MBA Alumnus Mike Palazzolo Joins GSM Marketing Faculty

To get in a coding groove, Mike Palazzolo dons headphones and queues up Star Trek reruns on Netflix while he analyzes big data sets for his quantitative marketing research.

Welcome back, Mr. Spock, as Palazzolo’s best friend likes to call him.

Palazzolo, who earned his UC Davis MBA in 2009, returned to the Graduate School of Management this past July—now as an assistant professor of marketing—becoming the first GSM alumnus on the faculty. After graduating from the GSM, he went on to earn his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, where he focused on consumer financial decision making and consumer choice.

“I still remember taking the Product Management course with Mike,” GSM class of 2009 colleague Shobana Sridharan Biederman posted on Facebook. “He absolutely nailed the algorithm for this randomized game that the class was comprised of. Simply genius!”

Palazzolo has brought that intellectual curiosity and knowledge back to the GSM community.

We caught up with Palazzolo—which isn’t easy—to ask him eight key questions:

First and foremost, how does it feel to return to your alma mater as a new faculty member only seven years after you earned your MBA?

It feels great. More than that, though, I feel very lucky. I’ve had conversations with the GSM faculty about returning ever since I started my Ph.D. program, but they were always careful to keep my expectations in check. A lot of hard work and a lot of luck was necessary for things to play out the way I had hoped. The GSM happened to, just by chance, be hiring the year I was on the market (any department in a business school only hires once every few years), and I had to compete for the job with a lot of very smart people. It still feels surreal that everything worked out so perfectly. I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

When did you decide you wanted to pursue a Ph.D. and a career in academia?

I had thought about it as far back as 2003, when I was an undergrad, but I decided at the time I did not want to stay in school—I wanted to go out and experience industry. I felt I was too young to be working in academia. I started thinking about it in earnest after my first year at the GSM, after speaking to a number of the faculty here and learning about their research. But at that point, ironically, I felt as though I was too old to be starting out in academia. I felt it was time to start earning again, get married and have kids. And getting a Ph.D. is non-trivially risky. You’re not guaranteed the job you want at the end of it. But over time, the faculty at the GSM convinced me it was worth the risk, and that I could afford to put other life plans on hold for a while. So I bit the bullet and did it. Though by the time I was convinced I wanted to do it, I had missed the application deadlines and had to wait a year after getting my MBA to start the PhD.

 The Washington Post last March published a blog on “Why the poor pay more for toilet paper — and just about everything else,” followed a few weeks later by a story in The Atlantic headlined “The Privilege of Buying 36 Rolls of Toilet Paper at Once.” Both these cited your research using data on more than 100,000 U.S. households. Tell us what your study revealed.

We find that the liquidity constraints faced by lower income households make it harder for them to take advantage of money saving opportunities that many of us take for granted—e.g., accelerating our purchase timing to take advantage of sales, or buying in bulk. We also try to quantify what this means for these households in terms of dollars, and find that their losses amount to roughly 2/3 of the money they save by purchasing cheaper brands (e.g., private labels). It’s really perverse: a lot of the money these households make an effort to save by buying cheaper brands is effectively lost anyway, at least within certain product categories.

What other lines of research are you currently working on?

I tend to be attracted to projects that involve modeling or studying consumer behavior, and projects that involve collaboration with companies. I have another project on modeling consumer search in the automotive industry, which provided me with the opportunity to work closely with Ford Motor Company. Also, Professor Hemant Bhargava and I will soon be working on a project with the Mondavi Center, which I think will be a lot of fun. We’ll be working with our next door neighbors.

What courses do you plan to teach? How would you describe your teaching style, approach in the classroom? What do you hope students come away with in your courses?

I teach Marketing Analytics. The course is designed to provide both a survey of different types of data and analytics techniques, but also train students to think about empirical identification—that is, what variation in the data answers your question. For example, if we want to gauge whether an advertising campaign increased sales, what data would we need? A simple answer might be “sales before and after the advertising campaign,” where an increase in sales would indicate the campaign was effective. But there are less simple, more accurate ways to answer that question. The class is designed to prepare students to answer these types of questions as best as humanly possible. As for my teaching style, I’d say mix the teaching style of your high school math teacher with the sense of humor of a 14-year-old Star Trek fan and you’d wind up with something close to how I teach.

What are some of your memories of when you were an MBA student at the GSM?

The first thing that comes to mind is naturally my last year here and the many conversations I had with faculty about pursuing a Ph.D. That was a tough decision, and everyone here was extraordinarily supportive and helpful. Making that decision was probably the most pivotal thing that happened while I was here. I remember the Product Management class, which was by far my favorite class. The Markstrat simulation in that class was super fun. It felt like I was being assigned fantasy baseball for homework. I have a ton of memories from orientation, of course, which is always exciting and a lot of fun. The memory that stands out, though, was the ropes course—which I did not participate in, because I am terrified of heights.

The inside scoop is that you are a big Star Trek fan, an interest you share with our new Chancellor-designate Gary May, who says his leadership style is inspired by Captain James. T. Kirk. How has Star Trek inspired/motivated you?

This will sound terribly dull, but the biggest influence Star Trek has had on my life is keeping me awake while engaged in the tedious task of coding. Quantitative research is largely fun, but there are times when you spend hours sitting in front of a computer just writing code. Star Trek reruns on Netflix make those hours bearable! That said, my best friend and I regularly compare ourselves to Kirk and Spock (I am the latter). Also, to Shawn and Gus from Psych (I am again the latter). Apparently I am the hyper-rational sidekick.

Could you share about your interests, activities, hobbies outside of work?

I have a weirdly random set of interests (“eclectic” might be a kinder, if less accurate, description). My love of baseball is probably the biggest driver of my non-work activities, which also include karaoke (I know several Backstreet Boys songs by heart), playing board games (the strategic kind that take several hours to play), and the occasional trip to Disneyland (Remember my fear of heights? Kiddie roller-coasters are close to the ground…).