Dot-Coms to M.B.A.S: Help Us! Education: Stock in Hand, Web Sites Go to B-Schools for Advice
McGinn, Daniel, Newsweek
Last month an envelope arrived at the office of Air Force Capt. A. J. Leone. The enclosed orders had nothing to do with the C-141 aircraft Leone helps fly. When he's off duty in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., Leone studies for an M.B.A. through Auburn University in Alabama, participating in classes via videotape and e-mail. Before graduating, he and 83 classmates (including a NEWSWEEK reporter) had to complete Auburn's Case Study Competition. The envelope contained their mission: a case study. They had to help ValueFind.com, a tiny, stagnant Web site, become a force in e-commerce.
Case studies have been an integral part of business school for decades. At Harvard, students dissect 800 cases during the two-year program. "The magic in this school is when I take a case into the classroom and 90 really smart people spend two hours debating what to do," says Harvard Dean Kim Clark. Increasingly, they're debating Internet strategy: up to half of the 750 new cases created annually are focused on e-business issues. At the University of Virginia's business school, professors now favor "live" cases, in which visiting executives from such companies as Travelocity and Walmart.com brief students and listen to their recommendations. At Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., case studies are supplemented by student-led consulting projects; last fall 18 of the 20 firms selected were Internet companies. Like ValueFind, many of the dot-coms going under B-school microscopes can use all the help they can get.
ValueFind is a shopping search engine. It helps online buyers compare prices across a broad range of Web sites. The company's founders spent roughly $20,000 to launch the site and, with no cash to market it, hoped shoppers would discover it on their own (few have). Meanwhile, competitors like MySimon and BottomDollar spent millions in marketing. So early this year, ValueFind CFO Jim Finseth approached Auburn for help. He gave the school 17.5 percent of ValueFind's equity to become the students' guinea pig. On May 22, after two weeks of doing research and debating strategies, 18 teams presented their findings to ValueFind executives and faculty.
Ladies and gentlemen, start your spreadsheets. Several teams suggested converting ValueFind to a business-to-business play, this season's hot e-commerce strategy--an idea management was already considering. Most groups spent hours testing the speed of the Web site; team No. …