By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS
In April it will be 20 years since I founded CTS with a few friends, and it’s amazing to look back over a journey of two decades and see how CTS – and the entire endurance coaching industry – has grown. I’m proud of what the company has accomplished, but I am even prouder of the coaches we have developed from greenhorns to leadership positions throughout endurance sports. And I’m grateful for what CTS has provided for me and my family, but what fills my cup to overflowing every day are the stories from athletes who have transformed their lives and performances through working with a coach.
In 2000, there were a handful of coaches making a living from coaching, SRM was the only power meter on the market and very few people knew what to do with it, training plans were sent by fax, and training data was analyzed in spreadsheets. But I saw opportunity in the fledgling internet. It offered a way to sell services online and, more importantly, to trade training prescriptions and athlete feedback through a web browser. I wasn’t the only person to put the pieces together around the same time, and together a group of coaches and businesses started creating what became the endurance coaching industry.
I didn’t come from a business background, which was an advantage in the beginning. I wasn’t burdened by as many doubts and ‘what ifs’ because I didn’t know to be concerned about them. Scalable endurance coaching companies didn’t exist, so there was no model to follow. We were creating the model as we went, which led to both triumphs and failures, and a lot of great lessons.
Here are some of the key lessons I’ve learned through 20 years of building and leading a coaching business. Whether you have led a company for a long time or are thinking of starting one, I hope my experiences are useful for you. In the comments section I would love to hear about the lessons you’ve learned in your life and career.
In the beginning, just the idea of an amateur cyclist or triathlete hiring a coach was revolutionary. We had to educate our potential customers just to get them to see the value of coaching, and then convince them that quality coaching could be delivered remotely and over the internet. Similarly, we had to convince athletes to start working with power meters. But we couldn’t stop there, and the lesson I’ve learned is that you can never stop asking, “What’s next?”
And it’s not just the pursuit of brand new products, services, and ideas. You have to reinvest in the products that already work, or they will soon stop working. We have been bringing athletes to cycling training camps for 20 years, but we revisit the structure, location, and content of the camps every year – and sometimes within a season – in order to keep them fresh.
Let Things Go
Part of innovation is recognizing that products and services have a lifespan. Not everything you create will stand the test of time, yet that doesn’t mean it wasn’t successful in its time. CTS produced more than two dozen full-length indoor cycling videos and released them first as DVDs and then as video downloads. They did very well, but times and technology changed and we don’t sell them anymore. Letting things go also frees you to see and pursue new opportunities.
Sometimes it is also important to let things go when you realize that focusing on too many goals dilutes your ability to achieve any of them. From 2000 through about 2006-2008, CTS created online coaching tools in parallel with the development of TrainingPeaks software and web tools. Eventually, I had a decision to make. Either CTS was going to become a technology company or a coaching company in order to be the best at either. TrainingPeaks went through a similar decision process. They went the software route and we went the coaching route, and I think both groups chose correctly. My true interest was in art of coaching athletes so I stayed focused on that, and since 2008 CTS has been one of TrainingPeaks’ biggest group accounts (coaches plus athletes). Focus on what you do best and love most, and be willing to let go of things that keep you from doing that.
Put the athlete first
In other businesses this would be ‘put the customer first’, but I have always referred to our customers as athletes. I learned very early on that what was best for the athletes was best for the company, both in terms of the brand and the bottom line. When you focus on the product, create the best product you can, and anticipate the needs and desires of the people buying it, you will have a strong brand. If you spend all your time and resources on brand building, then the product suffers, people aren’t satisfied, and they don’t recommend it to their friends and training partners. No brand is strong enough to survive if the product doesn’t work.
That lesson was never as apparent than during 2013. I started working with Lance Armstrong in 1990 it was obvious he was a gifted athlete, had a killer instinct, and had no idea how to race a bike. When I launched CTS in 2000, he was a Tour de France champion and being associated with Lance provided an undeniable lift for the company for several years. During that time we doubled down on coaching education and customer service to create the best coaching product for the athletes who were coming to us. If it had been all branding and no substance, the association with Lance – or any of the elite athletes we worked with – wouldn’t have been enough to keep it going. In the aftermath of Lance’s downfall in 2013, the brand and business took a hit, but the majority of CTS Athletes stuck with us because they valued the service, their relationships with their coaches, and the holistic approach to handcrafted coaching. Marketing didn’t see us through that period. A rock-solid product delivered by top-notch coaches did. I talked more about the history and legacy of CTS, working with elite athletes including Lance, and the future of endurance coaching in the first episode of The TrainRight Podcast, which launches on Wednesday, January 29.
Like a lot of founders, at the beginning of CTS I had a lot of confidence and not a lot of experience running a company. As I gained experience building a company there were times when I doubted or second-guessed myself. Over time, though, I gained the confidence and trust to let my experience and process guide me. In a business, a competition, or a relationship there will never be any guarantees. But recognize that your judgement, intelligence, and gut got you to where you are today, so trust that you will continue to make more good decisions than bad, and that you can both capitalize on opportunities you create and recover from missteps you take.
Let Younger Staff Lead
Part of the reason so many people my age feel that younger generations are incapable of taking on major responsibilities is that they’ve never given young people major responsibilities. Most CTS Coaches join the company in their 20s, and many stay ten years or more. Over the past 20 years, I have found that young coaches rise to the occasion when given the opportunity to accomplish something meaningful for them and the company. And the best part is that they can then lead the company forward as they pursue the latest sports science and newest products and discover opportunities I may not have seen. In the long run, your young employees will be running the place, so give them real responsibilities, provide guidance, and trust them to lead the way.