Ask almost any small business owner why they decided to start their own company, and you will most likely get the stock answer, “I wanted to be my own boss.” If that’s the case, why on earth would anyone intentionally seek out some know-it-all who is just going to try to tell you how to run your company? Although they may seem like just another hassle you don’t have time for, a good business coach or mentor could prove to be a valuable asset in growing your business.

What’s in a Name?

Even though the titles are often used interchangeably, there are some distinct differences between a mentor and a business coach.

A mentor is someone who volunteers there time to help you improve your business, like a sage of business advice who shares his/her knowledge freely with those who seek it. The relationship is usually informal, with the protégé usually seeking out the mentor when there is a question they need addressed. The upside is that a mentor volunteers their services, but this also means they have no binding obligations to their protégé.

A business coach is the professional version of a mentor. They still provide you with the help you need, but their assistance comes at a cost. The idea of paying someone to do something that another might do for free may seem uneconomical, but the fact that you employ their services means that they have a vested interest in your success. No savvy business owner would continue to employ someone who isn’t getting results, so business coaches have more incentive than a mentor to help you.

Why and When?

Since each business and business owner is different, there is no standardized set of criteria to determine why or when you should seek assistance from a business coach or mentor. Some businesses start out relying on their services, while others may seek them out only after they have exhausted all options in trying to address a problem. A coach or a mentor may serve well in supplementing your knowledge when your business enters into a phase that is beyond your realm of expertise.

Before you bring seek the assistance of a mentor or coach, outline the goals you would like to achieve in your business venture. These goals will help you determine what type of mentor or coach is best suited to help you. For example, an individual with no business experience might be best served by finding a mentor who worked in a similar field who can show them the ropes and help get the business off to a good start. On the other hand, an established business owner who is having a particular problem might be better matched with a business coach who specializes in the hypothetical aforementioned problem.

Where to Find a Coach or Mentor

Now that you have a better idea of what you are looking for in a mentor or business coach, how do you go about finding one?

There are a lot of private business coaches, but the trick is finding one that isn’t just trying to scam you out of your hard earned money. Research is the key. It is best to try to select a coach that has credentials from a business organization, such as the Worldwide Association of Business Coaches. Once you have selected a promising prospect, try to contact them before you employ their services to see if they are a good fit for your business.

If a mentor seems like a better option for your company, there are a lot of resources to help connect entrepreneurs with qualified mentors. For example, the Service Corps of Retired Executives is a non-profit organization that aims to help small businesses achieve success through the guidance of seasoned business people.