ic_excursion Excursion 1

Cases and Examples

While this book relies, wherever possible, on up-to-date research, it also relies extensively on cases and examples. Business cases are a popular and effective way to convey complex ideas quickly and efficiently. Cases provide a narrative that helps make sense of challenging management theories and frameworks. Such examples, however, have specific limitations. What worked at one organization might not work at another; whether due to differences in the organizations or context. The oversimplification inherent to case studies may obscure important elements or issues. There is always the risk of post-hoc rationalization: making sense of something in hindsight is convenient and easy but imposes the filters of the observer out of the original context. That being said, I think the value of cases outweighs the cost, so long as we acknowledge that the choices described in cases are not meant to be applied literally and perfectly to every alternate situation.

Some cases in the book are offered up third-hand, based on desk research. I selected these organizations for one of two reasons. Some of the organizations are so well-known that most readers should be able to apply concepts without further analysis. Others, generally not well-known, demonstrate extremely specific lessons about business models that would be difficult to apply to large, familiar organizations. For these examples, I have generally tried to provide some source material to support my observations or at least to enable inquisitive readers to start their own investigation.

Many examples discussed in the book are companies I know personally. Most, like Return Path and Metalysis, are organizations I studied as part of my academic research career. Some, such as Grappl, were formed by current or former students. For purpose of full disclosure, I will note my relationship the first time each organization is mentioned in the book.

One of the reasons I feel strongly about using cases is because I have extensive entrepreneurial management experience. That includes:

  • Starting, funding, and running companies,
  • Working as an employee at for-profit businesses,
  • Working as an employee at educational and other non-profit organizations,
  • Serving as a consultant-for-hire,
  • Providing pro bono mentoring for entrepreneurs, and
  • Serving in governance roles at for-profit and non-profit organizations.

As much as I love teaching entrepreneurship in the classroom, I am an academic who believes that many aspects of entrepreneurship must be experienced to be fully appreciated. Cases offer a glimpse into that context, which is often more than the theory or frameworks can provide.

Five organizations are explored in more depth. Those are Orbel Health, MRail, Ocere, Power of Youth, and Cellular Logistics. Although the ultimate commercial success of these organizations has not yet been fully determined, I have a strong positive bias towards each of these ventures. I believe, however, that my analysis in the book is objective enough for the purpose of discussing business models.

  • Orbel Health was created by Adam Sutcliffe, a student at Royal College of Art (London) while I was completing my PhD at Imperial College. We met through DesignLondon, a collaboration of Imperial and RCA. I provided formal and informal business advice to Adam while he completed development of his product and sought a viable commercial pathway. At one point, he asked me to take a leadership role in the commercialization effort. I declined because I had committed to my family that I would complete the PhD. I have stayed in contact with him as Orbel has grown.
  • MRail is the brainchild of Professor Shane Farritor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Engineering. I had an active role in developing the commercial business model for MRail, but did not take a formal role at the company. MRail is, technically, Shane’s second university-based venture. His first is a medical robotics company, Virtual Incision Corporation. I was the founding CEO of that venture (originally named Nebraska Surgical Solutions Inc.).
  • Ocere is a UK-based online marketing services business started by Tom Parling in 2008. I met Tom in 2011 when I was asked to evaluate and advise his start-up in my role as a “business expert” for Business Forum Scotland. Since then, I have provided pro bono mentoring to Tom as the company has evolved its business model to keep pace with internet-based business practices.
  • Power of Youth is a not-for-profit venture based in Edinburgh. The Founders, Adam Purvis and Alex Scott-Tonge believe that entrepreneurship has become the driving force behind positive social change. I served on their Board of Advisors from 2011-2014 as they developed an entirely novel business model to help high-growth entrepreneurs “build a better world through business.”
  • Cellular Logistics is a biotech spin-out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. From 2014-2016, I provided pro bono advice to the inventing team of scientists and clinicians as they considered commercialization options. When the venture was formed in 2016, I led the launch effort. At the time of this book’s publication, the company has hired a CEO to lead the entity. I retain both a management and governance role as managing executive and member of the Board of Directors.

The prevalence of examples drawn from organizations based in the United States reflects the my direct experience and knowledge base. I believe that, on the whole, the lessons about business models, including business model innovation and social entrepreneurship, are generally applicable to business contexts similar to North America and Europe. My intuition suggests that most of the lessons are applicable globally, with appropriate accommodations for the cultural and socio-economic contexts in places such as China and Russia.

Every organization has a business model, and every business model can be described, evaluated, and changed.

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