4 Ways to Keep Learning Beyond the Classroom

This story appears in the October 2014 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

"The moment you think you know everything about your business is the moment you lose your competitive edge," says Pat Flynn, a San Diego-based writer who focuses on online entrepreneurship. "Top athletes continue to train and learn in order to improve; a smart entrepreneur does the same."

I know you know that intuitively, but it can be hard to convince yourself that adding to your education is worth the time and money. Often the hang-up is seeing how those new skills can pay off in an existing business--and that's where I believe many small-business owners miss the mark. Learning a new skill can open up completely new avenues of growth and income for you and your business.

Take Lisa Lessley Briscoe. When her kids were old enough, the Portland, Ore., freelance technical writer returned to school at a local university to learn graphic design, taking one class per term. Today her business, Tappity Communications, attracts a wider range of clients.

"Going back to school gave me flexibility," she says. "Over the past year, I've done everything from branding to logo design to writing installation guides for dental chairs."

I can look to my father, a serial entrepreneur who didn't have a college degree, for evidence of the value of continuing education. While selling health-food products in the 1970s, he took a marketing class at a community college. After he'd implemented what he learned, his sales skyrocketed. When he started a manufacturing firm in 1985, Dad taught himself computer programming. The software he wrote gave his company a competitive advantage, allowing it to carve out a niche in a crowded marketplace.

But attending classes or picking up another degree or certificate aren't the only ways to boost your knowledge base. The methods below are small learning opportunities that can pay off big.

Mentors. When Briscoe met a man who owned a small letterpress studio, she asked to become an apprentice. He agreed. She spent one day a week learning the trade, and her added skills helps her attract new clients.

Tutors. I hired a Spanish tutor I found on Craigslist. After working with her for 18 months, I was proficient enough in the language to do volunteer personal-finance counseling at a nonprofit for migrant workers.

Conferences. Each year I speak at a handful of conferences where attendees glean targeted information while expanding their network of contacts. I'm able to connect with experts who might otherwise be unapproachable, as well as speak with and learn from other entrepreneurs who wrestle with similar problems.

Books. To get myself out of debt, I read dozens of books about saving and investing. On a whim, I created a website to share what I was learning. Within five years, I'd built a booming business and published my own book, all because I used the resources of the public library to learn something new.

Edition: October 2016

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