AAt its best, business coaching can connect you with a mentor and supporter who helps you generate ideas, develop plans, and execute them.

But at worst, a business coaching offer can cost you time, energy and money – with little to gain from it.

Here’s what to expect from a business coach, how to find a coach that’s right for you, and how to spot the red flags.

What a business coach can do

Business coaches draw on their professional experience to help you set and achieve your own business goals.

“I’m here to help you, and I’m here to raise your level of knowledge in any way I can,” says Gary Robinson, who chairs the SCORE chapter in Memphis, Tennessee. SCORE offers free business mentoring for entrepreneurs nationwide.

Here are some ways a business coach or mentor might do this:

  • Offer feedback on your ideas and suggest new ones.
  • Giving you templates and other tools that help you make plans.
  • Connect with resources in your area or industry.
  • Give you deadlines and hold you accountable for them.

Some business coaches may also offer classes or group training sessions on particular topics, such as sales.

Working with a coach should help you identify opportunities you haven’t seen before or develop new strategies to seize those opportunities, says Sophia Sunwoo, who coaches women and non-binary entrepreneurs through Ascent Strategy, her company based At New York.

“[Coaches] don’t have to have all the answers,” says Sunwoo. “But these are the people who know how to maneuver and create a bunch of different thought paths for their clients.”

What a Business Coach Can’t Do

A business coach is not the same as a consultant, which you would hire to perform a specific task. A coach or mentor might review your business plan, for example, but they wouldn’t write it for you.

“If you were to hire me as a consultant, you would expect me to roll up my sleeves and work with you to get things done, and you would pay me for it,” Robinson says. Coaches, on the other hand, “try to show you how to do things so you can do them. [yourself].”

Business coaches aren’t therapists either, says Sunwoo. Entrepreneurship can be emotionally and mentally taxing, but it’s important for coaches to refer clients to mental health professionals if needed.

Business Coaching Red Flags

If a business coaching opportunity “promises guaranteed income, big returns, or a ‘proven system,’ it’s likely a scam,” the Federal Trade Commission warned in a December 2020 advisory.

In 2018, the FTC filed a lawsuit against My Online Business Education and Digital Altitude, which claimed to help entrepreneurs start online businesses. The FTC alleged that these companies were charging participants more and more money to run their programs, with few customers getting the promised returns.

In both cases, these operations paid settlements and the FTC reimbursed tens of thousands of their customers in 2021 and 2022.

To avoid such offers, the FTC recommends that you:

  • Beware of anyone who tries to sell you right away or pushes you to make a quick decision.
  • Look for reviews of the person or organization online.
  • Research your trainer’s background to see if they’ve accomplished as much as they say.

Sunwoo is also skeptical of one-size-fits-all solutions. A coach should personalize their advice based on your personality and skills, not ask you to conform to theirs.

“The moment a business coach pushes you to do something that’s really not compatible with your personality, your beliefs, or your values,” says Sunwoo, “that’s a huge deal.”

How to find the right coach — maybe for free

Here’s how to find a coach who will be as helpful as possible.

Determine if you need advice or hire someone. A coach is not suitable for all business owners. If you need practical help with organizing your business finances, for example, you may need a bookkeeping service or an accountant. And ask your legal questions to a lawyer.

Look for the right expertise. A good coach must be aware of what he does not know. If they don’t match your needs – whether it’s expertise in a particular industry or a specialized skill set, like marketing – they might be able to refer you to someone who fits better.

Consider free options. There may be some in your city or region:

  • SCORE offers free in-person and virtual mentorship in all 50 states, plus Guam, Puerto Rico, and other U.S. territories.
  • See if your city has a small business development center, a veterans business awareness center, or a women’s business center. All are funded by the US Small Business Administration and offer free training and advice to entrepreneurs.
  • Search online for city- or state-specific programs. Philadelphia, for example, offers a business coaching program designed for entrepreneurs who want to qualify for particular business loan programs. Business incubators often offer courses or coaching.

Make sure your coach is invested in you. They should take the time to learn about you, your business, and its unique needs, then leverage their own experience and creativity to help you.

“I’m part of your team now,” Robinson says of his clients. “Let’s do it together and make it a success.”

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