How university-run business clinics help SMEs achieve profitable growth

SOURCE: Shutterstock
Dare to take bold steps to grow your business with advice from university experts.

By U2B Staff 

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Businesses should not view disruption as a dirty word. Quite the contrary, it should be seen as an opportunity to innovate and improve current processes, opening up doors to a diverse set of future opportunities.

That said, for small businesses operating on tight budgets and small margins, taking bold, risky steps towards innovation that are predicated on flimsy ‘sink-or-swim’ fallacies would be foolish at best. Financial pressures aside, businesses must also consider the opportunity cost of implementing new ideas and further to that, how this affects bottom lines.

But to survive a fast-paced world, innovation is a must.

In his keynote address at Avalara’s recent annual Crush conference, American futurist, speaker, management consultant and author Geoffrey Moore said: “You don’t have to be first — you just have to keep up with the times. Customers don’t like to change. Be good enough, fast enough.”

He added: “If you’re the disruptee, you need to catch up fast. You need to be willing to make mistakes — you don’t have time to eliminate them.”

Of course, follow-through is pivotal. Businesses daring to take the bold step towards transformation must see their plans through to fruition.

“When you start a transformation, the worst thing you can do is not finish it,” Moore said. “If you don’t (finish), you go through most of the pain, but don’t end up with the reward.”

But whilst knowing what to do is important, even more crucial is the know-how. Fortunately, business owners can outsource their problem-solving…. to universities.


As the public’s “brains trust”, universities are more than centers for teaching and learning – they’re ideas incubators and the source of much of today’s most innovative technology solutions. Lest we forget, some of the world’s most successful tech companies were founded by college kids – Facebook, Microsoft, Google, WordPress, Yahoo, Dropbox… the list goes on.

Today, these companies are not just the forces driving the internet economy, they form the very bedrock of our global society, connecting everyone from individuals to businesses, communities, and governments.

Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Today one of the driving forces of the internet economy, Facebook’s early beginnings started in college. Source: Philippe Lopez/AFP

What is a business clinic?

It is exactly what it sounds like – a clinic that offers business advice to companies in need of them.

In the internet age, competition for survival has become way more cutthroat than it’s ever been. To succeed, businesses must remember they do not operate within a vacuum and therefore need to be both inward and outward-facing in every aspect.

But balancing quality and growth as a small business is no cakewalk, especially when cash flow is a constant struggle and operations still remain wholly dependent on the business owner. It’s no wonder why startup failure rates are said to be ridiculously high, with some reports claiming up to 90 percent of businesses eventually tank, some offering a (slightly) more encouraging rate of 75 percent, and some with even more convincing specifics, ie. that 50 percent fail after five years and over 70 percent after 10.

This is where business clinics can help. Although blame often goes to economic and market conditions, reality suggests that problems in a business often come from within. Among others, common business problems include wrong product/market fit; too much pride to adapt to changing needs; lack of good mentorship; lack of general or domain-specific business knowledge (ie. finance, operations and marketing); lack of focus; taking bad advice; bad fundraising strategy; and lack of motivation and commitment.

Exposing your business’ plans, problems and goals to parties with no prior interest in your company would help generate fresh perspectives on what you may have been doing wrong and ideas for solutions.

Seeking help from a university business clinic/consultancy

Many universities operate business clinics. In the UK, these include notable institutions like the Northumbria, Durham, Lancaster, Loughborough, Bath, Manchester, Leeds Beckett and Portsmouth Universities, to name just a few.  These clinics (or consultancies as they are more often known as) are typically run by the students themselves, under the supervision of their academic supervisors, and are most common in law and business schools.

In law schools, student consultants are commissioned to provide legal aid to small businesses in a supervised setting for matters such as advice on legal options, tax and compliance matters, filling out court forms and legal research. 

Business school consultancies, on the other hand, offer a broader range of advice and can involve both undergraduate and postgraduate business students from across multiple programmes and disciplines. Among others, they could advise businesses in areas like human resources, accounting, strategic operations, brand audits, digital marketing and social media strategies, logistics and IT management, as well as conduct feasibility studies on key strategic decisions or expansion plans, among other things.

Depending on their specialisation areas and range of offerings, the clinics work like any other business consultancy service – except they cost businesses nothing. Yes, that means they give out valuable business advice pro bono.

Why pro bono? It’s a win-win all around, benefiting both the student consultants and businesses they engage with, as well as the university. Students get the work experience they need to develop better commercial awareness, and businesses get to pick the brains of tomorrow’s leaders at no added cost.

How does it work?

Business discussion
The university will usually organise face-to-face discussions between consultants and their clients. Source: Shutterstock

A business simply needs to identify the clinic that best suits their needs and then file an application to the relevant university. Depending on the university, they can do this by filling out an online form or by speaking directly with an operator from the clinic, who will guide them through the process. 

If the business problem is within the clinic’s area of expertise (and this is decided by the university), a team of students will be assigned to the company as its “consultants”. The team then directly engages with the client, usually through meetings and visits to business premises, as well as conduct primary and secondary research on behalf of the client. Once this is done, the students prepare recommendations for the client, which they put together in the form of a report and a presentation. 

The students are guided by their lecturers throughout the process, through workshops, training where necessary and constant feedback and consultation. This ensures the client gets the best possible service from both students and academia.


Who gets to apply?

Any business in need of advice, from SMEs through to multinational organisations, charities, educational trusts/organisations or social enterprises.

And while it makes more sense for the business to be within reasonable physical distance to the university they engage with, there are business clinics that take on international clients and work on cases remotely via video-conferencing.

Northumbria University, for example, has since 2013 serviced numerous international clients through its world-leading Business Clinic, part of the institution’s award-winning Newcastle Business School. Late 2017, the school was “highly commended” by the British Academy of Management Education Awards Panel for its role in bringing students and businesses together to identify and deliver genuine solutions for real-world problems.

In just five years until August last year, more than 850 student consultants at the Northumbria clinic helped 220 organisations in the North East, producing for them consultancy reports with a combined value of over £1.2 million.

The school is now working on developing a digitally-enabled consultancy service that, once tested and proven successful, it hopes will be used by other universities to roll out at scale.


Suffice to say, if your business has a problem that needs solving or you’re concerned about charging ahead with expansion, you don’t need to take a blind leap of faith – tap a student consultancy for expert advice first.