On a mid-October Thursday morning, 27 Butler University MBA students direct all of their attention to Nick Carter, owner of Market Wagon—an Indianapolis-based online farmer’s market he created to connect local farmers and artisans with customers who want their products. The students are eager to learn about Carter’s scrappy startup, and for the next hour and change, they pepper him with questions.
They ask about space (Market Wagon plans to move to a bigger location by the end of the year), company management (he’s building the team; he’s a self-taught developer), where marketing money is spent (80 percent to Facebook, 19 percent Google ad words; 1 percent local blog advertising), who the typical customer is (a 34- to 54-year-old female with kids), and more.
The students are here for their Business Practicum class, a 2½-day, hands-on course designed to immerse them in the local food movement—one of the economic hubs that drives business development in Indianapolis—and put what they’ve been learning in the classroom to practical use.
They’ve been divided into teams of four or five, and each group has been assigned to one of the six businesses they’ll visit as part of what they jokingly call “a two-day fieldtrip.” Their assignment: recommend solutions for an issue each company faces.
For Market Wagon, the question is whether to become more like a conventional grocery store or move into others cities and replicate the niche the business now has in four Indiana locations (Indianapolis, Evansville, La Porte, Fort Wayne) and one that serves Dayton/Cincinnati, Ohio.
After the group has an opportunity to question Carter, the team will come up with recommendations and present them to the class on the final day of the course. The businesses also will receive a paper outlining the students’ suggestions. (For Market Wagon, the students recommended sticking with the niche market.)
“The class is a great way to apply some of the skills we’ve acquired through the curriculum so far at Butler and apply them to real-world business challenges,” says student Stephen Lindley, 27, whose full-time job is with the commercial real estate development firm Strategic Capital Partners. “You feel connected to the Indianapolis community and local businesses, and you get hands-on experience you don’t get in the classroom.”
“It’s definitely a different way of learning than I’m used to,” agrees classmate Bryden Basaran, 27, a software engineer for Midcontinent Independent System Operator, a not-for-profit organization that ensures delivery of electricity across all or parts of 15 U.S. states and one Canadian province. “I’ve always been the kind of person who’s like, ‘Give me the book, I’ll read it and learn it.’ That’s not something you can do for this course. I’ve had quite a lot of fun over the last two days.”
Adjunct Professor Mike Simmons developed the Business Practicum course a few years ago. His initial idea was to focus on a specific industry. The first year was sports. The second, craft beer. But in the third year, he found the right focus with local food, which gives the students a look at producers, distributors, retailers, and other means of pushing the product out to the public.
Food has been the focus ever since.
“They’re getting a macro and micro view,” Simmons says. “They can see an individual company but then they can also see how it all fits together.”
The fall version of the Business Practicum (it’s also offered in spring) started on the evening of October 10 with a panel discussion featuring representatives from the individual companies. The next day, the students boarded a bus that took them to Market Wagon, Public Greens (a farm-market-inspired urban cafeteria and microfarm that donates all profits and crops to feeding kids), and Fitness Farm (which offers event space; education and exercise programs on nutrition, fitness, and agriculture; a fully sustainable market garden for farm-to-table sales; and a seasonal on-site produce stand).
Friday, they did it again, with visits to Mad Farmers Collective (a group of three farmers growing on two urban farms in downtown Indianapolis), Oca (a beer-friendly sausage and sandwich counter), and Tulip Tree Creamery (a cheesery).
At Oca, Corrie Cook Quinn, who calls herself the Narration and Libation Manager,” tells them about the history of the business. That is, how Goose the Market, which opened in Indianapolis more than 10 years ago as a modern-day version of a neighborhood butcher shop, led to the Smoking Goose, which is now 7 years old and has smoked meats distributed in 46 states, which spun off Oca, an elevated version of pub food.
The issue Oca faces in its Carmel location is visibility amid all the construction going on around it. Quinn wanted to know how Oca can build its business there while also boosting the reputations of Oca and the Smoking Goose. (The students recommended improved signage, offering samples, educating consumers about the quality of the products, and other solutions.)
Tulip Tree Creamery was facing a more immediate quandary—whether to open a retail space inside the Bottleworks District, a redeveloped Coca-Cola bottling plant in downtown Indianapolis. Tulip Tree co-founders Fons Smits and Laura Davenport tell the students that they want to keep their operation as lean as possible, but they wonder if a retail space would help them expand their brand. (The team split on its recommendation and offered Tulip Tree some options to decrease its risks while boosting its sales.)
“There were some very well thought out answers,” Simmons says.
Ashley Butler, 31, who is a nurse, is also studying osteopathic medicine at Marian University in Indianapolis while working on her MBA. Butler says classes like Business Practicum are the reason she decided on Butler for her MBA.
“The hands-on experience and the people—the caliber of the individuals I thought I was going to be in class with—are what sold the program for me,” she says. “It wasn’t just a bunch of case learning, where you talk about and hypothesize over what this would look like. We’ve gotten to go out into the community, meet with business leaders, and network within the community.”
And that can be as useful for the businesses as it is for the students. Market Wagon’s Carter says the time he spent with the students “was well worth my hour.”
“Because I learn from them too,” he says. “The questions that they ask, I shoot back an answer to them, but it may be an answer I just thought of because I hadn’t even thought of that question before. So it’s really good to hear MBA students. What they’re asking me is always teaching me what I should be concerned about in my business.”