Hi Professor! Thank you for speaking with us today. Our first question is about how you ended up here in the first place: with your PHD in Marketing and extensive teaching experience, you’ve taught many courses in marketing at Northeastern University, but what led you to teach ENTR 4414 specifically?
Hey! Professor Amir Grinstein had reached out to me last summer, when we were supposed to have the entrepreneurs on campus and I was going to teach just one class on marketing research to the students and be one of the guest faculty. Then, Amir and I worked very closely on a couple of different research projects and he was kind enough to invite me as a second co-teaching faculty of the course. I think, probably because of my shared interest in entrepreneurship, I am a mentor for a couple of entrepreneurship groups and I work very closely with entrepreneurs in all my advertising classes, marketing research classes, and market ethics classes—it’s kind of the only way that I do things here. So he knew I had that spirit within me and brought me in, which I am very happy about. We share a very similar teaching pedagogy in terms of working with entrepreneurs in the classroom, so we worked on developing the syllabus and co-created the rest of the content together, and he was really instrumental in bringing together the different faculty from different departments.
What do you hope the Northeastern students’ main takeaways are from the class?
Being able to work on a business problem right in with a team that is super diverse from all over the world with different backgrounds, cultures, religious beliefs, etc. Having the opportunity to work on a business problem given such a context is the heart of the course after all—bridging conflict, creating diversity, having the experience of working with different people within a safe classroom experience versus before they get out into the real world and developing that global mindset before they before they graduate and before they get out. I think Northeastern students are in general very worldly (for lack of a better world) with the experiential learning programs and co-ops, so this course is just one more opportunity for them to develop their skills, in the optimal anxiety zone as Donna said where you must solve that problem in in a setting that you're not 100% you and you don't really know all the pieces and it's messy and it's not perfect and it's not like carefully laid out in front of you. It is truly unique to do marketing and entrepreneurship and finance in such a setting and get out of your comfort zone.
How does this class allow students to get out of their comfort zone differently from the other Northeastern classes where students interact and work directly with entrepreneurs?
That’s a great question. In one of my marketing research classes, it is very formulaic, they choose entrepreneurs and then do secondary research and primary data collection, they do analysis, etc. and the layout of the classes is the exact same for every single student. However, in this class, the business problems are all over the place, so the reports are completely different for each team which can be a challenge for all of us. The thing that has been helpful for me, and I hope for students as well, is that there is a level of ambiguity, it is a craft-your-own-adventure kind of class because we want the students to take ownership of the project management phases with their startups. But every single person's journey is going to be a little bit different because the business problems that they're facing are so different and their teams are so different and the number of people per team is so different. So I think [at the end of the day] ENTR 4414 really just gives students way more ownership over their project than in our other classes which, like I said before, are very formulaic.
The thing that has been helpful for me, and I hope for the students as well, is that there is a level of ambiguity, it is a craft-your-own-adventure kind of class because we want the students to take ownership of the project management phases with their startups.
Moving onto the entrepreneurs, what do you hope their main takeaways are from the class?
This applies to the entrepreneurs that work with students in all my classes: I specifically want them to be receptive to new information that they're getting from outside sources. They know more than anybody else about the venture and its background and history [since it's their own], but sometimes it's really eye opening to get a third party perspective on what could be. An entrepreneur may see things in one way, but [it’s about] getting some external perspective from the mentors as well as from the students, which will hopefully be really helpful. I’m thinking about Professor Kevin Scanlon’s lectures [where he mentioned] so many useful strategies that they can use when they're building their pitches, financial plans, due diligence reports, etc., and Professor Stephen Golden’s sessions where he asked them for their problem statements and then he gave them feedback right away. [Those were instances when] the entrepreneurs were being open and receptive to the feedback and that’s one thing that I think would be the main takeaway that is going to be the most helpful for them, hopefully.
If you could give the entrepreneurs one piece of advice for one or two years down the line, what would you tell them?
Sometimes when entrepreneurs do their secondary and even some primary research on their ventures, they almost get bogged down in one specific aspect of it, where they’re just information collecting. What stood out to me was in Professor Tucker Marion’s class when he showed the skateboard diagram: you’re not trying to build a car piece by piece, you’re trying to build [different vehicles] that work at every stage.
And at each stage, taking it and iterating on it as quickly as possible but in a way that each other iteration works until you get to the final. I used this analogy in my weekly mentor meeting for my mentee recently, and it was eye opening for her. She had always focused on developing the final car, as opposed to making sure that her service works at each step. And in every step of the way it can work in a different way—so I would say just fail often because then you can fail forward and learn from the experience to achieve this at each step. I think that is what gets you moving and that is what gets you to have a business.
From your experience working with entrepreneurs both in and out of this specific class, is there one particular aspect of marketing fundamentals that you have noticed they typically lack, and if so, what was it?
I think making sure that entrepreneurs stay as customer- and problem-focused as possible. Just like [the skateboard to the car analogy] that we were talking about, it is so important at every single step of the process. I think they have an idea in their head about what they think the end product should be, but I think that at every iteration [it is important to] make sure that they are staying customer-focused, doing customer interviews, alpha testing everything before it goes live, etc. In other words, the problem exists and customers see that they are solving it with their own solution [at every iteration]. Yes, as long as the end solution solves the customers’ problems it should be okay, but I think revisiting that at every step of the way is very impactful, so I would always suggest just maintaining focus on the customers’ problems throughout.
Thank you so much for your reflection and thoughts, Professor!