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11 Helpful Resources for Improving Your Business Skills

Whether or not business school is worth the investment is a hot topic these days. But regardless of where you stand, you don't have to go to business school to gain a better understanding of how businesses work.

"Business" is quite a versatile topic with many components. There's a lot that goes into becoming more business-savvy, whether it's learning the "softer" skills (like people management and public speaking) or mastering the "hard" skills (like accounting and finance).

Aside from studying for a formal degree, where can you go to learn about and practice these important business skills?

Turns out, there are a whole lot of resources, both online and offline, where you can hone your business skills, learn new strategies, and make sure you're staying on top of the ever-evolving business world. Here are 11 of the best resources out there to help you become more business-savvy.

11 Helpful Resources for Improving Your Business Skills

1) A Mentor With Business Experience

Having a career mentor (or a few career mentors) with business experience is a crucial part of your professional development. Opportunities are attached to people. Your mentor can provide you with support and advice when you need it -- and, if you choose wisely, they'll learn how to deliver that support in a way that makes sense to you.

One key to finding a great mentor is to have some clear goals in mind for the type of experience you want your mentor to have. Are you looking for someone who works in an industry you're interested in learning more about? Someone with experience in raising capital for a new business? Someone who's senior to you at your current company?

Once you have a goal or two in mind, there are many ways to actually find a mentor. Don't just go straight for the most visible and well-known (and probably busiest) people. Instead, take a look at your own network and keep an eye out for folks you respect with relevant experience. You can search your network on LinkedIn -- which means you'll first want to update and clean up your own LinkedIn profile. If you find someone who isn't a direct connection, send a personal message with your connection request, or ask for an introduction from a mutual connection.

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But sometimes, it's as simple as asking your friends and peers who they think would be great for you to talk to. Then, you can ask for an email introduction.

My last tip here? Keep it local. While online mentorship is great, relationships grounded in quality time in-person time are usually a lot more effective. Even better, get out of the office and into an environment that's more conducive to relaxing and candid conversation, like a coffee shop or a lunch place.

(If you're on the other side of the mentor-mentee relationship, read this blog post to learn how to be an amazing mentor.)

2) Harvard Business School's Reading List

While content is getting more and more snackable these days, there's still a whole lot of power in a great book. The research and writing and editing required to publish a book -- especially a best-seller -- is far more impressive than what goes in to an article or podcast. 

But, of course, there's an overwhelming number of business books out there for choose from. And given how much time it actually takes it read a book from cover to cover, you'll want to make sure you're making the most of your time.

So ... where better to go for the best books on business than the plethora of syllabi from Harvard Business School? To help you narrow down your search, my colleague Lauren Hintz combed through these syllabi for the 11 most intriguing books on HBS students' required reading lists. I've listed a few of these books below, but read her roundup for the full list with summaries.

3) TED talks, Graduation Speeches & Other Recorded Speakers

One way to learn from experienced business leaders and innovators who have first-hand knowledge of the business world is to find and watch recordings of their talks online.

TED, for instance, has some really compelling talks about business strategy you can watch for free. Here's one from Bill Gross, a man who's founded many startups and incubated many others, on why some fail and others succeeded based on data from hundreds of companies:

There's also a lot you can learn about business from graduation speeches, from Michael Lewis' speech at Princeton about the profound connection between success and luck, to Marissa Meyers' speech at Illinois Institute of Technology about the importance of asking the right questions, surrounding yourself with the right people, and finding the courage to do things that are uncomfortable. Here's a list of eight inspiring graduation speeches with valuable business lessons you should definitely watch.

Finally, we have recorded lectures series from graduate business schools, featuring top business and government leaders from around the world. These may not be as exciting or glamorous as TED talks or graduation speeches, but many of them get into the nitty-gritty details of business strategy -- the hard skills that the other types of talks don't tend to get into.

While most of the live lectures are closed to non-students, many of them are posted online later. Here are a few speaker series to get you started:

4) Toastmasters

Let's not beat around the bush here: Public speaking is a required business skill. There's a critical value in being willing and able to communicate effectively with your team, investors, customers, and so on. A research study showed that 70% of employed Americans who give presentations agree that presentation and public speaking skills are critical to their success at work. Some say the other 30% just don't know it yet.

You can start by reading about public speaking, like in this helpful guide of public speaking tips, or this uneasy speaker's guide to confident public speaking. But this is one skill where practice is crucial -- which is why you should join some sort of public speaking club or group if you're serious about making measurable improvements.

Toastmasters is probably the best public speaking club out there. When you join, you're put on a track where you can regularly deliver speeches, get feedback, lead teams, and participate in improvisational speaking games in a super supportive atmosphere. Plus, these clubs are all over the world -- more than 15,400 different Toastmasters clubs in 135 countries worldwide, to be more precise -- and you can use their "Find a Club" tool to find the one closest to you.

5) Improv Classes

If you're willing to step out of your comfort zone, there's actually a lot you can learn from improv about business. It can teach you how to react and adapt to new situations, how to become a better listener -- perhaps most importantly -- how to stop fearing failure.

Improv classes are offered in cities and towns all over the world. Try searching on Google for "improv classes" + the name of your city, like "improv classes Boston." (Here are some more Google search tips to help you narrow it down.)

If you need some more inspiration, check out the INBOUND15 Bold Talk below by Dave Delaney, a seasoned improv performer and author of New Business Networking. In it, he talks all about how improvisation can improve your networking, creativity, communication, teamwork, and leadership skills.

6) Khan Academy

There are a lot of resources for soft skills in here. But what about the hard skills that are so critical to business knowledge, like finance, accounting, marketing, and operations? For these skills, which require absorption of new information, repetition, and practice, we recommend taking more formal approach.

There are plenty of places you can pay to take online business classes. Coursera, for example, has a four-class specialization package called "Wharton Business Foundations," which includes four online classes from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business in accounting, finance, operations, and marketing.

But if you're looking for a high-quality resource for online courses that's free, well ... Khan Academy is the easy winner. Their whole mantra is that you can learn anything for free -- and, like Facebook, they claim their services will always be free.

Their courses are a myriad of lectures, interactive exercises. And their businesses courses include, but are not limited to, courses in microeconomics, macroeconomics, finance and capital markets, and entrepreneurship. Simply go their homepage and click "Subjects" from the top navigation bar, choose "Economics and finance," and then click the topic you want to study.

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But their business-related courses aren't limited to the ones in these categories. Use the search bar to find specific course topics -- from the fluffier stuff, like "Turning a Hobby Into a Bright Business," to the more complex, like "Derivative and Marginal Cost."

7) Investopedia

Another great place to learn hard skills like investments and accounting is Investopedia, a site dedicated to educating people about finance. There's great content everywhere on their site, but I want to point your attention in particular to Investopedia's "Guides" section. This is where you can find a whole slew of guides on everything from accounting basics to valuing employee stock options to how to write a business plan.

Their dictionary -- which is how Investopedia started, by the way -- is also a great resource for when you come across finance-related terms you aren't familiar with. When you educate yourself on what an Angel Fund is, or how to invest capital back into your business, you'll all a lot more value. 

Each definition page includes a sentence or two defining the term, a breakdown of what it means, a list of related terms (for example, on the page for "leading indicator," you'll find a link to "lagging indicator"), related content like blog posts, and any related videos.

8) HubSpot Academy

Whereas Investopedia and Khan Academy cover more of the accounting, finance, and operations-related material, HubSpot Academy is a great place to go for marketing and sales skills. Taking the time to hone these skills will allow you to better understand how businesses work and oversee areas of a business, even if you don't completely master them.

HubSpot Academy offers a few online certification courses that are free and open to anyone, whether or not you use HubSpot's software. Each class includes training videos, helpful documents, quizzes, and a final exam you need to pass to get your certification.

  • Inbound Certification: A comprehensive marketing course that covers the core elements of the Inbound Methodology. The self-paced curriculum introduces the fundamentals of how to attract visitors, convert leads, close customers and delight customers into promoters. (Learn more here.)
  • Email Marketing Certification: An advanced email marketing course that'll teach you how lifecycle marketing, segmentation, email design, deliverability, analytics, and optimization come together to create an email marketing strategy that grows your business, and your career. (Learn more here.)
  • Inbound Sales Certification: A series of five classes that introduce you to the Inbound Sales Methodology. From identifying potential buyers, to developing outreach strategies, to building personalized presentations, this free certification covers the basics of what inbound sales is all about. (Learn more here.)

Bonus: You can also get a Google Analytics certification for free by taking Google's GA proficiency course online, and then passing the Google Analytics IQ exam. 

9) Podcasts About Business & Entrepreneurship

Business podcasts serve as a great way to stay informed and inspired when you're on-the-go, like on a run or during your commute. You can tune into everything from one-on-one interviews with today’s top leaders to recaps of the day’s most pressing business news.

To save you some time, here's a list of some of the best business-related podcasts out there:

  • HBR's Ideacast: Weekly episodes under 20 minutes apiece covering a range of executive-level topics, from an interview with Evernote CEO Phil Libin on the new ways we work to a discussion about how CEOs are succeeding in Africa
  • The $100 MBA: A daily podcast offering quick, 10-minute, no-fluff lessons on topics in business, marketing, technology, and more.
  • APM's Marketplace: A must-listen podcast from American Public Radio that'll catch you up on all the important business news from the day.
  • EntreLeadership: A podcast focused on sharing lessons, tips, and tricks from some of today's top entrepreneurs. It's named after Dave Ramsey's concept of "EntreLeadership," which explores how businesses can use effective management to create ventures that grow and prosper.
  • How to Start a StartupA recording of Stanford Professor Sam Altman's class about starting a business, which teaches lessons like how to manage, how to build products users love, and how to raise money.
  • The Growth Show: Weekly episodes in which we (at HubSpot) sit down with one of today's top executives to unpack how they've been able to grow and build a world-class business.
  • Read to Lead: Weekly interviews hosted by award-winning broadcast industry veteran Jeff Brown with today's best nonfiction authors on leadership, business, marketing, and entrepreneurship. Notable guests include Seth Godin, Gary Vaynerchuk, Daniel Pink, and John Lee Dumas.

(Here's a list with even more business podcast suggestions.)

10) Twitter Lists

Carefully crafted business content is great, but sometimes, getting business news, opinions, and quotables in the form of a quick tweet is exactly the kind of snackable information you're looking for. If you want to just see the content from your favorite Twitter users separate from everyone else, you can create a Twitter list or stream.

  • Learn how to create a Twitter list and add specific users to it here.
  • If you're a HubSpot user, learn how to create streams in the Social Monitoring tool here.

Now that you've made your lists ... whom do you add to them? There's a lot of crap out there on Twitter. It's best to narrow down people tweeting out the best of the best content about business.

For that, I turn to Kavi Gupta, an investment banker for Merrill Lynch who's spent some considerable time narrowing down the top Twitter profiles for business content. Here are four of his favorite people to follow on Twitter for good business content:

Simon Kemp (@eskimon)

Managing Partner in Asia for We Are Social, Kemp tweets out research he finds on social media, mobile penetration, and internet-related behaviors all over the world -- especially in South East Asia. In his tweets, he likes to single out the most important slide from a given slide deck rather than making followers sift through an entire presentation.

Subrahmanyam KVJ (@SuB8u)

Subrahmanyam (or Subbu for short) is Gupta's Wall Street Journal, Economic Times, and Reuters guy. He has a knack for finding the best business information from these media sources, while also adding his own, summarized insights from whatever article he's tweeting. He also tends to screenshot the most quotable parts of a post to draw readers in to the full article.

Cynthia Than (@NinjaEconomics)

Than's content on Twitter is refreshingly novel. Instead of sharing what everyone else is sharing when news breaks, she tweets out stuff like cool data visualizations, charts, and link that showcase a fresh perspective. She's also a master at summarizing content in her tweets in a way that's helpful and interesting to her followers.

Tiffany Zhong (@tzhongg)

A VC at Binary Capital and a former employee at Product Hunt, Zhong tweets out a collection of "stumbled-upon quotes, advice, and musings on the current business landscape," writes Gupta. What he likes most about her Twitter style is that you don't have to click out and away from your feed to get her content -- because, most of the time, she's tweeting visuals, statements, and thoughts without many links.

11) Harvard Business Review

You know as well as I do how much content there is about business on the internet these days. Some of it is really good, and some of it is crap -- and both sides of the quality coin can be found on the same website.

But if you're looking for a resource that constantly puts out high-quality content about business, Harvard Business Review (HBR) is your source. Their articles, both online and in print, are always written by experts, and their most popular topics include managing people, leadership, strategy, communication, innovation, technology, entrepreneurship, and other business topics.

If you like reading and you have some extra money to spend, some of the material in HBR's online store might be worth the investment. For example, editors at HBR created a box set of "must-reads" from combing through hundreds of articles and selected what they believe are the most important ones to help you maximize both you and your organization's performance.

Which resources can you add to the list? Share with us in the comments.

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