The Democratization of Small Business Coaching


This paper explores the importance of increasing support for small business owners delivered by professionally credentialed coaches.  

Despite the availability coaches, most small business owners do not have access to coaching. Social exchange theory was used to explore the relational exchange dynamics in the small business coaching market including the influence of the International Coaching Federation (ICF) in the democratization of small business coaching. Case study methodology was used with primary data collected via interview methods along with the meta synthesis of existing peer reviewed literature.

The results indicated that while small business coaching works, it may not be as lucrative as other sectors and at the same time offers a great personal reward to coaches.  With so few ICF credentialed coaches working primarily with small business owners and with the need for coaching so high, an opportunity exists for positive change in this sector.  


coaching, small business owners, small business, International Coaching Federation.

Statement of Opportunity

Imagine a world where small business owners have access to professionally trained coaches, supporting them in developing the skills, confidence, and resources needed to contribute to a healthy world economy—creating secure and meaningful employment for others while maintaining personal prosperity and freedom. If only it were that easy. According to Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada Small Business Branch (ISED), fifty one percent of small businesses do not make it to year five (ISED, 2021) (Turner & Endres, 2017). The surviving forty-nine percent struggle to get and keep their business profitable (Muthusamy & Kannan, 2023).  

As it is to underestimate the importance of water for survival, so it would be to underestimate the crucial role of small businesses in local economic development, job creation, poverty alleviation, and overall economic growth (Gherghina, 2020). The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) reports, small businesses are responsible for seventy percent of all jobs globally (ILO, 2022).  While small business owners are recognized as the drivers for economic growth (Ribeiro-Soriano, 2017), they are often the first to experience the effects of economic changes, whether positive or negative (Guidant Financial, 2019).

Start-ups and corporations often get help from government programs or venture capitalists (Mason & Brown, 2013).  Main Street small business owners don’t—especially not during years three through eight when most have a viable business, several employees, and more struggles than they expected (Afful-Dadzie & Afful-Dadzie, 2016). 

Considering all these challenges, it becomes crucial to examine who could potentially help small business owners. Through my experience of coaching small businesses for over fifteen years, and as an International Coaching Federation (ICF) credentialed coach for twelve of those years, I have observed that small business coaching is a less common niche in comparison to other coaching specializations, predominantly executive and leadership coaching. And, to highlight the gap, according to the ICF, less than 5% of their coaches identify as a small business coach (ICF, 2023). For small business owners, support in the form of coaching may not be obtained due to lack of availability, concerns about the expense, doubts about value and lack of time (Mole et al., 2017).

This research explores how coaching by professionally credentialed coaches, specifically those who hold ICF credentials, can be an effective tool to help navigate these challenges and to gain understanding that can inform the development of more targeted coaching strategies and programs for small business owners.

Research question

The aim of the study is to explore the relationship between International Coaching Federation (ICF) credentialled coaches and small business owners. The overarching research question will ask “How can the ICF contribute to encouraging coaches to coach small business owners?”  To help answer this primary research question, the sub research questions are outlined below: 

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Research Context

Justification for the study stems from the fact that a healthy small business community contributes to economic sustainability by creating jobs, generating revenue, promoting innovation and reducing poverty (Sawang, 2023) (Caldwell, 2017). Small businesses are essential to economic and social wellbeing (OECD, 2017).  The COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause economic and financial disruptions for the small business community making it very difficult for many companies to continue (Zambrano et al., 2021).

 The exploration of help from coaching for struggling small business owners makes for a timely research topic.  With only 3% of ICF coaches having reported that small business coaching is their main area of focus (ICF, 2023), and with the needs of small business so high, it is fitting that we explore the gap in the small business coaching market. 

When examining the application of coaching on small business, Compton (2012) research presents “strong evidence of business coaching’s effectiveness” (Crompton 2012, p.27). Entrepreneurs reported that having a business coach positively impacted their business performance and growth.  This may present an opportunity for ICF credentialled coaches to support small business owners through coaching.  The exploration of coaching small business owners aligns with the stated studies objectives.

In Support of this Research

The Grand Challenge for Research on the Future of Coaching reminds us that “the integrity of any field of practice rests on its intellectual foundations and research” (Boyatzis, Hullinger & Penafort, 2022). I was inspired after meeting Dr. Boyatzis to bring a question related to the efficacy of coaching for small business owners, a market sector that post 2020 COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a great need for professional help.  Additionally, “entrepreneurship and small business is a growing discipline” (Liang & Dunn, 2011) which presents an opportunity for coaches, who are most often a small business owner themselves, seeking to grow their practice. Why is this important now?  It may be the  worst of times and the best of times (Strauss, 2020) for small business.   Inflation, globalization, climate change, the war on Ukraine, all add to the already heavy burden small business owners face every day (OECD, 2023).  Based on the above, I see a strong need for research on the role of coaching in supporting the well-being and ongoing development of small business owners (Zambrano Farias et al., 2021).

Author’s Context for Study

During my attendance at the 2019 ICF International Conference in Prague, Czech Republic, I observed biases expressed by coaches regarding working with small business owners. The coaches appeared to hold negative attitudes towards coaching small business owners, instead preferring to work with corporate executives and CEO’s of larger organizations. They also said that coaching small business owners was consulting, not coaching. Upon further investigation, I learned that the ICF currently does not have a small business community of practice.  I seek to better understand the position of ICF coaches and find ways to encourage coaches to leverage their existing skills to serve the small business market.

How to Coach Cheat Sheet

Use this to review or discover coaching techniques for small business owners.