The Difference Between Coaches, Mentors, Advisors, and Consultants

Too often I hear the terms mentors and coaches used interchangeably. I'm sure if you search for definitions, you'll easily find ones that support how you've been using the words. For me, clarity is important. When I built Trajectify, I needed to be clear what it is that I am doing - for my clients and myself.

I took the Spring of 2013 to speak with about 70 entrepreneurs, investors, and service providers. The biggest and most universal challenge that I heard from them was the lack of mentoring. It took me a while to be able to comprehend, especially since I knew so many "mentors" who were helping entrepreneurs. How could mentoring be lacking? Or what was broken about it?

I thought back to several mentoring groups in which I had participated. One was a bunch of experienced guys who tended to tell young entrepreneurs how we would run the business if it were ours. Another was an unstructured group of peers providing camaraderie and support, but really no personal or professional development. I also looked at the model of business accelerators who prolifically used the term "mentor" and found those relationships to be very superficial.

The lack of mentoring, I thought, was one of semantics. If I could put clarity around the definitions, I could better understand the problem and build my business to serve the greatest need. I looked at four roles and tried to simply describe the nature of the relationship.


A coach works with an entrepreneur (their client) to help improve performance. It can be leadership, business, or personal, but in all cases structured to help establish and meet goals, understand and resolve challenges, and focus on growth. The coach neither necessarily has all the answers an entrepreneur might seek nor does the work on behalf of their client, but brings an outside-in and unemotional perspective. Coaches know how to take an entrepreneur through a process of discovery and skill development, asking questions to lead the client to their desired achievements. The benefits of the coaching engagement can be measured through the performance of the entrepreneur and/or the company. The client becomes more capable and the business grows.


A mentor creates a relationship through which long term benefit is derived from knowing one another deeply. It is often a personal relationship or one that becomes personal because of the time spent together and the mutual caring. Mentors are safe, look to develop their mentees, and have no agenda. They are passing along their knowledge and experience.

You know that mentoring is working when the mentor and the mentee grow to think about one another often, in between discussions and meetings. I don't agree with how some organizations, including startup accelerators, now use the term. If the mentor relationships in a program are informal and for a limited period, they are more like "advisors" (see below).


A consultant is an individual or company who you hire to do something for you or your business. They have resources, knowledge, or experience that can supplement you in your efforts. They typically don't look to develop your skills or performance, but use theirs to accomplish tasks or reach goals in place of you. You get the work done without having to do it yourself.


I like to describe an advisor as a sharp-shooter - someone with specific expertise or experience who can help you in a particular way. They might do so for a fee, or as part of a more formal advisory role or group, or as a favor or for in-kind services.  The relationship is typically more casual than the other three described here. You ask questions and they have answers. They listen a little and talk a lot, and are able to help an entrepreneur get an urgent problem understood (and maybe solved) quickly.

I often hear from entrepreneurs that they've asked a number of advisors the same question and have gotten a different answer from each. That's when you need coaching!

Consultants and Advisors are trained by their experience, often by employers. Mentors typically aren't trained in how to be effective in being one. Coaching is the one role that can be trained. It is a science and a profession, with transferable skills that can be developed and mastered.

There are circumstances where one of these roles might be more appropriate. In the course of growing your business, you will likely need all four. The coach, mentor, consultant and advisor are all valuable resources to help an entrepreneur move their business forward.