People often ask me for tips on sustaining a career as an independent agile coach. My number one tip is try to think about the service you provide from the outside-in. I mean, as Dan North has used "outside-in" in BDD -- start by identifying valuable business outcomes, focus on doing what's necessary to achieve those outcomes by establishing acceptance criteria and deliver as you go. As Dan says taking this approach "helps us build software that matters" -- our code is built out to serve those outcomes which our customers find valuable. I'd add that taking a similar approach for our services can help us focus on delivering value to our customers early and often.
Start with the value you can provide. As a one person company, you are your brand. The way you work with others must provide value to others while also reflecting your personal values. When you strike out on your own, you get to choose what work you do. Your passion drives you and so you must seek out work engagements that allow you to thrive and deliver. It's good business too - clients who have a positive experience are likely to recommend you to others. Whereas if you take on work that doesn't suit you, it may be harder to do an excellent job.
Push yourself to see things from a client perspective shaping your offerings from the outside-in. You'll find that many of the principles we apply when designing software systems also apply when designing how we want to engage with our clients. Try doing a Product Box exercise on yourself, this can help you package your services in an easily discoverable way so potential clients can find you and understand what you can offer them.
Figure out your "API" by considering questions like:
- What services do I provide?
- How do potential clients discover me and my services?
- What information do I need from them?
- What information can they expect from me?
- What response times can people expect from me?
Sit down and sketch out the answers to these questions. When you have a clear idea of possible user journeys, these can help you prioritise what to do next in responding to clients that you'd like to work with. It can also help you to guide people down a track that you can help them with rather than getting sucked into gigs that are shaped in a difficult way to deliver value incrementally.
Once your contact details are out there, you'll start getting enquiries by phone, email, and social networks. Think about what a new client need from you to engage your services. They may be seeking a price or a workshop description but how can you marry this up to their needs? A phone call or face-to-face meeting is often a great idea to understand the context of their enquiry. You'll also give them get a sense of how attuned you are to their needs and how you build rapport which is vital in coaching.At first, you may be uncomfortable with going out "networking" missions as it feels somehow predatory to go along to user groups with the ulterior motive of schmoozing and reeling in some clients. Instead think of such events as a test environment - a place to practice and refine your pitch. Over time you'll see that clients at these events are sampling the wares as they ponder whether it's worthwhile engaging a coach. Offering the carrot of a visit to their office to share a bit more free advice is often what they're hoping for to help them assess whether you're a good match for their team.
After your have a couple of gigs under your belt, you'll find the word about you spreads and more enquiries start to come up. You may feel like you're spinning plates -- giving each a nudge to keep the momentum and keeping them all in view to see which one needs your attention next. Working on your own it's easy to drift into a pattern of work where you say "yes" to too many things leading you to prioritise what you need to do by what's easy or urgent rather than paying attention to the resulting experience this gives your clients. Rather than keeping clients hanging on for replies to their requests consider carefully whether you should take new clients on or team up with others.
I learned the hard way through experience and you will too. Take time after each client conversation to review whether your joint aims were met. You may be able to improve your service to make it more accessible next time around. Another practice that can help you reflect on the bigger picture, is tracking some basic information over time. I found it was helpful to keep a spreadsheet tracking number of days spent delivering training vs coaching because I wanted to maintain a balance between these types of work. I also tracked number of days spent at conferences and industry events thoughout the year to help me avoid over committing.
Some useful things to keep an eye on are:
- Do I know the average lead time and cycle time for my offerings?
- How many customers place repeat business with me?
- Does the mix of work I'm taking on reflect my aspirations?
Final tip, remember that as you are your own brand, it makes sense to stay congruent with your espoused values when participating in user groups and social networks. If you've got eclectic interests that may be distracting for potential clients then consider creating separate personal and work identities. This can also help avoid boring your friends with lots of work-related stuff.