Obtaining an outside opinion can be a major key to success for any small business.
The problem for many small businesses is the costs associated with hiring consultants or outside agencies. Fortunately for small firms looking for help outside out of their company, there are cost-effective alternatives available. A great example of this is the colleges and universities that are everywhere, but they are surprisingly under-utilized.
With thousands of colleges and universities in the United States alone, there is great opportunity for a cost-effective and rewarding opportunity for businesses of any size. By utilizing local colleges and universities a small business can gain access to resources that would otherwise be extremely costly to obtain.
The first step is to identify areas of your business that require help outside of your internal resources. This could be a particular problem plaguing your company or a new project that your company is looking to launch. Your problem could be something you have yet to identify and with some outside eyes looking at the issue a solution can be found.
Once you have a general idea of what issues you would like to correct, it is time to familiarize yourself with colleges and universities in your area. Depending upon your geographic location, there could be one or dozens of colleges and universities within a few hour's drive. The schools you should consider contacting should have a business or economics department. A graduate business program is ideal, but undergraduate students and classes can also be a tremendously useful resource.
It is important to consider what you are offering the college or university in return for their help. While you are receiving free consulting services, the professors and students have the opportunity to work with and learn from real world business issues. This can be very helpful for business students and many professors relish the opportunity to work with local companies and provide their students with a real world prospective on problems facing businesses in the world today.
If you have a particular contact within a school, that is a good place to start. If not, nearly every college or university has a web page with an easy-to-navigate area displaying the school's various departments and their faculty. Try to find the business department and begin by e-mailing or telephoning (both should be provided on the website) professors in various areas. Try not to blanket dozens of professors with the same email. Start with one professor, wait for a response and then try someone else if they are not able to help you with your problem.
When you speak or write to the professor seeking aid, be sure to provide a clear description of what issues you are facing, how you would like to go about correcting them and what you can offer the students in the class.
There are a variety of different ways in which a professor and students can provide aid. It may be that the professor would like to discuss the problem openly with the class. I have also seen classes take field trips to companies seeking help and providing more hands-on assistance.
There may be independent studies available where one or several students may take a semester to work on the particular problem for school credit. This option may be ideal, as you will have a set period of time to work with students on solving your various issues. It's a win-win situation as the students are gaining useful practice and knowledge and you and your company and gaining outside opinions risk free and with minimal costs.
When I suggest utilizing students to assist with problems, many small business owners are skeptical about their lack of experience. It is important to put this stereotype aside and realize that the students will be utilizing resources at their schools, including professors and faculty that are paid huge sums of money for their own consulting projects. It is also important to remember that the costs associated with bringing students and classes into your company is minimal and the results can be tremendous.