Road trip! Scott Schaefer co-authors new book, “Road Side MBA”

It’s an intriguing premise for a book: Pack three economist buddies into a car for a cross-country road trip to explore how small businesses function in far-flung locales, and extract some lessons valuable to all manner of executives and entrepreneurs in the process.

That’s exactly what Scott Schaefer, a professor of economics and strategy at the David Eccles School of Business, did with a couple of friends—Michael Mazzeo of Northwestern and Paul Oyer from Stanford—when he literally took the wheel and guided the trio to the creation of Roadside MBA: Back Road Lessons for Entrepreneurs, Executives and Small Business Owners, published June 10 by Business Plus.

The book includes visits to all manner of businesses, from a compost company in Montana to a windsock manufacturer in Oklahoma, a doggie daycare in Georgia to a funeral home in Tennessee. In exploring a variety of businesses, the three authors find ample material for discussing the complexities of modern business, and in the process discovering there are several different avenues for business to find “success.”

The idea for the book was inspired by a short side-trip the three friends made to a shoe store while attending an academic conference in New England. Schaefer noted that talking to the people at the small Maine store “made us realize that there are countless compelling and insightful stories to be heard at other local companies.”

Thus inspired, the three economists who spend most of their classroom time teaching MBA candidates about the strategic issues facing large corporations hit the road to find what lessons they could glean from Main Street businesses on America’s blue highways.

Naturally, there was some surprises for the three professors.

“We immediately saw that small businesses can compete effectively with the big boys, and they do so by being smart about what larger firms can and can’t do well,” Schaefer said. “Scale has its advantages, of course—big marketing budgets, global reach, etc.—but it has its disadvantages as well.”

The authors noted that the economic principles they espouse in their classrooms are, as Mazzeo put it, “exactly the same on Main Street as they are in other, bigger markets, but larger firms have blind spots and it is easier to see those principles in action in a Main Street context.” Internal communications and incentivizing lower-level employees to better serve customers are both areas where Wall Street could take a lesson from some of the businesses visited by the professors.

They also gained some valuable lessons on the road that they can take back to the classroom, as well as confirmation that what they teach every day at their respective universities remains valuable.

“The road trips gave us a great opportunity to see that what we talk about in the MBA classroom is going on all over the business world every day,” Schaefer said. “We saw dozens of entrepreneurs making use of strategies involving differentiation, scale economies, barriers to entry, branding and more—in exactly the way we’d coach our MBA students to do.”

Roadside MBA: Back Road Lessons for Entrepreneurs, Executives, and Small Business Owners is available June 10. Visit the team’s website for more information. (photo above, left to right: Mazzeo, Oyer and Schaefer in Tulare, California)

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