The Roadside MBA: A book review by Bob Morris

Roadside MBAThe Roadside MBA: Real-world Lessons for Entrepreneurs, Start-ups and Small Businesses
Michael Mazzeo, Paul Oyer, and Scott Schaefer
BusinessPlus/Hatchette Book Group (2014)

“When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then.” William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways

Many authors of business books invoke an extended metaphor, “the journey,” and that is what Michael Mazzeo, Paul Oyer, and Scott Schaefer do in this book. In fact, I think their approach three-dimensional: what they characterize as the physical “voyage” of discovery, their cognitive voyage of discovery, and the voyage of discovery that each reader experiences while reading this book. Actually, they describe and discuss six voyages:

1. Memphis to Omaha
2. Denver to Oklahoma City
3. Charlotte to Atlanta
4. Missoula to Portland, OR)
5. Chicago to Cincinnati
6. Atlanta to New Orleans

As they explain, “Planning a Roadside MBA trip is a group activity. We confer four or five months in advance to find a week when we’re all free of various obligations. Then we negotiate over a good route, with each of us making proposals until a consensus winner emerges [and] we decided early on to stay (mostly) out of the big cities. So a good proposal involves two airports with four small cities or big towns in between.”

What was their strategic objective? In their words, to “peek” into the workings of as many small business establishments as possible, in as many different geographic locations as possible. Why? To explore their hunch that “the strategic challenges that small businesses face are just as rich and compelling as anything being discussed inside Six Sigma redoubts like General Electric.” With regard to strategic questions, here is the first of Mazzeo’s ten laws:

“The answer to every strategic question is ‘It depends.’
Corollary 1: The trick is knowing what it depends on.
Corollary 2: If the answer to a question isn’t ‘It depends,’ then it’s not a strategic question.
Corollary 3: Strategy is never a solved problem.”

Now you know.

These are among the dozens of business initiatives of special interest and value to me just in the first three chapters, suggesting some do’s and don’ts to keep in mind. They are also listed to indicate the scope of Mazzeo, Oyer, and Schaeffer’s coverage.

o Braces by Burris (Arkansas) expands by centralizing common activities to lower costs (Page 3-7)
o Steel Runner Products (North Carolina) ensures hat revenue opportunity exceeds fixed costs (8-12)
o Silk Expresso (Alaska) expands only when resources can be shared (12-17)
o Mugshots Grill and Bar (Mississippi) seizes growth opportunities that can be monitored remotely (17-22)
o Mazzeo’s Law: What selling a business profitably depends on (23)
o Wilcoxson’s Kids Place (Arkansas) became the first because its market isn’t large enough for two (28-31)
o Key Fire Hose (Alabama) goes all-in with irreversible investments (31-36)
o Prodew Inc. (Georgia) leverages scale to hit an unmatchable price point (36-41)
o CollegeFrog (Florida) demonstrates “Don’t use Facebook, BE Facebook” (41-46)
o Mazzeo’s Law: What barriers to entry depend on (47)
o Fit Time for Women (Kentucky) found its customers by identifying their critical needs (51-56)
o Bank of Montana (Montana) attracts profitable clients; alienates costly ones (56-61)
o Community 1st Bank (Idaho) avoids competition by offering unique services (61-66)
o TiLite (Washington) balances the benefits of customization with the costs (67-72)
o Mazzeo’s Law: Successful Product Differentiation: What It Depends On (72-73)

As previously indicated, these mini-case studies are provided in the first three chapters. There are about 40 others I could also have cited. Most of these initiatives (if not all of them) involve an organization you probably never heard of before, and all of these initiatives are in response to challenges that all organizations encounter at one time or another. Note, also, that the three Mazzeo Laws” are strategically inserted. That is, where they are most relevant to the given context and thus of greatest interest and value to the reader within a frame of reference.

What lessons did they learned during their various voyages? “We learned that the small business owners of America are incredibly passionate, hardworking, and intelligent. We saw so much to admire…And we observed that getting strategy right requires constant problem-solving and tireless determination to unpack the ‘it depends’ of good business decision-making. Mazzeo’s Law is why, we think, the profession of management is do difficult, so challenging, but also so much fun.”

To all of those who read this book, in fact to all the owner/CEOs of smaller businesses, I hope that the abundance of valuable material that Michael Mazzeo, Paul Oyer, and Scott Schaefer provide does indeed ensure a bon voyage for them in months and years to come.

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