The Biggest Lesson I Learned in Business School

The single biggest takeaway for me from the four years I spent earning my B.Comm degree from Queen’s University came when I nearly failed my mid-term in my Intro to Marketing course in first year.

I should start by providing you with a bit of background…

Before going to Queen’s I had always been the smart kid. I loved school, I mean LOVED it. I adored school projects whether it was creative or essay writing, would literally read books while walking to and from school (so I had a head start when it came time to walking and reading from a phone at the same time – no walking in to fountains for this lady! #nerdwin), and was typically one of the top of my class all through grade and high school.

All of that changed when I got to Queen’s.

I was no longer the smart kid but rather the just-bordering-on-average kid in a sea of super brainiacs. To give you an idea, some of the people that I was in the program with at the same time have gone on to found companies like Knix, and Simple Tax and hold VP and even C-suite positions at some of the biggest and most successful companies in Canada. 

So given my background, I did not take too kindly to going from getting 90’s in school to just squeaking by with a pass on exams.

But back to the near fail…

In this Intro to Marketing course, we were taught how to make these massive matrices in Excel that would ultimately result in your complete Marketing Strategy for a product or service. By the time you were done filling in all the information you literally had hundreds of cells of information that were your road map for how you were going to market your product and beat out your competition.

Our mid-term exam for that course consisted of completing one of these matrices from start to finish and took about three hours. Our task was to create a complete marketing strategy for a new shampoo that was being released which meant we had to consider all aspects of the product and how to market it.

I had obviously studied for hours and took great care to be as thorough as possible during the exam… only to find out a couple of weeks later that I had barely passed.

They say misery loves company and they’re right because I was very relieved to hear that I was one of many who barely or didn’t pass at all.

The lecture after the mid-term results were released was dedicated to debriefing on the exam and it was in that lecture I learned a profound lesson.

The professor for the course started off by commending us on our efforts and saying some of the submissions were truly remarkable; however, over 50% of us had missed one of the most crucial elements of the product.

She then asked the class, “When you’re walking through the shampoo aisle at a store and trying to select which one you will buy – what do you do?” My mind starting racing thinking about packaging that stood out, price point, etc. – all things that I had addressed in my exam submission.

When no one was feeling brave enough to offer their answer, she then replied “You pick up the bottle, open it up, and smell the shampoo. 50% of you didn’t reference the smell at all in your matrices.” I was part of the half of the class who didn’t include the smell in my matrix.

Boom goes the dynamite – my mind was blown! It was so simple! I had gotten so caught up in trying to think of all the technical aspects I needed to include in the exam submission that I didn’t stop and really think through the behaviour of someone considering buying that product.

To this day, I draw on this lesson in nearly everything that I do in business. When faced with a challenge and you’re trying to come up with a creative solution that makes sound strategic sense and will ensure you stand out, always strip it back to the basic behaviour of someone who is going to use that product or service. Really think through what they’re looking for and how you can best provide that for them. Don’t get so caught up in the technical aspects that you overlook basic user need.

Don’t forget about the smell!

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