How to Give Yourself a First-Class Online Business Education

image of keyboard keys saying Learn and Lead

When I first had the insane brilliant idea to start a business and get out of the alleged safety of the corporate world, I started by reading everything I could find.

I wish I could remember where the thread started for me. It might have been Dan Kennedy, it might have been Michael Port, it could very well have been the Personal MBA.

Each good resource led to three more. At some point, I found Copyblogger and Problogger and Seth Godin.

Hundreds of books and thousands of dollars in information products later, I’ve given myself an education. Was it expensive? Sure was.

But no more expensive than anyone’s education. Even an education that’s completely free is expensive in time and effort.

And just like a college senior ought to be able to get more out of a class than his freshman counterpart, I’ve gotten very good at efficiently extracting the information I need, leaving aside what I don’t, and avoiding the information that’s just not worth my time.

(Because yes, I still study compulsively, all the time. There’s always more to learn.)

Most of us who run online businesses get an education pretty similar to mine. We get some free stuff from our favorite blogs, we might pay for some information in a home study course or an ebook, and we cobble together a lot from pure observation.

Today I’m going to talk about what I’ve learned, so if you’re a little earlier on the path you can avoid some blind alleys.

It’s always about the fundamentals

Maybe you’ve heard of the Pareto Principle. (It’s also called the 80/20 rule.) It’s the observation that, in an amazing variety of circumstances, 80% of the output comes from 20% of the input.

Which means that 20% of your customers provide 80% of your revenue. 20% of the time you spend behind your computer provides 80% of your best work. And 20% of that great meal you had last night provided 80% of the pleasure. (It was the chocolate mousse cake, wasn’t it?)

Because of the Pareto Principle, there’s always a “20%” you should be spending your time on. And in just about every discipline, it’s known as the fundamentals.

Most people race through the fundamentals so they can get to what they consider the fun stuff — the esoteric, “advanced” weird material that no one knows.

Do you think the fundamentals in your topic are kind of boring? In that case, how do you feel about mastery?

The fact is, real masters of any endeavor get scary good at the fundamentals. Read the biography of any massively successful person you admire, from Michael Jordan to Warren Buffett, and you’ll discover someone who got freakishly good at what the wannabe hot shots look down on as “the boring basics.”

Understand Pareto’s 20% in your field, and work on it over and over again.

Then work on it some more.

Inspiration is great, but execution pays the bills

There’s one guy in particular whose stuff I find wonderfully inspiring.

I always feel energized after reading his paper newsletter or listening to his CDs. I’ve got a renewed sense of enthusiasm for my profession, I’m filled with hope and energy, I’m ready for anything.

And all that is fine. The problem is, it lasts about 20 minutes.

Enjoy the inspiration, but don’t stop there. Instead, use the energy from all that inspiration and translate just one idea into an action (it can be incredibly small) you’re going to take to move your business forward.

Then take that action. Really take it, don’t just intend to.

Which leads to:

Just one thing

If the book, membership site, ebook, or home study program you’ve got is any good, you’ll probably have more to act on than you can actually get done this week, this month, or possibly this year.

It may be helpful to remember a piece of advice given by David Allen. You can’t do a whole project. You can only do your next action on that project.

Whether or not you’re a devotee of Allen’s productivity cult Getting Things Done (I am), the idea of the “next action” is critical if you want to move forward on anything complex.

Writing a rough first draft for your email autoresponder is a next action. Spending 20 minutes brainstorming ideas for cornerstone content (and putting them someplace you can find them again) is a next action.

“Learn how to start an online business” is not.

Don’t neglect little things because you’re looking for big results. Big things are made up of the execution of many, many little things.

Education for its own sake can be inspirational and fun (and I would have happily stayed a college undergraduate forever if that had been an option). But if you have practical goals beyond learning, remember to keep those goals front and center.

Revisit the most valuable stuff

Human beings are a novelty-seeking monkey. We’re so attracted to what’s new and different.

But keep an eye out for those rare resources that are worth visiting again and again.

When I had a commute, I used to listen to the same marketing CDs over and over again. They burned a neural pathway in my brain. The information became second nature, as automatic as changing the channel when Leno comes on.

Reread the classics in your field. For me, it’s Robert Cialdini’s Influence, Seth Godin’s Permission Marketing, Eugene Schwartz’s Breakthrough Advertising, and a handful of decidedly old-school books on copywriting.

When you can get unabridged audio versions, pick them up in addition to the print versions, and listen to them when driving or on the train.

In the digital realm, I keep going back to Gary Bencivenga’s Marketing Bullets, our own Teaching Sells (I was a student before I ever dreamed of being a partner), and Jeff Walker’s Product Launch Formula.

I’m not looking for radical new insights. I’m looking for one small thing I can add to what I’m doing now.

Be ready to get bigger than you thought you would

When I started out with all of this self education, all I wanted to do was to convince people to hire me for copywriting gigs. I was good at that and I liked it, and I was itching to get out of that corporate job.

But by the time I figured out how to market my freelance writing, I realized that copywriting was a small subset of what I really enjoyed doing, and I wanted a bigger picture.

So if you’re going to expand your thinking, build new skills, take on a new mindset, and start making new neural (and social, and financial) connections, you may find your life shooting off in an amazing new direction that you never really thought was possible.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Ready for some high-quality free information? We’ve got you covered. Check out our newsletter, Internet Marketing for Smart People. It’s a crash course on the fundamentals that will let you build a better online business.

About the Author: Sonia Simone is Senior Editor of Copyblogger and a co-founder of Inside the Third Tribe.

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Comments

  1. Love this article. The information is good as is the spirit in which it’s delivered! I’m both inspired and OFF to do some good work of my own!

  2. Hey Sonia,
    This is very true. Getting educated is now much easier and what it all boils down to is whether you have the will to execute. Whether you are strong in your basics. I believe now the battle would be for insights and not information.

  3. You’re like me. I’ll read books over and over again, each pass focusing on something different (overall message, writing style, flow, how this could related to something seemingly unrelated, etc). I then make a bulleted list on the inside cover of stuff I want to remember later. Dog ears, highlighter marks, and notes in the margins litter all my books.

    I ask people, “Did you read Book X?” Then I say, “How many times?”

  4. You really hit home with “inspiration is great, but execution pays the bills.”

    I love this line because I remember exactly how I got started online. During mid 2005, I found a celebrity blog that was earning a few hundred dollars per week off of advertising and decided, “hey, I could do that.”

    Without missing a beat, I started researching how to make money blogging. And guess what I found? Darren Rowse of Problogger.

    I read every post he had available on his site in about 7 days. Inspiration overload for sure.

    Once I had enough inspiration, I launched my celebrity blog and ignored all blogs about blogging for around 6 months. I didn’t have the time since I was busy executing on everything I learned from Problogger.

    What was the result? Well, at the end of 6 months, I was selling more than $1000 per month in advertising, $250 per week.

    I was ecstatic, but I hit a plateau. Traffic growth and revenue growth stopped.

    So naturally, I started doing more research in the middle of 2006. I stumbled on to Copyblogger, SEO Book, Pearsonified, and a few other people.

    I got another dose of inspiration and again ignored all blogs about blogging for a few months while I implemented what I learned.

    It was a vicious cycle. Every time I hit a plateau, I’d educate myself on how to break out of it, then go try and break out of it. If I failed, I’d keep trying until I didn’t fail.

    The end result? I built a blog that was breaking 5 million pageviews per month, and selling more than 5 figures per month in advertising.

    I wanted to share this story with you because I think a lot of people get bogged down on the education part of building a business and fall short on the execution part.

    If I had to pass on one piece of advice to a new blogger, I would say this: spend 1-2 weeks learning about what you need to do, then ignore everything until you actually do something.

    • Great advice. This is a piece of wisdom. I never looked at education that way and sometimes I combined education with execution but doesn’t work. You don’t learn because you think about execution and you don’t execute because you think about what you have to learn.

      Thanks Derek!

      Maybe the most inspiring words I read this year.

  5. I find I go in stages: Insane amounts of learning, followed by big time action..achieve goal…learn again, act again..reach goal. Repeat over and over! Each time I am quicker to achieve results and my applications are more sophisticated.

    I’m the first to know when i am overwhelmed and not afraid to stop the learning/inspiration piece to just get stuff done.

    And thanks for reminding me to read the books. I’m actually on my second reading of Seth’s Linchpin because there is so. much. in. there.

  6. Even though I got a college education, I feel like I’ve learned so much more through books, tapes, seminars, teleseminars, webinars and info products. Yes, there is a cost, but I find that these types of things give me actionable steps to complete right now. Thanks for the great article!

  7. Sonia,

    This post partially answers the question I asked on the Third Tribe forum last night. I don’t think you planned it that way, but still, you rock. (:

    Thanks!

  8. Sonia, I always appreciate your guest posts.

    I’ve been unschooling my way through business school, social media, marketing and advertising. It’s been an empowering journey and I appreciate your suggestions. Some I’m familiar with, but some I look forward to checking out.

    You are absolutely right about the blazing new neural connections. We’ve been doing it to create ourselves as better parents, more conscious global citizens and saavy small business owners. It’s amazing what a strong hold those unconscious belief patterns hold over us and consciously reeducating yourself can be mind blowing and life enhancing.

    Thanks for such a kick ass post.

  9. Sonia,

    Great post! I have learned that all achievements, both big and small are made up of little things.

    For the past 29 years I have been a student of time management and know that it has been one of the major keys to my success an entrepreneur. In fact, there is not a workday that goes by that I am not focused on maximizing how my time is spent.

    My desire to be productive with my time plays an important role in my every day decisions, such as those you pointed out. If people will follow your simple advice, they will achieve more!

    Once again, great job!

    Todd

  10. Sonia Simone :

    @Derek, absolutely, you have to run through cycles of learning (or sometimes just thinking) and doing. You should write a post for us about that. :) You’re such a great example of getting all of the advice but then getting it actually into the world and working for you.

    @Hillary, I never thought of it as unschooling, but you’re right!

    @Pace, well yay, then! :) Actually, I find that I’m getting a question like this a lot — how do I deal with the information overload, and how do I find what I need without getting bogged down inthe rest. It’s a big topic, but I thought this helped dip a toe in the water.

  11. Thank you Sonia!

    I am excited to get my ‘first class online education’ started! I can’t wait to go through all these links and apply them to my blog.

    Thanks for sharing all the great info.

  12. Another practically provocative post–Thanks, Sonia! Two books I’d add to your suggested reading: “The New Rules of Marketing & PR” by David Meerman Scott, and “Word of Mouth Marketing” by Andy Sernovitz. And for sheer fun and inspiration, I’d throw in “Ignore Everybody” by Hugh MacLeod.

  13. This is an amazing post on true education. I have dozens of things to do on my list, but there’s only ONE that will make the most positive impact on my blog. It’s also the toughest and the most time-consuming, as a whole.

    Sonia and David Allen pointed out a very good point, decide on the NEXT action and work on it. This helps to break down the huge project into manageable chunks. It’s all about changing the mindset.

    If I spend my time doing all other things though, it’s really not producing much results. I’ve bookmarked and tweeted this, great read for everyone (not only Internet marketers!).

  14. Education is expensive, but it’s expensive for a reason: it’s worth it. It makes the rest of your life richer, fuller and more fun. It also helps you increase your wealth, savor your relationships and, most importantly, WRITE BETTER STUFF!

  15. Thanks Sonia…I found this information very helpful, even being a beginner myself. I really like the 20/80 principle and know that it will come in super handy when trying to figure out what to focus my energy on!

  16. Hello Sonia!
    I agree with you that success in any field is composed of small steps that we do every day. Small steps towards our goals become meaningless if not followed by appropriate plans and strategies.
    I speak about the 80/20 rule and what is most important to do at the moment. The right thing is happen when these small steps enrich us with new knowledge and skills. The process of learning is something that lasts a lifetime.

  17. Hi Sonia

    you’re right education is expensive, but the most valuable lesson you can learn is to never stop learning.

    I like the bit about inspiration being great but execution pays the bills.

  18. Sonia, get out of my head!

    I was just thinking this morning about how I need to stop being so preoccupied with the next big thing and focus on the basics.

    Great post, thanks!

  19. Sonia Simone :

    @William, now if I get out of your head, how will I be able to manipulate you into doing my evil bidding? sheesh. :)

  20. @Sonia will do. I have some big writing projects I’m trying to finish up, but I’ll shoot you an e-mail in a few weeks.

  21. Great insight–thank you so much for sharing! My take aways: Get really good at the fundamentals, and take the next step towards goals. I like the example of writing the rough draft of an email auto response. It’s okay if you don’t do the whole thing in one sitting (in fact, you probably shouldn’t–that’s what drafts are for), so don’t get overwhelmed.

  22. Hey Sonia,
    Always love you blog.
    Just a reflection on the fact that part of the education is about knowing if you’re going to be profitable or not. I’m ten years into small business having left the corporate world and in the smaller end of town it is much simpler.
    Having been frustrated myself I went on to invent a way of measuring a business model because getting this wrong is the single biggest reason why small business owners fail. And the statistics prove that.
    Well we’ve just released it as a FREE online tool that your readers may want to use because in One Minute they can prove whether their business is sustainable or not.
    this link will take you there http://www.oneminutebusinesscheckup.com

  23. Oh great, just what I need, something else to stimulate my already insatiable appetite for “continuing education.”

  24. I think you have the Pareto Principle wrong and people shouldn’t listen to this type of mathematical garbage!

    Your basically saying that only 20-percent of the time people spend working each day contributes to their success, and the other 80-percent results in failure.

    I’d hate to think the other 6 hours of content I spend writing each day is useless.

    In addition, the Pareto Principle is based on how the top rated products make up for 80-percent of the revenue (or something similar) as Chris Anderson points out in The Long Tail.

    You shouldn’t judge your success on this principal, but on everything you do combined. I do understand what your trying to pint out though.

  25. Great Article Sonia

    Listening to Audio books in the car has helped me significantly. Most of my ideas for posts come from travel time these days.

  26. I’m a big ‘rereader’. I think you’re better off reading the same excellent book multiple times than many different books, never mastering the content.

    The fundamentals are definitely where it’s at. This is true on so many levels. Look at martial arts for example. Master just a few moves and you’ll be a much better fighter than knowing many moves but not being able to execute.

    Or, in the words of Bruce Lee:

    “I fear not the man who has practiced 10000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10000 times.”

  27. Sonia

    Learning is never ending. We learn from everywhere and how we receive, interpret and execute what we learn is what sets us apart. People want the magic bullet from someone that will make them instant success and money. Interpretation and execution through our own ways is what makes us money as it is not trying to emulate someone else and be that copycat.

    I will never stop trying to learn new things and challenge myself to go to the next level. I love what I do with working with small biz on their advertising & SM efforts. They teach me and inspire me to work harder for them and for new clients. It also does help having a very inquisitive 5 yr old who sees life in a different way.

    Always inspiring and thought provoking!

  28. This was great and very timely for me. I also love learning and feel like there is so much out there I don’t know yet about internet marketing & business ( I am fairly new to both), so I keep reading, learning non stop! and it is a great reminder to stop learning and start doing for a while! I have it written in my office as a constant reminder to take action! I love the idea of learning for while, applying, then reevaluating and learning again.

    and I would have stayed an undergrad forever too -bog for the learning an the fun :)

  29. This was a really helpful and inspiring article.
    Thanks so much for the information and links.
    I’m at a point where I want to make a change but I’m struggling to know what my first step is.
    Thanks again. :)

  30. this is a great post–very informative, easy to read…and inspirational. I have to get back to work now…;-)

  31. “The fact is, real masters of any endeavor get scary good at the fundamentals.” Great line, I will keep this in my mind and practice my writing skills. Thanks!

  32. Thanks for this, Sonia. You really made me sit down and think about what it is I want to write about and find a way to make my blog my own. A niche has not been something I’ve found yet, but I think (with your guidance) I may have something. Thanks again!

  33. Sonia, thank you for another inspirational post.

    Actually, the 80/20 rule doesn’t always apply. It’s sometimes the 100/100 rule.

    Using your ‘meal’ analogy: 100% of ‘How to Give Yourself a First-Class Online Business Education’, provided 100% of the pleasure.

    Too much rich food to digest at one sitting (with no room, today, for the chocolate mousse cake). That will have to wait till next mealtime.

  34. Dorothy Ray :

    Sonia, as usual, you’ve written another keeper. I’m devouring blogs, e-books, e-courses and books, and though I find value in what other writers say, out of them all, I seem to hear you best. I want to say to this post, “Unh huh!” or maybe “Amen, sister! Preach it.”

    The 20/80 rule makes sense. The rare aha moments are like choclate chips in the big cookie of mundane but necessary work. Silly comparison, but the vision filled my mind so thought I’d share it.

  35. Sonia Simone :

    Ha, Dorothy, I love that. It’s the 20% that’s chocolate chips that makes the rest of the cookie great. :)

    @Gordon, you’re always so kind, thank you.

    I’m surprised no one’s chimed in with this point yet, but online, it’s often the 96/4 rule. Very often, it’s a few surprisingly small things that bring in most of your revenue/traffic/other good thing you want.

  36. Terrific post Sonia, and the 96/4 rule rings true in virtually any endeavor I have noticed. Actually, it was the Limoncello Bread Pudding last night…

  37. I am going through the same problem. David Allen’s this quote “You can’t do a whole project. You can only do your next action on that project.” has given me a fresh prespective in getting things done. I must really thank you for this article as U posted this when I needed the most. Coincidence. Thanks a ton

  38. Getting educated in short things for long-term success is great but only if you actually take some form of action and apply what you’ve learned.

    Who cares if you mess up. You’ll only fail if you let yourself give up.

  39. Another awesome article and I have really liked it. Its very inspiring article and I really loved the way you explained the things. Thanks.

  40. I am old timer here, and have seen you come into and then take over the scene. All through your writings, this one stands out as the best. You, my friend, ‘look’ like someone who has arrived!
    All the best and good luck,
    Stalk you later, :P
    M.

  41. Thank you very much for this.

  42. Wooow you are so right….
    y’know, I’m a begginer,

    while learning how to copywrite I sayed, ok, first let’s check all the copyblogger free resources and then start to write…

    I realised it was waaaay to much information.

    So I started to apply one at a time, started to see results

  43. Sonia,

    I always appreciate when you let everyone know about your roots. It’s always good to hear from the people that we read about, that they are just like us.

    When I started my on-line business all I had was a pile of marketing and copywriting books that I read and re-read over and over again. I also worked my tail off listening to books on CD. Everyone will progress a little differently, but we all want to get to the same place in the end.

    Thanks for the great post today.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  44. Sonia Simone :

    @Momekh, laughing. Yep, I’m taking over the place. :)

    @Marc, limoncello bread pudding, dang. I like the sound of that.

    @Joshua, absolutely, we all start with little stuff and figure out how it goes together.

  45. Sonia, thanks for this amazing post. As the proud owner of a Ph.D., I am always harping about the value of education and training, sometimes to the deaf ears of my followers. But you can bet that this post will be forwarded to everyone’s mailbox, twitter, and facebook in the next 20 minutes.

    Thank you for your contributions to this amazing community.

  46. Sonia,
    You never cease to amaze me with your perception and unique way of relating to people. I would bet that every one of your readers “get the point” with your messages. You would have made a heck of a Sales Manager in any business.

    Steve Benedict

  47. Loved this article! After having spent thousands of dollars on new marketing education, I have to say, I would do it all over again. It was worth ten times what I paid for it!

    The day you stop learning is the day you stop growing.

  48. This is just the supportive article I’ve been needing lately!

    Thanks Sonia for the reminder that “Learn(ing) how to start an online business” is not a next action. The initial information overload does make it hard to distinguish thinking from doing, and I’m still in ways recovering. :)

    I think one reason for this is that part of the learning process includes a huge visualization component, at least for me. You might think you are making progress because you can imagine what it will look like and where it will go. And that visualization is a life-line, but it needs to be grounded in action.

  49. Sonia Simone :

    @Steve, that makes me smile!

    @Melissa, totally, and there is a gigantic “learn a bunch of stuff” hurdle that can slow you way down. And I don’t think that’s bad! Putting more of a theoretical framework together to get ready for taking action is, IMO, completely legit. Just so we get to the action part at some point. :)

  50. Great post! I too find myself buying as many books as possible to learn more and ultimately grow my business. My favorite book, Writing That Works, is underlined and dog-eared to the max. I read it all the time, and every time, I will find something else I can use. I also learn a lot from reading successful blogs, and I really appreciate people sharing what they’ve learned. Thanks!

  51. Beautiful start, middle and close.

    I like your reminder on the fundamentals and the ever-so-true point that inspiration gets you started, but execution pays the bills.

    I especially like your introspection that copywriting was a subset for you and you wanted the full enchilada.

  52. This a really good post. I would also add a few things. I tend to think it is more like a 90/10 rule so it is very important to focus on that 10% and make sure you have the right 10%. You have pointed out some great places to get excellent information. I would also add Perry Marshall. He seems to have mastered the ability to understand his market and give his customers what they want and to teach others how to do the same. There is so much hype and garbage out there it is easy to fall for some of it. People forget that marketing on the internet well is a lot like other things you want to do well and there is no magic bullet. Learning what is important, focusing on making them part of your life and actually putting them into action are going to get you where you want to go. You have given some great ideas here on how and where to get the important stuff.

  53. I think that title that brought a call to action was really inspiring. I’m going to get back to work right now.

  54. Sonia Simone :

    @David, agreed, I think Perry Marshall does a lot of terrific work. Also agree that it’s often 90/10 or 95/5 when you really drill down.

  55. Amazing article, I just love it, know when I think what I am doing with my time I understand that the 80/20 rule is just for me : ) Thanks a lot for this great resource!

  56. Sonia,
    Your article is inspiring! I agree on every point you have mentioned. The learning curve is about setting long term goals splitted into minor practical objectives needed to be overcomed. Taking action, go from theory to practice and improve yourself as you go is the best way to do it and to actually become an expert. Some (or I should say, a lot) people prevent themselves from starting a business and creating a working system that suits on their needs because of looking so much for the perfect situation or moment to start it.

    The 80/20 principle is definitely an advice to incorporate and improve performance.

    I recommend all readers looking for complementary advices on startups, management, entrepreneurship, work at home and more to visit Startups.com Q&A business social network.

    Hope to see you around!

  57. Okay this confirms the “Oh I am in school feeling” I was remarking to a friend my brain was on fire from reading this marketing book, there was so much information to absorb.

    One reason for the fire is I am pushing myself, really hard I have a great product and a even better concept. But there is so much I do not know, hence the business education, it is good to know that I am on the right path!

  58. reading and learning is important but the most important is taking action..reading 5 things and taking action on the 5 is better than knowing or reading 10 things and taking action on 2.
    now its time for me to start taking more action…thanks for the great article

  59. yes its the greatest idea that i heard.

  60. I’ve been studying these things, many of which I already understand. Focus is the most important of all this!

  61. I only just discovered this post and I really identify with it. I recently left the corporate thing and am freelancing in several areas with the goal of focusing on writing. After having the four-year college experience (and not being able to afford another one), I’ve challenged myself to learn via real life and beyond books. It HAS been a challenge, but the result has been the expansion of my community, meeting many new people, and having more incredible opportunities than I had ever expected! Thanks for all the observations in the post!

  62. I believe that opportunities are only equally provided through the means of education; by empowering individuals and breaking the frontiers of space and accessibility through online education and counseling.