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What small business wouldn’t want to partner with hardworking and enthusiastic consultants—and at a discount? Fortunately for startups, entrepreneurs and small businesses, these consultants are right at their fingertips. They just need to connect with one of 300-plus business schools in the United States.
While hiring professional consultants is typically out of reach for small companies, many turn to business schools to get the advice they need. From market analysis and strategizing priorities to business plan development, student consultants offer companies fresh ideas and excellent guidance for making sound decisions.
“This is a great option, because MBA students are particularly experienced. They often work in teams and are supported by faculty,” says Carleen Kerttula, executive director of the MBA Roundtable, an association for business schools. “You get fresh thinking, good questions and access to faculty support—and it’s cost-effective.” In fact, the organization found that 60 percent of MBA programs don’t charge anything for consulting, while others request a nominal fee to cover expenses.
So how do you gain access to these eager B-school students? Here are a few things to know:
It might take more than one phone call to find the right person who can line up your company with student consulting programs. Don’t give up. Call again, or look online at professors’ areas of interest to find one who aligns with your problem or inquiry, says Phil Miller, professional director of the Carlson Consulting Enterprise at the University of Minnesota. See if the college has a center for entrepreneurship, where B-schools often house their consultancies. Or try another university.
Venture outside your state
Many schools work with companies across the country and around the world. You might need to fund students’ travel expenses—or maybe you won’t. So broaden your circle of assistance and consider programs other than the local college, notes Kerttula.
You get out what you put in
The more information, details and access you provide a B-school team, the more deeply the students can delve into your issues. Though small business owners and entrepreneurs are supremely busy by nature, it’s worth spending the time and effort upfront with your consultants.
“Understand the balance between what you’re going to give and what you’re going to get,” Kerttula says. “The more you give freely of information and are frank about the challenges, the better the project will be.”
Tap student resources
The vast majority of business schools offer action-based learning like consulting (86 percent), and two-thirds require that students participate in some form of experiential learning, Kerttula says. That means businesses have ample opportunities to benefit from students’ resources and talents, such as participating in a “live” case study for a class or going through intensive consulting programs like those offered at UCLA and University of Michigan. To fulfill a Michigan MBA requirement, for example, students engage in seven-week multidisciplinary action projects around the world.
You get a big bang for your buck
Some programs charge nominal fees, but the ROI is high when you do pay for services. Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management offers numerous ways to connect companies and B-school students, but its premier program is Carlson Consulting Enterprise, which charges a minimal fee. Teams of MBA and undergraduate business students spend three semesters partnering with companies of all sizes on a wide range of issues, including performance measurement and improvement, logistics, and channel strategy.
Each business client receives in-depth consulting from students with guidance from the program’s professional director and access to faculty experts. “The benefit to our clients is clear,” says Miller. “For a modest fee, well below market rate, you get 1,000 hours of consulting from our top students.”
If you don’t enjoy working with students or mentoring young professionals, B-school consulting might not be for you, notes Miller, adding that most business students are focused and professional. It can try the patience of some to be peppered with questions or have to show a corporate novice the ropes. Consider the professional route instead.
There’s no project too big, small or top-secret
Don’t worry about guarding your company’s confidentiality or that your business is too small. Business schools have seen it all. Schools issue confidentiality agreements to student consultants, Kerttula says, and they also prefer to offer them diverse cross-functional projects in companies of different stages and sizes across multiple industries.
So the next time a business problem perplexes, or a new market beckons, consider hiring a team of B-school consultants, says Kerttula. “Oftentimes you’ll be pleased with the results and surprised at how sophisticated these students are and the level of thinking and support they offer on these projects,” she adds.
Suzy Frisch is a freelance writer based in Apple Valley, Minn. She’s covered business, politics, law and many other topics for a range of publications, including Twin Cities Business magazine, the Star Tribune and the Chicago Tribune.
Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FedEx.
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