Learn 14 Critical Startup Skills… For Free!
Updated: Jul 29
Degrees from top universities can cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. But a savvy founder can get a more specific, targeted education. And do so for free. Often from the same universities.
There is a wealth of training to be had out there on the Internet. The training can be strung together to get a good education an practically anything. And all this content can prepare to start a company.
This article looks at just one of the many, many sites and apps for this, Coursera. Namely because Coursera has a little button to audit their courses, which opens up a world of information at our fingertips without paying for it. Training isn't the same as education, though. We can't pay to get certificates and that wraps training courses into a more structured form of education, but that's not required. While this article lists courses from Coursera, there are certainly plenty of others out there as well. Each has their pros and cons, so try a few before settling on one!
Before we get started, this article isn’t to take anything away from getting a degree in one of these fields or from the likes of Stanford, Harvard, or the University of Virginia - who distribute the courses. There is certainly a lot that comes with sitting in classes and talking with professors - and with the contacts made in school. Nor is this article meant to recommend anyone drop out of school to join or found a startup. Instead, it’s meant to supplement knowledge we may have gained from school and/or from our real world experiences.
Let’s start this journey with one of the most important aspects, ideation.
Developing Innovative Ideas for New Companies: The First Step in Entrepreneurship
What motivates us to start a new company? What should we know and understand about an industry before we do so? How do we go from an idea to a business model that makes an entrepreneurial endeavor worth pursuing? This course is fairly quick and makes for a great foundation for all things we should ask ourselves and discovery to do before we get started.
Entrepreneurship Strategy: From Ideation to Exit
The great thing about this course is that it’s lined up in a chronological order. Starting with what it means to become an entrepreneur then coming up with ideas to sales to Human Resources and launching products. Lots of steps in the middle. It’s probably best to go through something like this before starting a business, but also a great refresher course since we can all learn something new about launching companies and products (and hopefully never stop learning).
Search Engine Optimization Fundamentals
One of the most important ways we get customers into the top of our sales and marketing funnel is through SEO, or Search Engine Optimization. Here, we use content marketing and optimized web design to drive traffic to our web sites. We also develop buyer personas, look at competitor sites to find the best ways to market our product, and use specialized tools like sitemaps to help web crawlers best surface the content on our sites that we want people visiting sites like Google to showcase. This course will help get us started on that journey.
Not all types of marketing are equal for all types of businesses. Anyone that doesn’t have a solid understanding of marketing (which is most of us) would also benefit from taking multiple courses in a Coursera specialization, like this one on Digital Marketing: https://www.coursera.org/specializations/digital-marketing.
Introduction to Financial Accounting
Getting intimate with finance and accounting is one of the boring and yet more important aspects of running a startup. This means going from looking at a simple spreadsheet or bank account to really getting good at talking about finances like a mature business. Many a founder will get out of college with little to no background in how to manage money. Finance and accounting is one of those things that, even for technical founders, will provide more assurances to investors that we know what we’re talking about and make us better at running any kind of organization.
Introduction to Corporate Finance
Once we understand the basics of financial accounting, there are a ton of areas we can get into to help us take a more holistic view of modeling the future of a company. Interest over time, and discounted cash flow help us model not only the value of our organization but also take a much more realistic approach to modeling what kind of financing we need and the impact of the terms of that financing.
The Art of Sales
All that accounting and finance isn’t going to get us far if we don’t learn to sell our product. There are thousands of books and courses on the topic out there. There are also a lot of models and paradigms. Not all are universally applicable, so searching through the Coursera catalog might net a better course for a given product.
Industrial Organization: Strategy and Competition in Business
Building networks, protecting intellectual property and going from an app to a platform. These are some advanced topics, but understanding game theory and the difference between static and dynamic competition (and the Cournot model) can only help us build amazing and lasting organizations. As can understanding what potential competitors bring to the table for deterring additional competitors in their already entrenched markets.
Excel Skills for Business: Advanced
There is one tool above all others that help us to use all those accounting and finance skills we picked up in the other courses: Excel. Other tools like Google Sheets use very similar syntax in formulas and structures, so many of the skills we can pick up from a course like this one are interchangeable across other products. From modeling to looking at the changing value of money through time to building good trend lines, learning and getting good with Excel is one of the most important skills for any entrepreneur.
Speaking to Persuade: Motivating audiences with solid arguments and moving language
The ability to present valid and concise arguments in front of a crowd is one of the most important things we can do as founders. We need to explain people why we built a company and clearly lay out a thesis for why the company should exist. While some are born with the ability to get up in front of an audience, it takes practice and training. A course like this makes for a great start to help boost our confidence to get out there and win over potential customers and investors - and to do so authentically.
Java Programming: Principles of Software Design
Many a site or backend that provides APIs apps communicate with is built on Java. One course in a much larger exploration of Java, audit the Java offerings from Coursera to get a good, basic, fundamental understanding of the language. This is great for people looking to get started with programming, move from another language, or just be able to talk through fundamental concepts with coworkers.
Want the same but not with Java? Just search for the language of your choice. Chances are they’ve got something on it, whether you need Ruby, Python, PHP, etc!
Programming for Everybody (Getting Started with Python)
Don’t worry, this article isn’t going to look at every possible language out there. Python though is pretty important today, whether for developing micro services or building a quick scripting library to aid in releases of larger SaaS products.
The courses on Python are numerous and varied, so if this one doesn’t satisfy your needs, search for python and chances are one will!
Machine learning can mean a lot of things to different groups. Few things make our software more powerful these days. From leveraging k-nearest neighbors algorithms to find similar items in our databases to a foundational understanding of the underlying math, machine learning is fun and truly beneficial for any app or part of a company. And once this course is out of the way, the team at Stanford has lots more available, getting into topics like self driving cars and speech recognition.
Digital Product Management
As the organization matures and the product becomes more complex, we need to understand the tradeoffs we make when we prioritize one feature over another. We need a better model for when to put sales and marketing efforts above the technical debt in our products that must be paid over time. Courses like this help us build a model so we can win new customers, delight existing customers, build great products, and not shoot our future aspirations in the foot in the process of doing so.
Private Equity and Venture Capital
Most companies won’t need to raise capital in the beginning. But we will at some point. When we do so, it’s a good idea to have a solid foundation in who we’re talking to and understand their motivations. Most startups will only get so far with traditional banks. This means looking to private funding; namely to private equity and venture capital. Use this course to get a good understand of who we’re talking to at this point and many of the terms they’re likely to use.
The education we give ourselves comes through in how we carry ourselves, how we are. Charlamagne the God once said “If you really on your grind, you don’t have to announce it. Hustle speaks for itself.”
Learning is one of the best things we can do to help propel our new companies. And to make ourselves better. People often talk about being a "lifelong learner" and the importance of continuing education. Einstein once said "I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious." Curiosity is one of the best traits for anyone, but especially someone who is asking others to join them on a journey to start a company.