Students who envision owning or starting their own business can better position themselves for success by developing wide-ranging business skills in college, either by focusing on “hard” skills such as accounting or web design or “soft” business skills like interpersonal communications and leadership.
Gabrielle Totton owns a small plumbing business in Reno, Nevada, that she and her husband purchased in 2008 — right about the time construction work across the country came to a grinding halt due to the Great Recession.
The Tottons had never managed a business before, and the lack of work in northern Nevada made small business ownership especially difficult. Though the business survived, the owners had to learn on the fly key aspects of running a business, such as taxation laws, advertising strategies, web design, human resources best practices and other minutia that form the backbone of successful companies.
Learning on the fly is tricky, Totton said, and building a business rarely leaves time to take the classes that can help entrepreneurs avoid costly missteps.
“You could miss a better way to do things or mess up in terms of legality and taxes — you risk a lot not knowing basic things about business,” Totton said.
We talked to two established business owners to find out the ten essential skills to learn in school before starting a business and the college subjects that will equip prospective entrepreneurs with what they need.
Managing the flow of finances
After founding a standup paddleboard company in the late 2000s, serial entrepreneur Doug Erwin landed a job as vice president of entrepreneurial development for the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada. Erwin advises entrepreneurs and start-up companies in fundraising efforts, capital structures, licensing, strategic partnerships and business development.
A comprehensive understanding of finance is a key aspect of keeping the lights on at any business or growing a start-up venture, Erwin said.
“You have to understand cash flows, income statements and the financials of the business,” he said. “People need to understand financial instruments and how they can be used. There are a lot of middle-market companies that don’t understand how growth capital works, so get a clear understanding of which financial instruments can help grow your company.”
Getting the skill: Finance courses and training
Courses that could help entrepreneurs or business owners getting a better understanding of finance include
- Quickbooks and payroll systems
- SAP Crystal Reports
- Purchasing fundamentals and taxation basics
Advanced financial coursework includes topics like principles of accounting, financial management, real estate finance and applied corporate finance.
Clear and effective verbal communication
Strong verbal communicators are better positioned for success in business. Think about the ABC hit show “Shark Tank.” Candidates who most often get venture funding typically are those who effectively communicate their ideas and personalities to the group of “shark” investors.
Entrepreneurs aren’t only selling their businesses, they are selling themselves, EDAWN’s Erwin said.
“Look at most companies that are pitching for money — the pitch is everything,” he said. “They have to have a business model and business plan that holds up, but people invest in people, or your ability to build a story that entices others to invest.”
Students can enroll in communications classes that can help polish their oratory skills.
Clear and illustrative written communication
Even the best speakers need to communicate effectively through writing. From crafting business plans to sending internal emails or drafting company literature, business owners and entrepreneurs need to have a solid foundation in grammar and an excellent grasp of language.
Getting the skill: Writing courses and training
Advanced English classes may not be a prerequisite for business or finance majors, but students might consider taking basic/advanced grammar and creative writing courses. The ability to write well can serve business owners throughout their lives in incalculable ways.
Selling it to your employees: inspirational business leadership
Behind every successful business there’s a competent leader. Erwin said building the right team, effectively leading people and conflict resolution are among the most important business skills for entrepreneurs to develop.
“If you are creating a completely new company, you really need people to come in and support you and believe in your idea,” he said. “That comes from the founder’s ability to sell the idea and attract people. When you are just getting started, your product is you.”
Getting the skill: Leadership courses and training
Consider taking certificate-based management, business leadership and professional development classes in college or online to help develop and strengthen leadership skills.
Matching the right advertising to the right industry
Soon after taking over ownership of her business, Totton said she was bombarded by advertising sales representatives promising that their respective media outlets were her best avenue to gain increased exposure for her business.
Totton said she could have benefited greatly from instruction in the principles of advertising strategies.
“You get doused by hundreds of calls each month from ad reps,” she said. “Everybody wants you to advertise with them, and if you don’t have any real exposure to it you don’t know what is truly effective and what makes a good ad. You really have to have your thumb on what works for your industry — advertising is very industry-specific.”
Getting the skill: Advertising courses and training
College coursework in topics like introduction to advertising or research methods for advertising and public relations strategies could alleviate money wasted on inept advertising campaigns.
Fostering an online presence
Some businesses don’t need a professionally designed website as much as others. But today’s consumers are well-versed in using Google to search for service companies in their area. A small plumbing shop still needs a strong Web presence or it risks losing customers. And although there are many tools that simplify Web design, it can still be an onerous task for those untrained in the principles of design, search engine optimization and Google Adwords.
“Web design is an insurmountable beast to me,” Totton said. “Perhaps younger generations can take classes and run with it, and there are great programs out there that make doing a site easy, but I am not very keen to that.”
Business law and taxation
Small business ownership is much more than simply drawing enough revenue to keep the lights on and eventually put some money in the bank. Every business must deal with crucial issues such as state business licenses, sales and employment taxes and insurance and workers compensation costs.
Getting the skill: General business courses and training
Those business basics typically aren’t things most small business owners and entrepreneurs are prepared for, Totton cautions. Students who take general business courses can sharpen their business acumen before stepping into the workforce.
Management that plays to your team’s strengths
It’s no mean feat to successfully manage a workforce and navigate different employees’ personalities. Effective small businesses and successful start-ups often foster a team mentality, and getting employees to buy into that concept stems from successful management practices.
Totton said volunteering is one avenue that helped her increase her management skills — managing various projects, people, groups and schedules was directly transferable to the office.
Getting the skill: Management courses and training
Coursework in business administration or technical management can help students learn management strategies they can put into play once they are holding the reins of a small business.
Hiring — and keeping — the right talent
Good managers know where to find top talent and how to bring quality employees to their businesses. Never recruit at the last second, Totton said — have a list of the top five people you could use on your team. Small business owners often fly by the seat of their pants on any given day, but knowing how to recruit new employees and keep them onboard helps keep staffing levels stable and avoids overburdening employees.
Play to your strengths
A hard skill to identify without some serious introspection. Erwin said it’s important for entrepreneurs to be aware and honest with what aspects of business they are best at and those where they are weaker.
“Most people have a mixed skill set,” he said. “Have a healthy dose of self-awareness about where you are strong and where you are weak, and find people that compliment you.”
For more information on courses and programs to help build your entrepreneurial skills, check out some of the school listings below.
Interview Doug Erwin, vice president of entrepreneurial development, Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada. Conducted by Rob Sabo on Nov. 17.
Interview with Gabrielle Totton, co-owner, Master Service Plumbing. Conducted by Rob Sabo on Nov. 18.
“Banking and Finance Course Listings,” Terry College of Business, University of Georgia, December 3, 2014, www.terry.uga.edu/courses/FINA/
“Small Business Development Center,” Clackamas Community College, December 3, 2014, www.clackamas.edu/sbdc/
“Business Start-Up: Starting a Business in Colorado,” Arapaho Community College, December 3, 2014, www.arapahoe.edu/community-education/current-classes/business
“Professional communication skills,” San Francisco State University, December 3, 2014, http://www.cel.sfsu.edu/communication/