Carnegie Mellon University

Mr. Simon graphic

October 05, 2021

MBA and MSBA Students Combine Expertise to Help AI Platform Overcome a Scaling Obstacle

As its co-founder and CEO, Natalie Lihacova is deeply attached to Mr. Simon. It is an AI-driven software platform to help job candidates prepare for job interviews.

“I believe in Mr. Simon, Mr. Simon is my child,” Lihacova said. But her “child” was struggling to grow. Her team had developed a handful of free features that were live and the product was enjoying some use, however, they were at a crossroads and unsure where to take Mr. Simon next.

Lihacova was also struggling to keep others as invested in Mr. Simon’s future as she was. “My partner, he's more of an analytical person, a data-driven person. So he was nudging me to give him the data that would support the idea that we need to continue investing efforts in Mr. Simon. And I was almost out of my own convincing points.”

Torn as to how to move forward but convinced there was still a future for the platform, Lihacova turned to the Tepper School of Business students for fresh insights and Mr. Simon sponsored a graduate-level educational project. Though the nature of these projects can be as capricious as the business world itself, the Mr. Simon case was unique: It was the first to harness both MSBA and MBA student talent—those enrolled in the Master of Science in Business Analytics and MBA Technology Strategy and Product Management track, respectively—into one project team.

“Whenever you develop a new product, you are in the mode of experimenting and you need someone who is not afraid of experimenting ... this is how you can come up with something that has never existed before.”

Natalie Lihacova
Co-founder and CEO, Mr. Simon

Tim Derdenger, Associate Professor of Marketing and Strategy, served as the faculty advisor for the MBA candidates and saw this combination as an impactful way to give students an opportunity to apply their education to a real-world business problem. Alan Montgomery, Professor of Marketing, supervised from the MSBA perspective and noted one of the learning outcomes for the students was understanding each other’s communication styles.

“We quickly came to a mutual understanding and respected each other's strengths and weaknesses,” noted Huy Trinh (MSBA 2021) about the opportunity. Reflecting on the team’s final presentation, Trinh said, “All of the moving pieces coming from independent works knit well into our final presentation.”

From Lihacova’s perspective, Mr. Simon needed to scale from a platform that drew roughly 1,500 daily visitors who enjoyed its free services to one that maintained a captive audience with users willing to pay for features. The MBA students on the team focused on increasing the company’s conversion rate of its growing audience to paid subscribers. Simultaneously, the MSBA students addressed Mr. Simon’s second project challenge: What is technologically possible?

As the team began researching the fundamentals of Mr. Simon’s business model, they made an important discovery. “Mr. Simon’s core product was facing intense competition in the interview preparation market and needed to be more differentiated in order to thrive in the market,” said Omar Othman (MBA 2021). “As a team, we made a tough call to tell Mr. Simon that we need to reimagine the core product before pursuing a monetization strategy. It was nerve-racking sharing our initial findings, but Mr. Simon was open and heard our concerns and ultimately supported us at each step of the way.”

“This project really helped me bring that fresh opinion to the picture and helped reinforce my partner's confidence.”

Natalie Lihacova
Co-founder and CEO, Mr. Simon

After combing through data and assessing the market and competition, the team realized that Mr. Simon’s mock interview feature, which until this point had been its core product, was not strong enough to monetize or set Mr. Simon apart from its competitors. Instead, they landed on a new approach that would center other features in order to draw visitors and drive revenue.

The students also came to recognize that AI analytics and feedback were hallmarks of the competition and that Mr. Simon would have to adopt AI analytics features to remain competitive. For example, AI could be deployed to analyze job descriptions so that candidates would better understand how to present themselves as an ideal hire.

“We provided some challenging feedback and introduced a whole new product offering and we were lucky enough to have such experts at Mr. Simon that they were extremely open to what we had to say and valued our ideas,” said Othman. “When speaking with the Mr. Simon leadership team, we found their motivation for starting the company was to help people communicate and succeed at their interviews. And that was a very powerful purpose that kept our team determinedly reimagining the core product and aligning with the Mr. Simon leadership team.”

“It turned out, what we attempted to accomplish was precisely what Mr. Simon was looking for, perhaps only packaged differently,” added Trinh. “The surveys that [Sarah Johnson (MSBA 2021)] designed and the data she collected helped Mr. Simon gain more insights into who the visitors were, what they valued and what they were looking for.”

For Lihacova, the capstone project team provided exactly what she needed to fuel growth for the “child” she loved. “This project really helped me bring that fresh opinion to the picture and helped reinforce my partner's confidence,” she said. She recognized that the company’s outcome may have been different had they not engaged in the capstone experience.

“Whenever you develop a new product, you are in the mode of experimenting and you need someone who is not afraid of experimenting, who is not afraid of doing something they have never done before, because this is how you can come up with something that has never existed before,” she said. “Of course it's good to work with an expert, but it also has some risks to it. There may be some limiting perspectives with things like proven practices or the ways we've done things before. What I need are things that no one has done before, a fresh perspective, and an experimental mode of thinking. This was exactly what we got with this project.”

Derdenger was very pleased with the final results. “I always tell all the sponsors, you get out what you put in. … Mr. Simon was well prepared, well engaged, and fantastic to work with.”