Business Model Exercise: The “Personalized Case” Method

by Jason Brein

HBS utilizes two general pedagogies: (1) highly structured case study discussions, which provide generalizeable examples of major decisions faced by others; and (2) informal dialogue with mentors, peers, and professors, which offer more personalized learning opportunities. These educational methods create learning environments that are either well-structured or highly-tailored, but rarely both. The LTV business model exercise introduces a third learning method – akin to a “Personalized Case” – by applying the discipline of the case study method to tactical but crucial decisions startup founders make daily.

Most LTV cases address meaty strategic choices and big-picture questions. (Think: “Should you execute product and marketing launches simultaneously or separately?”) Case discussions parse every angle of a protagonist’s most meaningful decisions in hopes that the exercise will establish sufficient contextual relevance that a few key insights become ingrained. Months or years down the line, entrepreneurs apply these lessons when they confront similar dilemmas. As effectively as the case method highlights major inflection points, however, it usually invokes little insight into navigating mundane but important daily hurdles.

For these types of smaller decisions, we turn to mentors and peers for guidance – interactions that are useful but imperfect for two reasons. First, informal chats are typically impromptu and parties often approach conversations without well-defined learning goals. Second, the rigor of discourse often dissipates upon leaving the classroom. In class, students and professors openly enjoin one another to defend their assertions; participants welcome and expect pushback. Outside of class we’re rarely confronted so directly – a realization that dawned on me after finding myself taken aback when an HBS entrepreneur-in-residence (correctly) challenged me to articulate a point more clearly.

The business model exercise recreates the analytical rigor of the case study method in a more personalized setting. In less than two hours, our team identified thirty assumptions underlying our business model, honed in on the go-to-market assumptions as the most suspect, chose four hypotheses as most crucial (boxed in the picture on the right), and sketched out two tests to evaluate them. None of the individual issues we identified rose to the level of significance to have HBS case precedents but each still benefited immensely from structured scrutiny.1

Based on our experience, I’d recommend four modifications to improve the exercise for the next go-round:

  • Larger groups: Vary group sizes to determine whether adding additional members increase the rigor of discussion.
  • Stricter time restrictions: Use a whistle or bell to enforce timeframes more stringently. Our group spent too much time identifying dozens of assumptions – many of which we quickly agreed were not sufficiently material to warrant dedicated hypothesis tests – so didn’t have sufficient time to design comprehensive experiments.
  • Forced prioritization: Require each team to agree on a short-term plan of action – the 2-3 near-term steps that will provide the most learning per unit of time. Setting priorities is one of the most challenging aspects of starting a business, and clearly-ordered to-do lists can provide a calming effect.
  • Close the loop. Ask teams to report on their progress toward completing the agreed-upon plan of action. Requiring an entrepreneur to defend the methodology and results of hypothesis tests inspires a more disciplined approach to the business model generation process – or at least it has for me.

The “Personalized Case” method could extend beyond the business model exercise to other HBS courses. Students in Negotiations might discuss disputes in which they are currently embroiled – anything from employment terms to vacation destinations – and utilize course frameworks to jointly develop go-forward strategies. They would then utilize those strategies in an actual negotiation, and report how it worked. Alternatively, marketing students might refine proposals for CPG brand extensions by designing experiments to test market fit and customer acquisition costs, or finance students could jointly weigh the risks and potential payoffs of an investment strategy.

As the business model exercise illustrates, this “Personalized Case” method can translate the discipline of the case study method to commonplace but nonetheless important business issues.

1 For example, one of our group’s most important assumption centered around K-12 teachers’ willingness to install software without the help of school IT departments