UST’s Small Business Institute develops ideas while developing student’s skills
While he was growing up, John Hobday’s grandmother, Therese, was a highly capable, vibrant caretaker in his family, helping to look after Hobday and his sister and getting the family together to celebrate big events and holidays. But one day in 2000, when Hobday was visiting her, Therese said she wanted to ask her sister-in-law, Pat, a question. “I offered to call her and I asked my grandmother for Pat’s phone number,” Hobday said. “She couldn’t remember it even though she’d called that number three times a day for 50 years.” Hobday immediately arranged for Therese to be assessed by a doctor, who asked her questions such as, “Who’s the president of the United States?” Hobday was surprised the doctor would ask her such easy questions and then shocked when his grandmother said the current president was John F. Kennedy.
As surreal as this experience was for Hobday, he was uniquely qualified to help his grandmother and his family deal with her diagnosis and make decisions for her care. Not only had he completed dementia care training programs with both the Minneapolis Department of Veterans Affairs and the University of Minnesota School of Nursing and Department of Family Practice Physicians, but also, in 1997 he started Healthcare Interactive (HCI), a company with the mission of helping professionals and families care for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. For the first time, he found himself applying his knowledge and expertise in a very personal way. “All of a sudden, the projects I was working on were not just projects,” Hobday said. “They were programs to help families just like mine with problems like we were experiencing with my grandmother.”
HCI, now a leading provider of training programs for caregivers of those suffering memory loss, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, works to help both professionals in the field and families caring for loved ones through DVD and CD-ROM training. However, over the years, family caregivers remained difficult to reach, and Hobday, knowing that primary caregivers often suffer from depression, physical health decline and a negative impact on their careers, remained determined to reach them. “When someone begins to decline from some form of memory loss, it often throws their family into months or even years of chaos,” Hobday said. “These family members need to learn more about dementia, caregiving and strategies to reduce stress but, at the same time, they are in the middle of what may be their most stressful life experience to date.”
The answer came in the form of advanced technology. As smart phones, tablets and mobile apps became more commonplace, Hobday saw a potential answer to the problem of reaching nonprofessional caregivers through a mobile app. He developed Alzheimer’s Tips, an app designed for caregivers who are trying to decide how to react and make decisions when caught in difficult situations.
“Our app offers up to one hour of free video advice from nationally recognized dementia experts that can be accessed anywhere,” he said. “Our hope is that it will be able to offer a new level of help to families and also impact the social good.” Then a new challenge appeared on the horizon. Because HCI is a small, education-based company, it was limited in both budget and expertise when it marketed the new app. Hobday turned to the Small Business Institute (SBI) at the University of St. Thomas for help.
SBI, part of a professional association of small business educators and researchers, partners with colleges and universities throughout the world to involve students in practical consulting projects for small-to-medium businesses and nonprofit organizations. The SBI program at UST, which focuses specifically on marketing consultations, has been led by Jamal Al-Khatib, Ph.D., since 2003. Each semester, Al-Khatib is charged with matching clients with teams of three to four undergraduate seniors who, under the supervision of well-trained faculty, will spend a semester solving a business-specific marketing challenge. The program, which currently helps between 50 and 60 clients each year, benefits businesses and nonprofits that may need help with challenges such as introducing a new product to the marketplace, clearly defining market segmentation or heading off declining sales. Students develop a plan that can be implemented by the client, bringing together the concepts they’ve learned throughout their studies and applying them to real-world situations.
“This is a situation in which everyone wins,” Al-Khatib said. “Not only the clients, who get the help they need, but the students, because it gives them the chance to learn by doing.”
While Al-Khatib does some recruiting for the program, the bulk of the clients come to SBI through word-of-mouth. The program also sees a great deal of repeat business – having received help for one challenge, businesses are eager to work with another team of students to address more issues.
SBI has three instructors, including Al-Khatib, working with up to 30 clients. Instructors help students move their projects along, supervise their work and oversee revisions of a final plan that needs to be top quality and fulfill the client’s objectives. “The work is highly rewarding,” Al-Khatib said. “Twelve cases, or clients, can be like 12 classes. Each one is customized, so it’s a lot of work, but it is interesting work that is good for the community and speaks to the service part of the university’s mission.”
Elizabeth Reed ’14 was part of the team assigned to work with HCI. She said the biggest challenge they faced was getting up to speed on industry knowledge and what’s currently available to family caregivers. “None of us have been in the shoes of an Alzheimer’s caregiver,” Reed said. “So we had to step back and recognize their needs and understand what they go through.” In addition to doing research, the group conducted a focus group of current caregivers, which proved to be an eye-opening experience. “The lack of resources people have when dealing with this disease is astounding,” she said.”
Payton Burger ’14, another team member, added, “The disease is overwhelming for the person suffering from it and for those caring for them, but caregivers have nowhere to turn to for support or guidance. Because of this, we found that the marketplace was relatively untapped and offered numerous opportunities for HCI’s mobile app to succeed.”
The team, which also included Cole Aden and Hilary Cotter, became highly invested in the project and determining how to best reach those who would most benefit from the app, which was the first of its kind in the marketplace. They met virtually with HCI each week to gather feedback on their plan as it took shape. “One of the biggest challenges we faced was setting a pricing strategy for the app,” Burger said. “We wanted to recommend a price that would allow HCI to generate a profit, while remaining affordable enough to attract our target audience.”
Al-Khatib, who served as the team’s adviser, guided the students through qualitative research. “The data we used is customer-defined,” Al-Khatib said. “This is not just what we think, this is based on what the needs of the target market. We needed to know who was most likely to use this app and some of our preconceived notions were challenged. For example, age and technology is not an issue – the average family caregiver is 45 years old and they are using all the technology available to them – smart phones, tablets, apps and social media.”
After a semester of work, the students submitted a final plan to HCI. “The students did an excellent job of creating a top-notch plan that’s within budget,” Hobday said. “When I first saw it, I thought, ‘This could have been produced by any major marketing research firm in the country.’” Hobday said his company is working to fund the highly practical plan fully, implementing it over the next two years. Further validation of the team’s work came in February, when their marketing plan for HCI took first place in the SBI National Project of the Year Competition. Their project was named top project in the Specialized Category, which includes specialized consulting analyses focusing in-depth on a specific area, such as marketing or accounting. When asked what she thought differentiated her team’s work,
Burger commented on the team’s success: “I think the collaboration among our entire team – from the involvement of Professor Al-Khatib and John Hobday to the commitment of the group members – allowed us to develop a cohesive plan that incorporated innovative yet realistic marketing tactics that set us apart from the others,” she said.
After graduating in 2014, the students from the team are working in their first professional positions, where they have the opportunity to apply what they learned. Burger, a segment marketing specialist for Convey Compliance Systems, said, “Ideas can really develop into something more when you have a solid team,” she said. But beyond the skills they took into the workplace, what means more is what they accomplished for family caregivers searching for answers.
“The best part of this project is that we helped bring a solution for caregivers to the marketplace,” said Reed, an account coordinator for News America Marketing. “Just knowing that we utilized all of our knowledge to create not only a feasible marketing plan, but a beneficial and rewarding one, is beyond meaningful.”
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