The fall back to school season always reminds me of how different life as an entrepreneur can be from the typical experience of going to school and going to college. When you’re an entrepreneur, you have to create your own structure and “grade yourself” on your performance. You have to direct your own learning and adjust along the way to decide whether you’re pursuing the goals that are right for you. Instead of teachers and professors and textbooks and a class syllabus showing you what you’re going to work on and why it’s important, being an entrepreneur requires you to write your own textbook and create your own roadmap for your growth and success.
There are many things about starting a business and running a successful business that you just can’t learn in a classroom, but here are a few things I wish I’d learned in school that would be helpful in my life today as an entrepreneur:
- How to sell. In all my years of high school and college, I never took a class in “Sales,” but I wish I had been able to. Because selling is the most important thing about starting and running a business. If you don’t know how to keep cultivating new customer relationships and closing sales, your business will never get off the ground. If you don’t keep a steady pipeline of new sales opportunities on the horizon, your business will run out of fuel and crash. Fortunately, sales can be learned with experience, but I wish schools did a better job of teaching students how to persuade, communicate, and build sales relationships. Selling is the most essential business skill and most people never learn it in school.
- How to generate business ideas. Creativity is so important in business, not just for “creative professionals” like writers, designers, marketing people and developers, but even if you’re in an industry that isn’t traditionally thought of as “creative,” being able to generate ideas and innovations can help put your business ahead of the competition. Unfortunately, too many schools don’t teach students how to harness and value their creativity. Too much time in the classroom is still spent on memorizing facts, “teaching to the test,” and doing things “by the book,” when what we really need from our future business leaders is for education to empower people to become innovators. Instead of doing things “by the book,” students need to learn how to write a new book of their own.
- How to solve interesting problems. Seth Godin says that schools should have only two goals: Teach people how to lead, and teach them how to solve interesting problems. Running a business is a constant exercise in problem solving, for customers and for yourself – you constantly need to think on your feet, adjust to make things better as you go along, and deliver on your promises. Unfortunately, many schools only teach students how to solve “boring” problems that are too abstract or that the students already know the answer to, like doing lab work where the “experiment” has already been done many times before. Students should be asked, “What’s a change you’d like to see in the world?” And then be encouraged to create that change – because creating positive change and solving problems is the essence of being an entrepreneur.
Being an entrepreneur is a great life, but you can’t learn how to do it in school. Fortunately, you can draw from your experiences in school and in life to create your entrepreneurial venture. The best way to learn how to run a business is to learn by doing. Starting a business is not just a great way to make a living, it’s the ultimate journey of lifelong learning.