In the last couple of weeks, I’ve committed to building a company and developed the meaning and messaging for it. This week, I sat down to construct a business model. I very quickly realized I was out of my element. As a teacher, designer, product manager, and learning scientist, I never got the needed training in financial management, P&Ls, cash flow statements, or revenue modeling. It was time for a crash course.
I may not know much about financial analysis, but I do know that understanding the perspective of someone who has the skill you want is as important as practicing the skill yourself. If you come from a business school or grew up the son or daughter of a financial analyst, then you probably know everything you need to construct a business model for your startup. Since I didn’t, I sat down with an expert.
As I went through my routine for learning the most from an expert in the least amount of time, I realized it might be useful to share my carefully crafted process with you. So here it is. The steps I take whenever I’m listening to a talk, attending a conference, watching a panel discussion, or simply having coffee with someone who has knowledge and experience that I don’t.
Rather than asking someone how to do something, I carefully observe them doing it. Last week, I sat down with a financial expert and asked him to run through a business plan while vocalizing his reactions. He talked through his curiosity and what triggered it. He talked through his skepticism and his concerns. Each time he paused and discussed what he was thinking, I got a sense of how he looked at business models, the metrics he measured them by, and the areas he thought could be improved.
I take notes. I use a livescribe pen and notepad to record an expert’s words while writing down the keywords and phrases that I want to return to later. This way, when I review my notes, I can re-listen to the words the expert was speaking when I wrote something down. It allows me to focus on the conversation or presentation in a non-linear way, grouping information together as it serves my curiosity and learning goals. With the financial expert, this was particularly helpful because he used several phrases I never heard before. I didn’t have to look them up, I could just tap to repeat his explanation as it occurred in the context of our recorded conversation.
I make a two-column list. In one column, I list the new perspectives I’ve discovered from listening to someone who sees the world a little differently from me. These perspectives challenge my current thinking and help me reshape how I view the knowledge or skill set I’m interested in. The second column is for the actions I observe an expert take. If I want to apply this new knowledge or use these new perspectives appropriately, I have to know what the pros do so I can practice. In this case, I wrote down several actions. For example: “determine all possible costs,” “figure out how much the decision makers regularly spend,” and “start with a good story but end with good numbers.”
I tell someone else what I’ve learned. To maximize the value of my listening, I will try translating what I’ve heard to a friend or colleague. I often find, as I did when teaching, that I learn more from the process of trying to explain a new concept than from the process of reading or reacting to it. What comes out cleanly, I feel confident about; what gets lost in translation, I know I must review.
So if you want to hear about what else I gleamed from my conversation with an expert business analyst, let me know in the comments below. And the next time you’re talking to experts in any field, try these simple steps for getting the most out of your time and theirs. See you next week!
* Adam’s column, Mission Control, is about launching a startup and tracking its rise. From overcoming setbacks to ultimately (fingers crossed) fulfilling his mission, Adam Lupu offers his inner thoughts and outer workings while building a company. Read more of Adam’s “Mission Control” column here. *