Why Darden’s Professors Are The Best MBA Teachers On The Planet

Darden Professor Luca Cian often jokingly uses “Mario” and “Luigi” as names for protagonists in case studies. Two MBA students showed up for class dressed like them. Photo by John A. Byrne


Steenburgh plots out likely student questions and scenarios on the blackboard. The HubSpot founders want the company to be to marketing what salesforce.com is to sales. The professors need to ask students for their plan of action to make that happen and explore whether inbound marketing is a viable concept upon which to scale HubSpot. The real core of the case, however, is a strategic decision on whether the founders should more aggressively focus their customer acquisitions efforts on ‘Marketer Marys’ or ‘Owner Ollies.’ The former is a marketing professional in a larger firm, while the latter is a small business owner with little marketing knowhow.

At the time, when the company has just reached a milestone of 1,000 customers, ‘Marys’ made up 27% of the customers, while ‘Ollies’ accounted for the remaining 73%. But it cost HubSpot $5,000 to acquire a ‘Mary,” but only $1,000 to attract an ‘Ollie.” The students would be asked to make the calculations to discover which customer segment was more profitable over the long-term and whether HubSpot’s software-as-a-service (SaaS) pricing model worked for both customer segments.

The discussion revolves around how to best set the stage for the case. Anik suggests having an opening board that gets students to cite the pros and cons of the two customer segments and then delve into a discussion on how companies create and capture value.


UVA Darden marketing professor Luca Cian

UVA Darden marketing professor Luca Cian

Steenburgh has a different point of entry. “I’ll start off telling them that when I wrote the case it was a key time for the company,” he says. “There isn’t a right answer, but I am going to force us to choose a side. Would you choose ‘Mary’ or ‘Ollie?’ Mary wants knowledge. Ollie wants results.”

Steenburgh even goes into a strategy on what kind of student should be the first to speak on the case. “Because it’s the last week of the course, you need to pick someone strong,” he advises.

“But not super strong,” says Anik, worrying that one of the best students could immediately nail the analysis too early during the class. “You could pick someone who hasn’t opened and would like to instead of using a hard cold call.”


If you get an answer that gets you to the case’s key lessons too soon, counsels Steenburgh, cut the student off. “Just say we’re not in the solution phase yet,” he says. Ultimately, the case will require students to calculation the cost of costumer acquisition (COCA) and the customer lifetime value (CLV) in deciding which customer segment to focus on.

“You could get more energy in the discussion by broadening the conversation on CLV to other tech companies and startups,” says Steenburgh. “You can ask if anyone could make an argument for targeting the Ollies, and you can ask if they only had $10,000 to spend, how should they invest it? Should they get two Marys or ten Ollies?”

They then scope out how many minutes should be devoted to each part of the case. Steenburgh suggests a 40 minute opening on the basics of the case, about 20 minutes on the CLV calculations, after which he would show a video of an interview with co-founder Dharmesh Shah and then the final slides that would conclude the case.

Cian disagrees. “The case is exciting but ten minutes of video and slides at the end kills the energy,” he says.

“Well, I would show the slides because they are a home run,” responds Steenburgh.


UVA Darden marketing professor Lalin Anik

The thinking about the case doesn’t end with the meeting. The profs will spend a few more hours that night on the case, with Anik and Cian texting each other over different points. They would speak on the phone at 9:30 p.m, making suggestions on the case’s timing, what extra questions can be posed, on the circularity of the teaching plan. The next morning, at 6:30, Anik retrieves a voice message that Cian left at midnight with a new idea before practicing the case during her morning shower.

At precisely 8 a.m., she is standing before a class of 70 MBA students in a black leather jacket and green trousers. In classroom 130, the students energetically pound the desks in the tiered classroom to start it off.

“Let’s get with it,” shouts Anik. “We are going to help the co-founders of HubSpot decide which segment to grow.”

She calls on a female student, with a steaming coffee on her desk. “I would go with marketing Mary, but I think there are arguments for both sides,” the student says. “Mary is knowledgeable and will get more out of the product. She sees the value and will get the results.”

“Why does that matter?” asks Anik, pacing back and forth across the front of the classroom before aggressively attacking the blackboard with white chalk to elicit from the class the pluses and minuses of each customer segment.

“Can somebody make an argument for Ollie?”

What Students Say About Luca Cian

Comments From Cian’s Student Evaluations
“He did an amazing job of showing his passion for marketing. That passion spread through the class like wild-fire and it is a class everyone looked forward to learning from. He has the ability to explain abstract topics in very tangible ways, mixing together marketing theory with humor to get the point across effectively.”
“I appreciated the energy the instructor brought to every class. No matter the subject matter, he would approach it with the same vigor.”
“Luca created a fun, supportive learning environment where it felt like everyone was encouraged to (and wanted to) participate. I came away from each class session with a really clear sense of what was expected from me and what the teaching team wanted us to learn.”
“So energized. Keeps me awake in class. HE’S FANTASSSSSTIC!!
“He is a fantastic professor who cares that his students learn throughout the course. He solicits feedback actively. He is knowledgeable about the course curriculum. His enthusiasm is infectious.”
“He made us feel like his top priority. He always pushed the conversation in an exciting way. He also made for a really awesome classroom environment, where we felt safe taking risks and voicing our opinion on some fairly controversial topics.”
“Luca managed our class discussions masterfully. It was also wonderful that he asked to meet with each of us individually at the beginning of the quarter to get to know us outside the classroom.”
“Luca met with each and every one of us outside of class to get to know us better and see how he could help us during our time here at Darden. I think that went a long way to build trust with the class which led to more robust classroom conversations.”
“Luca is one of the best professors I have ever had. He was artful directing discussions in the way they needed to go. Somehow contrasting view points would always end up on the board, and we were able to suss out the differences between them. Each class was complex, but the one central idea that each class was structured around made the material approachable.”

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