Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the best entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. On the average, the entrepreneurs I know are living on Ramen noodles. But one thing they all seem to have in common is a love for learning and change. They rush in with a passion to better the world, and money is just an indication of their progress.
The successful ones then invest their time and money in furthering their knowledge base. I’m not talking about academic classes, because at best these only teach you how to learn. In these days of rapid change, most experts believe that the facts college students learn as a sophomore are obsolete before they exit their senior year.
Learning should be viewed as an ongoing part of everything you do, and one of the most important things. It’s an unfortunate artifact of our educational system that young people spend a dozen years focused more on memorizing facts than the learning process, and then thinking that they will have all they need to know for the rest of their lives by the time they graduate.
In business, as in most other disciplines, there are practical steps towards learning what you need for the next stage of your company and your life. These include the following:
• Networking with people who know. A question I sometimes get from startup founders is “What do I talk to these guys about?” I say you can’t learn much if you are doing all the talking. Just ask investors what they look for in successful companies. I’ve never known any successful entrepreneurs or investors who were not happy to share their insights.
• Read entrepreneur stories. Most successful entrepreneurs have been written up on the Internet, or in magazines, or books. Spend some time with these biographies and soak up the insights and inspiration. Follow up online with social networking to make contact, dig deeper, and maybe even line up a mentor.
• Adopt a mentor. Boomers who have “been there and done that” make great mentors. They have the time and interest in “giving back” some of what they have learned to the next generation. Gen-X executives are too busy running their own companies to be mentors. A mentor is someone who doesn’t let ego or money get in the way of helping.
• Formal learning. Some formal learning is always advisable, but get beyond university MBA courses to professional seminars and case studies. Formal courses work best for basics, like a business start-up course or financial accounting. Go with topics you are interested in and need today.
• Volunteering with local organizations. Work is highly valuable in any environment of universities and professional organizations. The payback is that you can get experience for free, while working on real stuff. I’ve done business plan judging at local universities, and learned more than I contributed.
• Just start a business. There is no better way to learn about being entrepreneurial than starting a business. No matter how much advice and counsel you have been given, I guarantee that you will encounter new challenges daily, to enhance your learning opportunities.
If you are one of those people who likes structured classes for learning, and counts on spending at least two weeks per year in the classroom to “catch up,” that’s laudable, but don’t try to start a business at the same time. It won’t happen.
If you have decided to become an entrepreneur solely to make more money, you are also likely to be disappointed. It’s that double challenge of learning to overcome all obstacles, while still surviving on the financial front, that keeps a good entrepreneur motivated to face a new day. Join us if you dare.
CEO & Founder of Startup Professionals, Inc.; Advisory Board Member for multiple startups; ATIF Angels Selection Committee; Entrepreneur in Residence at ASU and Thunderbird School of Global Management.