How to Self-Learn Business (A 9-Step Roadmap)

In 2018 I graduated from an undergraduate business program with a degree in economics and a minor in international business. 

Over those four years, I took courses in almost every branch of business except accounting — somehow I managed to avoid that one. 

I have no doubt that my education was valuable. But, on the other hand, I’m also convinced that I could’ve learned business more efficiently if I did it on my own by reading books and taking online courses. 

In fact, in the last four years since graduation, I’ve definitely learned more about business than I did while I was in school. 

By working in sales at a tech startup, starting my own freelance writing business, and reading books, I’ve picked up a considerable amount of useful business knowledge. 

That said, if you have the commitment, it’s definitely possible as a beginner to self-learn business — or a specific branch of business — by taking online courses, reading books, listening to podcasts, or even starting your own small business (the best way to learn). 

The following roadmap is a step-by-step process for teaching yourself key business skills and concepts. By following it, you’ll also learn the fundamentals of each major branch — marketing, finance, entrepreneurship, etc., And you’ll be better able to identify which one you want to focus on.

Whether you want to study business to start your own company, work in the C-Suite, or break into a field like finance, marketing, or operations, this guide is for you.

It’s designed to be followed in order, but if you want to jump around or skip a step, go ahead. Rule-breaking is rewarded in business after all.  

1. Read 3-4 Popular Business Books

Where’s the weighty personal MBA textbook? The 3-month Business 101 course? If you’re self-learning business from scratch, it’s best to first test your curiosity for the subject before you try to tackle those lengthier and more challenging steps. 

Business is also such a huge field, and reading a few of these books will open your eyes to all the different forms it can take, from giant corporations like Nike to small online businesses. Lastly, these books will teach you the mindsets and behaviors needed to excel in business. 

Below are some great best business books to start with: 

  • The 4-hour Workweek: I’m not sure if any book has had a greater impact on my life trajectory than Tim Ferriss’s guide for escaping the rat race by creating a small, automated business. Truly a mindset changer. 
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People: This was one of the first books I re-read. Business is about influencing people and winning allies, and this classic teaches you some simple techniques for doing so. It’s also a funny book to gift people. 
  • Shoe Dog: Haven’t actually read this yet, but I gifted it to my girlfriend (a fashion business professional) and she loved it. In it, Phil Knight tells his story of founding and growing Nike into one of the most iconic shoe brands in the world.
  • Built to Last: This book attempts to uncover the common traits and behaviors of great, long-lasting companies. Anyone interested in starting a company one day will find its advice compelling and useful. I read it when I should’ve been studying for an econ exam.

Now that you know some of the reasons why businesses succeed, and how successful business people think and act, it’s time to start paying attention to what’s going on in the business world today. 

2. Subscribe to Business Magazines & Podcasts 

Consider integrating listening to business podcasts and reading the business section of magazines or newspapers into your daily routine, perhaps in the morning before you start work. 

By immersing yourself in the world of business on a daily basis, you’ll start to develop your business acumen and familiarity with important business terms, concepts, trends, and current events. 

One of my favorite podcasts is The Tim Ferriss Show. You can find dozens of quality episodes where he’s interviewing an entrepreneur or some financial wizard. He just did one with the founder of Shake Shack

Here are some other business podcasts and magazines/newsletters to consider: 

  • How I Built This: Interviews entrepreneurs about how they started their businesses. 
  • Business Wars: Tells stories of business rivalries — Coke and Pepsi is a great episode. 
  • The Economist: Respected magazine with informative business and finance sections. 
  • Morning Brew: A business-focused daily newsletter that takes under ten minutes to read. 

When you start soaking your brain in business information on a daily basis, you’ll start to notice yourself thinking more about business when you’re idle — while taking a shower, for example. This is a sign that you’re learning, that your brain is changing for the better. 

In a few steps, you’ll start to learn business more academically, doing some coursework to learn the fundamentals of each major branch. 

3. Start With an Intro to Business Course / Textbook 

To learn the language of business and be able to speak about such key business topics as capitalism, trade, product, and distribution, at a college level, take an intro course. 

Introduction to Business, taught by a former CEO, should do the trick. It’ll set you up with enough context to really excel in the more advanced, branch-specific courses. 

For the course, the instructor recommends, but doesn’t require, that students get the textbook Understanding Business. This book, and his experience working as a CEO, are the main source materials for the course.  

If you love to learn from textbooks and don’t want to do an online course, reading this one would also be a good strategy for self-learning the basics of business. 

4. Take an Online Course for Each Branch of Business

The seven major branches of business are business management, marketing, accounting, finance, operations management, entrepreneurship, and international business. 

Students in college usually choose one or two to major in. A ton of my friends did accounting/finance dual degrees. My girlfriend, who’s been a bunch of help in writing this guide, did operations management/international business. 

It’s probably smart to sample each branch before picking a specialty or career path. Exposing yourself to each branch will also give you some serious range, which is important for all business professionals, especially those trying to run or start a company. 

You’ll need to know how the other departments function in order to corporate with them or set them up correctly. Or, in the case of founding a company, you’ll probably be all of those departments simultaneously during the beginning phase of your business. 

Below I’ve compiled some of the best online courses for self-learning the business branches. Many of them are free. If you take all seven you’ll have built yourself an impressive foundation in business.

UPenn Online Option: Alternatively, you could take UPenn’s Business Foundations Specialization through Coursera’s platform. It’s a 6-course series that covers all the branches except entrepreneurship and international business, and it ends in a capstone project. To enroll you’ll need a $59 per month Coursera Plus subscription, which gives you access other specializations, like the Entrepreneurship one I mention in the corresponding section below.


Among other things, marketing helps businesses find and attract new customers, promote their products and services, and ensure that the company is meeting the needs of its target audience. 

edX’s free Introduction to Marketing, taught by business professors, will give you a solid base in this key branch of business. 

You’ll learn the most important marketing strategies and tools that businesses use to attract new customers, and more: 

 It’s free, self-paced, and six weeks long if you spend 3-5 hours per week doing it. Alternatively, you can pay $150 for the verified track, which comes with graded exams and a shareable certificate upon completion, something you can use to show employers your knowledge. 

Supplemental Reading: You can’t go wrong with The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, a classic in the field that’s considered by some to be required reading for any marketer or a business owner.


The best way to learn about entrepreneurship is to start a business and learn topics as needed. However, using a beginner course to get a grasp on its basics can help you form a useful map of the jungle. 

MIT offers the free Becoming an Entrepreneur through edX. It introduces total beginners to the process of founding a company. The course is self-paced and designed to take 6-18 hours to complete.  

Alternatively, UPenn’s Wharton Business School (ranked #1 in the US) offers an Entrepreneurship Specialization, a 5-course series designed to take you from starter to pro in all things entrepreneurship. 

In the series’ final course, you’ll actually create a pitch deck for a startup idea that contains key deliverables that investors would want to see — target market analysis, financials, concept description, etc., To access the specialization, you’ll need a Coursera Plus subscription ($59 per month)

Supplemental Reading: The Lean Startup and Zero to One are two books that are on almost any recommended reading list for aspiring entrepreneurs. Read them and consider it an entrepreneurship 101 course.

Business Accounting

Accounting is about documenting, measuring, and analyzing a company’s financial and non-financial information to help businesses wrap their heads around their financial health and make informed decisions about how they use their money.

It’s the component of my freelance writing business that I love to neglect and should really start paying attention to. Don’t be like me. 

The most important accounting skill you need to acquire as a student of business is how to read and understand the three key financial statements — cash flow, income, and balance sheet.  

Ray Harkins’ The Basics of Business Accounting course will teach you how to analyze these three statements and extract insights from them. It starts at $34.99 but is often on sale. 

When you finish the course, you’ll have developed a basic literacy in the language of accounting, and your analysis skills will have improved. 

If you end up starting your own business, you might outsource this to someone else at some point, but it’s still important to know the basics so you can actually understand what they’re telling you and have fruitful conversations that produce ideas, rather than them lecturing you.  

Business Finance

Business finance is primarily about managing and raising funds for a business. Finance professionals might facilitate an IPO, analyze financial risk, secure loans, or value a company for a sale.

edX’s Foundations of Finance course will teach you the fundamental concepts of business finance, and give you the opportunity to put to work some of the knowledge you picked up while studying accounting (unless you skipped it like me). 

edX’s course is broken into five sections: 

  • Money and Capital
  • Cash Flow Forecasting
  • Financial Reporting
  • Interest and Return
  • Risk Management

The course is free, but for $200 you can take the verified track and get a certificate of completion as well as access to exams and graded assignments (not always the most fun, but good for remembering what you learn). 

Supplemental Reading: If you think business finance might be your calling, then you’ll probably like Business Adventures: 12 Classic Tales From the World of Wall Street

I read it after college at a time when I didn’t know what I wanted to become and so many of my friends were working in finance. I liked it — I guess not enough to go the finance route, but enough to understand why someone else would.  

Business Administration / Management 

Business administration is the area of business concerned with being an effective manager of an organization — more specifically, its people and its operations. 

If you want to one day be an executive, oversee the operations of your own company, or become a successful manager, studying this subject is going to be helpful. 

I can’t for the life of me find a free or low-cost course online for this topic, but I found this cool 4-lecture series on YouTube by a business school professor: 

These lectures should give you enough of an understanding of the fundamental aspects of business administration to decide if you want to learn more about it.   

If the field of business management is making you excited, you could take Coursera’s Strategic Management and Leadership specialization (UPenn makes a ton of these specializations for business topics — this is the third one I found that’s relevant to this roadmap). 

You’ll need to buy a subscription at $49/month to Coursera Plus, which gives you unlimited access to 7,000+ courses and other specializations taught by universities. They have a ton of business courses to offer so it might be worth it for you if this is a long-term learning endeavor. 

Operations Management

Operations management is all about making a business as efficient as possible to improve profits. Specialists analyze, manage, and improve supply chains, production, and other business processes.  

This Operations Management course is for beginners in the field and will teach you the tactics and best practices that operations professionals use to improve business operations, from capacity management to sales and operations planning.  

Who knows — maybe this will be your first step in your adventure towards becoming a COO of a great company. Regardless of which path you end up choosing, it’s good for a business professional to understand how businesses operate to achieve their goals. 

International Business

In a world that’s becoming increasingly interconnected by trade, foreign direct investment, multinational corporations, and other business relations, it’s helpful to learn about international business. 

I loved these courses in college (this was my minor), especially when we learned about the different cultural business norms of other countries.  

Coursera’s free International Business 1 is a solid introduction to the subject for those interested in learning about the global socioeconomic environment in which businesses operate. 

It covers globalization, political institutions and their effect on business, the effects of free trade, and other fundamental topics. 

5. Create & Study a DIY MBA Reading List

At this point, you have the basics and probably know which fields you want to explore more in-depth. A great next step is to start to give yourself a self-directed MBA education. 

A do-it-yourself MBA reading list is a structured reading plan covering different areas that business graduate students usually learn at business school. 

To illustrate, someone’s DIY MBA reading list might follow this structure: 

  • 5 books on macroeconomics and international business
  • 2 textbooks on math for business students
  • 5 books on marketing 
  • 2 books on sales
  • 3 books on finance and accounting 
  • 5 books on product and design
  • 5 books on leadership and people management 
  • 3 books on operations management 
  • 7 books on business strategy

The beauty of a DIY plan is that you get to choose which areas to focus on, and which to ignore or explore only briefly. It’s also hundreds of thousands of dollars cheaper than most business schools. 

To get some inspiration for your personal reading plan, check out Chris Stoneman’s self-taught MBA reading list

Also, to learn about what a business school student should study, check out this video: 

At this point, don’t completely write off business school as a future option. For many it’s unnecessary, but it can be helpful to a specific subset of people, especially those in the US who want to break into a competitive field like corporate consulting or investment banking. If you’re unsure, read Harvard’s article Should I Get an MBA?  

6. Speak With Business Professionals & Peers 

An underrated way to learn about the different jobs, career paths, and areas of business is by having informational interviews, or just regular old conversations, with business professionals. 

Find someone within your network, or even outside of it, who holds a position in business that you want to assess as a possible career goal for yourself. They’ll be happy to speak with you. Just think how excited you get when someone wants to discuss your hobby or passion. 

If you want to really impress someone during one of the calls, to the point where they might actually offer you a job or help you get one, ask them incredibly specific and thoughtful questions. They’ll appreciate that you did your research before the call. 

When I was considering going into finance, I arranged a call with a friend’s family friend, about thirty years my senior, who worked in wealth management at Morgan Stanley. 

The call started off rocky. He corrected me when I greeted him with his first name and asked me to call him Mr. {last name}. Then, as if my voice wasn’t shaky enough, the connection faded and I couldn’t hear what he was saying. 

Even after that terrible start, it all changed when I was able to ask my first question — “why did you switch from personal financial advisory to institutional wealth management?” He lit up and the rest was a breeze. 

After another question about how new CEO management trickled down to his department, he paused and complimented me on my questions. He said most young people ask such generic questions they could’ve found the answer to online. This should be inspiring to you – it suggests the competition to impress is low.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be a call with some established business professional. You could also just talk with a friend or peer who’s also interested in business. 

The key takeaway is to start looking for people who are interested in business and talking with them on a regular basis. Who knows, in 20 years one of these people might become your startup’s angel investor.

7. Consider Getting Industry Experience

After learning a lot about the different areas of business — marketing, finance, operations, etc., — it’s a good idea to get a job in one of the areas that best align with your interests and abilities.  

After college, I got a job as a sales development rep at a tech startup because I knew someday I wanted to start my own business, and that sales and marketing skills were essential things for a founder to have. 

If your goal is to start a business one day, another common piece of advice is to get a job, any job, in your favorite industry, as this experience will allow you to learn how businesses in this industry operate, and what gaps exist that you might be able to fill with a novel creation. 

At the job, you’ll also learn skills more effectively than you would by just sitting in your room and reading books — not to say that books aren’t helpful. 

It’s just that when you take a job you have an environment to apply the techniques you learned in the books, and this allows you to test out which ones work and which don’t. Also, by applying them they stick in your mind more effectively than if you were to just reread flashcards. 

8. Start Your Own Small (or Large) Business

Starting and growing your own small business will teach you a bunch of business skills. It’s the best way to gain an intuitive feel and understanding of business. It forces you to learn skills. 

Even if it’s just mowing lawns in your neighborhood, you’ll have to engage in, and therefore learn, sales, negotiation, marketing, pricing, customer service, accounting, strategy, efficiency optimization, and more. If it grows and you hire people, you’ll learn management as well. 

I’ve learned more about business from running a freelance writing business than I did in my entire four years at school. 

Below are some small business ideas you could start for under $100: 

  • Content Creation: Start a Blog or YouTube channel covering one niche topic. 
  • Auto Repair/Detailing: If you have the tools, start one in your garage, or go to the cars.
  • Freelance: Offer services for one of your skills — writing, design, advertising, etc., 
  • Consulting: Help businesses succeed in an area you’re knowledgeable about. 
  • Tutoring: Teach people a skill, language, subject, or test that you’re an expert in. 
  • Lawn Care: Mow peoples’ lawns, rake their leaves, shovel driveway in winter. 

If you’re interested in starting a small business that costs very little to get up and running, I highly recommend reading The $100 Startup

This book along with The Four Hour Workweek completely changed my mindset about what’s possible when you have a a bit of cash on hand, a cool idea, and some strong determination. 

They convinced me to quit tech sales to pursue my dream. If I hadn’t read them, I wonder if I’d still be working in sales instead of freelance writing. Who knows.  

9. Keep on Learning About Business

As you continue down your path of self-education in business, you’ll start to become aware of your authentic interests. With every book you read or course you take, you’ll be closer to understanding which branch of business you want to work in or focus on studying. 

For further education, some of you might decide to go to business school. Some of you might start your own business, experience problems and opportunities, and read books on how to solve and seize them. Or you might keep reading and taking courses and applying what you’ve learned.

The most important thing going forward is to continue studying and learning. There’s no point at which you’ll be officially educated in all things business. There’s always more to know. 

Perhaps that’s why Warren Buffet, even after all his success, still dedicates around 80% of his day to reading. You’ll find that lifelong learning is a common habit of many successful investors, entrepreneurs, marketers, financial analysts, managers, and other business professionals.   


Can You Learn Business Without a Degree? 

It’s possible to teach yourself beginner and high-level business skills without getting a degree, provided you have the dedication to do so. There are online courses and books covering pretty much every facet of business imaginable, from small business marketing all the way to corporate finance. 

You can also self-learn business by working in industry or by starting a business of your own. As someone who graduated from a business undergraduate program, I can confidently say that I’ve learned more practical business knowledge in my four years since graduation than I did during my four years at school. 

By working at a tech startup and forming my own freelance writing business, I’ve given myself a serious self-education in business accounting, marketing, sales, strategy, entrepreneurship, information management, and other business skills. 

Bottom Line: Learning Business on Your Own 

Business is a huge field. It contains several branches and hundreds of individual skills. No one is going to ever master business in its entirety, just certain facets of it. 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed in your journey to teach yourself business, remember the old adage about the rabbit and the hare. Take your time, and focus. Pick one skill or concept, really aim to understand it, then move on to the next one. 

And know that this is a long-term pursuit. The daily reps of doing an online course for thirty minutes, reading 10 pages of a business book, listening to a podcast on your way to work or school, reading the news with your coffee, will add up over time, until your past self is nearly unrecognizable to the business buff you’ve become. 

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After graduating college with an econ degree I realized I was still anything but well-educated. Over the last 4 years, I've been trying to fix that, autodidact-mode — by reading books and engaging in self-directed study across multiple subjects. On this blog, my goal is to share my learnings and help others get a well-rounded education outside of school. Education, after all, is a lifelong process, one well worth the investment.

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