Founder's Journal

Eight Ways to Learn in Business

William Gadea 05.02.2017

Some people say that success in business is a result of hard work, raw intelligence, or the quality of your personal connections. Of course those things matter, but I believe the most important factor is whether you and your organization are able to learn how to create a product or service and bring it to its market at a lower price than it costs to produce. Some people never learn how to do that, and some people do. So what are the ways to learn in business?

Before trying to answer that question, let’s make some underlying assumptions clear. First, it’s not like learning is a process that ever ends. Conditions, both inside and outside of your business, are constantly changing so you have to learn how to adapt to these changing circumstances.

Second, there’s no established playbook for all businesses, or even businesses in your exact same sector. Yes, there is a lot to learn that is applicable to any company at all: the basics of law, accounting, management, marketing, sales. But at the same time, every business is a snowflake. What works for one firm in your sector simply might not work for you, and you need to learn what does work.

So what are the ways to learn?

Coaches and Mentors

Learning from someone that has done what you’re trying to do is a time-tested way of acquiring knowledge. There are some important advantages to personalized coaching.

  • First, the coach or mentor can see what you need to learn and let you know; an article or book cannot do that.
  • Second, a coach/mentor can provide emotional support, cheerleading, or role-modeling when it is needed. You will probably need that human touch, at some point.
  • Third, a coach/mentor can hold you accountable. If there’s something you need to do for your business, that you have de-prioritized for any number of reasons, your coach/mentor can hold your feet to the fire until it is done.

Your relationship with a coach or a mentor might be paid, or it might not be paid. Obviously, a paid relationship has a certain tempo and level of attention baked into it that an unpaid relationship might or might not have. One of the reasons I have never been good about seeking out mentors is that I hadn’t fully realized how rewarding being a mentor is. Now that I’ve known the other side of the deal, I probably would be better at the mentee side. If you’re looking for a mentor, ask for the help you need, and show your appreciation when you get it. If you don’t ask, chances are it won’t happen.

Peer Groups and Advisory Boards

Peer Groups and Advisory Boards have the same human advantage that coach/mentors have: emotional support, accountability, knowing what you need to know. What they add to the Coach/Mentor relationship is a group dynamic. If someone tells you something about you that you don’t want to hear, you might be able to discount that one person’s opinion. (Maybe they have a strange perspective, or just aren’t thinking it through.) But if eight people tell you something, it’s a little more difficult to dismiss. Also, there is a careening quality to group discussion. One person might come up with an idea, someone else might add to it, and a third person might complete it perfectly.

What are the disadvantages to groups? Their attention might not be as focused as a mentor or coach. It’s hard sometimes to bring a group along when you’re really digging into the details of a business; attentions will wander.

There are different types of groups.

  • Peer advisory groups like Vistage can be expensive, but they come with a culture and procedure that facilitates interaction.
  • Mastermind groups, a term coined by Napoleon Hill in Think and Grow Rich, tend to be more informal (and less expensive) than Vistage or similar organizations. Often, they are just business people that get together for a drink once a month.
  • Finally, consider putting together an advisory board that meets your needs exactly, and pay those individuals for their time. Don’t invite people that are already your professional advisors, such as lawyers and accountants; you’re getting their advice any way, and you can’t talk openly about their services to you in a meeting. Instead, seek people with the expertise you need in a function you need advice in (marketing, sales, etc.) or in your industry sector. Don’t underestimate, however, how much overlap there is in all businesses: about 60-70% of problems are usually shared no matter what the field is.

Blogs, Videos, Articles, and Podcasts

There is a plethora of material available on how to do things in business. This is because when you start a business, you are also becoming a consumer of business goods, and there will be very many companies looking to earn your trust and allegiance with content that meets your needs. Google, and the world is your oyster.

Lately I have become fond of podcasts as a way of absorbing new information. There is something about the pacing of them, and the touch of personality they come with that lets me absorb information more easily than other media. Plus, I usually hear podcasts on my commute, when I would otherwise be frittering away my time on social media.

Books

I would be less inclined to go to books for how-to’s than blogs, videos, and articles, since they are usually less up-to-date. What books do best for me is spark the big thoughts, the attitudinal changes, the re-prioritizations. Here is a list of books that I’ve found thought-provoking on business.

Buy a Franchise

When you buy a franchise, sure, you are buying a brand and sometimes, access to a supplier. But often the biggest value you’re getting is that the franchise is passing on its learnings to you. (If you haven’t seen The Founder, where Michael Keaton plays McDonald’s ‘founder’ Ray Kroc, it’s worth checking out.)

Hiring Experience and Know-How

Of course, one of the best ways to learn is to bring in someone with a wealth of experience. Senior employees are the end-product of all the cultures they have worked at, as well as their own personal pre-dispositions.

At some point, have a conversation with new hires that have worked at other companies in your sector. See if there is something the other companies are doing that might make sense for you. Depending on their personality, that conversation might come unprompted.

Experimentation

No matter what else you to do learn, a lot of the learning is going to have to be doing. One of the best ways of learning is through experimentation and the scientific process.

You can do experiments over time periods. If you wanted to test a change in your website, for instance, you might compare two periods before and after the change. But it’s usually best, if it is possible, to conduct the trials concurrently, since that potentially provides more randomization. (A website A/B test would be an example.)

Here are a few useful guidelines to running experiments in business:

  • Make sure that a failed experiment won’t kill you. The stakes should be manageable.
  • Make sure the experiment is something that is likely to make a difference. If it will make just 0.01% of a difference in your business, it’s probably not worth your time.
  • Make sure you can measure the results of your experiment.
  • Allow for the limitations of the data. Business rarely provides the opportunity to conduct perfect experiments, so you have to adjust for other variables.
  • Make sure the conclusion you come to is based on enough data, but don’t wait for so much data that your organization is slowed from acting on your conclusions.

Reflection

A lot of learning fails to happen because we don’t let it happen. We are so lost in the day-to-day that we don’t lean back, as individuals or as teams, and really reflect on our processes so that we can see how they might be improved.

Just finished a challenging project? Don’t let it go and move onto the next thing, with no respite. Call your team together for 15-20 minutes, and think together about what went right, what went wrong, and how you can do better in the future. It’s a few minutes that might save you hours on the next project.

In business or in life, learning to learn is a very valuable skill. Invest some of the aforementioned reflection on how you do it, and you might come to some useful conclusions.

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