Every year, dozens of University of Virginia MBA candidates — many destined to work for consulting firms on Wall Street or in Washington — help businesses in the Charlottesville area with marketing research and advice.
Community Consultants of Darden, an independent, student-run organization at the Darden School of Business, has consulted with area businesses and organizations since 1956. As a nonprofit organization, CCOD offers marketing, operational, strategic evaluation and planning services at a much lower price than a corporate firm would charge.
“Many Darden students want to get involved in the Charlottesville community,” said Lydia Hackert, CCOD’s vice president of marketing for the current school year. “It is easy to get stuck in the ‘UVa bubble,’ but it’s important for us to bridge the gap between the university and local businesses.”
CCOD’s president, Allison Hagaman, said consulting with local businesses is a unique opportunity for students to solidify what they learn from the “case method” of instruction prevalent in Darden courses.
“The real-life implications of our community consulting projects make them that much more meaningful,” Hagaman said.
Each fall, the CCOD leadership team evaluates applications from businesses and other organizations and chooses five to 10 clients to pair with teams of Darden students, most in their first year of MBA studies.
In recent years, CCOD has charged clients a standard fee of $750. Hackert said the organization was still finalizing the fee for this year, adding that CCOD has adjusted the fee for specific companies making a strong case for their financial need.
While most of the program’s clients are based in Charlottesville or Albemarle County, the organization sometimes selects projects for compelling businesses in neighboring counties. Bold Rock Hard Cider and Devils Backbone Brewing Co. in Nelson County both have been served by CCOD.
Once students are sorted into teams, they spend the remainder of the fall semester preparing for the projects, and participate in training sessions led by major consulting firms. The teams officially begin working on their projects in January and present their recommendations to their clients in April.
Last school year, Hagaman’s consulting team consulted with Rockbridge Guitar Co. co-founder Brian Calhoun, who invented the board game Chickapig.
Calhoun said he asked the Darden consultants to conduct market research to inform his long-term strategy for Chickapig while he focused on finalizing new manufacturing and fulfillment partnerships.
Hagaman and her team closely analyzed the business strategies of other board game companies and surveyed 250 frequent board game players to learn about their purchasing decisions.
“Our research confirmed some hunches that Brian had, but wasn’t totally sure about,” Hagaman said. “We just gave him the data he needed to go forward with his decisions.”
Chickapig has developed somewhat of a cult following in Charlottesville through grassroots marketing efforts and word of mouth. Hagaman’s team found that most Chickapig customers were already familiar with the game before purchasing it.
“If you want to get to the next level, you have to get to customers who have never heard of you,” Calhoun said.
The Darden consultants recommended changing the packaging for Chickapig from its original burlap bag to a more traditional cardboard box, believing that bright colors and informational text would attract more customers.
The consultants’ survey also found that a significant portion of respondents considered Chickapig to be out of their price range. Calhoun lowered the price of the game this spring, and said he saw sales on Amazon spike almost immediately.
Calhoun said Chickapig fans can expect to see the new boxes — and another price cut — by the end of 2017.
“The research [CCOD] did was really valuable,” Calhoun said. “We can’t fully take advantage of it now, but it will be helpful to go back and look at this as Chickapig continues to grow.”
Calhoun said CCOD charged a reasonable fee for its work. He said making clients pay for the services likely made the students take their projects more seriously than if they were done for free.
“It’s like how at Rockbridge Guitar Co. we still make famous artists buy our guitars,” he said. “If we gave them a guitar for free, they wouldn’t think about it on the same plane.”
The market research for Chickapig was recognized by last year’s CCOD leadership team as the program’s best project of the year. The previous year, the award went to a team that worked with Hot Yoga Charlottesville.
Lizzie Clark, owner of Hot Yoga, said she was impressed by the Darden team’s quantitative skills and understanding of business operations. However, she said she found its recommendations for local marketing strategies to be less helpful.
“That might be difficult for a Darden student who has only lived here for a couple years,” she said. “It’s more challenging for them to get information about this particular market. But overall, [consult-ing with CCOD] was a really positive experience.”
Clark said insights from online surveys administered by the CCOD team led her to make several immediate changes to her business. She said a new four-class pass proved to be a good option for customers seeking a cheaper route than drop-in classes, but not yet ready to commit to the previous minimum of a 10-class pass.
Clark said the Darden consultants made extremely specific recommendations for adding small amenities to match the offerings of similar studios; she said she has stocked her locker rooms with Q-Tips ever since.
Clark said CCOD also calculated reasonable valuations for her business if she were to sell it to a private equity firm or an individual buyer.
“I wanted a fresh pair of eyes to look at a business I had been staring in the face for a long time,” said Clark, who opened the yoga studio in 2004. “For an affordable rate, the Darden consultants could do something I didn’t have time to do: step back and look at what was working, and what wasn’t.”
The deadline for local businesses and organizations to apply for consideration by Community Consultants of Darden this year is Sept. 30. More information can be found at CCODatdarden.org.