Product management ambition connects Duke Master of Engineering Management Program (MEMP) students with a young tech company’s new product launch.
When a team of five young women from Duke stepped foot in the Henderson, North Carolina office of Propel GPS, they had no idea what to expect. They had been connected with the Virginia-based company, founded by CEO and Duke alumnus Rick Burtner T’79, through the Duke Master of Engineering Management Consulting Practicum Program, led by Professor Joey Holmes (MBA‘03, CEO of management consulting company Acuity Edge) and Industry Mentor Jim Sund (MBA’01, PhD’07, CEO of AccuFlow Imaging).
Their task: help the young tech company launch its new Global Positioning System (GPS) app into the marketplace.
MEMP student Neha Kesari’s entrepreneurial passion for product development and computer science background had tugged her interest in the project.
“Having previously interned in consulting at Deloitte, working with a start-up was a completely new experience,” said Neha. “In some ways, it’s a culture shock. A pleasant one, but still a shock.”
“One of the biggest surprises was the wall painting of an oak tree that greeted us in the conference room. Rick Burtner went on to tell us the story behind it,” said fellow student Margaret Kuleshova, who favored this project for its potential to provide hands-on product marketing experience. “A local high school student had painted it in a matter of hours – quality artwork that could have taken days to complete. The metaphor stood for the growth of the company from an acorn into an oak tree and linked all the contributors together, including past Practicum team members.”
“It’s exciting to be a part of something like this,” said Renee Luo, another member of the student team. She had previously worked on marketing projects and couldn’t wait to apply her prior experience. “But it’s so different. Working with social media and smartphone applications is yet another part of marketing. You’re dealing with people more than the product, but you still can’t forget that your ultimate goal is to encourage sales. So there’s a lot to juggle. How do you appeal to your customer? How do you make them listen to you? What persona are you going to speak through to catch their attention? How do you sound more genuine than pushy? You can’t let one idea dominate your marketing; it has to be an effective mix.”
The new product, Dashboks, is a GPS tracker and smartphone application intended for parents with teen drivers and elderly parents with Alzheimer’s. After the user installs a miniature “black box” in the car they intend to track, information is sent to an app on their phone. E-mail and text alerts are sent when speed thresholds are triggered or virtual areas called geofences are crossed.
“What they’re really doing is trying to create peace of mind and a sense of security,” said Vidya Bulusu (MEMP ’14), the fourth member of the team and the team lead for social media. “It’s a big emotional investment and our job was to help their customers realize it.”
“The company is our client,” added Neha, “and their clients are our clients too. We have to consider all the stakeholders. For a young tech company that’s used to business-to-business sales this is completely new ground. They’re not used to dealing with end users but they have a good idea of who they should target and how, thanks to the Fall Practicum team. Now we’re here to pick up the pieces and get the ball rolling.”
“As innovators and engineers, we first learn how to bring creativity, simplicity, and genius to our designs, but we often don’t stop to think of how the design impacts the customer or how they perceive the value of the product,” said Margaret.
The MEMP team also had a chance to collaborate with Duke Computer Science students Scott Cara and Angelica Schwartz, both advised by Professor Richard Lucic.
“I had plenty of experience working on large software design assignments. When I entered my independent study period working for Propel GPS, I expected a similar experience,” said Scott, a member of the Dashboks software development team. “The speed and demand that came with working for a start-up completely took me aback. From day one, there was always a sense of innovation and excitement.”
“When we met the Propel GPS team we encountered so many different specialists. The people ranged from graphic designers to social media experts and software engineers,” said Zoey Pu, the Youtube consultant in the Duke Practicum team. “It was humbling to be treated as equals and receive feedback on our social media marketing pitch. We got to witness their brainstorming process and pick out which ideas they connected with the most so we could develop our strategy to better suit their needs.”
“For me, working directly with management and other students was a really amazing experience,” says Angelica, another Dasbhoks software developer. “So often in our academic career we focus solely on exams and homework assignments, but working for a start-up was a totally different experience.”
“Working with Propel GPS has shown us the importance of considering customer needs and how the product fits into their personal lives,” said Vidya. “We believe the mindset of an entrepreneur and engineer should comprise both technological savvy and salesmanship in order to succeed.”
“We can’t wait to see the results of the social media campaigns and how our consultation will help improve the Smartphone app experience,” said Zoey. “The best part of it is that, unlike with most consulting projects, we get feedback as we go along. That’s the real learning experience. It’s not about what you deliver in the end but how you respond to current company needs.”
“You don’t often get the opportunity to collaborate with the key people of a revenue-growth company,” said Renee. “We had the right to get creative; they let us shine.”
MEMP's Consulting Practicum Program: By the numbers
- Launched in 2005, the program has offered more than 60 practicums involving more than 300 MEMP students.
- More than 30 corporate partners have sponsored practicums.
- More than one-third of MEMP students take part in a practicum.