UI class delivers practical solutions for small businesses

UI class delivers practical solutions for small businesses

CHAMPAIGN – When ZelTech needed to develop a strategic plan, the 5-year-old information technology company turned not to a prestigious national business consulting firm for help, but a group of University of Illinois students.

"Right now we're helping them focus their business a little bit and we're in the process of conducting some market analysis of potential customers," said UI engineering senior Emily Carroll. In other words, what's the best route the company can take to attract the most customers without spending too much time and money?

Sixteen students, with backgrounds in engineering and business, make up the class called business technical consulting that is taught by adjunct lecturer Jeff Kurtz. Students are divided into teams of about four students each, and they go to work, for free, for mostly small IT companies. Another related class that Kurtz teaches focuses on pairing mostly business students with small businesses in the area.

Many small businesses that want to grow don't have the time to tackle the project themselves nor do they always have the money to hire a consultant to conduct the marketing or business plans. With ZelTech, it's likely the company would have researched and written the business plan during nights and weekends and its development likely would have been delayed by a couple years, said Greg Gonda, ZelTech's general manager.

"There's significant research and time involved and the students are so well at doing those things," Gonda said, and because the company's own staff is so busy with the day-to-day management of its operations, the firm decided to work with the students.

The group meets once a week with the student consultants to review progress and go over a task list.

"It's treated just like a formal business consulting engagement," Gonda said.

The students, he said, have been "top-notch." They bring enthusiasm to the project – and "their exciting attitude is contagious," Gonda said.

"They really want to do a good job, and learn about the process," he said.

"It's a very collaborative consulting arrangement," said the class instructor Kurtz, who also was a banker and a business consultant.

Kurtz has taught the class for about 10 years. He looks for clients with projects that students could tackle in a three-month period.

"The client also needs to have a full commitment to this," he said. That means engaging regularly with the students. The teams are encouraged to meet on a weekly basis with their clients. And at the end of the semester, they will make presentations to their clients.

Over the years, class teams have worked with local nonprofit organizations, small startup businesses and more established businesses on conducting market research and proposing marketing strategies, developing accounting systems or dealing with other finance issues. This semester teams also are looking at developing social media marketing strategies for local businesses and search engine site optimization.

Because the students mostly work with small businesses, there tend to be financial and personnel constraints the consultants must be aware of, making it important for students to offer realistic solutions to a company's problem, Kurtz said.

"If they offer a solution that is not doable, they haven't helped the client at all," he said.

"The goal of our consultants and of any consultant is to try to get the client beyond where they expected to be," he said.

Kurtz said students tend to take the elective class to gain consulting experience because they want to be a consultant or are curious about that as a career. And some students take the class because they want to learn about running a small business.

Carroll said she has always envisioned starting her own business one day, and she has found that in helping ZelTech, she's learned that a marketing plan is necessary to grow your own company.

Back in 2001, Daniel Harshbarger was a nontraditional undergraduate business student after having worked and owned businesses for years. He enrolled in the consulting class to learn what other small business owners were doing.

Fast-forward several years, and he became a client of Kurtz's small-business consulting class when he became owner of the Flower Patch Bed and Breakfast, a business his parents had run for years in Arcola.

"I knew it would be great to have fresh eyes take a look at what's been done and look at how we can build on it," he said.

The B&B had always been operated without a business plan or marketing strategy.

"Before it was, 'Do we want to be open this week or go to Florida?'" he said. Harshbarger expanded the business to purchase another house, the Diamond House B&B, and is now marketing B&B dinners and developing the Flower Patch into a quilting retreat.

"They take a team approach and the class has a complex makeup of people with all special skills – marketing people, accounting people. I think all businesses could benefit from this, from companies in their infancy to a Carle or Target," Harshbarger said.

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