5 Lessons from 20 Years of Business Leadership

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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.

View more on our 20th Anniversary and our vision for the future of coaching.

Innovate Relentlessly

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.

Trust Yourself

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.

 


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Comments 13

  1. Pingback: Ultramarathon Daily News | Mon, Jan 27 | Ultrarunnerpodcast.com

  2. The biggest lesson I have learned in my life and career is that all the problems and issues that come up work out if you are willing to work hard and be true to yourself.

    I did not start cycling until I was 60 after not having ridden a bike since my Jr. High School days. I was never strong or gifted at athletics as I grew up and really struggled for the first 2-3 years. Somehow I found your DVD’s and they helped a lot but the biggest thing, Chris, was hearing you call me an athlete at my first CTS camp in Colorado Springs circa 2007. That really inspired me and made me think maybe I can do this. I have been a CTS athlete ever since. The benefits continue and grow daily.

    Congratulations on your 20th anniversary. Keep up the good work!!

  3. I know your mainly about road riding/racing but this has not meant that a mountain biker like me has not gotten a good price of advice or insight into distance riding from reading your blogs. I see that you are venturing into more camps that have to do with mountain biking and in my humble opinion this may be a larger part of where biking is going. Keep it crisp.

  4. I done your coaching program, I had my wife attend one of your camps to learn to cycle, and I would say that it is all been great but I’ve also truly enjoyed your weekly newsletter, it is absolutely superb!!!

    Congrats on being a very successful entrepreneur, never easy but you had done a great job.

  5. Well.. Now that you ask.
    I went to a CTS Training Camp in Tucson in 2010. I live in NE so a chance to get some miles in during FEB in AZ sounded appealing. I was sent an extensive questionnaire regarding my training, racing experience. I filled this document in with much detail as I was/am am experienced competitive cyclist. CTS offered bicycles for use during camp however a suitable (size) bike was not available to me so I had to ship out one of my road bikes at my own expense. The CTS office was located in a strip mall in the middle of Tucson adjacent to a very nice cycling shop which took care of building and servicing the campers equipment.

    The hotel accommodations were in a lower end chain motel close to the strip mall. Bed bugs were reported and we were offered another option across the street. Well that was good because there was also a supermarket there where clean food was available for purchase because the fruit loops offered at breakfast weren’t that appealing.

    Ready to ride. I was really looking to get some good training and coaching during this week in Tucson. Have you ridden IN Tucson?.. There are a lot of traffic lights and our first venture out stayed close to the city so we had plenty of training time stopping and starting. I could tell that the coaches had thoroughly examined our bios because one of the first questions I was asked, while riding in my team kit, was if I had ever ridden in a group before? Really?

    One afternoon was devoted to “handling skills”. Picking up water bottles off the pavement. Needless to say this was not what I had in mind having come from so far and having passed bottle pick up several years past.

    Finally on day 3 we really got on the road. On a six day camp we are are really riding on day 3. Have I mentioned that the coach leading the camp was due to race the following weekend in a 24 hr. min bike challenge? We all had the feeling that his heart wasn’t in this camp.

    So there were positives. Some of the coaches were quite engaged and gave us individual time when they weren’t collectively pitching CTS coaching. We were able to go out on our own to climb Mt. Lemon etc. after picking up the bottles or riding around cones.

    2010 was fairly early in the Camp training concept and I am sure CTS was ironing out how to best accommodate a varied level of cyclists. I am confident that what I experienced is no longer the standard and that the service level and location of CTS training camps has improved.

    I also enjoy reading CTS training articles and get continue to gain insight as I mature…(not age 😉

    AMC

    1. AMC, I so sorry we didn’t meet you expectations. We strive for much more than you described. We have conducted training camps for 20yrs since our inception and I sorry you didn’t have a better experience. I value your input so feel free to contact me directly via my email ccarmichael@trainright.com
      Best wishes, Chris Carmichael

  6. Congratulations on reaching your 20th anniversary Chris! My first experience with CTS was purchasing your training videos which brought a CTS coach to my pain cave and took my cycling to a new level. More DVD and book purchases lead to my first training camp in Tucson during your 10th anniversary. That lead to more training camps and my first coaching experience. It’s been a fun ride (pun intended) and very rewarding experience. Without your vision none of this would have happened. Thanks Chris!

  7. so Chris,

    as an on-again, off-again coaching client and a faithful reader of the blog i tried to put my finger on what makes CTS special (because it is). here’s my corny attempt:

    you keep it real. i never feel it’s all rah, rah – suck it up and jump over the moon. yes, you provide state-of-the-art information to your athletes. but your approach always seems to take into account that we all have to deal with our human frailties and have lives to live while we try to conquer the sporting world.

    so, congrats on your 20th, and here’s to you and CTS keeping on keeping it real. 🙂

    Gene

  8. As a founder-CEO from the same vintage as you, I think this article provides excellent pointers to those who would start a businesses. Your unspoken premise is your business was started to grow and last, not dress-up and sell. Strategy and scalability have become your foundation; it’s the reason I keep coming back. See you in Santa Ynez.

  9. I would be interested in reading about how the science behind endurance training has changed and what CTS coaches are doing differently in 2020 then they were doing 10 years ago. I’ve been doing intervals for over 20 years and the books that I’m reading now are still pushing intervals. The tools have changed, but the recommended workouts don’t seem to have changed much, at least over the past 10-15 years.

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