To know the road ahead, ask those coming back (proverb).

Many entrepreneurs and would-be business owners miss opportunities to learn from those in similar fields.  It’s not always easy to find a mentor- at least in the way they are usually thought of- but there are plenty of opportunities to get a real-life MBA and learn from the experience of others.

What do people love to talk about more than anything else?  Themselves, of course.  This means that there are many opportunities for you to learn from those with knowledge to share.  If you want to learn more about the restaurant industry for example, a restaurateur may let you shadow him for days.

But as the fantastic Mitch Matthews asked during a speech I was giving recently, what if the person you want to learn from gets paid to share their knowledge?  How do you draw the line on free advice versus paid mentorship or consulting? 

Here are a few guidelines:

Take a taste, not a cone:  My friend Andrea Lee talks about “Pink Spoon Marketing”, where Baskin Robbins gives you a pink spoon to sample the ice cream and if you like it, you pay for the cone.  I advise you to feel free to take a taste but if you are starting to ask for an entire sundae, you are probably in an area where you should compensate the other person.

Do unto others…: One of the best litmus tests that I use for decisions regarding others is the good old “golden rule”.  I reverse the situation and ask how I would want to be treated.  If I would expect to be paid (or if I would pay someone else absent my friendship with the person) then I offer up compensation.

Offer up your time or skill set: Michael Port says that when he has outstanding people who want to learn from him, he offers for them to do an unpaid mentorship of sorts.  He offers up projects as a way for the individual to get exposure to Michael and how he works and the other individual helps Michael finish a project.  Whatever skills and time you have to barter, you may be able to add more value than just simply paying for the person’s time.  Think about what you can bring to the table or ask the other person if there are projects you can help with.  The most important thing though is to complete the tasks (and of course do a phenomenal job).  Many people ask but very few follow-through with what they are asked to do.

Pay it forward: If you have been fortunate enough to learn from others, take the time to do the same when you are in a position to do so.  There is always someone who aspires to be in the place you are at right now.  I see too many takers who do not walk the talk about mentorship or give back when they have generously been given to.  Think about how you can make an impact with someone else.

If we all had the opportunity to become experts in a field without having to work a lifetime, we would! The most important thing to remember when asking someone to share their knowledge is that they are doing you a favor by responding, so be courteous and patient in your correspondence. If you are however, interested in pursuing an online MBA degree, there are many options for you. Check out your local colleges as well as asking your successful peers where they attended school.

What other guidelines do you have for learning from others?  Please share below.