For 15 years Tim Conley has counseled entrepreneurs, helping them overcome mental hurdles and grow their businesses. Many founders, he’s observed, prefer daily problem-solving, even if there are no problems, and neglect long-term planning.
“Most entrepreneurs are arsonists and firefighters,” he told me. “If things are going well, entrepreneurs will often set fires to put them out.”
I hired Conley years ago in the early days of Beardbrand. His coaching addresses common challenges of entrepreneurs, such as delegating and evolving.
He and I recently discussed those issues and more. The entire audio of that conversion is embedded below. The transcript is edited for clarity and length.
Eric Bandholz: Give us a rundown of what you do.
Tim Conley: I’m a business coach for entrepreneurs. I’ve been doing it for about 15 years. I go into a company, see where it’s at, and get founders over their mental blocks. They see all these problems and don’t know how to solve them. They know the mechanics of solving them, but emotionally they can’t.
I help my clients — entrepreneurs and their teams — figure out how to get past that. Coaching requires me to understand the psychology of those involved more than actually understanding the problem. The problem is just mechanics. I help figure out the missing pieces.
In the early days, I would do weekly coaching calls. But I found that entrepreneurs have so many priorities, they don’t need a weekly call. Now I do it twice a month, typically for six months.
Bandholz: Are there commonalities holding back entrepreneurs?
Conley: Most entrepreneurs are arsonists and firefighters. If things are going well in a business, entrepreneurs will often set fires in it so they can put them out. And if things are going terribly, they’re happier putting out fires even though they’ll tell you otherwise.
That’s the biggest thing I see with solo founders. They want to muck it up. They like getting into the thick of things. But as it grows, a company doesn’t need that skill. It’s necessary at the beginning, where you’re turning an idea into reality, but it requires burning energy. After a few years, burning energy can burn the whole business to the ground. Learning how to let go of that is a common hurdle I see.
Entrepreneurs should let others in the company battle their own fires — because fires will always exist in a company. As long as it’s growing, a business will always have fires. And even if you’re not growing, there will be fires as you are dying. And letting your folks handle those fires themselves is incredibly important. It’s like breaking a habit. You don’t just give up a bad habit. You need to replace it with a different habit, or it won’t stick.
Giving entrepreneurs a creative outlet inside the company is usually the easiest way to solve that problem. Because your original creative outlet was the business. Now we need to figure out how to create something new that doesn’t mess with what you built. The solution for many entrepreneurs is product development or marketing and letting others in the company run the machine.
That’s usually where I start — helping founders shift their focus. It is finding what they desire to create and devising a role for that. It’s usually a part-time role because I still have to teach them how to do the boring stuff, such as knowing their numbers and managing teams. A lot of entrepreneurs don’t like those parts. My clients are usually under $5 million in annual revenue and aren’t big enough to hire a professional CEO. They have to acquire those skills. But they won’t learn the boring stuff if they have no creative outlet.
Every company, even young ones, should have research and development. No matter the business type, you need someone looking to the future without mucking up the present. When you’re really small, that’s somebody who has to compartmentalize.
Many companies I’ve worked with start struggling around $1 to $3 million in yearly sales. They did not invest in R&D because they were busy building the company. The market’s changed after three years, and they’re still doing the same thing as when they started.
Bandholz: Is there a management framework you lean into, such as EOS?
Conley: I look at client personality types. It’s about finding an entrepreneur’s style and leadership traits. And it’s different for every person. Some of it is natural — how they approach things, skills they have, skills they need to learn. Pushing folks into a specific framework sounds good, but the day-to-day reality comes down to personality type and being themselves instead of trying to follow a management book.
Bandholz: Where can listeners find you?