Book Excerpt: The Ups and Downs of Self-Teaching Business

Over the next week I’ll be posting some excerpts from My Start-Up Life which hits bookstores May 18th. Today’s excerpt is from Chapter 4 and is about my self-teaching efforts.

Fall 2001 was winding down. What a busy few months. I had learned a great deal about local government and my target market. Now I needed to learn about the mechanics of starting a for-profit business. It felt similar to when my family first got Internet—I thought we only needed a Web browser. Then I learned about Internet Service Providers.

On any given day my excitement and optimism soared or swooned depending on the effectiveness of my self-teaching efforts. With no entrepreneurship curriculum at school, no entrepreneurs in the family, and few programs aimed at youth, I was on my own to scour the public library, follow link after link online, and read business magazines and books. One of my favorite, more successful tactics was to monitor the business conference circuit and email speakers or presenters and request their PowerPoint presentations. Even though I didn’t attend the conference, many speakers still emailed their materials. I also persuaded Golden Gate University in San Francisco to let me audit management and marketing classes for free over the summer.

When this approach worked, the results were glorious. I could search for the definition of "preferred stock" in the privacy of my own thoughts. I could research public relations and ask myself the question, "So how do they make toxic sludge sound good for you?" without offending someone’s third cousin once removed who happens to run a small PR firm and takes pride in her work, thank you very much. I could study accounting over and over and come to enjoy acronyms like FIFO and LIFO, so long as it wasn’t EBITDA, a phrase new MBAs will utter about four times a day, their starched shirts and suits unable to keep corked the smugness a six-letter acronym allows.

When my self-teaching failed, I was a new kid in a big city, hungry for all of it but digesting little: I would read at length about some topic—say, the difference between "horizontal" and "vertical" markets—and then a week later hear someone use those terms in a meeting or read them in an article, and I’d feel like Pope Benedict at Rick Warren’s church: it sounds like Christianity, but what’s up with the T-shirts? There’s a big difference between reading something passively and being able to apply it, describe it, analyze it, all in real time with college-educated and experienced adults. Accumulating random bits of knowledge was better than nothing, but absent real-life experiences to cohere my readings into something meaningful, I was like the A+ student who can’t screw in a lightbulb. This would all change, soon, under the guidance of a mentor. Until then, the business literature accumulating on my bedside repeated one phrase over and over: "business plan."

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