As an entrepreneur, your job is to create a replicable, scalable business model which can deliver a product or service of value to the market, at a profitable price.

Sounds quite daunting when you put it that way doesn’t it? The good news is that millions of people around the world have done this, and like anything in life, you too can learn how to do it if you’re committed. Oh, and if you’re open to learning.

“Open to learning?” you might be thinking to yourself. “Oh good. I made it through high school. I have a diploma/certificate/degree. I’ve got a masters/Phd/MBA. So I’m good to go, right?”

Unfortunately, no. That’s not the sort of learning I’m talking about. In fact when it comes to entrepreneurship, many highly academically qualified people are some of the least open to learning.

The real learning needed to be a successful entrepreneur can’t be learnt in a classroom. You can’t pay a fee, go to classes, write essays and sit an exam to get qualified. But wait! I hear some of you saying; you can study business and entrepreneurship at school. This is true and there is a growing awareness that more emphasis should be put on entrepreneurship in our schools and tertiary institutes. Initiatives like the Young Enterprise Scheme do a great job of introducing Kiwi kids to entrepreneurial thinking at a young age. (Find out if your children’s school offers Young Enterprise programs.) Similarly, many business programs at universities now include papers on entrepreneurial thinking. MBAs often include the study of elements relevant to entrepreneurship.

Don’t mistake me here – all opportunities for learning are useful, and it is a good idea to read and study everything you can get your hands on about entrepreneurship before you start.

But here’s the deal… while you can get lessons on entrepreneurship in the classroom, the real learning is done out in the marketplace. And the market doesn’t care how many degrees you have, what you majored in, what thesis you wrote or what school you went to.

The real learning you need to succeed as an entrepreneur is far more expensive and far tougher than academic or book learning. Quite simply, it’s called experience! It’s a bit like learning to swim… You can read about it, study it, watch others do it, write papers about it… but at some stage you have to jump in the pool and get wet. All that best practise business theory you studied – it’s very hard to apply it in a cool, calm, collected manner when you’re fighting for your life, just trying to keep your head above the water so you don’t drown.

On the plus side, there are very few prerequisites for starting your degree at the ‘university of entrepreneurship’. There are no fees, there are no age limits, you can start as soon as you like and take as long as is required.

So, what type of things can you look forward to learning?

When you first start out, because it’s the fun and exciting bit, you’ll probably spend most of your time on the product development stuff – taking that idea you’ve had for a product or service and figuring out how to turn it into a tangible, saleable commodity. Then your real learning will begin when you realise you then need to build a working structure (i.e. a business) around that product to actually get it into the market.

Essentially, the first year or two will be spent learning how much you don’t know about each of the key elements required to build a successful business. Sales, marketing, product development, customer service, accounting and financial management, IT, law, management to name a few. This can be a very daunting and disheartening time and many people drop out at this stage.

But it is an essential first step in your entrepreneurial education, as ignorance in any one of these areas can bring your business down. Not only will you have to do most things in your business yourself to begin with (unless you’re lucky enough to start it with a partner or two), but as a business builder you need to know enough about each area to understand what is required in each role, so that as you begin to hire people to perform each role you are able manage them properly and hold them accountable. (In his excellent book The E-Myth, Michael Gerber refers to the difference between ‘management by abdication’ versus ‘management by delegation’.)

If after realising how little you know you decide to keep going, your entrepreneurial education will then continue through the process of Action – Reaction – Review – Adjust – Repeat; otherwise known as cause and effect, or trial and error. This can be a brutal process and you need to be prepared to leave your ego at the door. Often you will be forced to make decisions with insufficient knowledge and information, most of which will be wrong. This is where your openness to learning from your mistakes comes in. Acknowledge them and learn from them, and you will hopefully not make those mistakes again. Fail to learn from them and you’ll be doomed to repeat them time and time again, hitting the same roadblocks and failing to achieve the success you desire.

It’s also during this stage of the process that you will also undergo the most significant and important learning of all. That is: the learning about yourself.

Your strengths, weaknesses, discipline, mental toughness, personal character and integrity – all these and more will be constantly tested. Even your reasons for wanting to be an entrepreneur in the first place will be tested, and I know many people (including myself) who have realised that the goals that used to motivate them when they first started out no longer mean as much. Most of all, it is your tenacity and perseverance that will be tested. Those who can stay the course will continue moving through the learning process, getting better and better and overcoming the obstacles, until ‘graduation’ and the inevitable success waiting for them at the end.

If you have a degree or academic qualification, that’s great – but don’t assume it will give you any advantage as an entrepreneur. And if you don’t, well three or four years out there in the marketplace will teach you more about entrepreneurship than any qualification – so go do it!

Like any great undertaking or journey, perhaps the best reward will not be the things you get from building a successful business, but the person you will become. A qualified, successful entrepreneur!

Note: I have long been a proponent of lifelong learning, and my journey as an entrepreneur has been probably the most valuable learning opportunity I’ve had so far. This article is simply my perspective on learning in the context of entrepreneurship. I should point out that I do have a business degree and that no, I don’t feel I have graduated from the university of entrepreneurship… yet!

Richard Liew is the founder and editor of NZ Entrepreneur magazine. He is an entrepreneur specialising in sales and marketing and holds a bachelor of commerce in finance, from the University of Auckland. @nzpreneur


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