My student loan—a financial burden and monthly reminder that I frittered away my formal learning years on an education I never use—is finally paid off, 15 years later. It’s this experience that has prevented me from returning to school, though I’ve threatened it more than once.
Are you sitting in your cubicle, nodding yes?
I know you: you’re working 9 to 5 and looking for an out. You want to be your own boss. You have a product idea, and it’s a good one. With no formal training or experience in manufacturing or ecommerce or running a business, you’re naturally afraid to give up the security of your paycheck. You can’t quit your job to go back to business school—you have a family depending on your bacon!
Going “back to school” doesn’t necessarily mean giving up your career, or even putting it on pause. Some of the best entrepreneurs don’t have a formal education—they took the leap and made it up along the way. Their eventual successes started as side hustles: they taught themselves, reading books and blogs, and leaned on mentor support.
Lifelong learning is responsible for many self-made entrepreneurs. Outside the walls of traditional classrooms, the learning resources – many of them free – are plentiful.
When I started writing this piece, I’d imagined the finished product to be a roundup of sources for alternative education – learning you could do on the side, slowly, as you work toward your dream.
My colleague said something to me, however, that changed the direction of this post:
"The biggest barrier to adult learning isn’t about access to the right information. It’s about the attitude and discipline of the learner."
I realized that I wouldn’t be doing you any favours by dumping a bunch of links here – many of which might not suit your lifestyle or learning needs. Before we dive into where to access education, let’s talk about how to make it work for you.
Understanding your learning style
There are several competing theories about learning styles – why people learn differently, and ultimately how to accommodate these learning needs (including the theory that they don’t exist at all). If any of these theories resonate with you, knowing your learning preferences may help you determine the appropriate medium for your education.
You may already know that you absorb information better through reading or maybe it's hands-on demonstration.
If you don’t, your Myers Briggs personality type could provide some insight. Determine your personality type, then compare it to a common learning theory like the VAK or VARK model, which segments learners into four main categories – Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing and Kinesthetic.
For example, it’s suggested that MBTI Sensing Types may prefer hands-on demonstration with visual aids (Visual), while Feeling Types may learn better in an environment that connects them with people (perhaps Auditory), and Extraverts lean towards active and interactive learning (Kinesthetic).
We’ll use this specific model as a basis for the learning recommendations at the end of this post.
Making learning part of your lifestyle
If learning style and personality tests feel too hocus-pocus—they’re not for everyone – let’s move along to a more practical question: how will learning fit into your lifestyle?
How much time do you have to dedicate to education? Are you free for several hours in the evenings after work, or is your spare time broken into small 30-minute stints between picking up the kids from school and shuttling them between soccer games?
The answers may determine what type of learning and what medium will work best for you.
- Track your time spend: use a journal for a week to inventory your activities minute by minute. Where can you combine tasks or rearrange your week to free up more time? What can be cut to make way for a commitment to learning? Translate your typical week into a calendar or time-management app, and schedule in blocks for study.
- Nix procrastination: the extras and the hard things are the first to go when the procrastinator’s axe hits the chopping block.
- Double-dip: from your journal, identify opportunities for overlapping mind-expansion with a necessary evil, like your commute. Podcasts or audio learning can easily overlap daily activities like housework or driving.
- Get organized: engineer your life to allow for a healthy work-life balance that includes enough slumber – adequate sleep is closely linked to improved focus, memory and efficient learning
Motivation and drive
This is the central challenge around adult learning, because many of the built-in incentives from grade school and college – report cards, graduation, certification – are no longer present.
Based on the Andragogy theory, “adult learning is goal-oriented and the intended outcome for the learning should be clearly defined”. In self-directed mediums, the onus is on you, the learner to establish these goals.
Your mile-markers may be “learn seo” or “complete webinar series” or “read this book”, but your ultimate goal should answer the “why”. If you want to launch your ecommerce store by next April or quit your day job by Christmas, write it down, then work backwards: what skills do you need to learn to get there? Is the timeline realistic?
Keep your ultimate goal in sight: post it prominently in your workspace.
The same theory says that adult learning is autonomous, but also collaborative between student and teacher. In the case of self-directed learning – books, webinars, podcasts—collaboration might look more like a buddy system.
Connect with other aspiring entrepreneurs through supportive online communities, join a book club, or share the process with a friend or mentor.
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College students can benefit from starting a summer business to earn money for tuition and grow their networks. Share this guide to help them start a business that sets them up for success: The College Student’s Star Map to Starting a Small Business
Educational Resources for Entrepreneurs
The following resources fall into two categories: self-directed (books, blogs, podcasts) and guided (online courses, mentorship).
Adult learning is inherently self-directed – the truant officer won’t be looking for you at home – but the guided options do have a level of accountability that may provide motivation and structure for some learning preferences.
For the purposes of this section, I’ll use the VARK model again to indicate the learning mediums/sources that are best for each learning style (indicated by V, A, R, and K).
Blogs and Online Guides (V, R)
Probably the most self-directed, and least structured of the learning sources, regularly reading blogs and online publications by industry experts can be a great way to learn in real-time, as trends and technology rapidly change.
The Shopify blog—which you're reading right now—is also home to a variety of resources about every area of running an ecommerce and retail business, as well as enterprise insights and case studies on the Shopify Plus blog.
Webinars, YouTube and TED Talks (A, V)
While taught in a traditional teacher-to-student manner (lecture + visuals), audio-visual learning through webinars or video instruction allow the flexibility to establish your own schedule and learn from anywhere.
- 10 Youtube Videos Every Entrepreneur Should Watch – Inc.
- The Smart Marketer, Video Series – Ezra Firestone
- Webinars: Getting Started on Shopify and How to Start an Online T-Shirt Store
- TED Talks on a variety of subjects like business and technology, and TED Studies (TED Talks organized into structured learning modules)
- Stanford University Video Series
Books, Ebooks and Audiobooks (R, A)
Personally, I’m still partial to the tactical benefits of paperback, and nostalgic trips to the library, but consuming books in e-format has benefits beyond portability – they can be updated more easily, and many come with add-ons like study guides or linked resources. Audiobooks are great for the Auditory learning set and pair well with multi-taskers.
- 40 High-Impact Books for Entrepreneurs – Shopify
- 13 Entrepreneurial Women Share their Book Recommendations
- Popular Ecommerce Books – Goodreads
- 11 New Ecommerce Books for 2016 – Practical Ecommerce
- 20 Books to Read Before You Start Your Own Business
Like audiobooks, business podcasts are portable and multi-tasking friendly. At around 30 minutes to an hour in length, they’re generally a much less daunting commitment than a book. The episodic format can also establish a routine of regular/weekly learning.
- Shopify Masters
- The 15 Best Podcasts for Entrepreneurs – Inc.
- 12 Inspirational Podcasts for Entrepreneurs – Shopify
- 10 Podcasts for Ecommerce Merchants – Practical Ecommerce
- TGIM – The Essential Podcast for Entrepreneurs
Online Courses (V, A, R, K)
Frankly, some of us lack self-discipline, and accountability (read: shame) is an excellent motivator. Guided learning, through structured courses, also offers feedback and support.
- Shopify Academy
- 25 Killer Sites for Online Education – Lifehack
- 15 Free Online Learning Sites Every Entrepreneur Should Visit – Entrepreneur
- Lynda – monthly memberships starting at $19.99 offer unlimited courses in business, technology and creative skills
- Women-focused entrepreneurship programs like B-School by Marie Forleo
Mentorship, Volunteer Work, and On-the-Job Learning (K)
The Kinesthetic learner might have trouble gaining new skills from a book or video lecture. Volunteering or securing part-time work on the side, absorbing business skills from an established entrepreneur, is an excellent way to learn by doing.
Look for mentorship opportunities in your social circles, at work, and through online communities.
Don't forget about other learning opportunities like conferences, government or workplace programs, and even online continuing education options at formal institutions.
At Shopify, we’re pretty big fans of “fake it till you make it”, and we think the best way to learn is to just dive in. Start your side hustle today, embrace failure, and learn from it.