By Diane Brady Any small-business owner can seek out free assistance from local colleges and business schools (see BusinessWeek SmallBiz, Spring 2005, "Campus Can-Do"), but it takes some preparation to get the most out of the experience. Here are some guidelines:
Come up with solid medium-term goals. Most students work on a semester basis and will organize their support around that time frame. If you need something done urgently, it's probably best to pay for a professional. A project that has no prospect of some payoff within a few months may not be attractive, either. Moreover, students can't drop everything to work on your problems full-time. Notes Kameron Kordestani, a Columbia MBA student and co-president of the Small Business Consulting Program: "It's important to consider the constraints that students have on their schedule."
Make it challenging. Generally, these are students who already have worked in the private sector and are shelling out big bucks to learn about the complexities of business. They don't want mundane tasks that should be handled by an employee. They want to solve real-world problems.
Be prepared to do some work yourself. As Therese Flaherty, director of the student-run Wharton Small Business Development Center, puts it: "People who expect to get all the answers from us will be disappointed." The students may help to design a strategy, but you have to execute it. Also, most students want to meet with senior management, so you have to be willing to make yourself available.
Be open to new ideas. After reviewing your operations, the consultants may decide that what you really need is something beyond what you initially requested. That's part of the learning exercise. Vivian Akuoko of Evay Salon & Day Spa, for one, even found herself using more vibrant colors in her advertisements after student consultants suggested that her penchant for earth tones wouldn't wow younger consumers.
Take advantage of other services at business schools. Many of the programs also offer low-cost classes, faculty consultations, or access to other services. The University of Hartford, for example, has had media-arts students design graphics and signs for some clients.
Have fun. This is a learning exercise for everyone and, while they may lack the experience of some paid professionals, students often bring a level of energy and excitement to projects that's hard to find in the private sector. They're not in it for the money. They simply get a kick out of solving your problems. That's likely to spark fresh excitement in you, too. Brady is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York