Learning by Doing

As a bioengineering major, many of the classes I take are lecture-style, and are usually evaluated by a few problem sets and lengthy exams. This blog post isn’t about these classes, but I will say that these types of classes aren’t the ones I’ve appreciated in college. Slaving away to memorize equations and how to use them, random details that I will forget soon thereafter, and trying to beat the grading curve in a class of Ivy League students — it’s discouraging and disheartening to say the least. But I’ll stay positive; this post is about the other type of class — the type where you learn by doing. Because I also happen to be a marketing and entrepreneurship concentration in my business degree, I’ve had the fortune of taking a few of these types of classes as well. This semester, I took two classes that I would say fall into the “learning by doing” category. One was a marketing class, “Consumer Behavior”, and the second a management/entrepreneurship class, “Technological Entrepreneurship”.

Consumer Behavior (MKTG 211)

On the first day of Consumer Behavior, while going through the syllabus, my professor announced that there would be no exams in the class because he believed that you could only truly learn something by actually doing it. Our class was evaluated through a series of labs where we used different statistical tools to perform marketing analyses, as well as a project in which we worked with a real company to solve their real-life marketing problems. This semester, we worked with Neuro, a relatively new functional beverages company – you might not have heard of them, but I guess that’s part of the problem! Neuro actually has a pretty loyal fan base, but it’s very small. That being said, it’s apparent that people like the product when they try it. The problem was with making people aware, and then making them favorable enough to the product to purchase it.

You might be wondering what a functional beverage is. Neuro has six different types of drinks, each with its own “function”: Bliss, Sleep, Sonic, Daily, Passion and Trim. That might sound weird to you – a drink that helps you sleep, or helps you relax, or betters your sex life? That’s the consumer’s problem too – it’s just too much to believe, even with proven science behind each one. Our surveys and interviews with consumers showed the same thing – people are weirded out by a drink that promises to help you relax, even if it the bottle shows you the science behind it. Our group focused on Sonic, the drink that helps you stay awake and concentrate. Sonic contains caffeine, but also L-theanine, an ingredient also in green tea, so the idea is that the caffeine keeps you awake but the L-theanine helps avoid the caffeine crash that a drink like Red Bull or Monster causes. To me, that sounds ideal – for studying, the mornings, maybe even for going out – but it’s still hard to believe, I’d have to TRY it.

This was the idea our group based our strategy on — softening the science behind the drinks and showing the benefits in a more personal way that had lifestyle appeal. We called it “situational segmentation” – segmenting the market based on the situation a drink could be used in, and targeting consumers this way. So if you’re looking at the “studying” situation segment, Neuro should have Sonic sold at dorm cafes, university libraries, etc. We even created a music video to Avici’s “Wake Me Up” (haha, get it?) and placed Sonic in each of the different segments (I would share the video but we didn’t license the music so…). This way, a consumer who hasn’t heard of Neuro knows what Neuro can be used for, instead of just seeing the funky bottle and facts thrown at them.

While group projects can be annoying to do – with six people on a team, finding times to meet and delegating tasks can be a nightmare — I think that this one was definitely valuable. This is the exact work I would be doing if I was working in Neuro’s (or any other company’s) marketing department, and our work was usable — we presented our strategy to Neuro executives as part of our final evaluation. And it felt good that we had used the concepts from the class to come up with something that was usable but also completely our own. It’s not like that biology exam I took is useful to anyone at all; all the information on it is already written in a million different books. The class definitely underlined my interest in marketing, and I know I want it to be part of my career going forward. It also provided a lot of encouragement among some of my other classes! (I’m sure you can guess what kinds of classes those were…)

Technological Entrepreneurship (MGMT 235)

It’s easy to say “I want to start my own company” but extremely hard to know how to do it unless…well, unless you’ve done it before. I think that’s what this class encompasses. The class consisted of a number of guest lectures from successful entrepreneurs sharing their advice, and a project in which we worked with technology founders to write a business plan to commercialize their technology (and of course an amazing professor with a wealth of experience with technology-based ventures). I don’t know how this sounds to you, but I can tell you after writing the business plan, that it is the closest you can come to starting a venture without actually doing it. Our group wrote a business plan for a technology/company developed at Penn’s med school called Pathonomics. The technology was a rapid solution for pathogen detection that had applications in the food safety testing industry as well as the medical/healthcare realm.

Over the first part of the course, we read a number of business plans for technology-based ventures and learned to evaluate them, as well as the ventures they were describing. In a sense, we were being the investors, evaluating parts of ventures that could be improved and whether they would be successful and worth investing in. The second part of the class was where we became the entrepreneurs and wrote our business plan. While were writing a business plan, what we were really doing was building a business on paper — the operational plan, the marketing, the finances, everything. There were so many times we were unsure about certain things (is this actually how big our market is? Is this price appropriate?) and so many assumptions made, but there was no textbook to look it up or anyone to ask, and that’s exactly what it’s like when you’re an entrepreneur. Our final presentation was something of a pitch, or at least positioned to reach investors. Our 70+ page business plan is definitely one of my proudest pieces of work at Penn so far.

Maybe one day I’ll be building a business of my own!


Anyway, I really do think there’s a lot to be said for “learning by doing”. While starting to think about what I’m going to do next summer, I’m often worried about my GPA – what if it’s too low and companies discard me? But then I think: what is my GPA based on? It’s an average of grades that come mostly from classes that are exam-heavy. I know if I was an employer, I’d look at a candidates performance not on exams, but on projects such as the ones I’ve described above, because in what job are you required to solve problems that there are already answers to and regurgitate esoteric facts? On the flip side, most jobs require team work, solving new problems to which there is no single answer, and uncertainty – and that’s what “learning by doing” is all about.

(All just my opinions, of course.) 🙂

A big thanks to Dr. Americus Reed II and Dr. William Hamilton for teaching these amazing classes this semester. 



Marketing: Word-of-Mouth & Influencers

This semester, I am fortunate to be in a couple of business classes that feature accomplished guest speakers who share their insights and experience. My marketing class (Consumer Behavior) has featured speakers from Campbell Soup, Nike, Nielsen and Fizz (a word-of-mouth marketing agency), each sharing their experience in positioning and targeting strategies at their respective companies.

In marketing, we always learn about how “word-of-mouth” is the strongest form of marketing; nothing is as powerful as someone naturally recommending a product to you. When I first heard this stated in my marketing 101 class, I thought of it as a testament to the importance of product; your product has to be so good that people want to share it with others. Everyone has their swear-by products that they have persuaded their friends to use (for me, Twitter, Pinterest, Jaipur Avenue Chai and the Mexicali food truck on Penn’s campus) – but I would probably never have shared those products unless they provided real value to me. I’ve also heard that Sriracha, the popular and now pretty much ubiquitous hot sauce brand, has never put out an advertisement; I’ve always thought of that as a reminder of how good their product is and how much people like it.

However, I heard a little bit of different perspective on “word-of-mouth” marketing from Ted Wright, founder and CEO of Fizz, a marketing agency focused on word-of-mouth marketing. One of the clients he talked about was a Chocolate Milk company who were trying to increase sales in the middle school age range. Fizz did their market research and found that the best way to influence middle school kids was to use high school kids – but how to influence high school kids (a notoriously hormonal, surly crowd)? They started with a research study that showed that chocolate milk was the best post-exercise drink. They decided that they needed to get the sportspeople (read: jocks) to drink milk, and to do this, they had to target coaches – high school football coaches. They went to high school football clinics and recruited NFL alumni to talk about milk to these coaches, and in turn these coaches went to their kids and pushed milk. This became a huge thing – at the end, there was a ton of earned media (ESPN, Men’s Health, etc.) that led to the NFL eventually co-promoting milk.

This made me rethink word-of-mouth, while chocolate milk was undoubtedly a good product, but it had always been. Nothing about that had changed with Fizz’s approach. While I definitely think Fizz’s approach was innovative and of course effective, it definitely wasn’t the same as me trying chocolate milk and saying “this is great!” and sharing that with my friends. I couldn’t help but think of it has “high ROI, authentic PR”, because it doesn’t strike consumers as traditional advertising. Nevertheless, they were still paying those NFL alumni to talk about milk in an applicable setting for the target market. What makes that more effective than mass market, say, TV advertising? It was using an authentic voice (NFL players) to talk to the target market (football coaches) in a setting that was focused (football clinics/conferences). This was where the conversations started; they then proceeded from the coaches to their players, and then players to other players. And that is where the product comes in – I’m sure this campaign wouldn’t be effective unless chocolate milk actually made these players feel re-energized after practice.

So, I think that two things are essential for word-of-mouth marketing: an excellent, value-adding product (this could be enough, and something to get the conversation started in the target audience. I don’t think this always has to be the type of marketing Fizz used is essential for a product to go “viral” – it could be a mass advertising campaign that gets people talking; recent examples in my memory are Virgin Airline’s “Sassy” safety video or Chipotle’s “The Scarecrow” video – those were big budget company-produced campaigns, but they got shared voluminously by consumers. If the virality is enough that it encourages consumers to try the product, this is enough if the product is actually value-adding – because if it is, the consumer will come back and buy it again (ding, Customer Lifetime Value!).

I also think there’s a lot of buzz around “digital word-of-mouth” effects. The company that comes to mind is Klout; a company that measures users’ “social influence” by an algorithm that combines your influence (likes, retweets, etc.) on all of your social networks and calculates a “Klout score”. Companies can then offer “perks” to certain consumers to encourage them to share opinions about the product via their social media. For example, this summer, I was given free tickets to the horror flick The Conjuring; I was encouraged to tweet about the trailer and movie after I had seen it.

While I think Klout’s model makes a lot of sense and could potentially be extremely powerful, I do have some problems with it. First, something Ted (from Fizz) mentioned was that digitally sharing something is much less effective than sharing it in a face-to-face conversation. That’s something I agree with fully: think about it, are you more likely to be influenced by something your friend tweets or shares on Facebook, or something they talk to you about over lunch? Secondly, I think that it comes back to the product – if I hadn’t liked The Conjuring, I wouldn’t have shared anything about it – at least not anything positive. And I would be most likely to appreciate the movie if I was someone who was part of their target market – but was I? How did they determine whether I was – based on my Klout score? I think that it’s great to use socially influential people, but they have to be part of their target market as well, so that the people I was reaching on social media were part of the target market too, and so that I actually appreciated the product! Klout has topics that you can give “+Ks” to people for – to indicate they are an expert on the topic – but I am skeptical as to whether they use these topics to categorize people, seeing as the perks that have been offered to me – ice cream, the movie, and business cards – aren’t really things I especially like or would talk about.

Anyway, as you can tell, I’m studying marketing – so I can go on about it forever! If you made it this far, I hope you enjoyed my thoughts – they are by no means right or wrong – just my reaction to things I’ve learned and heard!

(thanks to Ted Wright of Fizz for getting me thinking – he is an amazing speaker!)

Digital Fashion: the Intersection of Fashion & Technology

With the talk of internships and on-campus recruiting inundating Penn’s campus, I’ve been forced to think about what I want to do this summer, and scarier, the after-college future. I’m studying business and engineering, but I think both of those degrees can be applied in pretty much any field; I certainly don’t feel as if my career path is constrained in any way. While I was thinking of things that I’m passionate about, two areas stuck out to me: fashion and technology. You might be thinking that the two are worlds apart, but in this day and age, I think that pretty much any industry is connected to technology. So, I decided to write this blog post about fashion companies that I think utilize technology well, as well as products that combine fashion and tech in an interesting way.

Pinterest is the company that comes to mind first to me, probably just because I am such a frequent user. Granted, stereotypically, it is associated with recipes, but it is an amazing resource for fashionistas and fashion houses alike. I am constantly pinning looks from blogs and websites, as well as from other Pinterest users and brands that have Pinterest boards of their own. To be honest, I don’t understand why any fashion company today WOULDN’T have a Pinterest…it’s free advertising! Pinterest also has some pretty cool technology behind it; I particularly like that they have some sort of algorithm that matches you to new pins and boards based on what you have already pinned. I recently clicked on an Facebook advertisement (Facebook is really targeting those ads well) and found the website Keep. It reminded me of Pinterest a little bit, but was actually a purchasing platform, so people “keep” (read: “pin”) items that they want to buy, and you keep into different collections. I also enjoy Fancy, also similar to both Keep and Pinterest. You “fancy” items you like and you can be directly linked to the website to purchase it. It’s a little less fashion focused and more gadgets and “cool stuff”.


I recently read an article about mobile fashion apps, and downloaded as many of them as I can (I’m unfortunately stuck on iOS 4 till I get an Android in March…I have very limited app access!) One that I really liked was Cloth (clothapp.com), which is an app that allows you to organize your closet on your phone. You do have to take pictures of all your clothes, but I thought it was a great way of knowing what’s in your closet; if you’re like me, your clothes are all over the place and sometimes you just can’t find that one shirt that goes with the skirt you just pulled out. I haven’t quite started using it, but I think it’s a great concept. Another app I liked was Snapette, which uses GPS to track down boutiques around your location. You can search sales, stores as well as specific items (say, “denim jacket”) to find what is available near you.


There is definitely a trend with stores that are only online: ModCloth and NastyGal are the first ones that come to mind. In case it wasn’t clear, these stores do not have any brick-and-mortar shops, it’s just their website. What that means to me is that they have to create that in-store look and feel solely through their website. I think ModCloth does this well; their site incites a vintage, cute feel that is also evident in their clothes. They also maintain a blog, which adds to a lifestyle sort of element that I think a lot of online retailers are trying to get at: “it’s not just buying ModCloth apparel, it’s living the  ModCloth lifestyle” type of thing.

Another brand I think does the lifestyle thing very well is Free People. Every time I’m in a Free People store, or even on their website, I feel like I’m in some sort of bohemian dream. Like ModCloth, Free People also has a blog (blog.freepeople.com) featuring not only fashion, but DIY ideas, music, and much more. My absolute favorite Kate Spade also does the lifestyle thing well – its slogan “Live Colorfully” symbolizes what the brand stands for. Their blog, “Behind the Curtain”, is also one of my favorites, especially for their featured patterns, music, and celebrity fashion ideas.


I also am warming up to ThreadFlip. I plan to clean up my closet soon, and want to sell a lot of my clothes, and a friend suggested using ThreadFlip instead of dragging clothes to Buffalo Exchange. ThreadFlip is great because you can “heart” clothes that you like and buy clothes (and there are some REALLY nice clothes on there), but also sell your own. Their philosophy is that if you sell to other ThreadFlip users, they will take the same care of your beloved clothes that you have, so you don’t have to feel bad about parting ways with them. I am looking forward to making as much use of it as possible!

I think I could go on forever about things like this but I’ll stop now… there is so much to explore on the internet in terms of fashion! Other things I like that I didn’t specifically mention include IdeeliRent The RunwayAsos, and more. I’m looking forward to discovering more of what “digital fashion” has to offer and how it evolves in the future!