How a Successful Entrepreneur Learns

Successful entrepreneurs are not born, they are made. There are many different ways to learn how to become an entrepreneur. This creates the challenge of how to learn as the risk becomes that you learn the wrong things or worse spend more time learning than doing.

Formal education, such as an undergraduate finance degree at university or an MBA is certainly not enough to get an entrepreneur to the right competence levels. There are many useful, even necessary, classes that you can enroll in, but there is no career in this world that can be successfully learnt just in class. Some classes will use case studies and simulations to try and model real life entrepreneurship which are quite useful but cannot fully replicate the real world challenges of an entrepreneur.

At the other end of the spectrum is the learning by doing model. The problem is that the entrepreneur is not a student and maximizing their own learning is not the priority of their stakeholders. Entrepreneurs are responsible for shareholder and company resources and to use them to learn is irresponsible at best. A successful learning experience is dwarfed by the project or company failure that it creates.

This leaves two other main methods. One is self-reading including books, periodicals and blogs. For books, reading academic books is no different from getting a formal education minus the teachers and students. The problem with non-academic books, along with periodicals and blogs, is that it can be difficult to discern which provide value.

This point is important. When selecting a school it is quite often easy to discern which universities carry more weight with employers and investors. On the other hand what makes a valuable book for an entrepreneur? A book written by a successful entrepreneur may be interesting, it may even provide some valuable insights, but does it create value for the entrepreneur? The adage that those who “can” do; those who “can’t” teach, may be true but it certainly does not mean that those who “can” are able to teach. Frankly, not an insignificant amount can barely write.

What about the main rating sources for books, periodicals and blogs? For books it easy to go on to Amazon or Goodreads and check the ratings as well as reviews of the books by customers and members. This will just lead the budding entrepreneur to acquire popular books. That is not the same as valuable books. This is true about any asset.

As for blogs and periodicals, are they really any different from sound bites, splashed across a page or out in the electronic ether, more valuable to the writer as a self-esteem boost than it is to the reader? How do you differentiate between self-aggrandising fluff and an extremely valuable article such as, to pick one completely at random, the article that you are currently reading?

The final major learning method, usually introduced after all the others, is the mentor. A successful entrepreneur who gives of his time to teach a new entrepreneur based on his experience.

The better approach to learning would be to start with a mentor. Better yet a network of mentors. Such a network would be able to give an entrepreneur a balanced view on the best way to go about learning.

In terms of a formal education with respect to entrepreneurship about the only real requirement would be a solid foundation of accounting and budgeting. These two topics, although related, are not the same. Budgeting is extremely difficult to do in an effective manner.

As for self-reading, you should stick to the basics. The latest super-duper marketing concept is either far too complex for the needs of the entrepreneur or is more likely a fad. In fact a new super-duper anything is most likely a fad.

Periodicals and blogs have an extremely high noise to signal ratio. Finding the right ones are key. Entrepreneurs do not need to read the Wall Street Journal or Forbes. The Harvard Business Review, on the other hand, has a wealth of relevant knowledge. Good blogs are more difficult to find and it is important to search carefully; reading on for another 50 words might yield such a blog.

Approached correctly, learning can be effective for the entrepreneur. Remember to start with the mentor.

This article was originally published in The National.