Business consultants rarely troll for clients along Albany Avenue, a distressed commercial district in Hartford, Conn. So Vivian Akuoko, owner of the Evay Salon and Day Spa, was a bit taken aback when the University of Hartford offered her free one-on-one consulting with undergraduate business students. But the price was right, so Akuoko agreed.
Three years later, she's glad she did. The students have helped her make simple changes, such as posting hours of operation on her door and boosting her customer database. They encouraged her to send out discount coupons and improved the packaging of her line of hair-care products. Student Sylvia Moryl, who started working with Akuoko in the fall, has helped improve Evay's brochures and updated its Web site.
As a result, Evay, with about $350,000 in annual revenues, is holding steady while some rivals falter. The students bring "fresh minds with a different perspective," Akuoko says. "The most important thing in business is management, and most people here don't get help with that."
But entrepreneurs often can get help -- at little or no cost -- from local colleges. Assistance ranges from student-run clubs, such as the 225-member Small Business Consulting Program at Columbia Business School, to programs that award students credit for their consulting, as is the case at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. The student-staffed Small Business Development Center at Wharton School holds classes and provides counseling. While few advertise their services, almost every school has something for entrepreneurs wanting help. Some target specific neighborhoods, but most are open to anyone. The deans' offices at local schools can point you to nearby assistance.
Then the real work begins. To get students interested, you'll need to select problems narrow enough to be solved yet broad and challenging. "We want to work on a puzzle," says Tihamér von Ghyczy, director of business projects at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration. That can mean everything from honing a business plan to developing an exit strategy. Plum assignments include putting together business plans or identifying best practices. Less popular: upgrading software or implementing an accounting system. If all you need is extra manpower, you're better off hiring someone. Save problems with specific accounting issues or advertising strategies for a paid professional.
Student labor may be cheap, but it involves other costs in terms of time, energy, and commitment. While students won't charge McKinsey & Co. rates, they won't work at McKinsey speed, either. Some will devote a few hundred hours to a project, but that can be over a year. And students want to work with you -- not your junior staff -- to figure out your priorities and problems. You also have to be willing to devote time and resources to carrying out students' recommendations. In short, entrepreneurs "need to be as enthusiastic as we are," says Wharton center director Thérèse Flaherty.
In return, you may find a surprising wealth of talent and resources at your disposal. Businesses can benefit from students' access to faculty advisers and unpublished research, says Kameron M. Kordestani, a Columbia MBA student and co-president of its Small Business Consulting Program. With tuition this low, going back to school may be a very smart move.
By Diane Brady