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‘It Was a No-Brainer’: Upper Valley Small Businesses, Nonprofits, Get Help From Tuck Students

Sunday, January 18, 2015
Hanover — Carrie Cahill Mulligan had a problem. The Canaan fiber artist has been hand knitting wool felt hats for several years and selling them at crafts fairs around New England. But she wanted to find out if it were possible to take her avocation — last year she made only 75 hats — and turn it into a sustaining business.

Nini Meyer, of Lyme, also was facing a challenge: How to craft and hone a pitch that would land a $1 million contribution from a major corporate sponsor for Positive Tracks, the Hanover organization she founded that helps sports-minded youths double the money they raise when entering charity athletic events.

And Martha Mott, the director of the WorkReadyNH program at River Valley Community College, was in a jam. She administers a successful state program at the Claremont community college that helps students sharpen their workplace “soft skills” to be make them more successful employees, but the classroom is only half full.

Although the issues each of these organizations faced were different — manufacturing, fundraising and marketing — they all took advantage of a common resource: Tuck Student Consulting Services, the student-run business consulting service staffed by students at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business.

Call it McKinsey & Co. on the Connecticut.

And it’s free.

Each year between 20 percent and 40 percent of business school’s first-year students volunteer for the program, which seeks to match their B-school problem-solving prowess with nonprofit and small businesses and entrepreneurs in the Upper Valley looking for help in developing their products or marketing their services.

“We have one of the best business schools in the country a block away from us,” said Meyer of Positive Tracks, whose office is located above the Boloco burrito restaurant on Hanover’s Main Street. “It was a no-brainer to reach out to them.”

Tuck is both a magnet and generator of consultants: About 26 percent of each entering class previously worked in consulting before entering Tuck, and 35 percent of last year’s class opted for careers in the field after graduation. (It pays well, too: a fresh MBA grad in his or her first year at McKinsey, a multinational management consulting firm, gets a signing bonus of $20,000, earns a base salary of $135,000 plus a bonus of $35,000 along with up to $9,000 in relocation expenses, according to Management Consulted, a resource firm for students pursuing consulting careers.)

All Tuck first-year students also are required to participate in a “first-year project” that applies what they learned in their marketing, strategy and micro-management classes to real-world business challenges on behalf of clients in a wide variety of industries, including real estate, sustainable business and health care.

But Tuck Student Consulting is designed specifically to aid mostly Upper Valley nonprofits, small businesses and budding entrepreneurs with sharpening their strategy and finding solutions to specific challenges that they cannot handle themselves. Each team of four to five students is expected to give 40 hours of their time over the course of several months and the present their findings to the “client.”

The process culminates in a “poster session” in Stell Hall at Tuck, a wooden-paneled and raftered room that evokes the dining hall in Harry Potter, where slides from the projects are presented on poster boards reminiscent of a high school science fair.

This year’s clients ranged from the big leagues — helping the Boston 2024 Olympic Bid Team project ticket revenues for the games and what strategies will result in the biggest boost in revenue — to cottage industries, such as how Canaan’s Mulligan can expand her part-time hand-knit hat business into something more profitable. Since brevity is a virtue in business communication, the solutions are presented in series of PowerPoint slides that can be read on laptop or tablet. No printed paper.

For Mott of WorkReadyNH, who wanted to boost awareness of the program in River Valley’s catchment area, the team from Tuck showed her that she really needed to step up her outreach through social media. Until now, Mott had mostly followed a 20th century script: fliers, posters, news releases and the occasional newspaper advertisement. With a $15,000 budget, Mott said, she can’t make much of a marketing splash.

“I told them my dilemma: We have an excellent program, students tell us it’s the best class they’ve ever taken. Yet I don’t have people to fill the (free) program. We can take double what we have now,” Mott said.

Four Tuck students piled into a car and visited Mott at the campus in Claremont and requested a data dump: Demographics of students, employment data, survey results, market statistics. Using the data, the students were able to present Mott with a plan about who she should be targeting and the message that should be conveyed.

The uptake: Emphasize the positive results of the program in the messaging to the primary audience of potential students, as well as area businesses to make them aware of the success stories so they will see the benefit of sending their existing employees in order to improve their “soft skills” and value to the company.

And the way to reach potential students is through social media — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn. Businesses can be enlisted through better outreach to area business organizations and associations — chambers of commerce, professional associations and online forums.

It seems obvious, and it was, but it required the Tuck students’ slide presentation to open Mott’s eyes.

“I knew this about social media, but they convinced me with the metrics,” said Mott.

At Positive Tracks, Meyer, the founder, is getting ready to take the next big step: Making her case to a major U.S. corporation that her organization is worthy to receive a million-dollar donation to expand the nonprofit’s mission of doubling the money raised by youths during athletic charity events. But in order to make that case, she needs to go armed with a PowerPoint presentation that will persuade those writing the checks that the donation will reap returns for the benefactor.

“I had my eyeball on (Tuck Student Consulting) for a couple of years now and had been dreaming to pull in their services,” Meyer said. She wanted the students the build a data-backed case that would “help us go to New Balance and say, ‘We are worth $1 million of your money and here’s why.’ ”

Meyer said she was a bit nervous on the night she had to make her own sales pitch to the students in the hope of winning a team to take her on as a client. “It’s sort of like S hark Tank, ” she said, alluding to the TV show where aspiring entrepreneurs try to sell their business plan to a panel of steely-eyed investors.

Kevin Friedenberg, one of the Tuck students who worked on the Positive Tracks project and worked for a consulting firm before business school, said he was drawn to the project because of the “valuable life lessons” he learned playing lacrosse while growing up in Massachusetts. The Tuck team’s final result was a 15-slide presentation that powerfully communicated the reach of Positive Tracks and the social benefits (and brand awareness) a major corporation would receive by association with it.

“It wasn’t so much providing them with content or data,” Friedenberg said. “They had all that already. But it was very confusing. The point is how could it be framed in a way that was meaningful and that a person on the other side of the table could understand.”

So the Tuck students went to work collecting data on Positive Tracks’ exposure through events and online media, most of which the organization had but little of which was organized or presented in a form easy to grasp. And the numbers are impressive: The organization’s messaging appears in 25 newsletters sent to 100,000 subscribers, the combined spectator audience at events where Positive Tracks youth are participating is 53,340, its YouTube video has been watched 224,933 times, “aggregate” Facebook friends total 1.3 million and aggregate Twitter followers reach 906,204. All of that helps convey Positive Tracks’ message beyond the more 39,000 youths who participated in athletic events on behalf of the organization, which distributed more than $500,000 last year to 12 charities.

The students even identified some big New England corporations that Positive Tracks would be a good fit with, Meyer said, such as New Balance (Boston) and ESPN (Connecticut).

“I was so grateful for the effort the team members put in,” she said.

Mulligan, who began knitting heirloom wool hats when she lived in Alaska as a park ranger to pass the long winter nights, moved with her husband — who grew up in Goffsford, N.H. — to Enfield in 2004. She arrived in New Hampshire with the intention of turning her knitting sideline into a business, and made some headway by selling her hats through the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen and craft fairs. Each hat can take from nine hours to 15 hours to knit and cost from $135 to $250.

“I have this small business that is growing, but business is not really my forte,” said Mulligan, who also works at Dartmouth’s athletic facility as a desk manager — Mulligan is also a passionate ice hockey player and has had the opportunity to play on Dartmouth club team. Her mother, who passed away in 2008, used to help her knit. When Mulligan has had help, either by enlisting friends or relatives, she is able to make about 175 hats a year, but last year she made only 75. Her goal in reaching out to the Tuck students — she learned, ironically, about the program through a friend living in San Francisco who is from Lebanon — was to make her hat enterprise “more than a hobby.”

Mulligan was the second pitch of the night before the Tuck students last fall — one of only three small businesses making quick presentations to win over a team that night. As the days ticked by afterward without hearing back Mulligan said she began to worry. “I thought, ‘Oh no, I’m not good enough,’ ” Mulligan laughed. “A couple days later I learned that I got assigned” a team, she said, “and we met at Starbucks and they picked my brain.”

Vincent Accurso, a Tuck team member who also attended Dartmouth as an undergraduate, said what attracted to him about the project was the “tangible” nature of Mulligan’s product. He said that was one of the things that appealed to him about the real estate business in Chicago, where he worked between college and business school and to which he plans to return after graduating from Tuck.

“I love tangible things from being in real estate,” he said, noting that Tuck Student Consulting also provided a “great opportunity to get to know someone from the community.”

When they met for the first time, Mulligan said, the Tuck students asked her “one of the best questions people ever asked me: ‘How many hats do you want to make a year?’ ” Mulligan paused. “I didn’t know. I had never thought about it.”

What the students quickly realized is that hand knitting wool hats is a labor intensive business in which there are limited opportunities for savings as long as it remains a craft enterprise. For example, Mulligan rules out outsourcing manufacturing to China since that would defeat what it is that makes her hats unique. Still, the students were able to come up with some ideas, such as tapping into a freelance network of knitters, such as seniors in assisted living facilities, who may enjoy knitting and want to earn extra money.

But the students were able to develop an Excel program for Mulligan that can model profits depending different combinations of quantity and price of hats sold. On the low end, at 100 hats — which the students used as the baseline and about what Mulligan is currently producing — the model shows profits of about $6,500. On the high end, at 500 hats, the model shows a profit of about $35,000.

“There’s no scalability,” said Accurso, referring to the business principal that a product’s production cost comes down as the number of products produced rises. “It’s basically what the current income is times five.”

Mulligan will be meeting with the Tuck students this week to learn more about their study of her business.

John Lippman can be reached at 603-727-3219 or

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