Affordable. Accessible. Adaptable.
Powerful. Practical. Prestigious.
These qualities make any product sell — the kind that can transform how we think, work, and live. In the early 20th century, the automobile fit this description by re-defining what was possible. People enjoyed the freedom to pursue their dreams beyond their hometowns. Interstate highways were built and industries like petroleum and plastics thrived. In the later part of the century, personal computers became a must-have in homes. They provided a platform to create and connect as much as educate and entertain. PCs ushered in the digital age — and we can thank Microsoft for much of it.
That’s because Microsoft made PCs mainstream. Under Bill Gates’ leadership, the firm drove down size and cost and increased scope and sophistication. More than that, Microsoft re-framed its solution to appeal to a weekend novelist as much as a weary accountant. And the operating system, however maddening at first, served as the blueprint for others to follow. In the process, Microsoft’s decisions produced the ultimate case study for MBAs to dissect.
“SELL THE FUTURE”
Vineetha Athrey, a second year MBA at Duke University’s Fuqua School, has closely studied Microsoft. She harkens back to the early 1980s — “when even research universities had, maybe, two computers.” For her, the genius of Microsoft — and Bill Gates, in particular — involves not just imagining a different world, but successfully selling that vision to the whole world.
“The way he did it is, to me, a great lesson in vision,” she tells P&Q. “We see businesses sometimes struggle to respond to even clear demands from the market. Here was a guy and a company that did not just create a product, but built up a whole ecosystem – market, infrastructure, demand, buyers, users, even influenced regulations where none had existed before! What it taught me very early on is this: Do not sell features, sell the future. It shaped my thinking as an entrepreneur and I believe it can be valuable for others too!”
Angela Masciale has first-hand experience with the company that she admires most. After all, the Texas McCombs second-year spent 4 years at Deloitte, rising from business analyst to consultant in the process. It was a company, she says, that shaped the professional whom she ultimately became.
“I learned the value of being on the ground but also appreciating and maintaining a bird’s eye view. I can create stunning visuals, or keep them simple. I know how to project manage to avoid potential hiccups and project manage while in the midst of a fire drill. I conquered the power of listening to shift client morale and successfully change a ‘no’ to a ‘yes’.”
DOING IT DIFFERENTLY…AND BETTER
The best part of Deloitte, she adds, is how employees are treated after they leave the firm. The decision to leave, Masciale admits, was painfully difficult. However, she doesn’t feel like she was relegated to being an outside after leaving for business school.
“I am thankful for my time at Deloitte and will always cherish the way they supported me and my decisions,” Masciale explains. “Deloitte knows how to treat their employees. Even though I’m no longer there, I am not referred to as an “ex-employee” but rather, a colleague for life. While small, this distinction encourages a life-long connection and respect between the company and its employees, something I think all businesses can adopt and use for success.”
Of course, some MBAs look beyond blue chippers like Google and McKinsey when it comes to their favorite companies. Zanze’s Cheesecake is a case in point. A San Francisco favorite for over 40 years, Zanze’s Cheesecake isn’t your traditional bakery. Open just four days a week, Zanze’s specializes in cheesecake, producing no more than 50 a day according to the London Business School’s Sijia Hao. In other words, Zanze’s has resisted the temptation to sell in bulk or expand into areas that might dilute its reputation. In response to COVID, Zanze’s Cheesecake even pivoted to wholesale last summer, proving its model could endure disruptive times.
“From Zanze’s example, students can learn that if you focus on doing one thing, with the goal of being excellent at your craft, success will follow,” Hao observes. “Also, be conscious of the possible tradeoffs of expansion – from increased time input, to decreased product quality. Zanze’s could expand production, even by just one day per week, and make more money. Perhaps the owner prefers to allocate time and energy to pursue other interests beyond the business. Sometimes, there’s greater value to be derived from balance and restraint.”
There’s also value inherent to purpose, innovation, and empowerment. Those are just a couple of cultural staples that differentiate the best companies. Last year, P&Q asked selected members of the 2022 MBA Class to share the companies they respect most. From Pixar to PayPal, here are some of the companies who have influenced the next generation of business leaders the most.
“I have great admiration and appreciation for disruptive companies, particularly those that challenge industries rooted in tradition reluctant to change. Any firm that faces an established industry and is able to completely alter the way it operates fascinates me. In 1999, PayPal set out with a goal, to disrupt the banking industry by connecting point-to-point transactions at scale for the first time. E-commerce was brought to those around the world with an internet connection, a PC, and a bank account. Those individuals previously unable to transact on a global scale, were now able to interact in the buying and selling of goods from the comfort of their own home.
Thousands of companies have since spawned from this simple yet well executed idea. Companies like Amazon, eBay, and others would not be possible without the founding principles of PayPal. The ability to connect people and provide a secure, yet convenient method of payment has shaped the way billions do business. The most significant learning I take away from this is not that your idea has to be revolutionary, rather that your execution and impact should be. Systematically influencing the way people live for the better, while creating opportunity along the way, is the hallmark of any disruptor and what I think entrepreneurial-minded business students should strive to launch.”
John Olsoni, Indiana University (Kelley)
“This might sound clichéd as I know it’s a classic MBA case study, but my favourite company is Patagonia. One of my favourite books is Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia. He talks about Patagonia’s ongoing process of integrating truly sustainable practices throughout every single aspect of their business model – from the arduous process of developing organic cotton supply chains to creating a marketplace for used Patagonia products. The company is completely radical, but also highly successful.
I think what other business students can learn from Patagonia is the idea of market transformation, and making change happen – rather than waiting for change to happen. Patagonia did not have a fear of how prioritizing sustainability would hurt their bottom line – they understood the urgency of sustainability issues within their business and made it work.”
Christine Livet, London Business School
“I worked for Unilever ever since I graduated from university and would have to say my experience would be hard to top. There, I was shaped to become a strategic purpose-driven leader. Through the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, I saw how a development agenda can be incorporated into a business’ strategy and learned to make tough trade-offs to drive both sustainable business growth and societal change. This was truly valuable to me, as I always wanted to utilize my career as a springboard to make an impact in the lives of others. Moreover, I appreciated how the leaders would always put people first before making any major decisions, and extended help to employees when it was needed – something incredibly vital now that we are all facing the economic impact of the corona virus pandemic. It has been very fulfilling to work for a company with values aligned to my own.”
Michelle Marie Miranda Cua, IESE Business School
“My favorite company is probably the Volkswagen Auto Group. The products VAG produces across their plethora of brands from SEAT to Bentley are a masterclass in efficient, modular design and manufacturing processes, while also delivering differentiated and strong value propositions. Business students can particularly learn from Volkswagen’s reparation and product strategy in the wake of “Dieselgate”. While many consumers were turned off to their diesel cars (which were offered at low prices with extremely long warranties), VAG continued to deliver high quality gasoline cars with industry-leading technology warranties, allowing them maintain and even improve their brands’ power.”
Andrew Wen, University of Washington (Foster)
“My favorite company is Ellevest, a financial advising platform created by Sallie Krawcheck to help women achieve their financial goals. One reason I admire Ellevest is its focus on helping its clients invest in companies with business practices that are beneficial to women. In 2019, the company created Intentional Impact portfolios to help its Private Wealth clients invest in companies whose business practices promote women. In order to accomplish this, Ellevest created a set of criteria to review companies in different areas that have been known to impact women disproportionately. This year, Ellevest has added new criteria to account for racial biases and has promised to continue to look for ways to combat racial and social injustices. I admire Ellevest and its ability to react quickly and make necessary changes to its business model based on the current environment. Business students can learn that businesses can create positive changes in the community through a good business model from Ellevest.”
Athena Ebinger, Cornell University (Johnson)
“Google. Really, Alphabet. While some companies tend to only think about what lies directly in front of them, and strive for incremental improvements to drive incremental growth, Google thinks bigger than that and invests in moonshot technology. There is something to be said and admired about the gusto and the courage that Google tackles its new ventures: internet search, autonomous driving, artificial intelligence, and even anti-aging technology. Obviously, Google has more capital available than the average company, but I think the lesson is the same: Think big, then execute.”
Cory Weeks, Carnegie Mellon University (Tepper)
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