Why there’s no substitute for practical experience in business

Two women working at a computer
Hands-on experience in business is just as important as learning and careful planning, says Chris Niarchos.

You can have an MBA from a top university, have read every business book from How to Win Friends and Influence People to The Art of War, and have meticulously created the ‘perfect’ business plan, but if you’ve never actually ‘rolled up your sleeves’ in the corporate world, you might be in for a shock.

While education and careful planning shouldn’t be undervalued, they’re no substitutes for real-life experience in business. Here are three reasons you should make it a priority.

Learning from mistakes

Business mogul Richard Branson says he found out that the best way of learning was doing when, as a kid, he tried and failed to set up a business selling Christmas trees. I have to agree, there’s no better way to find out what works and what doesn’t than by giving things a go.

Since starting my own business at the age of 22, I’ve learned many invaluable lessons through basic trial and error. Whether it’s setting up a lemonade stall, taking a role as a salesperson or launching your own company, the only way to truly hone your skills and develop your business acumen is hands-on experience.

Don’t let fear of failure stand in the way of taking on a challenge. Getting it right every time may feel good, but it’ll never take you as far as going outside of your comfort zone and getting it wrong every now and again.

Developing ‘soft skills’

There are some skills that are far easier to develop in the boardroom than in the classroom. Building rapport, actively listening, making decisions, solving problems, leading others, performing well in a team dynamic, motivating yourself and managing your time well are just a few of the so-called ‘soft skills’ that are crucial in the business landscape.

You can watch all the TED Talks you like (many of which are excellent) and read every business blog under the sun (including this one!) on these topics, but I’m afraid you won’t get a chance to properly sharpen your abilities until you throw yourself into the world of work. 

Differentiating yourself

Whether you’re applying for a nine-to-five role, pitching for work as a contractor or seeking investment in a business idea, your experience is one of the first things people want to know about.

If you’re trying to set yourself apart from every other graduate, freelancer or budding CEO, it’s important to be able to demonstrate that you have the relevant experience required to get the job done.

Whether you’ve successfully managed a charity project as part of a voluntary role, broken sales records in a blue chip company, or tried and failed to bring a new product to market, what’s important is that you’ve got stuck in and tried to do something for yourself. 

Chris Niarchos is founder and chairman of The Cobra Group of Companies, which specialises in incubating, developing and managing a diverse portfolio of start-up enterprises and successful companies.


3 rules every businessperson must know about goal setting

I’ve no doubt that the aims I set for myself at the beginning of my business career have played a big role in helping me to build a successful international company, so I’m well aware of the importance of having goals.

Setting clear objectives can make the difference between success and failure, and is something that all entrepreneurs should take seriously. Here are three rules that I believe all business people should know about goal setting.

1. Your goals must really mean something to you

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Kirsten Dunst believes loving what you do is a goal worth having (Tinseltown / Shutterstock.com)

“You know that feeling when you wake up in the morning and you’re excited for the day? That’s one of my main goals in life.” – Kirsten Dunst

Don’t let other people define what your goals in business, or in life, should be. To have the power to motivate you day after day, your aims have to be things that really matter to you on a personal level.

For example, while some people prioritise money and security for themselves and their families, others put creativity first. For some, having the flexibility to enjoy more time with family is the most important thing.

When you’re setting your objectives, have a careful think about what you actually want to get from your experiences as an entrepreneur.

2. Have clear goals from the outset

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Former US president Ronald Reagan believed working hard towards a clear goal guaranteed success (Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com)

“My philosophy of life is that if we make up our mind what we are going to make of our lives, then work hard toward that goal, we never lose. Somehow we always win out.” – Ronald Reagan

It’s a good idea to have a clear set of measurable and achievable goals from the very start of your business journey. Your objectives can serve as a framework for measuring your progress and, as long as they’re clear and specific, they should give you added focus and a greater sense of direction and purpose.

General aims, like making a success of your company, are fine, but it’s important to break these down into more specific targets. For example, you might decide you want your business to achieve a certain amount of profit within the first year.

3. Big victories don’t usually come easily

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Basketball legend Michael Jordan says there’s no excuse for a lack of effort (landmarkmedia / Shutterstock.com)

“The game has its ups and downs, but you can never lose focus of your individual goals and you can’t let yourself be beat because of lack of effort.” – Michael Jordan

It can be tempting to think that many high-profile entrepreneurs achieved their success overnight, propelling themselves from obscurity to the spotlight at breakneck speed.

In reality though, the vast majority of renowned entrepreneurs have worked extremely hard for long periods of time to reach the top, often overcoming major obstacles along the way. Like them, if you want to achieve your greatest goals, you have to be prepared to persevere.

This dogged approach to doing business can be summed up by my company motto ‘Be something more’, which is about always striving for excellence and making an effort to be the best you possibly can. When things get tough, don’t give in. By overcoming any problems you face, you can make yourself a stronger, better entrepreneur.

Chris Niarchos is founder and chairman of The Cobra Group of Companies, which specialises in incubating, developing and managing a diverse portfolio of start-up enterprises and successful companies.