What’s the difference between coaching, mentoring and teaching?



Unfortunately the term “mentor” for startups is getting like “organic” for food: once meaningful, but through both misuse and overuse becoming close to meaningless. I have a post from a video by entrepreneurial guru Steve Blank that very clearly describes how mentors differ from not only coaches and teachers but advisors as well.

Thus I was pleased to see the Inc. article Do You Need a Coach, Mentor, or Teacher? Finding the right source of counsel makes all the difference as Inc. has a lot of reach with SMBs and entrepreneurs.

Here’s their very brief but helpful clarification between a teacher, a coach, and a mentor.

  • teacher is someone who has studied a topic enough to be able to teach what she has learned to others.
  • mentor is someone who has experience in your industry creating success for herself and can show you the way.
  • coach is someone who can help you with the internal aspects of entrepreneurship, personal growth, setting goals, and facing fears and resistance.

Another difference worth noting is that taking a course or hiring a coach typically costs money, where as mentor is synonymous with “volunteer.” I’ve yet to see any one charge for mentoring. If you do that you are an advisor.

Another point mentioning is where in your entrepreneurial journey you should look for what type of help. Typical is taking a course related to entrepreneurship, as many of my MIT students do before they enter the startup world via MIT Sandbox or one of the Institute’s many other entrepreneurial programs. By entering a support system like Sandbox or The Venture Mentoring Service founders get access to mentors. It usually isn’t until a venture is further along that coaching comes into play. Mentors or often investors may recommend a coach, usually to help a technically-minded CEO improve their business skills. Years ago we used to call this “going to charm school.”

Another way of looking at these sources of support is that the further along your venture is the more your need for domain-specific mentoring, advising or coaching. Very early stage ventures can benefit from mentoring on the many general issues common to all startups: what type of business entity to form, founders’ agreements, building a team, creating pitch decks, prepping for business plan competitions, etc.

An important point for founding CEOs: you need to differentiate between support for your venture and support you may need as a first time CEO. This is similar to the legal counsel issue: while ventures always have legal counsel often founders or executives can benefit by having their own attorney.

Taking advantage of the right teachers, mentors, advisors and coaches can be as important to founders as the talent they recruit. As I’ve said many times, startups are learning machines and founders should seek out sources of learning wherever they can find them, including their own staff and colleagues at other startups or even at mature ventures.


Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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