Mike Seely knew his family’s third-generation mint farm had growth potential, but he didn’t know the best way to go about it. So last year he signed up to participate in Washington State University Vancouver’s Business Growth Mentor and Analysis Program.
Over the course of 16 weeks, a group of four seniors from WSUV’s business department studied Seely Family Farm’s marketing efforts, strategic competitive position and opportunities for growth. At the end of the term, the students handed over recommendations for improving the business’ website, redesigning its logo and developing its brand image – and also suggestions for highlighting Seely’s strengths against the competition.
“My major weakness is marketing,” Seely said. “I’ve been in this business for so long there are sometimes things you miss. The students brought fresh ideas and those are valuable.”
Consider him one more satisfied customer of WSUV’s Business Growth Mentor and Analysis Program. And he’s happy about the price tag, too: Free.
The program is now in its third year connecting marketing, accounting and other business department majors with real-world experience. These students work under the guidance of mentors – often current business owners or retired executives – to delve deep into the nuanced challenges facing local companies and nonprofits.
“It’s run as a consultancy,” said Mistie Josephson, Business Growth Mentor and Analysis Program manager. “The students’ first task is trying to identify the challenge they need to focus on. They write up a scope of work and project plan. They do a financial assessment, a market assessment and an organizational capabilities assessment – all with an eye toward looking at opportunities to grow.”
Gregor Theis, a finance major who graduated from WSUV in December, said the Business Growth Mentor and Analysis Program was one of the most challenging classes he took in college – and also one of the most rewarding.
“We had a couple of other classes that did big projects,” Theis said, “but this one was extremely in depth. You have to take everything you’ve learned in your academic career and apply it differently – not academically.”
Theis’ group worked with a company that sells accessories for motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles. They ultimately determined that the business’ reputation for strong customer service was one of its strengths – customers could call in and talk to a technician rather than someone in a call center, for example, and they recommended that it develop a strategy based on those strengths.
Seely also received recommendations based on the strengths and market position of his business. With a 450-acre mint farm, he could not compete on size against major industry leaders – who could have as much as 13,000 acres. However, he could compete on quality.
Today Seely has implemented some of the recommendations students handed down, and is selling peppermint patties made with Seely Family Farm mint oil at high-end supermarkets around the Northwest. Other recommendations are still a work in progress.
“I have a billion things going on,” Seely said, by way of explanation.
Asked if he was concerned about keeping four college students focused on his business – rather than their own priorities – Seely said focus was never a problem, thanks in part to the guidance that students receive.
“We have a network of support,” noted Josephson. “They help, in part by pushing them away from academia and into the real world. We want (students) to take what they are learning in the classroom to apply it in the real world.”
Among the people working with students:
- Business department faculty teach Entrepreneurship 492, the class at the core of Business Growth Mentor and Analysis Program. They assign advisors to each group of students.
- Often, advisors are WSUV alumni who previously participated in the program. Theis likens these advisors to project managers involved in direct day-to-day oversight.
- Mentors (experienced local business professionals) then oversee the project work and act as a liaison to the client.
And then there’s the client. Small, growing businesses and nonprofits that have been in operation for at least 3-5 years are eligible to participate.
Mentors and advisors are all volunteers, often invited to participate because of connections to program organizers or introduced through referrals.
“I’m always looking for new folks who are willing to volunteer their time,” Josephson said. (Email email@example.com to find out more.)
So far, the 220 students and 55 clients who have signed up seem enthusiastic about the program.
Since his own stint in the class ended, Theis has volunteered as an advisor. He said his participation in the Business Growth Mentor and Analysis Program was one factor in landing a job at Columbia Credit Union, which he recently accepted.
Seely, meanwhile, continues to look for ways to connect his business with WSUV’s programs.
“When a small company like ours is really looking to grow, this program is a great resource.”
Want student consultants to analyze your business? The ideal client has been in business 3-5 years, is looking to grow, employs up to about 50 people, and can commit 10 hours over the course of a 16-week academic program. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to connect with Business Growth Mentor and Analysis staff.