Becoming a Product Coach
Over the past couple of years, I have been more vocal about the industry’s need for more skilled product coaches. Partly this is due to the sheer volume of companies that today realize they need to adopt the practices of the best companies. And partly this is a reaction to seeing so many people calling themselves “coaches” (usually “agile coaches”, but also and increasingly “career coaches”) that have never served in a product role or even worked at a serious product company, and have no real idea how to help a product company.
The result is that more people than ever have reached out to me wanting to learn more about a career as a product coach.
In this note, I want to try to capture what I’ve thus far been sharing individually. A few of these specific topics I’ve written about before, but I wanted to go deeper here, and bring everything together into a single article.
First and foremost, this note is intended for aspiring product coaches.
As a secondary goal, I am also hoping that those people that are considering hiring a product coach will benefit as well by giving them a better understanding of what the various product coaching options are, and what to look for in a strong product coach.
PRODUCT COACHING PREREQUISITES
I wanted to get this big topic out of the way right up front.
I acknowledge that there are different points of view on what I’m about to say here, but I make no apology for my strong opinions on this question.
To be absolutely clear: I do not see how a person can be an effective product coach without actual, relevant product experience.
This is why an agile coach that has never been a product manager or product designer is rarely helpful when a team is struggling with product discovery.
This is why a career coach that has never been a product leader is rarely helpful to a product leader trying to come up with a good team topology or a strong product strategy.
This is why a management consultant that’s never led a successful product transformation is rarely helpful to a CEO trying to lead her company through the necessary changes.
This is not to say that there aren’t useful skills that anyone can learn that would be helpful, such as becoming a better listener, techniques for engaging in difficult conversations more constructively, and methods for encouraging a growth mindset.
But here is the key point: these skills are only helpful if built on top of a foundation of relevant experience.
So the people I personally encourage to explore a career in product coaching all have this in common: they have all demonstrated that they have a strong grasp of the foundational principles, concepts and techniques.
Most have worked several years at strong product companies. Some have worked a dozen or more years at less impressive companies. But they’ve all been in the trenches grappling with product and technology challenges.
If you don’t have this experience, and you want to become a product coach, then my advice is to first go get that experience.
The specific experience you need depends on the type of product coaching you would like to do. We’ll discuss the specific types of product coaching at the end of this note.
Genuine Desire To Help Others
Many people are drawn to product coaching because of its flexibility, the chance to be your own boss, or the ability to work with lots of different companies. While all these things can be true, they really shouldn’t be the main driver.
What’s much more important is a genuine desire to help develop others.
Without that genuine desire to help others, it’s hard to stay motivated especially during the early years where you are still building your client base and you don’t have much revenue coming in.
Paying The Bills While Building A Business
I know many people that have the relevant experience, and they love to help others, but they have not been able to move into the product coaching role because they don’t have sufficient funds to support themselves while they build up a coaching business.
I do know a few people that were able to ramp up a client base faster, but realistically, for most people, it’s on the order of 2-3 years before the revenue is consistent, and at the level it was prior to starting a product coaching business.
Unlike the first two prerequisites, there are a couple of alternatives for this one. If you don’t have the personal funds to meet your needs for 2-3 years, you can try one of two alternatives:
First, try to get a job as an in-house product coach. Many of the large companies have a number of in-house coaches of multiple types. It can be a cost-effective solution for the company. You get a steady income, and a chance to develop your skills as a product coach. The main downsides are that you are just exposed to a single company, and you are still an employee rather than your own boss.
Second, try to get hired as a product coach by a coaching agency. As with an in-house coach, you would be their employee, but you would usually have multiple clients. The upside is that they worry about finding the clients, and you get a consistent salary. The downside is that they get most of the revenue, you don’t get the benefits of being your own boss, and you are really helping to build their brand rather than your personal brand.
I should mention that some people tackle this problem by trying to build their coaching skills by moonlighting (working as a coach as a second, part-time job). This seems to be better tolerated by employers in Europe than the US, but if you can do this and you’re willing to work the necessary hours, it’s a possibility.
TYPES OF PRODUCT COACHING
There are of course any number of types of product coaching possible, but overall I see three primary types of product coaching:
Let me say up front that these different types of coaching I’m about to describe are not mutually exclusive. I know more than a few coaches that are very capable of coaching at multiple levels. But I think it’s also true that even with those people, they have a strong preference for where they like to spend their time.
The foundation of product coaching is discovery coaching. I’ve written about this type of coaching before as it’s so important. Just as product teams looking to improve their delivery skills will often use an Agile coach to help them improve on delivery, teams learning to do product discovery often benefit from discovery coaching.
I see more discovery coaching opportunities out there than anything else, simply because there are so many product teams out there asking for help. Moving from a feature team to an empowered product team primarily means learning how to discover a solution worth building, and this is what product discovery is all about.
All the successful discovery coaches I know are former product managers or product designers, who have learned the skills and techniques of effective product discovery, and love to share their knowledge with others.
Product Leadership Coaching
If you’ve ever done the head of product role at a serious product company, you already know that product leadership is hard. Especially when trying to move from a feature-team based organization to empowered product teams. There are now big and critical topics like product vision, team topology, product strategy, team objectives, and of course developing their own staffing and coaching skills.
Many people, especially in rapidly growing companies, have had “battlefield promotions,” and now find themselves leading product, design or engineering, and they know they need help. The client here is usually the Head of Product and/or the Head of Engineering/Technology.
All the successful product leadership coaches I know are former heads of product or heads of technology, who have figured out how to tackle these big topics, and want to share what they’ve learned with others.
The third main type of coaching I see are those that help guide the senior leadership team through the necessary changes in mindset and culture needed to move from a feature-team based company to empowered product teams (aka moving from a project to product-based culture).
The client in this case is usually the CEO or GM of a large business unit. They know they need to change product and engineering, but they know it will be even more difficult to change the way they fund (finance), the way they staff (HR), the way they market and sell (sales and marketing), and more.
What makes this type of coaching especially tough is that the vast majority of CEO’s simply won’t trust the future of their company to a product coach that has not “been there and done that” as a senior leader with other large and complex companies.
They need someone that can hold their own with the company’s CFO, and explain to the head of sales why changes are necessary, yet can also engage directly with engineers, designers and product managers.
It’s little wonder why so few transformations succeed. There are just very few people equipped to help. In every successful transformation I know, there was someone that knew what was necessary, and had a trust-based relationship with the CEO.
Other Types of Coaches
In addition to the very common Agile/Delivery Coaches I already mentioned, there are also several specialty coaches including OKR Coaches, Architecture/Tech Debt Coaches, CEO/Executive Coaches, Career Coaches, Growth and/or Retention Coaches, Marketing Coaches and Sales Coaches, and more. But my focus in this article is on product coaches.
TYPES OF CLIENTS
The other major dimension in product coaching is the type of client you focus on helping.
Broadly speaking, there are three main types of clients:
A lot of attention is focused on startups because they are both fun to work with, and very much laser focused on product.
Startups are all about getting to product/market fit, and that means getting serious about product discovery. Everything else is secondary.
The problem is that startups are usually the least willing and able to pay for coaching services.
In some cases they are willing to pay with equity, but that’s not usually so helpful to a product coach worried about cash flow. Some product coaches address this by only working with “well-funded startups.”
As the startup grows, product leadership challenges emerge as well, although the magnitude of those challenges is typically less severe than those of growth stage or enterprise companies.
Growth-Stage / Scaleups
Once a company does achieve product/market fit, there are a whole new set of challenges, especially on the product front.
Now the company has to get serious about staffing and coaching their growing ranks of product people. They have to not only continue to grow their current product, but they usually need to also discover new and adjacent product opportunities.
And while topics like team topology and product vision are less urgent for startups, once you have several or especially dozens of product teams working together, the topology, vision and product strategy topics become not just more difficult, but also more critical.
The result is that growth-stage companies typically benefit from both discovery and product leadership coaching.
These growth-stage companies make great clients. They generally have good funding because of their success thus far, and they have significant product needs. The downside is that there aren’t so many companies in this stage. Only a small fraction of startups get to product/market fit, so most fade away before making it to this stage.
We often use the term “enterprise” to refer to large, established companies. For many people this term has a negative connotation – they imagine big, slow banks and insurance companies. But Amazon, Google, Apple and Netflix are large established enterprises too, and it’s important to highlight that enterprises can indeed be exceptionally good at consistent product innovation.
But of course most enterprises do not work like Amazon, which is why these enterprises represent the largest segment of clients. They have the funds, they definitely have the need, and because of their size, they have hundreds of product teams and dozens of product leaders at each enterprise – sometimes far more than that – that need your help.
The downside of enterprises is that in many cases they are so far behind the curve, and they waste so much time and money, and there is so much company politics, that you can’t help but wonder how they are still in business. More generally, it’s very tough in an enterprise to make more than just an incremental impact.
But due to the size of the market and the level of need, for many (most) product coaches, this is their primary source of clients.
YOUR BIGGEST DECISION
There’s no law that says you can’t create a product coaching business that tries to provide all three types of coaching to all three types of clients. And it’s plausible to have a long-term vision to do just that.
However, just as it’s very difficult to create a product that tries to please everyone, it’s very difficult to create a product coaching business that tries to please everyone.
So I encourage everyone that wants to build a product coaching practice to focus on one type of product coaching for one type of client.
Some popular examples:
- discovery coaching for enterprises
- product leadership coaching for growth stage companies
- transformation coaching for enterprises
- discovery coaching for startups
That doesn’t mean you can’t accept a new client from a different client segment, or try providing a different service, but it does mean that when you present yourself as a product coach, you are highlighting why you are uniquely qualified to help a specific type of client with specific services.
When I’m discussing the various possibilities with an aspiring product coach, I’m looking for that intersection of their personal interests (what they love), with their actual experience (what they’re qualified for).
In truth, many people fail in building a product coaching practice because they have real blind spots as to their abilities, which goes back to the prerequisites we discussed earlier.
You may already know what you want to focus on as a product coach, or you may still be uncertain. If you’re unsure, I’m hoping that the sections that follow will help give you a better sense of each of these options.
COACHING VS CONTRACTING
One of the most important lessons to learn about coaching, if you haven’t already, is that there is a very big difference between doing a thing for a client, versus coaching them on how to do that thing.
Many company leaders will see a potential product coach and say, “you have clearly demonstrated that you can create a strong product strategy; we’d like an engagement with you where you provide us a product strategy.” In this case, you are not a coach. You are a contractor engaged on a deliverable – their product strategy.
This may initially seem ok to you, but in general, it is not scalable.
You can coach a dozen product leaders on creating an effective product strategy, but you can likely only produce a single strong product strategy in that same amount of time and effort.
This is why so-called “fractional product leaders” are so difficult to do well in the product space. A fractional CPO / VP Product is signing up to actually deliver the critical deliverables as head of product. You are not there to coach or advise – you are there to deliver. Maybe you can cover the product leader role for 2 or 3 organizations. Although in my view, the product leader role is not well-suited to part-time work. It’s an immersive role.
In any case, there will be many cases where your client will want your help on a deliverable – to fill open product positions, to come up with their product vision, and/or their product strategy, or to run their quarterly objectives planning process, or any number of other product leadership responsibilities.
You can of course take on as much of this as you like. Just be warned that if you sign up for a deliverable, and you seriously underestimate the effort that will be required to do a quality job on that deliverable, then this will likely be on you (if you have to go back and renegotiate your contract because you didn’t know what you were getting into, it’s clear to that leader you don’t know as much as they had hoped, and also you’ve likely lost any chance at a strong testimonial), and so you’re in for some very long weeks.
Likewise, realize that this type of business is all about reputation and word-of-mouth referrals, so it can be very costly in future clients to do anything less than an excellent job on that deliverable.
COACHING VS TRAINING
Many very well established product coaches (think Teresa Torres, Melissa Perri, Jeff Patton, Shreyas Doshi, and also us at SVPG) have scaled their coaching to the level of offering training courses of various forms – cohort-based training, bootcamps, private and public workshops, etc.
There’s a good reason for this. By productizing your work, you can impact a large number of people, and it is very lucrative, especially as measured by revenue per day of your time.
However, a common mistake I see new product coaches make is that they think they can start by offering similar courses. The result is that they almost always struggle to fill seats.
What I try to explain is that these courses depend on a base of clients that know and trust you, and a base of expertise that you have built by working with many clients. So this note is really about building that base of clients and that experience.
If you succeed at doing that, it opens the door to some great additional opportunities.
TYPES OF PRODUCT COACHING BUSINESSES
There are of course many different ways to structure your product coaching business. Each has pros and cons. But this decision will very directly affect your quality of life, so it’s important to think carefully about what your goals really are:
The most common type of product coach is an independent coach. These people create their own entity so that they can work independently for whatever clients they like.
The downside is that you’re a one-person company, so it’s all on you – in addition to the coaching itself, there’s the marketing and sales required to get clients, and the invoicing required to get paid. Another downside is that it can be somewhat lonely. Even though you’re interacting with lots of clients, you’re still a bit of an outsider.
The upside is that you are your own boss. The amount of hours you work in a day is up to you. The type of clients you work with is up to you.
Here’s an example of an independent product coach.
An in-house coach is a product coach for a single client. In-house coaches are usually employees of that company, just like an engineer or product manager. But sometimes they are on a long-term contract.
The downside is that it’s just the one company, for better or worse. Another downside is that because the organization views you as just another employee, it gradually becomes more difficult to get the company to pay much attention to your coaching. You quickly lose the aura of expertise. The main upside is that you don’t have to worry about who your next client will be.
Many independent product coaches decide for various reasons to partner up with one or more other independent product coaches. Sometimes these partnerships are structured as LLC’s, sometimes they are small corporations, and sometimes each partner retains their own entity, and the partnership is just to communicate to clients that you are part of the same coaching brand.
One upside of this is that this relationship addresses the loneliness issue described above. Another upside is that you now have someone to share the load with. Coaching can be feast or famine, and so you have someone that can help when the load is high.
The main downside is that you need to be extremely careful about who you partner with, because now you are tying your reputation to that of your new partner(s). If any one of you disappoints a client, it reflects on all of you.
If you pursue this path, it’s very important that you each have a clear understanding of how decisions will be made, what responsibilities each partner will have, how shared expenses will be covered, how revenue will be divided, and what will happen if you decide to dissolve the partnership.
SVPG is an example of this type of business.
In general, product coaching is not very scalable. But one way to scale, at least to a degree, is to hire more junior staff that you can funnel work to. This is the agency model.
The upside is that the owner gets a percentage of the revenue from assigning the more junior people, and of course you can serve a larger number of clients.
The downside is that now there is real pressure to keep these junior people fully utilized. Also, it can be very hard to maintain quality with more junior people, and you have to constantly be sensitive to the complaint of a “bait and switch” where the client hired you because of your personal track record, yet then you send a more junior person that is likely less impressive.
Here’s an example of a product coaching agency.
Most product coaches would much rather spend their time actually coaching than anything to do with marketing or sales. But I try very hard to impress upon them that they are their product, and marketing themselves effectively is critical.
They need to realize this, and then take seriously how they present themselves as a product.
Your LinkedIn Profile
At a bare minimum, this means having a strong LinkedIn profile.
Most product coaches have some significant number of years in the industry already under their belt, but they have never taken the time to seriously review their professional profile.
A profile for a product leader or a product manager should be very different from a profile of a product coach. The companies you’ve worked for and the jobs you’ve held don’t change, but what you choose to emphasize and elaborate on definitely should.
You want your profile to do everything possible to substantiate your focus in terms of type of product coaching and type of client. And endorsements take on a much more significant role for a product coach. You want to gather and curate a strong set of endorsements.
But your LinkedIn profile is the easy part. What really matters is how you describe your coaching business.
MARKETING YOUR COACHING BUSINESS
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked about a potential coach, and after providing a name, the first thing the potential client does is try to find the coaches’ website. If there is none, you can see their skepticism. If there is one, but it’s weak, then that’s not much better.
These are the ten questions that I see potential clients trying to get answers for. I am pretty confident that they have these questions because when they can’t see the answer they often ask me if I know.
1. How do I find you?
You will need a strategy for how potential clients will find you. There are a variety of tools and techniques for helping with this, including a content strategy (blogging, newsletters, podcasts, etc.), search engine marketing, advertising, speaking at conferences, referrals, and more.
For new product coaching businesses, it is mostly about referral and word of mouth marketing. So, I encourage new product coaches to focus on doing a great job for their clients, and they will invite you back, and they will remember you when they move to other companies.
All the content strategies are fine, but they mostly help for the next point.
2. Who are you?
Potential clients want to quickly figure out who you are, and if you are someone they think they can learn from. They’re looking for many of the same things they can find on the LinkedIn profile, but the focus here is on your coaching abilities and not so much your full professional history.
3. What is your superpower?
What is it about you that makes you special? You ideally want this to strongly support your focus area. For example, the reason you’re so good at product discovery is because you worked on a well-known and very innovative product.
4. What do others say about you?
Testimonials are so important in the coaching business. People want to feel good about their decision to move forward with you. It’s your job to help them with this.
5. How can you help me?
What are the services that you offer? People want to see that you specialize in what they care most about. This is why the strategy of being everything to everyone rarely works. If I need help with product strategy, I want someone that clearly specializes in product strategy, not just someone that lists strategy along with dozens of other buzzwords.
6. How should I think about your offerings?
Potential clients are bringing their experiences and expectations to the search for a product coach, and your positioning will help them view your services the way you need them to think about getting their needs met.
7. Do you have experience with my situation?
It’s one thing to simply describe your experience, but you need to describe your experience in such a way that potential clients see your experience as directly relevant to their particular situation.
8. Can I trust you?
A coaching relationship is built on trust, and right from the outset, the potential client is making a judgment call about whether you are trustworthy. A good coaching site does everything possible, in ways large and small, to convey trustworthiness.
9. Can I depend on you to be responsive?
From very early on, the potential client is gauging whether they can depend on you. One of the simplest ways the client makes a judgment on this is your responsiveness.
I can’t tell you how many times I provide a name of a coach, and then the client comes back to me and says that it’s been 2 days, and no response, so can they please have a different name?
My personal opinion is that if you want to establish a product coaching business, you need to respond in no more than 24 hours to every inquiry from prospective or current clients.
It’s fine to send a quick response saying that you received their message and will respond to them by a specific time, but it’s not fine to just respond when you get around to it.
10. What’s an easy way for me to tell others about you?
If a potential client does decide to work with you, and they have a good experience, they want to know how they can share that with others – they want you to help them help you.
Here’s some product coaches’ sites that do a good job answering these questions:
PRICING AND PACKAGING
The specifics of pricing and packaging of course depend on the particular service you’re offering. That said, there are some principles that are extremely important to understand, that will not only increase your revenue, but will also help guide your choices on services and packaging.
For most new product coaches, I encourage them to focus on getting somewhere between 4-7 clients that sign up for ongoing services, and pay a quarterly subscription price (of usually somewhere between USD $10K and $25K per client per quarter).
Why at least 4 clients? Because clients come and go, and you don’t want all of your eggs in one basket. This number also virtually ensures you aren’t trying to play a fractional or contract role.
Why quarterly invoicing? Because the idea is that this is an ongoing subscription service, but quarterly still lets them increase or decrease the level as their needs change, without having to go back into the sales process every week.
Certain services make sense to be priced for the specific service (such as for a discovery sprint or a vision sprint), but you want the price to be for the package (the outcome), and not on a per-hour or per-day basis (the time).
Many new coaches make the mistake of charging an hourly rate, which is really the worst of all options. The sales process takes almost as long, yet the revenue is negligible and not recurring.
The thing to keep in mind about product coaching is that the client is not just paying for your actual face time with them. They are paying for your years of hard-earned experience that enables you to provide the necessary coaching.
Normally the minimum billing would be for a day of work. And I encourage you to set the daily rate such that it serves as a disincentive for daily work. The ongoing quarterly invoicing relationship should be priced such that it is more financially appealing.
Billing monthly is not as good as quarterly, but it’s certainly much better than hourly or daily.
I don’t personally bill for anything shorter than a day because of the overhead involved. However, I often do calls and emails and coffees that take less than a couple of hours, and I don’t charge anything for that. I consider it karma, and I do think people appreciate that and it contributes to goodwill.
EXAMPLE PRODUCT COACHING SERVICES
There are of course a very broad range of specific product coaching services that are provided by hundreds of different product coaches. You can simply browse the web sites of your favorite product coaches to see their offerings.
That said, there are some approaches and services that have proven effective for a range of product coaches, so I’d like to highlight several of these.
I don’t discuss the pricing for each of these mainly because I don’t know what the range or average fees are. And in truth it really depends on your personal track record more than anything else. If you build a reputation for providing an excellent service, then in my experience you can raise your prices over time and people are very willing to pay for the strong results.
- Product Discovery Coaching – typically involves meeting with select product teams weekly to review their progress and address obstacles.
- Discovery/Design Sprints – typically one week immersive coaching on product discovery – a great introduction to how good product teams work.
- Product Management Coaching – can be either individual or group (e.g. all PM’s in an organization), where each week you provide coaching on important product topics, usually related to product discovery but can be more general.
- Discovery Q&A Sessions – typically for an hour held every week or two, a forum for raising and answering questions related to ongoing product discovery work.
- Product Team Staffing Program – helping to set up good job descriptions, selecting and training an interview team, coordinating with HR and/or recruiters on target candidates, participating in interviewing.
- Product Team Onboarding Program – helping to set up (and optionally to run) an effective onboarding program for new product managers, product designers and engineers.
- Product Manager APM Program – setting up and running an ongoing APM coaching program for high-potential product managers.
Product Leadership Coaching
- Product Leadership Coaching – typically ongoing one on one coaching of the product leader on product topics and stakeholder management as needed.
- Product Vision Sprint – typically a one week exercise with the goal of coming up with a compelling product vision.
- Team Topology Review – facilitating the review of the organization’s team topology. There is usually significant preparation for these, and involves engaging deeply with both engineering and product leadership.
- Product Strategy Sprint – typically a one or two week exercise with the goal of coming up with a compelling product strategy.
- Quarterly Team Objectives – involves helping the product leader manage the quarterly team objectives process.
- Transformation Coaching – providing ongoing coaching for the key leaders as they work through the changes to their culture, their processes, their staffing and more.
- Organization Assessment – figure out where the organization is relative to strong product companies (often done as part of other services).
- Executive Briefing – explain to the senior leadership team the reasons for the necessary changes, and what that means for the different parts of the organization.
- Stakeholder Briefing – moving to empowered teams changes the dynamics with stakeholders and these stakeholders want to understand how they can engage constructively and effectively with product teams.
Hopefully by this point you have more clarity about what’s involved in building a product coaching practice. While there are definitely easier ways to make a living, I’m not sure there are too many more rewarding careers. And the flexibility is hard to beat.
That said, the most important factor is the prerequisites described at the very beginning of this note. If you are truly qualified as described in that section, then I see no reason why you can’t build a sustainable practice as a product coach, and if that’s your passion I hope you pursue this.
If you’re not sure if you’re qualified, then I hope you ask someone that you know is clearly qualified, and that you trust to give you an honest assessment. You don’t want to let imposter syndrome stop you from pursuing your goals, but you also don’t want to deplete your nest egg chasing something you just don’t have the experience to deliver.
Special thanks to Chris Jones, Gabi Bufrem and Alex Pressland for their review of drafts of this article.