Small Businesses Turn to University Consulting

As a business school student, Andrew Allen enjoyed the challenge of working on real-life consulting projects as part of his course work. So after graduation, he hired a team of students to consult on a project for his employer, which saved almost $100,000 over the course of two years.

Allen’s experience participating on both ends of business school consulting projects prompted Allen to launch More Marbles, a company that matches business owners looking for less expensive consulting services with university professors hungry for real-life business problems for their students.

“Professors have a hard time finding businesses with the right type of problem,” said Allen, “and businesses aren’t aware of this resources or how to tap into it.”

More Marbles operates much like a matchmaking service. Professors create profiles and answer questions including how much they want to charge for projects, available project start and end dates and a list of past clients.  Professors can select specialty subjects, which include everything from accounting, organizational development and information systems. Users are also able to upload a resume and picture.

Businesses post projects in a similar manner. Entrepreneurs are asked to define project details, subject area and deliverables, when they want to start a project and how often they can meet with the student team. Once a business posts a project, More Marbles delivers a list of universities with matching specializations. The business owner can review university profiles and choose to initiate a project or contact the school.

Professors can also browse for posted projects and make contact.  Linda Muir, associate director of the Institute for New Enterprise at Westminster College, just finished supervising her students’ first consulting project initiated through a More Marbles connection.

“What I like about More Marbles is you can search by many different functions and many types of projects,” said Muir. “In the past, I found companies by reaching out to small business development centers or called my contacts. I almost did not want to do it anymore because it was so much work. “

For business managers who don’t have time to browse academic profiles, More Marbles offers to personally help them define their project and find an ideal match.

Jacob Brumfield of I-Contain, a wireless technology solutions company, relied on More Marbles to pair him up with Don Sciglimpaglia, a professor at San Diego State University.

“We were looking for information about smart home and system automation,” said Brumfield.  He posted his project and was introduced to a team of MBA students in a market research class at SDSU.  This past semester, students worked to find potential applications for I-Contain’s proprietary technology.  Team leader Amy Colker guided the research, which included competitor analysis, interviews with homeowners and dealers and installers of home automation and analysis of I-Contain’s technological capabilities.

Colker’s lesson from this consulting assignment extended way beyond marketing and home automation.  “You can’t be an island in business,” she said, “The lesson for me is to be able to rely on other people and not take everything on yourself.”

Brumfield is awaiting the team’s final recommendation, but is already preparing to do another project through More Marbles next spring or summer. “This team was supervised by really good professors. The service they provided for the pricing was not bad,” said Brumfield, “It would have cost me considerably more money [to use a professional consulting firm].”

The cost for consulting services ranges from $1,000 to $15,000; universities setting their own prices, but More Marbles offers guidelines. Most projects are defined by hours and take into account the professor’s expertise and past projects. A company will pay more if graduate students work on a project, as opposed to undergraduates.  Businesses pay schools through the site and More Marbles takes a fee on each project.

More Marbles, which launched in July, will have matched 35 projects by July 2011.  Next year Allen plans to install a rating system for professors and expand into the non-profit arena. Despite a successful launch, he faces the same obstacles as the business owners who use his company.

You have a product that is valuable but getting the word out is always a challenge. Finding the right customers at the right time is always a challenge,” said Allen, “On a personal note, the uncertainty that comes from running your own business is always a challenge.”