I work with a venture capital fund and several startups, and I have had to learn a completely new industry with every new project. I am involved with building materials, telecommunications infrastructure, clean energy, and mattresses, to name a few. Lately I have been working especially hard at learning the venture capital industry. As part of this effort, I am in the process of reading The Business of Venture Capital by Mahendra Ramsinghani. It is an excellent, comprehensive look at all aspects of venture capital. This got me thinking about the approach I have taken to learning a new industry as quickly as possible.
Many people spend a lifetime learning a particular industry. However, it’s common to change career direction many times. While nothing can replace many years of hands-on experience, it’s possible to accelerate the learning process.
Here are some tips and tricks for scaling the learning curve in a new industry:
1. Read books Books are a powerful way to acquire new knowledge and insert yourself into new experiences. Of course, reading is not a perfect substitute for actually being there, but being there takes time, opportunity, and luck.
In a previous post I talk about my experience listening via audio book to 4 incredible stories about the founding or turnaround of Twitter, Facebook, Blackstone Capital, and Ford. For $44 and two weeks while doing things I had to do anyway, I experienced 50 years of building or turning around 4 multi-billion-dollar companies.
2. Follow trade publications Every industry has trade publications, and they are great ways to learn and stay current on new developments.
The mattress industry was new to me, and I work with industry veterans with 20-30 years of experience. Even though I can’t match their years of experience, I have become familiar with the industry by regularly reading the two main trade publications, Furniture Today and Bedtimes.
3. Attend conferences and trade shows Gatherings like this can be challenging to navigate, especially for an introvert like me. But every industry has conferences and trade show where the who’s who of the industry gather in one place. At these events you can learn from speakers, panel discussions, and product/service booths.
Building your network of contacts is just as important as learning an industry, and conferences are an efficient way to build your network.
Attending the semi-annual Las Vegas Market for the home products industry has accelerated my industry knowledge and contacts.
4. Participate in networking events Most industries have local get-togethers for networking and learning.
I recently attended a networking event in Salt Lake City that I found very valuable. It was organized and attended by professionals in similar industries and career stage. The organizers invited a high-profile speaker a few years ahead of us in experience and success. We were able to build our contacts with each other and learn from the speaker's experience.
You can find networking events through Internet searches or LinkedIn, for example. If you can’t find relevant networking events, organize one yourself! There’s no better way to get to know people and build credibility in an industry than to be a leader.
5. Visit the front lines It’s great to gain experience in the board room or in executive meetings, but the real work happens on the front lines: stores, call centers, factories, etc. It’s impossible to understand an industry without understanding the front lines.
When I first became the CFO of a building products manufacturer, I spent a lot of time working alongside the production team in the factory. This was challenging, but it was the fastest way to learn the processes and get to know the team. Being on the floor gave me the understanding I needed to made process improvements that cut labor costs in half.
The speaker at the Salt Lake City networking event I mentioned talked about the turnaround he led of a local company. I was with a colleague, and we happened to be driving by this business on the way to our next meeting. We stopped in and talked to one of the front-line employees who was there during the turnaround a few years ago.
We learned a lot as he told us about his experience, including the methods used to drive the turnaround. It was most instructive to hear the gratitude and respect in this employee’s voice as he spoke of that experience.
Go and learn! There’s no reason to be afraid of learning a new industry. Of course, it’s difficult to replace years of experience in a short amount of time, but you can use these tips and tricks to dive into a new industry and become a veteran in a short time.
Question: What approach have you taken to learning a new industry?