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Rent-an-MBA? Just new packaging on an old idea

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I'm always on the hunt for things coming down the road — trends, new technology, management advice — that could help your business. I thought I found one this week in the Wall Street Journal.

How does MBAs for hire sound to you? To quote the story, which is headlined "For Smaller Projects, Try Renting an M.B.A.": "It's the kind of expense that goes on a credit card."

The idea, according to the story, is that smaller businesses unable to afford a large consultancy firm can still get help with product launches, formulating strategy, doing budget analysis and performing other critical business functions they wouldn't normally have access to because of the cost.

The "rentables" can be hired through service agencies, who will provide a grad or student from a top-tier business school for the duration of the project. The idea is attractive enough to pull in investor and "Shark Tank" panelist Mark Cuban.

There's been a lot of press since the recession hit about the rise of the "freelance economy," especially in knowledge-based skills. Experts cut loose from company jobs — or unable to land one at all after college — discovered it made sense to strike out on their own, and the companies using their services benefited from the ability to bring workers on board strictly as needed, with little to no overhead.

You can hire freelancers to do everything from writing proposals and crafting PowerPoint presentations to building your e-commerce site or setting up your accounting system.

(Just be careful to call them contractors and not employees. The IRS has been watching this trend eagerly; break enough of its 20-question test used to differentiate between the two classifications and you can wind up paying penalties.)

So this MBA idea seemed to be not only a good one but also the latest business-model disruptor to come down the pike. If businesses didn't need traditional consulting firms, what would happen to the firms — and their fees?

Then I got to thinking. Freelancer. Independent contractor. Entrepreneur. Small-business owner.

Aren't they just names for the same thing? Maybe this "freelance economy" isn't such a new, hot ticket in the 21st-century economy. You develop a skill, you hang out your shingle, you find clients, you make a living. Hopefully, you grow that business and hire other people. It's what Americans have been doing forever.

These rent-an-MBA businesses? Same thing with slightly different packaging.

So here's my actual advice: There are independent consultants working in every business community already, and there's no middleman to pay for bringing you together.

And if your budget is too small even for them, take a look at the midstate's colleges and universities. Many have talented business students hungry to get real-world experience through class projects and internships. Hire one of them, and you'll both benefit.

The week ahead

It stopped snowing and sleeting long enough last week for Gov. Corbett to deliver his 2014 budget proposal to the General Assembly and citizens of the commonwealth. In Friday's issue, reporter Jason Scott puts it under the microscope to see whether there's good news for business in the spending plan.

Also coming up in this week's print edition, finance and banking reporter Mike Sadowski gets behind the numbers to see why midstate bankruptcies were up in 2013, and Heather Stauffer digs into the latest stats from the Congressional Budget Office on Obamacare and what it could mean for your workforce.

Our Inside Business focus is on commercial real estate and construction — always a hot topic around here — with updated lists on the top commercial real estate agencies, commercial developers and homebuilders in Central Pennsylvania.

Here are your networking opportunities for the week.

And — consider yourself warned — Friday is Valentine's Day, a consumer event worth roughly $18.6 billion to the U.S. economy, mainly through sales of flowers, candy and jewelry. Don't be left in the cold.

This year it launches us into a three-day weekend, with Presidents Day on Monday. Most federal and state offices will be closed Feb. 17, as will be many banks and schools (if they aren't making up snow days) — and even the Business Journal.

The rewind

The Winter Olympics have begun in Sochi. This video is billed on YouTube as a compilation of the "best moments" in Olympics history. It's quite a rush. Included is a glimpse of ice-skating duo Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean in their perfect-score performance of "Bolero" in 1984. Watch this from 22 years later and be amazed.

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