Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! My name is Bill Flynn. I am a multi-decade, serial entrepreneur and decided recently to work for myself as a business coach. Before that, I was part of the leadership team of 10 different startups in the Boston area.
I started Catalyst Growth Advisors to help business owners take the guesswork out of growth and create their future. I do this by helping leaders fire themselves from the day to day so they have more time to predict and plan the future.
My business revenue has doubled every year since I started (until COVID, it was poised to double again in 2020), I speak internationally and have written a book - Further, Faster - The Vital Few Steps that Take the Guesswork out of Growth.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
After working for ten different high-tech startups in different segments such as speech recognition, e-commerce, and affiliate marketing where I was a VP, Sales eight times, twice a CMO and once as a GM of a division of a $100MM IT services company, my coaching style developed. During that time, I had five successful outcomes, two IPOs, and seven acquisitions, including a turnaround during the 2008 financial crisis.
I love to learn and share my knowledge with others. The performance of my teams increased significantly over time when I provided direction versus instruction. I did a lot less telling and a lot more asking and trusting. After my tenth startup, I decided to look for a way to apply those skills where the idea to become a coach fell into my lap.
I signed up for a newsletter from Verne Harnish, Founder of ScalingUp, EO, and YPO among other things. He wrote to me directly. After a few email exchanges, I was signed up to take an initial certification training class a month later. I was on my way.
”Make me look as big as you can.” started it all. In 2007, I had my first experience of being a coach when I was brought in as a consultant to help a founder sell his business. Within 10 months, we were bought by a $100M+ organization as their online IT services arm; primarily outsourced email hosting.
On my first official day as GM, due to a catastrophic system failure, we, in effect, did not deliver email to anyone. It was not until two days later that we cobbled together a short term fix.
We had lost about 1000 customers in that first week and the rest were very unhappy with us. I, and the four other leaders, put together a plan based on my direction to shore up the key parts of our business. Three of which I had no prior experience. It worked beautifully. We doubled this business in about two years, did not lose one team member, and eventually had some of the highest customer satisfaction scores in the industry.
On my final day, two of the senior managers let me know that what I led them through was really hard. They hated it (their words). But, they were so glad they did it. I wanted more of that. I wanted to impact others in a significant and meaningful way.
I certainly did not come up with the idea of business coaching but it’s an excellent fit for my knowledge, skills, and abilities. This one key experience I had over a decade prior was the catalyst.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I am the product. I teach my clients an evolving business growth framework to help them take the guesswork out of growing their businesses. Mostly, they are either stuck or growing out of control to the point where the business has taken over their lives. Their first task is to find ways to fire themselves from day to day so they can spend more time predicting the future.
I differentiate myself from others by bridging the gap between what science knows and business does. To be and remain attractive to my clients, I am continually learning my craft; how to be a better teacher, expanding my repertoire of thought-provoking content to deliver and questions to ask, and cultivating complementary relationships for my clients to leverage when appropriate.
I read and write regularly to be able to provide on the spot help if necessary. I also use this breadth of knowledge to provide my clients with a few different avenues to pursue based on their needs and style.
Describe the process of launching the business.
In February of 2016, I landed in Phoenix and was sitting in my first certification training class for the ScalingUp methodology. I was looking to join hundreds of other accomplished coaches in teaching a proven business growth framework focusing on four key decisions - People, Strategy, Execution, and Cash.
Armed with newfound knowledge and energy, I launched my website a few months later and began looking for paying clients. This is what it looked like In October of 2016.
For the next year, I studied and practiced until I became certified. On the way, clients and money trickled in. There were several points I wondered if I had made the right decision. My daughter was to enter college in 2018 and I only had one year’s tuition covered. I persevered and in the middle of the second year, I began to break even.
By year three, I was making low six figures and year four was going to be closer to $500K. There was still plenty of room for growth without needing to add another team member.
My biggest lesson was to give myself more cash runway as I had higher expectations of when I would become profitable. I had sunk about $200K into the business before it showed any profit. I was the only breadwinner in the family. There were some stressful days and weeks.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
My one phrase strategy is “Be Exceptional”. That is a reminder to stand out among all of the other money and time they spend to grow their business. I pick my clients and they are my number one priority. That means, if they send me an email or call me, I get back to them immediately unless I am with another client. I learn their businesses and provide them with relevant and timely content from HBR, Gallup, Neuroleadership Institute, or one of many other trusted thought leaders. I embed myself as a partner in the business.
I am a 30-year sales and marketing guy so I focused on making sure I could identify my core customer. I made some early mistakes. However, once I found the way to identify a CEO that was humble, a life long learner, and was comfortable regularly challenging the status quo, the process of attracting and retaining customers became much easier. I have turned away almost as many clients as I signed. That process perfection has paid off as my clients often stay with me for years.
My goal is to have 5-6 clients and 2-3 roundtables with 10-12 CEOs in each. I acquire new ones by giving workshops through my handful of partners, writing a bi-monthly blog, spending time on LinkedIn where I stir the pot a bit, and donating my time to like-minded organizations.
Here is a link to one of my popular posts about how to find and focus on your best customers. It is closing in on 5000 views almost three years after it was written. To put that into perspective, my site averaged 3600 visitors per year in the previous two years. Compelling, useful, and relevant content has provided credibility where reputation is one, if not the most important assets for a coach.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Once the COVID crisis settles down, I will be back on track to a seven-figure practice within the next three years.
Last year, I earned about $250K while working directly with clients about 70 days in the year. This gave me time to write a best-selling, 5-Star rated book, and volunteer my time with young entrepreneurs who were just starting. I also traveled a bit doing a few dozen speaking gigs for various organizations.
To give you a deeper understanding of how I manage my time, these are my goals and metrics for the next few years. I wrote these down in December of 2019. I was almost halfway there before COVID.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Most leaders make things much harder than they need to be.
Through my coaching business and speaking internationally, I see how hundreds of leaders and organizations do things from the inside. Also, I spend a significant amount of time researching businesses from the outside. What I found from these two perspectives lines up. In summary, for the most part, I have found the following:
- We do change wrong
- We do decision-making wrong
- We do vision wrong
- We do people wrong
- We do teams wrong
- We do feedback wrong
- We do innovation wrong
- We do strategy wrong
- We do hiring wrong
- We do meetings wrong
Here is why I think this happens too often and unnecessarily:
- There is a meaningful gap between what science knows and business does.
- Few things truly matter, but those that do matter tremendously. Leaders do not spend enough time here.
- Leaders rely too much on effort, luck, timing, and force of will to achieve “success”.
I think it is a shame that many great leaders and great businesses fail or struggle unnecessarily. There is a better way.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I am pretty low tech which is ironic since I worked in high tech for almost thirty years. Mostly, I use stickies and whiteboards. For virtual sessions, I use Zoom and Mural. Mural is a virtual whiteboard and provides nearly as much functionality and interactivity as If I were in the room.
For invoicing and product sales, I use WAVE. It is free and handles all of my needs which are basic.
I built my website using Wordpress.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I have a list of these on my site. The most influential authors/thinkers I learn from are:
- Marcus Buckingham
- Chip and Dan Heath
- David Rock
- Jim Collins
- Peter Drucker
- Edgar Schein
- Shannon Susko
- Bob Moesta
- Amy Edmondson
- Lisa Feldman Barrett
- Carol Dweck
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Deduce before you produce.
Fall in love with the problem and the customer, not the idea. Your original idea is very likely not the one that brings you success. Mike Tyson said it best - "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." Your customers are going to punch you in the mouth when you ask them for money. Do much more work upfront to learn more deeply about the problem.
To figure out what your customer wants and values, it is important to understand their struggles and what kind of progress they are looking to make, how they are trying to solve that today, and where they are succeeding and failing at that. One must interview them like a journalist instead of a salesperson.
Two years ago, I wrote, “How to Design a Solution that your Best Customers Want and Value with One Question”. This prescriptive piece accelerates the process of figuring out how you change the lives of your best customers for the better.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below.
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