My MBA Interview with Accepted.com [Kellogg, MMM]

MBA/MMM Interview with Kellogg Student: Using Empathy to SucceedRecently, I was interviewed by Accepted.com for its series of MBA Student Interviews. I just saw that it was posted today!

You can see the original article at: http://blog.accepted.com/2014/12/12/mbammm-interview-with-kellogg-student-using-empathy-to-succeed/ or the text below. Many thanks to the team at Accepted for the honor.

This interview is the latest in an Accepted.com blog series featuring interviews with current MBA students, offering readers a behind-the-scenes look at top MBA programs. And now for a chat with Michael Nguyen, a student at Northwestern Kellogg’s joint MBA/Masters in Design Innovation program.

Accepted: We’d like to get to know you! Where are you from? Where and what did you study as an undergrad? Where are you currently studying?

Michael: I was born and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was unfortunately a mediocre student at Cal (UC Berkeley) because I spent a lot of my time playing video games. Thus, even though I started in Computer Science and really enjoyed it, I eventually changed to Comparative Literature (which is actually really difficult – I did not know this when I switched) after a couple of years. However, the time spent in both majors has helped me immensely throughout my career.

I am currently at Kellogg (Northwestern) in its newly revamped MMM program, which is a dual-degree MBA and Masters of Science in Design Innovation program run in conjunction with the McCormick School of Engineering and Segal Design Institute.

Accepted: Can you tell us more about your joint degree? What does “Design Innovation” mean? What do you plan on doing with your degrees?

Michael: The MMM program ends at the same time as the normal Kellogg two year MBA program but now starts one quarter early, in the summer. Though this does come with additional cost, this also means you get to enjoy the summer in Chicago! Another great benefit is that you will become very close with your MMM program mates, the other 59 students (the program is limited to 60 per year).

I personally define Design Innovation as an end-user empathy lens for looking at the world, but one that is not just relevant to developing products. If you manage a team, you need to be able to put yourself in team members’ shoes before you can create a rally point. If you are trying to sell a product, you need to know what your target customer is thinking – who they are, why they do what they do. It’s not that someone is just “stupid” or one of “those people” you can generalize. Everyone is unique and design thinking helps you use those lessons in your career.

From my time working in Southeast Asia, I used empathy in order to succeed at creating compelling products for different types of people as well as to win trust and motivate teams despite cultural and language barriers.

After the program, I am looking to return to smaller tech startups or perhaps start my own. However, the range of careers that others in the MMM program are seeking is very broad. Many are looking to enter into consulting, with more top firms now embracing design innovation, but there are also students looking to go into finance, consumer packaged goods (CPG), and technology.

Like the MBA, I think the Design Innovation degree is a toolset you can adapt for any career trajectory. Simply, the Innovation is the change you make in an existing product, process, or organization; the Design is the user-driven approach.

Accepted: It looks like you’ve got an interesting work history! Can you talk about a few of your most recent projects?

Michael: Previous to Kellogg, my professional background for the last decade has been in Business Operations at multiple startups. My first work experience was helping RedOctane become acquired for the Guitar Hero game franchise by Activision. I ran its e-commerce operations, including shipping logistics and customer service.

I then spent 7 years in Vietnam, becoming COO of the first social networking service there, Cyworld Vietnam, a 70 person startup funded by SK Telecom and IDG Ventures Vietnam. During my time in Vietnam, I worked closely with partners such as Nokia, LG, and Yamaha as well as local mobile carrier giants such as Viettel within the restrictions of one of the rare capitalist-socialist governments in the world.

During this time, I co-founded the most popular Vietnamese microblogging service, Mimo.vn, in 2010, helping it grow to 2 million users. Before I left Vietnam, I also worked on another side project which became a dating app called FriendsPlus. It was sold pre-launch to the largest dating service in Vietnam, Noi.vn, and the technology and service concept was integrated into Noi.vn as a whole.

In general, I have a deep interest in how different types of people connect with and add meaning to each other’s lives.

Accepted: What is your favorite thing about Kellogg so far?

Michael: When you are in a good class (happens more often than not thankfully), you can compare it to seeing a brilliant performer, whether that be musical, athletic, or theatrical. In many ways, that’s exactly what it is – a professor with a tremendous academic and real work pedigree who is educating you about different aspects of business. Because of this, I actually like to sit in the front to get the best view. After all, I am paying over $60,000 a year for this show!

What most surprised is me how every class links to each other. In a business setting, that wouldn’t be surprising because well, that’s business. If you run a company, you cannot just be a product guy with no understanding of finance and vice versa. But in this class format, you will see each class bring in aspects of the entire MBA education. Thus, if you are taking Finance, you are not asked to just do math. You are asked to think about what firm and market strategies change the math in the real world and how you sell that story to someone else (your boss, management, investors, etc.).

I feel that in every class, you are not challenged to solve the problem but to create and then sell the story so it can be implemented in a company.

Accepted: If you could change one thing about the program, what would it be?

Michael: In the busy lives of the MBA students here (classes, groupwork, recruiting, competitions), it’s not easy to make deep connections with others in the student body. I think this problem likely exists at many schools, so despite Kellogg’s reputation as a great school to make friends and be around team-focused individuals, no school can create the perfect social setting for everyone.

Thus, if you are an international student or more of an introvert, Kellogg’s emphasis on big social group events may be uncomfortable at times. CIM week can feel like a rehash of your undergrad years where the majority of students solidify their social groups within the first few weeks and do not go outside their comfort zones to befriend people that may be unlike them.

It is something that Kellogg is aware of and looking for initiatives to help address the issue. In fact, a friend and I are working on a mobile product that we hope will help with this and we are looking to get the Kellogg administration’s support for it as well.

Accepted: Looking back at the MBA application process, what would you say was your greatest challenge? How would you advise others who may also be facing that challenge?

Michael: I actually decided to apply to MBA programs two months before Round 1’s began, and I also wanted to make sure I applied for Round 1. This meant I needed to prepare for the GMAT and every other part of the application in a very short amount of time – an MBA was something I had not seriously considered for the previous five years. Fortunately, things worked out, and I got into a great school.

However, others should not follow this route. An MBA program is a very serious time and financial commitment, one that is essentially your last chance to use an academic setting to create a long term impact on how people view you professionally. Do spend the time (at least 1 year in advance) to prepare your applications properly to maximize your chance into getting the program that’s best for you. Beyond that, also use that time to get a proper understanding of which schools you can actually get into.

I am not a big believer in backup schools. If you there is a school you absolutely want to go to, and your background is a good fit for that school, spend the most time on that school. Even if that means working an extra year to improve your professional accomplishments, I say do it!

Accepted: Do you have any other admissions tips for our readers?

Michael: Although we are asked to pretend we know what we want to do after our MBA, few people really do. Because of this, don’t be worried if you really will follow-up on everything you talk about in the application. What’s most important is to think about what you would want to do right now and think through how going to a particular school is well suited to help with those specific goals. I think schools like Kellogg are not judging your ambitions but your ability to construct plans and build towards them.

For Kellogg MMM specifically, it’s a great program that is not getting a lot of publicity right now, likely due to the recent curriculum change. However, I recommend (to everyone) to look at it more closely and talk to people in the program (like myself). Many people I’ve met at Kellogg regret not applying for it because they had misconceptions about the program or thought it wouldn’t be relevant to their career. Once they better understood how the program works, however, they realized its applications were much more broad than the words “Design Innovation” may initially suggest.

How Long Should I Wait in Line for “What the LeBron”? [Economics]

imageI was listening to this NPR podcast on the fashion sneaker economy and I got interested in the people who wait 12, 24, or even over 36 hours to purchase and then resell the shoe. Is it really worth it?

I absolutely believe in time is money, in the sense that any time you waste should be considered at a labor rate. This isn’t much different from waiting in line for a new Xbox or Sony Playstation console either. In November 2001, my friend Mike and I slept overnight outside Best Buy and Walmart in a Milpitas shopping cart in hopes of getting an Xbox. We did, but at the time we were both students who had nothing better to do and also made about $8.00 an hour in our part time jobs. We also only waited about eight hours or so – even though people were waiting in line at Best Buy, no one actually went to Walmart and we got our Xboxes easily that morning.

Now that I am an adult, the economics are different. Let’s answer two questions:

1) How much is it worth for me to pay in premium rather than wait in line for the new Nike Lebrons or Jordans that are released?

2) If I look to resell the shoes, how much do I need to profit to make it worthwhile to wait in line (versus taking care of my children or just flat out working another job?)

First Scenario:

$20 an hour, $800 a week ($40,000 per year)

(Assuming 40 hours of work; let’s avoid taxes and benefits reductions for simplicity. As a side note, the average salary in the US is $1000 per week.)

The chart below shows, based on how much the shoe originally cost ($250 before tax), your expected returns and salary based on waiting (this dismisses transportation, shipping costs, etc. This also doesn’t account for the times you may actually lose out on the shoe – yikes!)

If you are looking to buy and you make at least $20 an hour at your job, it is worth it for you to buy a $250 shoe at any of the prices listed in green. For example, if you think you would need to wait a full 24 hours in line to secure the shoe, you should be willing to pay up to $700 for the new Lebron rather than wait in line. If you purchase the shoe for $700, you are paying someone else $18.75/hr to wait in line for you, which is less than your own salary.

If you are thinking, but I have to pay someone, well, think of it as outsourcing your work. How much would you pay someone to do your job? If you make $20 an hour, but you can outsource it to Bob for $18.75, you can make $1.25 an hour from doing nothing. This is an arbitrage, free money off the ground.

If you are looking to sell, the cells in red show your hourly wage rate from waiting in line.

At $20.00 (white highlighted cell), you are indifferent (waiting 5 hours to sell (or buy) the shoe at $350).

imageSecond Scenario:

$25 an hour, $1,000 a week ($50,000 per year, roughly the average pay across the nation)

imageThird Scenario:

$30 an hour, $1,200 a week ($60,000 per year)

imageFor the last scenario, let’s say you do pretty well and make the magical $100,000 a year mark. Because you make a pretty darn good salary (congratulations, by the way!) I expect that you should have an intelligent approach to your time.

Final Scenario:

$50 an hour, $2,000 a week ($100,000 per year)

imageAs you can imagine, the more you make, the harder it is for you to really profit from waiting in line if you want to resell the sneaker, but it’s also more valuable for you to not wait inline if you just want it for yourself. If I had to wait more than 2 days for a shoe and I made the average US salary, it is economically worthwhile for me to pay $1,000 for a $250 shoe on eBay or NikeTalk rather than wait in line. In the podcast, they mentioned how resellers talk about the shoes like a stock, but there is one big difference. The transaction cost for purchasing/selling a stock is minimal. I can make a trade on eTrade for $20 at any time, it’s automatic. You can set it and resell it anytime (no waiting in line as with shoes) you need based on defined amounts, there are no extra fees in terms of storage (you need to keep shoes and boxes in great condition, collectors are picky).

If you make $100,000 a year, you are better off going to work rather than waiting in line longer than one night. Do some research on Campless, for example and find the right timing to make an offer on the shoe you want.

You may argue otherwise, which is fine, but ultimately you should define to yourself how much your time is worth before blindly waiting in line for shoes, video game consoles, or the new iPhone. Especially if you are an adult, with real bills to pay.

How I Would Tackle Black Friday if I Worked at a Big Box Retailer [Business / Marketing]

imageIt used to be that Black Friday started on Friday after Thanksgiving. This year, we started on Thanksgiving itself, with Best Buy opening at 5PM.

My question: is all this really necessary? This is like an arms race, with competitors challenged to see who can open the festivities earlier. If that’s case, perhaps retailers will begin to ask “Why close on Thanksgiving at all?” in future years.

If I were a retailer looking to tackle the competition on Black Friday, I would ask the following questions:

1) Many families travel during the Thanksgiving holiday – if I live in Chicago and then fly to San Francisco to spend the holiday with my family, am I likely to go shopping and bring all that stuff (“oooh, 60 inch 1080P HDTV for $699!” back with me? In not, current Black Friday sales are excluding this substantial customer base.

2) You are probably familiar with the concept of a loss leader – selling a high profile (see TV above) item at below cost in order to attract crowds and associated purchasing – I don’t just buy the TV but since I am at Walmart I might as well buy video cables, and all this other stuff I was planning to buy. On Black Friday, do these trends continue? Do people buy more, the same, or less than if you created that same loss leader on another day? If people were going to buy that stuff from you anyway, but on another day, have you really gained anything except a loss on the TV? If people don’t actually buy the video cables from you, or buy it on another day, then you’re really in trouble. My mental image of Black Friday is massive crowds. Is this really the time to be slowly looking through the store to see what else you might want to get, or do you just want to get that super-cheap stuff and get out?

3) On Black Friday, does this start the buying season or do more people start earlier or even later? (The biggest shopping day is actually right before Christmas). I actually start buying very early, at least 1 month before Thanksgiving.

4) Do people work harder (weekends, overtime) the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving or these normal work weeks? Are they available to shop?

If I work at Walmart and feel this huge pressure to make sure Americans are using their shopping dollars at my retail locations, I realize this is a zero sum game. The more I sell, the less other stores will get, leading to stronger quarters for me, weaker quarters for them. If I stay in business, those guys…anyway you get the idea. With more retailers offering price matching, even against online retailers like Amazon, retailing is a no-holds-barred dirty war. Retailers don’t care if they lose money on some items, they just want customers to pick them for holiday shopping first.

My solution is to skip Black Friday altogether. Start the bonanza a week earlier, create your own shopping holiday (like that has never happened before?) when everyone is home and can still buy stuff. Then, offer a price-match guarantee on anything that is bought that weekend for the rest of the holiday season. My goal is to take away as much money from the retail market as possible early before the big battles start, preempt everyone else.

The details:

  • Advertise big, just as you would during Thanksgiving. But because you’re doing it when there is less competition, the ads are cheaper and you can get more coverage for the same rates. BLOW IT UP.
  • Price-matching would be returned through gift cards. I do not care what customers buy from me, if I am going to price match in the future, I might as have them buy everything now.
  • Think of price-matching as a mail-in rebate. A significant percentage of people will not bother to get the price match, but you have injected the confidence in customers that no one is going to beat you this holiday season. That means instant (financial) returns for you, the retailer who was going to price match anyway. I’d rather someone buy first from me and then forget to price match (money is worth more today than it is in two weeks) than someone either coming me to price match and buy something or just not bothering to price match and buying at that original retailer.
  • Using customer-matching technology based on past purchasing, I would offer gift-card rewards based (the more you spend, the higher rewards tier you reach, the higher % you get back) on how much was purchased during the special pre-holiday weekend, further encouraging customers to max out their credit cards at my retailer during that holiday weekend, to be given back on December 25th. I want to optimize for the hoarder mentality. I would send the customer a SMS on Christmas morning with how much they got back in gift card credit – who wouldn’t want to wake up to that? I just spent a ton of money on my family, and (instead of regret from guilt) now I am told I get money for loving them.
  • After this pre-Thanksgiving shopping holiday, I would just offer normal deals as you might expect – all I have done is move the craziness from Black Friday to a week earlier.
  • In case shoppers are still procrastinators, I would mail them a catalog with great gift ideas one week before Christmas, and then redo my super duper price-buster price matching weekend (price match + tier rewards) one more time. I clean up at the beginning, before anyone is competing, and at the very end, in the mad desperation. Again, my aim right before Christmas is to suck every dollar from the wallet but leave the customer feeling great about it on Christmas day.
  • (In case you’re wondering who shops on Christmas day itself, a LOT. As a teenager, I worked at Walgreens on Christmas day, and people would wait 30 minutes in line as cashiers rang up $1,000 shopping carts from customers buying anything available before seeing their families)

How fun would it be to take on retailers this way?

The Solution to the Mayweather-Pacquiao Fight

imageFloyd Mayweather may enjoy taunting Manny Pacquiao, but I wonder if he creates all these barriers to a fight because deep down, he does have some doubt and he wants to make sure he gets paid for the risk. Mayweather has come up with all the reasons to not fight, first drugs then (his own) jail time, and throughout all of this he has wanted a significantly higher share of the fight pot than Pacquiao.

I think there’s a simple solution, however: Winner Takes All.

Alright, if that’s too low, how about $1M USD guaranteed for both, and the rest goes to the winner.

If Pacquiao made such an offer in public, could Mayweather refuse? The most lucrative fight ever was last year’s Mayweather vs Canelo fight at nearly $150M USD. This fight would definitely reach that figure, perhaps it could even reach $200M? Imagine if that’s how the fight was marketed, “Mayweather versus Pacquiao for $200 MILLION DOLLARS”. I think a casual fan would be more inclined to watch if that were the messaging.

What if you threw in a knockout bonus? Pacquiao hasn’t knocked anyone out in five years. Mayweather is known for defensive boxing. An extra $10M to the winner, if he wins by knockout. Wouldn’t even more people watch this?

You announce it, do a Showtime special series for both camps in which the boxers, trainers, and wags (wives and girlfriends) all talk trash about the other camp for six straight months and then you do the fight during Christmas weekend 2015. At the same time, invite every famous boxer to pitch in with their thoughts and give them all front row tickets to the match, like a Hall of Fame fight before the lords of boxing (MORTAL KOMBAT!). Build up that hate for six months in the public, get everyone to take sides (doesn’t this sound like a presidential election) and then unleash the knockout bonus.

Wouldn’t you watch this? I would!

10 Things to Learn from Sounders FC: Authentic Masterpiece: The Inside Story Of The Best Franchise Launch In American Sports History (Mike Gastineau)

imageI have been reading catching on the business of soccer lately, reading about Major League Soccer (MLS), the English Premiere League, and other aspects including David Beckham’s time in the United States with the Los Angeles Galaxy. Included in this research has has been Mike Gastineau’s introduction to the Seattle Sounders and its franchise launch. It’s absolutely a good read.

Below are 10 Things to Learn from the book:

1) Fifty-one percent of those eligible voted in the election and the decision to build the stadium passed by less than two percentage points. Mendoza’s response when asked if the vote would have been yes without adding soccer to the mix is doubtless and declarative. “Oh, God no. No way. It doesn’t even come close. If it had not been for the soccer moms and dads this thing would have died.” “It was a squeaker,” Kolde agrees. “We needed soccer. It powered this thing through. We wouldn’t have won it without that. Not at all.”

2) In a thoughtful nod to Seattle’s sports history it was the Sounders who opened the new stadium just as they had opened Seattle’s new Kingdome in 1976 in a legendary match against Pele and the New York Cosmos. On July 28, 2002 the USL A-League Sounders played their rivals the Vancouver Whitecaps. The home team won 4-1 in front of a league-record crowd of 25,515 people. Standing there that night it was easy to envision Seattle quickly making the leap to the big league of American soccer, Major League Soccer.

3) There are a myriad of reasons the NASL and the Sounders didn’t make it. The league was mismanaged and over expanded. Too many of the original owners were infatuated with soccer, but not dedicated to the long-term success of the league. In Seattle the Sounders of 1974 enjoyed little or no competition, but by 1980 the NFL and MLB had arrived, the Sonics had won an NBA championship, and the Washington Huskies had begun a long string of college football success. But Hanauer emphasizes that move from the cozy confines of Memorial Stadium to the Kingdome. Attending a game where empty seats outnumbered tickets sold couldn’t help but undermine the fan experience.

4) Leiweke proposed that Allen would own 25 percent of the team, but instead of putting up money he would provide business infrastructure in the form of the Seahawks marketing, sales, promotion, and media staff, as well as use of the team’s stadium rent-free for home games. Leiweke had convincing to do on both sides. On the one hand he had to convince Allen that his staff and management could handle the extra responsibility of a new soccer team. Allen’s only concern was whether or not his top executives would get distracted from their duties with the Seahawks, but Leiweke assured him that wouldn’t happen. Meanwhile, Leiweke convinced Roth and Hanauer that what they really needed from Allen was the Seahawks organization’s expertise. Roth and Hanauer wouldn’t get any capital in the deal, but they instantly had an office staff trained in how to run a professional sports team.

5) “One of the things I felt all along about MLS and soccer in America was they accepted their role as a secondary sport. So the first thing I felt was that we have to come out like we are a first-tier sport, like we are baseball, basketball, or football. I kept saying that everything we do we’ve got to do first tier. Our enemy was the 50-year-old white male sportswriters who thought of soccer as something their daughters played.”

6) for the primary marketing effort, the entire group felt the “market to the youth soccer organizations” model favored by many MLS teams was simply the incorrect way to go. “I never want to do something because it’s the way it’s always been done,” Hanauer says. “I can’t stand that kind of thinking.” He had studied and liked the way the MLS expansion team in Toronto had integrated into the community by marketing to soccer fans. “Toronto illustrated to us that this business didn’t need to be and shouldn’t be built on the backs of the youth soccer market,” Hanauer says. “In the history of MLS prior to that it had always been built on youth soccer, but trying to get people to come to a game after they spent eight hours at tournaments on a Saturday was a difficult sell.” So while soccer moms, dads, and kids would be enthusiastically welcomed, they would not be the focus of the new team’s marketing effort.

7) the final piece to connect the new soccer team to the Seahawks culture. Phones would now be answered “thank you for calling the Seattle Seahawks AND Sounders FC.” Business cards were updated to include the Sounders logo. Email addresses were changed to @seahawkssoundersfc.com. A small detail at first glance, that decision went a long way towards establishing the Sounders credibility. They would not be an afterthought. They would be a part of an already established and successful organization. The regular meetings on the team began expanding to include more than just executives, which allowed workers to begin to feel ownership of the new team. “What they (Leiweke and Wright) did from day one,” Hanauer says, “was position this thing within the Seahawks business offices as something new and exciting. Something you not only could be proud of, but that was also was good for your career. They treated it like a top-level professional team.”

8) Along the way to their leap from the USL into MLS the Sounders were smart enough to recognize a huge community of people who didn’t just play soccer on weekends or watch their kids play. The team embraced people who lived the sport, built their days around it, and made plans to be at their favorite pub to watch their favorite team, no matter the time. Leiweke felt too many MLS teams in the past had discounted the existence of such a market in their communities, but he knew it existed in Seattle from first-hand experience, and it was those fans who become primary targets of the Sounders’ original marketing efforts. “Those trips to The George and Dragon served as the inspiration for the core fan base we were going to build around. It was the epicenter.”

9) The Sounders didn’t just hit on the idea of selling the team to the pub crowd; they’ve cultivated the relationship over the years. Their website has a list of MLS Pubs in Seattle and players, coaches, and management make regular appearances to visit with fans. Bayliss says his customers are always pleasantly surprised at how accessible the Sounders are at these appearances: “They are happy to sit down and chat with anybody.”

10) It would be a fun twist if the narrative at this point became Keller teaming up with the USL Sounders to make the jump into MLS and challenge for a championship. It would also be unrealistic. To be sure, there would be some USL guys who made the jump, but to be as good as they wanted to be — immediately — Schmid knew the Sounders would have to succeed in four areas of player acquisition. “You’ve got to find someone in the draft,” he says. “You’ve got to make sure you find someone in the expansion draft. You’ve got to do well with your foreign signings, and you’ve got to discover some guys. If you hit it in three of those areas you’ll be pretty good. Hit in two and you’re 50-50. Hit all four and you’ve got a chance for the playoffs right away. I think we hit all four.”

10a) Swedish native and long time Arsenal star Freddie Ljungberg had been signed in October as the Sounders’ designated player. It was a move that made soccer fans in Seattle (and at least one guy still coaching in Columbus) sit up and take notice. “He was huge for the franchise from name recognition,” Schmid says. “He brought more credibility to the Sounders right away. His signing and Kasey’s signing made people think ‘these guys are serious with what they’re trying to do.’ It was a statement signing.”

10b) Maybe they should. Carey’s passion for the fan vote on the status of the general manager is not just some gimmick to attract attention. By the time he met Roth, he had thought through the plan thoroughly and realized that by empowering the fans they would be building in uncommon loyalty. “It’s great because the fans are invested in the team no matter what happens good or bad. If we ever have a bad streak the fans aren’t going to turn their back. They’re going to rise up and do something about it. People are never going to go ‘Fuck this I’m not going to the games anymore.’ That’s what you don’t want. I think the vote thing will keep that from happening. Fans will say ‘We have to rally together and get rid of this GM and save the team.’ That’s what they’ll do.”