15 Nov 2016

Field Course Helps Nascent Entrepreneurs Connect with Customers

Re: Catherine Lefkowitz (MBA 2016); Thomas Eisenmann; Frank Cespedes; Mark Roberge


Frank Cespedes
(photo by Neal Hamburg)

Frank Cespedes (photo by Neal Hamburg)

“Every entrepreneur is selling all the time—to customers, investors, employees, and strategic partners,” observes Thomas Eisenmann, the Howard H. Stevenson Professor of Business Administration and cocreator of Entrepreneurial Sales and Marketing (ESM), a field course that debuted in spring 2016. “To a greater degree than in established firms, marketing and selling in entrepreneurial ventures are linked to product development and strategy decisions that can make or break early-stage companies,” he notes.

More than 200 second-year MBA students signed up for ESM’s 60 available seats. “Student demand, as well as feedback from alumni entrepreneurs, identified a critical skill gap in this area,” says Eisenmann, who developed the course with HBS colleagues Frank Cespedes and Mark Roberge, both of whom are experts and authors of books on sales and marketing.

As a field course, ESM pairs students with organizations for work that gives them hands-on skills and incorporates the use of analytical tools. “It’s project-driven,” explains Cespedes. “Students work in teams, sometimes on their own startups and sometimes with existing early-stage ventures in Boston and elsewhere.” Weekly classroom sessions feature cases, peer-to-peer feedback on teams’ progress, and skill-building workshops led by outside experts.

Katie Lefkowitz (MBA 2016), cofounder of lundí, a young company that produces fashionable, technology-enabled heated winter boots for women, says the course helped her venture gain traction with customers at a very early stage. “The course was very tactical,” Lefkowitz explains. “My team worked on a Kickstarter campaign that assisted us in attracting those critical first orders that prove demand.”

Cespedes says the students in the course learn to deal with the reality that “selling is always more about the buyer than it is about the seller.” Recalling his own experience as a young entrepreneur, Roberge elaborates: “Like a lot of MBAs 15 years ago, I had the naïve perception that top startups simply have the best products. Today’s young entrepreneurs realize that success requires customer connection right at the outset.”

In the course’s beta version rollout, Cespedes, Roberge, and Eisenmann carefully tracked students’ learning through weekly questionnaires. That immediate feedback helped drive a decision to offer two sessions of a more traditional, case-based ESM course in fall 2016 to provide fundamentals in preparation for the field-based course. “The startup dilemmas students will debate during case discussions in the classroom this fall will deepen the insights they’ll bring to their project-based work in the spring,” says Eisenmann.


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