When it comes to growing your business, one of the smartest things you can do is learn from the successes and failures of those that have come before you.

Since these entrepreneurs have already been where you want to go, they can advise you quickly on what landmines to watch out for, and where to focus your time and energy to accelerate your growth. As such, talking to them may feel like a shortcut to help you reach your goals.

A common practice to extract this wisdom from business owners you admire is to ask to 'pick their brain.' And while it may seem harmless to offer to take them for coffee, buy them dinner, or just jump on a quick call for fifteen minutes, the impact the request has on a busy entrepreneur is often one of disdain.

Many business owners view requests to pick their brain as someone asking for free coaching. And even though most entrepreneurs who've achieved a level of success like to give back to those starting out, they don't appreciate when someone asks to get free access to all the knowledge they learned the hard way over the years.

Here are five ways to pick the brain of an entrepreneur you admire without looking like a jerk:

1. Interview them

Entrepreneurs with thriving businesses understand the importance of publicity as a means to grow. As such, most will still carve out time on their calendars for media interviews as a way to reach a new audience for their ideas and products.

You don't have to be a reporter to be media. All you need is a place to publish the discussion, such as a podcast, YouTube channel, or even on a blog post on your website.

Throughout the course of the discussion, you can ask burning questions that give you insights into your own business challenges, but that help a larger audience at the same time.

I interviewed 38 experts for a virtual conference I hosted earlier this year. The speakers provided a ton of value for the attendees, and I learned a lot just through the process of conducting the interviews and chatting with them 1:1 during the set-up process.

2. Buy an hour of their time

If the person you'd like to learn from offers coaching or a course that provides direct access to them, that's another route to get their advice.

It enables you to learn from your mentor in a structured manner they have specially designed to get you results.

And when you are paying to learn from them, they have a more vested interest in helping you succeed.

3. Ask a question about their work

Many entrepreneurs you want to learn from are publishing content as a means to share their ideas and establish authority. They invest a ton of time in developing the material and appreciate it when you engage them about it.

When you have a genuine question about a concept they discussed in their content, or about how to apply it, most will take the time to answer your question.

They will appreciate your curiosity, and that you have taken an interest in their work and applying their advice.

4. Connect live at an industry event

In-person events are highly underrated ways to meet and connect with influencers in your field. They are designed for attendees to interact with each other, and there is often designated time set aside to allow for it.

So take advantage of an opportunity to strike up a conversation with the entrepreneurs you want to learn from. As you build rapport, they will often share insights they don't often give in public forums. And the informal setting presents a natural opening for you to ask questions about your specific situation.

I attended the Digital Commerce Summit earlier this month and was able to spend time having valuable informal discussions with some of the speakers in between sessions and at evening events.

5. Study what they've already published

Jumping inside the brain of entrepreneurs you want to learn from doesn't always have to happen with personal interaction.

By devouring work they have already produced, such as books, interviews, and blog posts, you will get a great deal of insight into the way they think, their philosophies, choices they made that led to their success, and lessons learned that came from a number of failures in their journey.

You don't have to learn everything about building your business alone. And while some of the challenges and questions you have may feel unique to you, there are plenty of entrepreneurs who are experiencing something similar.

So find a way to get your questions answered in a way that's a win for both you and the person you want to learn from.

Published on: Nov 1, 2016