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Founder of MoreMarbles

Interview by Kevin Ohashi of Ohashi Media


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Andrew Allen is the Founder of MoreMarbles.  Andrew spent several years consulting for KPMG and Opportunity Fund.  He completed his MBA at the Thunderbird School of Global Management.  While studying for his MBA he realized how much he loved consulting for real businesses while at school.  The value it added to his education experience was substantial.  Andrew also noticed that there didn’t seem to be any formal or scalable process to enable more student consulting opportunities for students and clients.  Enter MoreMarbles.

MoreMarbles connects businesses and non-profits with students.  Businesses and non-profits go through MoreMarbles and post a project and submit it to the universities that are participating.  Then the universities have professor + student teams work on the problem submitted for a fraction of the cost.  The students get real-world experience.  The businesses get access to the top students.  The universities improve the student’s experiences and education.  Everybody wins.

What makes MoreMarbles different from traditional internships?

Andrew Allen:
The projects we conduct are with course-based, professor-guided student consulting teams.  The students carry out the project as part of a course they’re taking (i.e. capstone or senior project course).  They’re graded based on the quality of their work.  They check in regularly with the professor, who gives them ideas and pointers.  They also check in regularly with the client.

It’s important to note the difference because people may confuse this with either hiring interns, or hiring part-time students, which is not a part of the MoreMarbles platform or model.  We feel our model provides much more value for the clients than an intern or part-time student because:

  • Students work in teams, creating synergy – leading to better ideas and better analysis
  • Professors bring their consulting and industry experience into the project, whereas an intern or freelance student can’t leverage that expertise
  • Quality of the project is increased because there is a grade attached
  • Clients are more assured that the project will be completed because projects begin and end with the semester and students have to turn in a presentation and final report to pass the class
  • Clients are giving students better educational and learning opportunities
  • Projects cost less than hiring an intern or part-time student, yet provide better value and quality

Founded by Andrew Allen

You just officially launched in July.  You worked with a few universities this past semester to complete a few projects.  Can you talk about a couple projects that went through MoreMarbles and what have you learned about the process?  What worked well?  What didn’t work?

Andrew Allen:
Sure. Because this is a new model – connecting businesses and nonprofits with course-based student & professor teams – we felt it would be important to conduct a pilot to see what worked and what didn’t.  Our pilot included three universities and eight companies.  Projects ranged from conducting market research to creating a social media strategy to writing a business plan.  I’ll tell you about two of the projects: One client, a nationally-recognized home-builder, wanted to collect information about first-time home-buyers.  We connected the client with a marketing professor and his class from Utah State University.  The professor was a full-time market research consultant and taught in the evenings, so he brought a lot of industry experience, plus survey tools and resources that were crucial to the project.  The team of students conducted a focus group, carried out online surveys and performed their own independent research. In the end, they were able to create a good picture of the targeted customer segment, highlighting preferences and trends among these home-buyers and providing information that the client could use to better attract these potential customers.  Another client, a successful dentist, wanted to turn his one-building practice into a business franchise, so that he could expand his model and grow the business.  We connected him with a MBA team from Westminster.  The professor, a long-time consultant offered key advice and direction to the team.  The team used university resources to conduct the research and put together a business plan the client could use to create a franchise with his practice.  The client was so happy with the final product that he has enlisted MoreMarbles’ help with two more project ideas he’s working on.

From our pilot, we learned that crucial to the success of the project was a very clear, specific and realistic project scope that was mutually understood between the client and the project team.  We also learned that regular communication between the team and the client helped the client feel better about the work being done and gave them the opportunity to re-direct the team when necessary.  During our pilot, we worked with course-based teams and independent teams (i.e. students did the project outside of a course).  In general, we found that our model of working with course-based, professor-guided teams ensured higher quality, better supervision and extra accountability – factors which lead to a better end-product and a happier client.

What role does MoreMarbles play in this interaction between the three parties?  Do you go beyond just matchmaking by helping facilitate and quality control the work?  What are your companies’ limitations in this exchange?  Do you screen universities/students at all?  What about businesses?

Entrepreneur Andrew Allen

Andrew Allen:
Our core service right now is to be the match-maker.  Professors kept telling us that they spent too much time just finding enough and the right kind of clients for each new semester’s projects.  Not only do we provide schools with a large pool of potential clients, our online platform helps schools find clients with the right type of needs; needs that the professor and his or her students can meet.

We do offer other services, beyond match-making. As I mentioned, key to the success of the project is having a well-defined and realistic project scope.  Many clients know they need help, but aren’t sure exactly how to define or describe their needs in a project scope.  Other clients may post a project on the site, but upon further discussion with MoreMarbles, discover that they had other needs that were more important.   MoreMarbles helps clients identify their needs, prioritize them and then package these needs in a well-defined project scope.  This process may take 30 minutes, or it may take a few hours.  MoreMarbles offers this service for free.

We are careful about who posts projects and creates profiles on our site – on both the school side and the business & nonprofit side.  If a project is posted from what looks like an illegitimate company or source, we will contact the organization and if necessary, remove the project post.  Likewise, we only work with schools and teams who will create value for their clients.  We take time to talk with each school and team to understand their process, oversight and previous experience in project consulting.  We feel very confident in all of our university consulting teams on the site right now.

Quality control during the project is also important for us.  We have a 5-star rating system (much like you see on Amazon.com and other online retailers) that helps clients choose which school they want to work with.  MoreMarbles conducts two surveys with each project, once in the middle of the project and again at the end.  Feedback from the survey helps us create a rating for each school and team which is visible to businesses and nonprofits.  This kind of competition and visibility gives clients a better idea of what they’ll get from their future project team.

Quality is also built into our model because students carry out these projects within a course they are taking.  The professor oversees each project and students are graded on the quality of their work.  The professor and the school’s reputations are on the line and students are implicitly motivated to perform at a high level.  Because these projects create networking and potential career opportunities for students as well, it’s in their best interest to “wow” their client.

The MoreMarbles platform allows businesses to browse school profiles and choose the one they want to work with.  Schools can also choose their clients.  In the end, because this is an open marketplace, parties are responsible for who they choose to work with.  However, MoreMarbles’ services and model makes for a better experience for all parties, and we strive to make the experience positive and valuable for everyone we work with.

MoreMarbles seems to focus exclusively on business students consulting for businesses.  Do you plan on expanding that into other areas of the education system (ie. computer science)?

Andrew Allen:
We’ve heard too many times that entrepreneurs and new ventures fail because they spread themselves too thin and focus on too many things at once.  We’ve started with business schools because the university consulting model was already common at these schools and because the projects are highly practical for businesses (such as creating a marketing strategy or writing a business plan).  As our marketplace continues to grow, we do plan to expand into other schools, such as engineering, design and computer science, to name a few.

You worked at one of the big consulting firms for a while.  What types of situations would you rather have students doing a project than a big consulting company?  When would a company like KPMG be necessary?

Andrew Allen:
Small businesses, entrepreneurs and most nonprofits simply can’t afford to hire a company like KPMG or other large consulting firms.  Even smaller consulting firms may be too expensive for these organizations.  Organizations usually end up delaying their projects until later, or find their own in-house solutions.  A university consulting project is ideal for these organizations, which need help with creating a marketing strategy, building their presence online, writing a business plan, analyzing operations or evaluating their impact.  Student projects are not only affordable (starting as low as $500 for a 100-hour project), but the projects these organizations need help with are small-enough in scope that a student team can deliver a great end-product.

Large corporations may also prefer a university consulting team for certain reasons, such as: (1) they want to establish a relationship with the university and use the projects as a talent pipeline, (2) students can often get in doors that a professional consultant cannot, such as in the case of a competitor analysis project; and (3) the company needs help with a one-off project and does not want to pay the fees a large consulting firm would charge.

Large corporations will turn to a company like KPMG when: (1) their problem affects a large portion of their company and needs a lot of resources to fix; (2) the company wants to associate themselves with a reputable name in the industry; or (3) the consulting firm has a specific expertise that the corporation wants to leverage.

You worked at Opportunity Fund, a micro-lender in the Bay Area.  What lessons did you learn about micro loans?  Do you think they are effective at pulling people out of poverty?

Andrew Allen:
I’m a supporter of microfinance and micro-lending.  I’ve seen first-hand its positive impact on entrepreneurs and business owners. These loans are often the only source of capital that low-income or disadvantaged business owners have to start or expand their business.  If you visit the Opportunity Fund website today (www.opportunityfund.org), you’ll find statistics showing that their loans lead to increased sales, new jobs and increased tax revenue which goes into state and local funds.  However, micro-loans are not a “silver bullet” to solving poverty.  Speaking of the microfinance industry in general, too often, the much-needed capital is provided to business owners who may not have the expertise in all the areas of their business to be successful.  For example, the borrower may be passionate and hard-working but lacks the skills to attract new customers.  This is an area where MoreMarbles excels.  Through our projects, we give business owners the research, strategy and critical thinking skills needed to help their businesses grow.

What are the limitations of micro lending programs?  Do they promote ‘innovative’ startups?  Can you tell us the most interesting/successful person you worked with coming out of this program?

Andrew Allen:
I think the largest limitation to microfinance was the one I just mentioned – providing capital without the needed business management training.  But I do think that microfinance promotes innovation.  One of the most gratifying parts of my job at Opportunity Fund was to meet with each new business owner and borrower.  Along with seeing their passion for their work, it was interesting to see the variety in the types of businesses these clients had started.  One memorable client had started a dog mannequin business.  The client sold these dog mannequins to retailers like Macy’s.  Dogs came in all shapes and sizes and could be dressed for all occasions!

Bonus Question: Does MoreMarbles have some special significance I am unfamiliar with?  Why did you choose the name?

Andrew Allen:
The name MoreMarbles is synonymous to “more brainpower”.   The fact is, there are 18 million graduate and undergraduate students in the US.  For some reason, there are very few effective ways for the academic and business communities to collaborate in promoting real-world learning while creating economic value.  MoreMarbles makes it possible for businesses and nonprofits to tap into the ideas, the research, and the brainpower of millions of students and professors. In doing so, businesses win. Universities win. Students win. Couldn’t we all use some MoreMarbles?

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