Every day, new coaches start their practice or get certified. They get the bug of wanting to build their coaching business, and yet, the most difficult part is still ahead of them: getting their first real client.
You know the one I mean: the one that pays you. The client that first validates that you're on the right path.
Getting your first paying client isn't easy - it requires some persistence, some luck, timing, and some marketing prowess. But rather than give you a list of the same old stuff cliches, we thought we'd interview some of our coaching friends at Practice and give you a sense of how it happened, directly from them.
First clients tend to come from a few categories. You might even recognize yourself as having an advantage in one of them! The typical first paying client comes from one, or more of, the following: professional networks, existing audience, hustle/salesmanship, social media, or personal friends.
By the way, this list is regularly updated as we speak to more people! We hope you learn a ton from it and are able to leap over this first hurdle as soon as possible in your own business.
If you want to introduce yourself to us at Practice, and add your story to this page, let us know! We'd love to hear from you.
Cam Charbonneau, mental performance coach and athlete:
Getting my first client as a mental performance consultant was TOUGH! After completing my masters, it seemed like that piece of paper was useless. I applied to work with school, and teams, but no one really got back to me. I spent most of my time explaining what I do and how it can help with performance.
There was (and still is) no job posting for Mental performance consultants here in Quebec, or even Canada for that matter (the USA is a diff story). I would give free workshops and give away 1 free session through creative instagram posts.
After about a year, I said F*** it - I'm going to do my own thing. Got my logo made, made my own website, and started hustling. I put myself in different communities, went to different network events - all to just meet people and plant seeds (super out of my comfort zone, but I knew this is what I had to do).
I used my social media platform to educate people on my coaching service.. again planting seeds. About 2 years later I noticed the seeds really started to grow. Coaches and athletes started to reach out to me, and I started getting contracts with teams and corporate companies.
Mike Vardy, productivity coach:
I was speaking to a friend at a conference in Las Vegas, trying to figure out a way to help people and yet bring in a good amount of revenue at the same time for my business. That's when he suggested that I start coaching. So I put it out there to the world on a sales page and it just so happened that one of my colleagues in the space saw what I was doing. He told me he was getting out of the coaching game and wanted to pass on some of his clients to me. That's how I got started. I inherited clients from an existing time management coach and I've been working with clients ever since.
Steve Schlafman, executive coach and investor:
I started my coaching practice by offering my services to friends and folks who reached out for help. In fact my very first client was one of my former summer campers. He reached out to ask if I could mentor him. I told him that I was just starting my coaching career and offered to coach him with one hook. He could pay me whatever he wanted as long as he didn’t resent me and he would value the coaching / see it as an investment. I then shared on Twitter that I was coaching. I got some inbound that way. Finally, I offered free coaching to friends and family. That’s really how I started my practice. I gave myself away before excepting much value in return.
Peter Shallard, the "Shrink for Entrepreneurs":
I got my first bonafide “Shrink for Entrepreneurs” clients by opening the kimono. There’s no rule that says your “process” has to be a secret. Creating and sharing content that breaks down your methodology by giving readers helpful guides only makes you look smart. If you put your work on displace, turn the process inside out, eventually someone will contact you asking for you to to it all for them. That’s how content marketing became the central pillar of my digital practice, bringing my clients in dozens of countries and ultimately allowing me to build a broad client base while achieving location independence myself.
Andy Elwood, executive coach and advisor:
I got my first coaching client through a launch party for another friend's start up. My client was a friend of the other founder and we were on a rooftop in NYC talking about what was exciting right now and I told her I'd just finished my coaching course and was going to start taking on clients formally. She got my info, read a lot of my old blogs about being a founder/operator and said she liked that I had been in the trenches before becoming a coach. We started a few weeks later.
As a coach, people come to you for your experience and insight. There’s no better way to find clients than through introductions by people who know and trust you. I’ve gotten all my clients, including my first, from professional contacts who had worked with me before, knew the potential clients, and recommended me because they knew I could help.
Brian Wang, coach for early stage startups:
When I was first starting out, I wasn't yet sure if I would enjoy coaching or if I would be any good at it. To gain some confidence, I initially reached out to an acquaintance and asked him if he'd be willing to try an experiment out with me. I would coach him every 2 weeks, free of charge, in exchange for their honest feedback. He said yes and we ended up working together for several months.
But I didn't get my first paying client until I decided to start calling myself a coach. Before that point, I was just "trying it out." But when I took the step of identifying as a coach and talking about what I help people with, things started to change.
There was something very powerful owning this new identity and declaring it to my friends and peers. I started to sit in people's minds in a very different way. That soon led to several friends introducing me to founders and CEOs they knew who were seeking a coach, several of which turned into long term clients.
The biggest lesson was that there are countless people out there who need your help and the best way for them to connect with you is for you to tell the universe that helping others is who you are.
Michael Bungay Stanier, corporate coach, trainer, and author:
I offered a few coaching sessions for free with about five people I know - friends, but more friendly associates. Then asked them to refer anyone they knew who was looking for a coach to me. Two of them each sent me two people.
My first full-paying client came unexpectedly. It was someone I'd met a month or two earlier - an acquaintance who was quickly turning into a colleague and friend.
I'd already started practising talking about coaching at networking events that season. And by "practising talking about," I really mean "selling". But with this person, I talked about coaching as if I was talking to my best friend. I wasn't trying to sell him anything. But I DID have to nudge myself into sharing about coaching with him. Not because I don't love coaching, but because I had a limited belief about "talking about myself". He asked questions, I answered them, one thing led to another - and he signed me to be his coach. When the payment came through, I felt a heady mix of excitement and nausea!
Don't be afraid to share about coaching, especially if it's from your own personal experience. Share the experience, not the concept. Share stories and case histories instead of features and benefits. Use conversations, speak from what you're certain of, and stay with THEIR wants (versus YOUR needs). And, of course, be great at what you do. :-)
Andy Morgan, physique, fitness and nutrition coach:
I help recreational trainees with their physique goals by giving them ongoing nutrition and training advice.
But it all started with a happy accident.
The fitness industry is a hellhole of bad information. This was just as true back in 2011. I was frustrated that supplement scams were ripping off my Japanese friends, but the language barrier creates an information gap, and I couldn't point them anywhere with good information.
I was hot off of reading Julien's Trust Agents, and I decided to try do something about it.
I started writing in English to gather my thoughts, and then I translated it into Japanese. I published both, so the blog was in two languages.
The Japanese versions were stillborn, but the English ones gained traction. Because I was writing about a niche topic, people forgave how ridiculously-ugly-bordering-on-comical the website was and just focused on the writing, seeing me as another expert.
Then one day, less than six weeks in, a guy called Phil from San Francisco (god bless the early adopters of SF!) posted in the comments, asking me how much my online coaching was.
Online coaching, eh? This was a new concept to me, and the cogs in my brain started audibly turning. Perhaps this could be a business, an escape from my English teaching job in a Japanese high school!
"Absolutely, Phil. Let me send you an email with some pricing information." I wrote back.
I drew up what I thought a "12-week package" should look like to justify my asking price. To my surprise, he said yes.
I started talking about my work with Phil on the blog and set up a "coaching" page. Others started applying. I haven't looked back since.
Ok, so my first paying client was an eccentric multi-millionaire who paid me $40/session—and I was STOKED!
He was also the first client I fired.
I was back waiting tables at a brasserie in Montreal a few months after stepping out of the yoga studio that I had created.
I had been coaching for quite sometime simply because I loved it. While running the studio, I was coaching people for free with the very limited amount of time that I had! It was through the breakdown of my business partnership that I realized it was something I wanted to pursue professionally. So through a breakdown, I was starting to see the possible breakthrough.
This man, let’s call him Louis, was a regular at the resto.
He was tall, loud, generous, and had an artistic flare with his curly hair and style.
During one of our conversations psychology and coaching came up. And that was that.
A few months later, I also went back to work at lululemon athletica. Waiting tables was good money and lululemon was good people. I needed both as I rebuilt my identity both personally and professionally.
Louis walked in to pick something up for his daughter.
We had a brief conversation and it led to us setting up a 1:1 session at the coffee shop next door.
I treated this client as if he was paying me $1000/hour (minus the fact that the café was definitely not the best place for a session, he didn’t mind!)
We worked together for several months and he was one of the most challenging clients I have had to date--which also means he helped me level-up more than he will ever know.
He taught me a few valuable lessons:
Don’t be intimidated by someone’s status, age, gender, background, finances, or stature. We are all human. Your job is to listen for greatness no matter what. *I was initially nervous about his wealth. I often asked people I coached “What would you do if you had $1,000,000” and knew this wouldn’t change much for him. However, “What would you do if you had $5 to your name” was a game changer for him that opened up the real reason he wanted to work with me; to unleash his creative spirit and start living on his own stage, not the shadow of his family’s history.
Set your boundaries from the get-go otherwise you might receive text messages at 3am. Teach your client to show up powerfully in their life, by doing so yourself. *I created my “rules” for phone, text, and email such that communication flowed more fluidly with future clients.
Do what’s best for your client, even if that means not working with you. *At some point in our working relationship I felt that it would be better for him to work with a psychologist. I had to coach him to take the importance of this on so that he could achieve the goals he shared with me. He did. We put our work on pause and worked together again later.
Related to the aforementioned, know and honour the limitations of what you can do for people and create a list of professionals who can shine where you can’t. Being a resource for your clients to work with someone who can do what you can't is just as important as what you will do for them. *Sometimes what a client needs is to see an osteopath to deal with the back pain they keep bringing up or to take a break from coaching and go on a weekend getaway to the lavender field they often wish they would go to.
It’s ok to fire a client or to encourage them to transition to what’s next on their path. At some point Louis stopped being coachable and it became apparent that he was no longer willing to do the work. I love to coach clients and meeting up for fun is something I reserve for friends. It was time Louis and I part ways. When we did, he tried different personal growth work and all of this led him to moving to a different city, completing a program he had long wished to complete, and rocking on on stage as he loved to do!
So there you have it! My first paying client.
To quickly elaborate on my “first” client, I believe it was while working at lululemon (before the yoga studio). I worked there on and off for nearly a decade and their personal growth culture was what drew me in. I took it on and led coaching sessions with staff throughout Montreal. Even when I stopped working there I’d do it. Once I established myself as a professional coach, they hired me for in-store and company events and workshops. I also coached via Landmark Worldwide’s Self Expression And Leadership Program. I coach my students at the yoga studio as well by incorporating it into workshops we offered there.
That being said, the path to what I consider my first paying client was one that took several years. And I enjoyed all of the steps that got me there (not always in the moment, but in hindsight, I am grateful).
Micah Baldwin, startup coach and advisor:
When I started coaching, I never thought about how I would get clientele, just that it was something I had to do if I wanted to actually be a coach.
The first several people I spoke with didn't understand coaching or the type of coaching I wanted to do. It was important that those two things lined up to order to both provide value and for the client to receive that value.
After sending most of those people either to different coaches or to therapists based on their needs, I met with a founder that was looking for someone to help them grow as a leader and more importantly work with their entire founding team. I initially suggested they meet with different coaches, but it was clear that they were looking for someone that was both a coach and an operator, which after years of starting and running companies, I was. And it was clear that they wanted a fellow founder. We agreed to start working together a few times a month.
It was great. We focused on communication between the founders and their teams, and leadership tactics that would enhance the culture they were looking to build. And, of course, we spent time on how they could build better relationships with each other and themselves.
I don't think I would have had the confidence to take on my first clients unless I spent the time really understanding where I could add value and what value the client was looking for, and, most importantly, be ok with saying no until the right fit came along.
One of my best friends, who was the first to suggest I explore coaching as a profession, invited me to coach her and her business partner as they embarked on their second business. Within a week, she introduced me to a friend of hers. He became my first paying client.
1 - Part of our coach training program was to coach while we were learning. So we would learn a concept, and then coach on it that evening, and then debrief next day. They suggested finding one person to practice with, and instead - I went to my network (LinkedIn in that case), and said I was working on my coaching certification and that I was looking for two people to practice with. They would have to commit to working with me the whole 6 months, and I also added sessions in between trainings. The response was very positive, and I ended up working with two amazing people. One was a special effects designer that worked on Star Wars and Ghostbusters, and the other was a partner at BDO. Both were intimidating, but I wanted to challenge myself.
2 - Close to the completion of training, I was also doing marketing consulting work, and one of my clients was a VP of a multi-division corporation that wanted to build a personal brand presence as part of a launch for a book he wrote. We started off with his website and content - and then I thought I would offer coaching as a service, because I felt he would benefit more from that work. Because we had already developed a working relationship, and had a lot of trust between us - he gave me a chance, and that was my first paid coaching engagement.
Staffan Rydin, executive coach:
creating powerful coaching conversations
#1. Adopt the mindset of a professional coach
connecting with new people
invite them to a powerful coaching experience
#4. Coach them so powerfully that they won’t forget you for the rest of their life. Be bold and hold nothing back. This way, even if they don’t want more coaching right now, they may come back in the future and/or refer others to you. If they are left wanting more (and you feel like you’d love to work with them) then have a couple of packages ready so that you can seamlessly propose a way of working with you right then and there.