Every startup founder or small business owner has experienced it; as your company grows, so does the amount of work needed to satisfy customers.
Whether that means packing and shipping off new orders, writing software updates, or spending more time on the phone with important clients, the daily grind of growing a company is inevitable. And in those growth stages, sometimes big picture thinking and strategic vision can get lost in the shuffle. Weekly brainstorm sessions are cancelled and discussions about investing in other areas are put on the back burner.
That’s where UNC-Chapel Hill business professor Patrick Vernon
and his Entrepreneurial Consulting class come in. Every semester, a few local startups and small businesses enlist the help of Vernon’s undergraduate students in helping craft a long-term growth strategy for their company.
Now in its seventh year, the premise of the class is simple: Let students act as “consultants” for growing companies by learning all about the company and its history, completing customer surveys and industry research, and considering creative, efficient options for the class “client” to expand his or her business. It’s all free for the business—six of them, all local startups, will work with the students this spring.
Startups, Sandwiches and Elementary Schools
As a family-owned deli that serves breakfast and lunch and includes a catering operation, Neal’s Deli in Carrboro was a perfect candidate for Vernon’s class.
“I expected some help addressing our problems,” co-owner Sheila Neal says, noting that the daily demands of the deli make long-term business planning difficult.
“With us being in a low-margin industry and having a mom-and-pop team, we have to physically work shifts…That sucks up a lot of time.”
Vernon urges his students to “investigate” a company and its industry, which includes making calls to experts, seeking out customer feedback, and often running surveys and extensive research campaigns to gather information.
“That’s what made me believe them,” Neal says. “They did a lot of research and surveying….it’s real live information.”
With a goal to make his class as practical as possible for his students while also ensuring that the clients come away with valuable information, Vernon pushes his students to emphasize the research phase of the class.
“There are insights that come to you after you do a bunch of the [legwork.] Patterns begin coming together,” Vernon notes, joking that students “can’t just phone in a few exams” but must be highly engaged throughout the semester.
Those insights become key takeaways for the companies that work with the class, as Laura Fenn—founder of The Walking Classroom—found during her two semesters involved.
“Having someone from the outside take a look at what we were doing helped us identify gaps in understanding about our program,” Fenn says.
A non-profit which aims to help students get more exercise during their school day without sacrificing instruction time, The Walking Classroom has grown quickly since its inception in 2011. Fenn says that nearly 30,000 students now participate in “Walk, Listen, and Learn” programs during their school days.
“(The students) were pretty enthusiastic about it,” Fenn says, adding that she thought older, full-time consultants may not be able to recognize and embrace the non-traditional approach that her program takes.
Over the past seven years, the program has worked with clients in a myriad of different industries, including a recent engagement with edtech startup Testive, which raised more than $2 million in November from a handful of Triangle investors. According to Vernon, students found most potential customers were shocked to find that the startup’s SAT and ACT prep content was free. That prompted the students’ recommendation that Testive charge for some premium content.
The student group working with The Walking Classroom did significant research around developing a mobile app, putting together a presentation with design recommendations that Fenn says she has passed along to app developers. For Neal’s Deli, the students developed proposals for launching a food truck, along with a kids’ menu — something that Neal says the deli has begun work on.
Consultants In Training, or Entrepreneurs at Heart?
Forget looking over the syllabus. Vernon says that on the first day of class, he tries to “scare away” students. Recognizing that the name of the class— Entrepreneurial Consulting—contains the two most attractive buzzwords for most business school students, Vernon tries to ensure that his students are prepared for the semester.
“It’s the most teamwork intensive class,” Vernon says. “They’re forced by me to work together, in an attempt to simulate the startup environment.”
A former musician and UNC graduate who spent several years as the leader of a California based-band called The Zookeepers, Vernon eventually returned to UNC to get his MBA and later stepped into a professor’s role. He says that he treats the class like a startup itself, constantly tinkering and changing small aspects of the program. Throughout the process, he tries to foster an entrepreneurial spirit in his students, many of whom he says will be stepping into jobs at prestigious management consulting firms upon graduation.
Vernon says that the class attracts a handful of students who simply see “consulting” in the class name and sign up, but that it’s the startup-minded students who get the most out of the experience, and ultimately come up with the most valuable insights for the class’ clients.
“You really have to want to help your client and really be into your project,” he notes, adding that business owners often come away inspired by their work with the student groups, feeding off the energy that the students exhibit throughout the semester.
Along with feeding off that youthful exuberance, Neal reiterated that once the semester ends, having a dedicated growth team is an invaluable resource, students or not.
“Those working groups gave me solid information to use, and that’s all that matters.”
Startups and small businesses are welcome to apply to Vernon before each semester.
Visit the class website to learn more about the application process and see a full list of past class projects (also listed at top).