the opportunity to serve these 68 people powerfully and 12 of them asked me to be their coach. There was no selling… period! Only serving.
I’m constantly looking for ways to serve people in unique and helpful ways. When I walk into a room, I look for the person who needs help and I do everything in my power to bring them up.
What if instead of trying to GET as much as possible from the world, you tried to GIVE as much as possible?
It’s worked for me so far.
IMPLEMENT: Go out of your way to relentlessly serve someone today. You probably know someone who needs your help right now, so offer it. Don’t do it from an intention of “quid pro quo” or with the expectation of trying to sell them something. Do it because serving others is what great coaches do.
6. Make Offers
When I hear someone complaining about their life, their business, or their lack of clients, I ask them the magic question: “Do you want some help with that?”
Then I schedule a call with them in the next week and help them. Afterwards I ask them if they would find value in continuing to work together and/or if they know anyone else who would benefit from this work.
Where I see most coaches (or any service provider for that matter) failing is in the client creation process.
They hide behind their blogs, newsletters, podcasts and social media, fooling themselves that they are doing “marketing.” But they haven’t directly offered their services to someone in months.
Instead of creating clients and coaching, they keep reading blogs on blogging, listening to podcasts on “how to use social media” or watch more marketing webinars in an attempt to “attract more clients.”
Now, I’ve certainly had my share of clients begin a coaching relationship from my podcast and newsletter, but if that’s all I relied on, I would be in deep trouble.
Make bold offers. Ask for business directly. Be brave. Be an example for your clients on how to model a good enrollment conversation.
If you truly believe in the power of coaching, it is a disservice to NOT make an offer to someone when you hear them tell you about something that you can help them with.
IMPLEMENT: Make an offer or send a proposal to a prospective client today. Again, you probably know exactly who this is. You’ve been thinking about working with them for a while now. Just get over it and ask.
7. Stand In Your Value
Every month I get inquiries from my website. I always have cold contacts complete a short questionnaire before we have a consultation. If they’re not willing to spend 5 minutes answering some questions, they most likely won’t take the discovery session seriously.
Some well meaning peers have told me that I should stop wasting my time with free consultations, but I still enjoy jumping on Zoom with someone who had the courage to reach out to some guy they’ve never met before.
I’ll be honest though, not all of these consultations turn into a 1:1 coaching client. But I still serve them just as powerfully as if they were paying me. And I’ll often recommend books, or podcasts, or introduce them to someone that could help them with whatever they are struggling with.
Sometimes I find a good fit with a client and they aren’t able to pay my full rate. They often ask if I will work with them for a much lower rate than what I normally charge.
This is where I choose to draw the line and stand in my value.
A huge part of my coaching is helping my clients feel worthy, live in abundance, and bring their rates into alignment with their value. If I kept lowering my rates, how could my clients trust me to be able to help them charge what they are really worth?
Your rates are simply a filter for the clients that you want to work with. Price implies value and I’ve learned from experience that the client who doesn’t pay your full rate is the client who doesn’t play full out.
And you only want clients who are all in, in every way.
IMPLEMENT: Do you have a client who you don’t want to be working with any more? Let them go. Then breathe into the new space you just created. It’s better for you and for them. Do you feel undervalued because you are delivering great results but you agreed to work with someone at a lower rate than feels good to you? This is your opportunity to draw a line and stand in your worth. Honor your existing agreements but be willing to walk away from future clients that aren’t a fit on every level. Stand for your value and the transformation you create.
8. Be Willing To Fail
One of the hardest things about being a coach is being okay with rejection.
In school we’re taught that failure = bad.
At a job we’re taught that failure = getting fired.
And as a coach and entrepreneur, failure = making progress.
Your willingness to fail, over and over and over, will determine how quickly you evolve and rise as a coach.
I launched the Council of Visionary Business Builders as an experiment and it has turned into one of my best ideas ever. What started out as an idea to gather a group of visionary entrepreneurs together has turned into nearly a third of my revenue.
I’ve launched other things that were a total flop though. My wife and I launched a yoga retreat for entrepreneurs a couple of years ago. No one bought it.
And no one even knows that we didn’t sell any spots.
Oops, until now.
I partnered with a coach friend of mine on a project that we were really excited about. We spent weeks putting it together. And then we did a webinar to launch/promote it. Not a single person bought it.
Guess what. We’re still friends. And we are both great coaches.
The point is that you have to be willing to fail to grow. It’s better to go for it and fail than sit around and wonder “what if?”
IMPLEMENT: Make a bold ask in your business today. What’s an idea that’s been sitting on the shelf for way too long? Tease the idea out to some of your clients or friends. They might just say “Yes!” And if not, you’re one step closer to your next great idea.
9. Raise Your Rates
I got this brilliant advice from a past coach. It’s simple, but it hit me square. She said…
“Double your rates today. You might lose half your clients, but you’ll be making the same amount of money and working half the hours.”
I’ve found that as I charge more, I attract more of the clients that I’m really excited to work with.
Money is just an exchange of value. You and only you decide how much you want to charge for the services you deliver.
If you compete on price and think your product or service is a commodity, then it already is.
There’s a 99.9999% chance that you have money hangups. We all do.
I know an executive coach that raises her rates 10% for every three clients that say “yes” to her offer. Is this bold? It depends. All I know is she makes really good money and her clients happily pay her for the amazing results she delivers.
Derek Sivers does this great piece on How To Be Useful To Others. One of the things he mentions is to be expensive. He says that people who spend more for a product, service or experience value it more. I agree with him.
IMPLEMENT: If you dread saying your coaching rates to clients, practice it. Literally look at yourself in the mirror and say, “I charge $XXX a month” until there is no fear or hesitation left. I’ve literally looked at myself in the mirror and repeatedly said “I charge $1000 a month” until it felt as normal as saying “My name is Michael.”
10. Invest In Your Business and Yourself
I’ve invested in coaching for most of my career and adult life. I’ve invested in sales coaching, relationship coaching, health/wellness coaching, financial coaching, business coaching, and probably other coaching that I’m forgetting.
Because I believe in the value of coaching. Coaching has always allowed me to get out of my own way and achieve far more than I thought I was capable of. Having a coach is why I generated almost $180k in my second year as a coach.
I believe in the value of coaching so deeply because I’ve received so much from it.
It was a coach who challenged me to love my job again and I went on to make more in one quarter than I had made in the previous year.
It was a coach who supported me with trusting my capacity to love and then meeting the woman of my dreams (and marrying her).
It was a coach that asked me how I wanted my life to look and then helped me design 12 weeks of vacation into my schedule while making more money than ever.
It’s no wonder I’m such a big fan. Imagine how passionate and congruent I am when I’m speaking to a potential client about coaching.
Someone asked me just the other day what I really do as a coach. I told them I get paid to believe in people’s dreams more than they do… and then help them achieve it.
Can you imagine any job better than that? I can’t!
IMPLEMENT: If you want to build a profitable and life-giving coaching business, invest in yourself. I can’t imagine trying to pull this off on my own. It would have taken me years longer without the support and mentorship of other coaches. Paying a coach the amount of money that you want to charge is also a great shortcut for raising your rates. Nothing shouts integrity and belief louder than doing what you’re asking others to do.
I truly hope you got something from my story. I spent most of the week writing this and then coming up with the implementation exercises to help you grow your coaching business.
If you want to do me a favor, share this with a friend who could use it right now.
And most importantly, actually DO some of the implementation exercises above! And afterwards, email me and let me know how it went.
The biggest rewards I get are your big wins and success stories.
Now get out there and start serving.
P.S. Are you a visionary leader who is ready to become a high-impact, integrity driven coach? If so, let’s have a 30-minute conversation to explore what that looks like for you.