Book Review: Forget Harvard. Road trip to an MBA instead

July 2, 2014, 3:00 PM UTC

Who hasn’t occasionally dreamt of high-tailing it to business school and then riding off into the sunset to start a business and bathe in fountains of money? Thanks to Michael Mazzeo, Paul Oyer, and Scott Schaefer’s Roadside MBA, released June 10 by Business Plus, you can skip the business school price tag and still indulge in your MBA dreams.

Mazzeo, Oyer, and Schaefer are three economics professors who met at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and went on to their separate lives and jobs (Mazzeo to Northwestern, Oyer to Stanford, and Schaefer to the University of Utah). Years later, they decided to road trip through the heartland of America to explore small businesses and the underlying principles they run on.

Each of the scholars has a bit of a schtick: Mazzeo likes diets, Oyer is blonde and navigates, and Schaefer looks like George from Seinfeld. Along the way, there is far too much coffee, the occasional kale juice, and that one time they all had to share a bathroom.

The trio stops at 45 different businesses to examine their strategies. The book is divided into sections that focus on a different strategic concept illustrated by case studies. For example, the chapter on scalability looks at an award-winning coffee shop in Oregon that can’t expand because the owner’s compulsive drive for quality means she feels she has to be on the premise around the clock. It also features an orthodontics company in Arkansas that has centralized HR, IT, and accounting for its branch offices to cut costs and make expansion easier.

Mazzeo, Oyer, and Schaefer shine when it comes to explaining big ideas in clean and simple language served up with a large dollop of humor. Take, for example, their explanation of the nuances of persuasive branding:

“While Preson McKee works to influence customers to come to his funeral home, he doesn’t need to convince you to consider buying funeral services; if you don’t need him now, you’ll need him later. Things are a bit different for Audie Bartel the owner of Collins Diamonds…(And yes, you read that right: Three divorced men just compared purveyors of engagement rings to providers of funeral services).”

This isn’t Harvard or Wharton. This is the MBA course taught over burgers, with plenty of quirky jokes thrown in. And just in case you miss the memo, each chapter concludes with a summary that drives home the main takeaways.

After a while, Roadside MBA begins to feel like a road trip that’s gone on for too long. The professors blend together after the first three pages despite their individual tics, which might be excusable, but the cases begin to blend together too. If you like your cases Harvard style—deep dives that are nuanced to the core, and messy, with no clear answers—Roadside MBA’s open-and-shut approach might frustrate you and leave you with more questions: How will that premium coffee shop expand? How can diamond store owner Audie Bartel adjust his advertising during a recession when budgets are tight but the market for luxury goods is even tighter?

Nevertheless, for those who don’t have the time or money to go to business school, but teem with ambition, or for burgeoning small business owners looking for creative ideas, Roadside MBA is an excellent primer. Pick and choose the businesses that illustrate what you want to learn, grab your favorite snacks, and then hit the road, because with Mazzeo, Oyer, and Schaefer at the wheel, you’re in good hands.