But for a small firm with just six employees, that strategy occupied too much staff time and produced too little bang for the buck, said Tamarah Begay, a Navajo woman who launched the business in 2012 to provide design and planning services to tribes nationwide.
To develop a more efficient marketing plan, Begay contracted with the University of New Mexico’s Small Business Institute. Run by the Anderson School of Management, the institute offers comprehensive consulting services for small firms and nonprofits in New Mexico for just $500.
That’s a fraction of what most commercial consultants would charge. But rather than veteran professionals, it’s students who do the consulting under close supervision from Anderson professors.
For Begay, the students identified her company’s strengths and weaknesses and provided a standard checklist to help her staff select projects that best match her firm’s capabilities.
“We used to go after all requests for proposals and it wore us out,” Begay said. “But now we’re much more selective to first determine if a project is a good fit. The students helped us pinpoint what we do best to better market ourselves.”
Begay said she originally approached professional consulting firms, but would have paid at least $6,000 for their services.
“The $500 we paid for this work was well worth the money,” she said.
Like Begay’s company, the Anderson program is now helping 20 to 30 small New Mexico firms every year with low-cost consulting that many businesses wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford, said Stacy Sacco, director of the Small Business Institute. And, each semester, scores of students are getting direct, real-life experience to enhance their classroom learning.
“It offers businesses research and information that empowers them, while providing students with hands-on experiential learning that’s much more valuable than a classroom case study,” Sacco said.
Anderson first launched the institute in 1978, when the U.S. Small Business Administration offered financial assistance to universities that offer such programs. SBA funding dried up in the 1990s, but UNM has continued to administer the institute as part of its course curriculum for both graduate and under-graduate students.
Anderson paid program expenses itself until 2009, when it began charging businesses for the service. The fees help cover materials and photocopying for reports, and occasionally travel for students working on projects.
“We pretty much break even with the fees businesses pay,” Sacco said.
This summer, UNM received a $15,000 grant from Bank of America to extend a scholarship program to provide free service to select businesses and organizations that are too cash-poor to afford the $500 fee.
The institute is one of about 100 such programs run by business schools around the country. Most are members of the national Small Business Institute, which holds an annual competition to recognize the most-successful student projects nationwide.
This year, two UNM student teams took first- and third-place awards at the competition in Las Vegas, Nev. First place went to Anderson students who helped create a business plan and potential marketing strategy for Starlight FUNiture, an Albuquerque startup that uses fiber-optic lights as a decorative display and night light on furniture.
The students helped owner Eric Nelson narrow his focus to headboards on beds, with hotels as a potential marketing target. Nelson has yet to launch the product commercially, but he said the students created a “brand new concept” for his product.
“They did a good job considering all they had to work with was a prototype product and not a going business,” Nelson said. “For the money I spent, the group did a good job with a sound process and reasonable conclusions.”
Students say the institute projects let them apply what they learn.
“It allows you to connect the dots between knowledge and experience,” said MBA student Tyler Briggs, 22. “It’s given me more confidence in what I’ve been taught, and in my ability to use it in the business world.”
MBA student Paul Hamrick, 23, said working outside the classroom makes everything more real.
“When you do a case study in a classroom it’s so distant,” Hamrick said. “You don’t really know how accurate what you’re doing is. But with this, you get to know people, and actually get invested in their success.”
Professors, as well, say supervising student projects keeps them connected with real-world challenges.
“It helps keep me in touch with current marketing problems that businesses in New Mexico face,” said assistant professor of marketing Dimitri Kapelianis.