Every startup founder or small business owner has experienced it; as your company grows, so does the amount of work needed to satisfy customers. 

Whether that means packing and shipping off new orders, writing software updates, or spending more time on the phone with important clients, the daily grind of growing a company is inevitable. And in those growth stages, sometimes big picture thinking and strategic vision can get lost in the shuffle. Weekly brainstorm sessions are cancelled and discussions about investing in other areas are put on the back burner. 
That’s where UNC-Chapel Hill business professor Patrick Vernon and his Entrepreneurial Consulting class come in. Every semester, a few local startups and small businesses enlist the help of Vernon’s undergraduate students in helping craft a long-term growth strategy for their company. 
Now in its seventh year, the premise of the class is simple: Let students act as “consultants” for growing companies by learning all about the company and its history, completing customer surveys and industry research, and considering creative, efficient options for the class “client” to expand his or her business. It’s all free for the business—six of them, all local startups, will work with the students this spring. 

A former musician and UNC graduate who spent several years as the leader of a California based-band called The Zookeepers, Vernon eventually returned to UNC to get his MBA and later stepped into a professor’s role. He says that he treats the class like a startup itself, constantly tinkering and changing small aspects of the program. Throughout the process, he tries to foster an entrepreneurial spirit in his students, many of whom he says will be stepping into jobs at prestigious management consulting firms upon graduation. 
Vernon says that the class attracts a handful of students who simply see “consulting” in the class name and sign up, but that it’s the startup-minded students who get the most out of the experience, and ultimately come up with the most valuable insights for the class’ clients. 
“You really have to want to help your client and really be into your project,” he notes, adding that business owners often come away inspired by their work with the student groups, feeding off the energy that the students exhibit throughout the semester. 
Along with feeding off that youthful exuberance, Neal reiterated that once the semester ends, having a dedicated growth team is an invaluable resource, students or not. 
“Those working groups gave me solid information to use, and that’s all that matters.” 
Startups and small businesses are welcome to apply to Vernon before each semester. Visit the class website to learn more about the application process and see a full list of past class projects (also listed at top).