Short Intensive Programs (SIPs) are courses that offer students a great opportunity to think about career choices, gain practical skills, and explore topics you might otherwise never get to study. These courses run for one week in January before the start of the Spring term and are often focused on a faculty member’s area of expertise or passion.

We caught up with Professor Len Schlesinger, who taught the Moving Beyond Direct to Consumer (DTC) SIP with Matt Higgins of RSE Ventures. They designed this SIP to serve as a launch pad for passionate and resilient Harvard MBAs that are eager to design, incubate and invest in DTC businesses through their multiple forms and iterations.

Tell us about your SIP. Why is it exciting?

Our SIP is called Managing Beyond Direct to Consumer (DTC) and we are in our second year of running it. The last ten years gave rise to the evolution of a new “business model” which caught many large incumbents sleeping. Brands came to market with the simple notion of relying on the internet to establish direct connections with consumers that bypassed traditional retailers. Entrepreneurs created loads of these DTC businesses and a number of them achieved “unicorn” status very quickly (such as Allbirds, Casper, Warby Parke and Glossier). Then reality hit. What we discovered was that these businesses were relatively easy to imagine and start up but very difficult to grow and scale.

Our 2020 version of the course focused specifically on the scaling question and the activities of businesses to expand their DTC business into a true omnichannel relationship. In part because of COVID-19, there was more change to DTC businesses in 2020 than there was for the prior 10 years. Our 2021 version increases the challenges of this work by introducing the COVID-19 disruption and its implications for the strategies people carefully constructed for a world that no longer fit their assumptive patterns. The course is tackling urgent business issues at the strategic and operational levels in the same time frames as their business leaders.

Why do you teach a SIP?

The SIP is an exciting opportunity for me to learn and teach simultaneously. Combine 100 students who want to create, own, invest in, or advise DTC businesses with 25 founders and lead them with two faculty - one a long term HBS faculty member with deep practice roots and the other an Executive Fellow who is one of the more accomplished investors/observers in the category. It is a script for magic!

Who are your guests? What do they bring to the course?

Every one of the 23 classes over the four days is co-led by a key DTC executive/investor/advisor. Together with one of the faculty members, the guests guide students through a short caselet, articles and a consumer journey through the company’s digital assets as preparation. Then we leave plenty of time for questions and answers at the end. One of the benefits of being on Zoom this year was that we were able to get all the guests we wanted to join us. The list of guests was quite mind blowing, and we included Bobbi Brown of Jones Road Beauty, Tracee Ellis Ross of Pattern Beauty, Julianne Hough of KINRGY, Jerry Lorenzo of Fear of God, Kevin O’Leary of Shark Tank and Christina Tosi of Milk Bar, among many others.

What do you hope students take away from your SIP?

We want students to take away a much deeper understanding of DTCs and the nature of the growth challenges they face. They should also develop an appreciation of the emerging ecosystem of business opportunities they stimulate and a recognition of how the big industry players – Amazon, Wal-Mart, Shopify - view and respond to the evolution of the business model. Finally, we hope they understand the opportunities DTC might present to a current MBA thinking about their own future.

Read about more about the 2021 SIPs