The road trip is often a rite of passage in American lore. From beats coasting down Route 66 to the breezy Sunday drives of the Mad Men era, the road has always been a place to relax, reflect, and re-group. For three business professors, the American road held a different allure. It was an artery dotted with businesses and their stories of ingenuity, perseverance, and triumph.
In business schools, students habitually read those sexy case studies featuring multinationals buffeted by major economic shifts or haunted by tragic events. In 2010, Stanford’s Paul Oyer, Northwestern’s Mike Mazzeo, and Utah’s Scott Schaefer – economists all – decided to hit the road to study those businesses often overlooked by MBA programs. They visited recycling plants, rubber parts producers, and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. They asked questions about pricing, scaling, hiring, branding, positioning, and strategy. And they dispensed advice to the passionate and talented owners of these small and mid-sized firms. Since then, these three amigos have completed six more week-long treks. Each time, they cram themselves into a rented car, make Dairy Queen runs, rest up in Holiday Inns, and hit four companies a day.
From Memphis to Missoula and Denver to Dothan, these men discovered several compelling themes during these journeys. For one, according to an interview with Mazzeo in the Kansas City Examiner, the ability to grow is often “rooted in the fundamental economics of the business.” For another, he adds, small businesses must build their “strategies around things the Big Boys aren’t able to do well.” In the process of interviewing over 100 businesses, these economists discovered Mazzeo’s Law: “The answer to any strategic question is, ‘It depends.’” That said, the answer is the easy part, Mazzeo adds. “The trick is finding what it depends on.”
Two years ago, the trio chronicled their lessons (and adventures) in The Roadside MBA. Now, they’re bringing the takeaways from the book into the realm of MOOCs with “Strategic Thinking for Growing Your Enterprise,” which begins on May 2nd. Chances are, it will be quite different from any MOOC that you’ve taken before. Instead of studies, Mazzeo, Oyer, and Schaefer focus on stories to breathe life into the lessons they learned. In fact, the course will include webinars so students can hear from (and interact with) the business owners chronicled in the classes. Forget just learning what works. The sessions are designed to explore the underlying how and why. In other words, students can understand the unique variables inherent to each organization and how they play out against structure, capabilities, planning, and positioning. Best of all, students can take their own virtual road trip, with a team project where they ask questions of a business and offer solutions to their strategic growth issues.
The MOOC answer to On The Road won’t be the only MOOC to thrill students this month. If you’re dreaming of launching a startup, you can’t miss Wharton’s “Entrepreneurship 4,” which covers financing options to sustain growth and help owners turn that elusive profit. Columbia Business School reviews the fail fast model with “New Venture Discovery: From Idea to Minimal Viable Product.” Here, students can gain insights on quickly moving from prototyping to market to capitalize on potential market openings. And Michigan State continues its “How To Start Your Business” series with “Structure,” a primer on those details (i.e. legal, hiring, etc.) that can quickly engulf a firm if they’re ignored.
Finance-related MOOCs are even more prominent in May. Wharton (who else) is unveiling “Decision-Making and Scenarios,” which examines high level math and stats models to help students better measure risk and probabilities. At long last, Columbia Business School returns with its two-part series, “Finance Engineering and Risk Management,” to expose students to fundamental Wall Street models and practices. The University of Illinois continues to position itself as an online finance juggernaut with two new MOOCs focused on understanding income statements and market structures. If you want to learn accounting basics – but lack previous experience in the area – check out IESE’s “Accounting: Making Sound Decisions” to master basics and learn how to read standard reports.
To learn more about these courses – and register for them – click on the links below.