This section provides brief summaries of the teaching cases we use in each module and identifies the key principles in each case. All materials are HBS cases unless otherwise stated.


Syllabus for Winter 2016


Syllabus from Fall 2015

Starting an Online Business. Strategies for mobilizing businesses when users only want to join if others participate also.

Skype. We formally define network effects, and we use Skype to explore the determinants of the strength of network effects.

Electronic Arts in Online Gaming. In a two-sided network, one side often subsidizes the other. Which is which? We’ll consider the possibilities in the context of Microsoft’s Xbox video game system.

Killing Craigslist. Two start-ups pursue distinct approaches to compete in the market for online apartment rentals. What strategies might yield success in light of Craigslist’s dominant market share? How can these companies make money when Craigslist offers service without charge in most cities? Guests: Lee Lin and Lawrence Zhou, Co-Founders of RentHop.

Microsoft adCenter. Starting a new online business can be particularly challenging when facing a strong incumbent. In this case, Microsoft finds itself in the unusual role of underdog, trying to gain traction in the market for sponsored search advertising.

Google. We’ll examine the strategy, successes, and vulnerabilities of this online goliath. We’ll emphasize opportunities to ride on Google’s coattails as well as risks resulting from Google’s ongoing growth.

Big Skinny. We consider online marketing from an advertiser’s perspective. We explore the advertiser’s choice among various paid advertising media, as well as prospects for video, viral, and social marketing. Guest: Kiril Alexandrov, Founder and CEO, Big Skinny.

eBay Partner Network. Having decided to use online “affiliates” to extend its other marketing strategies, eBay must decide how to structure affiliates’ incentives—including what payments to offer, and how best to supervise affiliates’ activities. Guest: Michael Lill, Head of ePN Network Quality and Global Operations.

Online Payments. We explore the structure of the credit card ecosystem, emphasizing the challenges and concerns of businesses that accept payment by credit card.

Panel: Hiring a CTO / Outsourcing. What to do if you have a great idea but (almost) no technical skills? A panel of entrepreneurs, developers, and investors from Boston’s tech community will help shed light on this notoriously daunting subject.

Data Analytics. We will discuss the architectural principles of modern databases, including data structures, tables, fields, queries, and multi-table joins. We will then run an in-class exercise to build hands-on experience with SQL, the most common language for accessing databases.

Introduction to Visual Programming. We will discuss key design principles for web sites, and we will briefly explore notable challenges. Using a visual prototype tool designed by course alumni and now offered on a commercial basis, we will build working prototypes of interactive sites—an architecture sufficient to test assumptions, assess market demand, and demonstrate potential to prospective customers, partners, or investors. Guest: Emmanuel Straschnov, Co-Founder, Bubble.

Airbnb. Airbnb lets property owners rent extra space to travelers and other short-term guests. A rating system helps users distinguish legitimate accommodation from frauds. But is this enough?

LevelUp. LevelUp’s mobile payments service lets users scan a smartphone barcode rather than swipe a credit card. Will consumers embrace the service? Will merchants? LevelUp considers adjustments to make the service attractive to both consumers and merchants, while trying to accelerate deployment at reasonable cost. Guest: Andrew Boch, COO, LevelUp.

Online Restaurant Promotions. With a low cost of goods sold, restaurants are ripe for discounting. But to whom and how? This case explores the challenges of online marketing for services necessarily consumed offline.

OpenTable. This stalwart has retained the same prices it implemented at launch in 1999. How should OpenTable respond to competitors that have replicated the company’s core, with lower fees to restaurants? Meanwhile, OpenTable’s new Payments service offers one-tap smartphone payment. OpenTable considers strategies to launch and accelerate this promising new service. Guest: Alexa Andrzejewski, Mobile Experience Director, OpenTable.

SaferTaxi. Fiercely independent, taxi drivers tend to distrust dispatchers, vehicle providers, and other putative authorities. What features should SaferTaxi offer, with what pricing, to attract both drivers and passengers? Guests: Clemens Raemy and Jonathan Lo, Co-Founders, SaferTaxi.

Right Media. To satisfy advertisers, publishers, and ad networks, the Right Media ad exchange must place the right ads on the right sites. But there are millions of sites and thousands of ads – literally billions of possible combinations. Plus, participants’ preferences are unpredictable, making Right Media’s task that much harder.

Yelp Reservations. Build or buy? Yelp considers this timeless question when considering entry into the reservations space. Guest: Peter Curzon, ‎Director, Business Development, Yelp.

TheLadders. While most job sites charge companies that post listings, TheLadders has long charged candidates. We explore the company’s subsequent plan to charge both sides of this market. Tentative guest: Marc Cenedella, Founder and Executive Chairman, TheLadders.

Distribution at American Airlines. American has long paid travel agencies, including online travel agencies, to sell its tickets. But high fees prompt American to reevaluate this approach. Guest: Cory Garner, Managing Director of Distribution and Data Commercialization, American Airlines.

Reviews at Euro-Pro. Can reviews help design a better vacuum, more fully meeting customer requirements at a lower price? Euro-Pro tries to adjust more rapidly thanks to quick customer feedback embodied in reviews, and also seeks to use reviews to tell prospective customers about product quality. Guest: Company representative TBD.

Monitter. Building a service that searches tweets at Twitter, Monitter depends entirely on access to Twitter’s API—and disaster ensues when Twitter disables access. We assess the company’s next steps, as well as implications for others that rely on larger firms’ platforms.

Zillow. Providing prospective home-buyers with ever-richer data on available properties, Zillow would be a natural “real estate agent killer.” Or are real estate agents better seen as allies? Guest: Kathleen Philips, CFO, Zillow.

ShopRunner. ShopRunner considers adjustments to improve its online shopping service which offers no-charge two-day shipping as well as easy returns and other conveniences. Competitors’ diverse pricing models and ancillary benefits raise questions about how to structure and price ShopRunner’s offering. Meanwhile, an investment from Alibaba presents new opportunities in China but risks distraction from the core business. Guest: Scott Thompson, CEO, ShopRunner.

Birchbox. Birchbox distributes trial-sized beauty products through a paid subscription service, with monthly delivery by mail. We explore marketing and operations challenges, as well as the problem of copycat businesses. Guest: Hayley Barna, Founder and Co-CEO, Birchbox.

Yummy77. For a string of tech startups, grocery delivery had been a tempting opportunity but, for most, ultimately an insurmountable challenge. Based in Shanghai, Yummy77 thinks it has found a solution – combining small retail storefronts with exceptionally rapid deliver. But the new model requires more capital, more staff, and more complexity. Is this the way to make online grocery ordering a reality? Guest: Ping Mi, CEO, Yummy77.

Reviews & Reputations. Many web sites find they need systems for assessing the quality of users, submissions, and transactions. We’ll look at several examples, flagging design principles to apply to other online ventures.

Project Presentations. Students will present selected projects to the class, followed by questions and discussions. We’ll be joined by several angel investors.