Principles of Austrian economics have immediate applications in business. Clay Miller, a deeply experienced and highly successful global tech entrepreneur, makes the case via five principles drawn from five easily-accessible sources of Austrian economic theory, with many accompanying examples.
Key Takeaways & Actionable Insights
Principle 1: The distribution of knowledge requires disaggregated thinking.
Source: “The Use Of Knowledge In Society,” F.A. Hayek – Get It Here
Hayek wrote this paper as part of a research program into the problem that economics tries to solve. He defined it as a knowledge problem. Knowledge “never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess”.
The implication he drew was for central planning by governments and their departments and committees that would attempt to plan production or set prices. Such central planning is impossible because dispersed knowledge can not be aggregated and so the planners never have enough knowledge on which to base a plan.
“The statistics which such a central authority would have to use would have to be arrived at precisely by abstracting from minor differences between the things, by lumping together, as resources of one kind, items which differ as regards location, quality, and other particulars, in a way which may be very significant for the specific decision. It follows from this that central planning based on statistical information by its nature cannot take direct account of these circumstances of time and place…..”
In our Economics For Business project, we have the opportunity to help entrepreneurs apply the same principle to business knowledge, or data. Too much aggregation can obscure information that is really important and most useful for improving business performance.
Here’s an example. A frequently used KPI (Key Performance Indicator) is average revenue per customer. It’s calculated by aggregating all customer revenue into one number and dividing by the number of customers. For this to be actionable intelligence, it is necessary to assume that spending by each customer is very uniform. But consider the case where average revenue per customer is $190 for a customer base of 10 users, composed of 9 who spend $100 each and one who spends $1,000. The KPI does not suggest that each new customer you acquire will spend $190. In fact, it’s more likely they’ll spend $100. And, in fact, what you would really like to know is the profile of the $1000 customer and whether that profile, applied in recruiting new customers, would enable you to recruit more $1,000 spenders. You really want to choose metrics that can provide insight into individual customer behavior — like the nature and motivation of the one $1,000 spender.
Similar Austrian thinking would apply, for example, to Google analytics, which can profile the type of customer interacting with your website or app, and observable behavior such as conversion rate by page visited, or abandonment rate for specific pages. These are disaggregated statistics that can help you serve customers better.
Austrian thinking is rigorous in seeking to identify cause and effect, and to ensure that correlation is not mistaken for causation. A simple example is restaurant data that exhibits a 30% increase in customer traffic on Tuesdays. There’s a correlation between day-of-week and traffic increases — but it’s not causation. Tuesday does not cause the traffic increase. What does? It requires digging to find out, perhaps, that a local firm offers a perk to office workers to pay for them eating out on Tuesdays. As Hayek would say, this is specific knowledge of time and place, more likely to be qualitative than statistical, embracing the subjectivity that’s central to Austrian economics.
Principle 2: Consumer Sovereignty requires that entrepreneurs are directed by their customers.
Source: Bureaucracy, Ludwig von Mises: Get It Here
This book focuses on the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of bureaucratic organizational structures and processes. In a chapter titled Profit Management, Mises defines the Austrian concept of consumer sovereignty. Understanding and applying this concept is central to entrepreneurs’ capability to create effective value propositions for their offering, brand or business.
“Thus the capitalist system of production is an economic democracy, in which every penny gives the right to vote. The consumers are the sovereign people. The capitalists, the entrepreneurs, and the farmers are the people’s mandatories. If they do not obey, if they fail to produce, at the lowest possible cost, what the consumers are asking for, they lose their office. Their task is service to the consumer. Profit and loss are the instruments by means of which the consumers keep a tight rein on all business activities.”
Consumers are the ones driving production. It’s up to business managers to make sure that every decision is towards bettering the value proposition offered to customers.
For example, the décor in a restaurant should be chosen not because the owner favors it or because an interior designer decrees it, but for the purpose of enhancing the value experience of those consumers the owner wants to attract and to serve. This requires empathy. Consumer sovereignty and entrepreneurial empathy go together.
Because consumers are the ones valuing what is produced, they are the ones ascribing value to the product or service the entrepreneur produces. The entrepreneur needs to anticipate what they value, and to do so requires ever-greater closeness to the customer. Clay described the value provided by simple but tasty barbecue restaurants in his home state of north Carolina, in a décor of plastic and paper and small booths. But that wouldn’t attract the customers who prefer fine dining in a five star restaurant. The customer decides what experience they value.
Startups can usefully anticipate consumer preferences by creating an imaginary perfect customer, and thinking through the value they want and the value the business can facilitate for them. Once in production, get as much feedback as possible on the actual value experience and the customer’s feeling about it. Every decision made inside the business needs to be for the purpose of and directed towards improving the customer value proposition and value experience.
Principle 3: Human value scales are complex and ever-changing and entrepreneurial empathy is required in order to reach an understanding of customers’ value dynamics.
Source: Human Action, Ludwig von Mises: Get It Here
Human Action is the magnum opus of Austrian economic theory. Every chapter will yield great insights for business. Clay selected value scales as a topic.
“It is customary to say that acting man has a scale of wants or values in his mind when he arranges his actions. On the basis of such a scale he satisfies what is of higher value, i.e., his more urgent wants, and leaves unsatisfied what is of lower value, i.e., what is a less urgent want. There is no objection to such a presentation of the state of affairs. However, one must not forget that the scale of values or wants manifests itself only in the reality of action. These scales have no independent existence apart from the actual behavior of individuals. The only source from which our knowledge concerning these scales is derived is the observation of a man’s actions.”
When a person makes a decision to purchase your product or service, they conduct a quite complex evaluation to integrate your offering into their scale of values. And the values and the scale is constantly changing. Consumers are not static robots. Their circumstances change, their preferences for saving or spending change, their time of life or even time of day demand rearranging of value scales.
A consumer may have a high preference for Krispy-Kreme donuts. But then they go on a diet. Their value scale changes. Losing weight and increasing fitness are now higher values than enjoying a donut. If you are the Krispy-Kreme donut franchisee, it’s important to be aware of the value scale change, and to empathize with the customer. Maybe you could develop a promotion called “Cheat Day” that rewards them with a donut treat after a week of exercise and donut restraint. As Wayne Gretzky used to say, skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it is now.
How can you understand value scales? One interview with a customer — what a researcher would call deep, rich qualitative information — can be worth much, much more than survey data. Mises said that we can only know an individual’s value scales by observing an individual’s actions. Having them answer a survey question such as “How highly do you value this item?” or “What price would you pay for this item?” does not indicate how they would fit the item into their value scale. They may say they would pay $250,000 for a Ferrari, but, when they weighted the experience of owning the Ferrari versus the opportunity cost of foregoing other experiences, would they actually make the purchase? The survey answers won’t tell you.
Entrepreneurs are rewarded for estimating correctly what the customer values and creating the appropriate value proposition.
Principle 4: The market is a discovery process, with uncertainty on both sides of market exchanges. All entrepreneurial actions are tests, with no certain outcomes.
Source: Competition And Entrepreneurship, Israel Kirzner: Get It Here
This is a seminal work on entrepreneurship. One of the major themes is that markets are a process of discovery. That insight directs entrepreneurs to think in dynamic, process terms. The entrepreneur experiences uncertainty in what he or she is producing, because they are not sure of what customers will value in the future. The customer is uncertain, too, because they’re unsure of how they’ll value what the entrepreneur produces. Whenever we, as consumers, feel trepidation about “pulling the trigger” on a purchase, we are experiencing this uncertainty. Meanwhile, the producer is anxiously discovering the receptiveness to his or her value proposition.
“The market process, then, is set in motion by the results of the initial market ignorance of the participants. The process itself consists of the systematic plan changes generated by the flow of market information released by market participation — that is, by the testing of the plans in the market.”
Kirzner points out that every plan an entrepreneur has, every value proposition, every offering made to prospective customers can only be a test, a trial. Nothing in the market can be certain. Entrepreneurs are trying to anticipate what customers are going to value, and they can never be sure in advance.
That’s why entrepreneurs use empathy, to imagine, if they were the customer, what type of experience the customer would be looking for. Entrepreneurs must imagine what customers might enjoy in the future. They must seek the customer’s agreement that, “Yes, your product or service delivered what you promised and made me feel better.”
One implication of Kirzner’s principle of “market ignorance” is for branding. If a brand has accrued a certain level of market reputation, consumers will feel less ignorant. They will feel they “know” a brand that’s been producing for 100 years, that is symbolized by the 3-point star that can be seen everywhere, and that is trusted and approved by many other consumers. A brand represents the stored experience and the stored reputation of many customers.
Principle 5: All entrepreneurship is for social good, and more social good is achieved by subjecting business to the marketplace test of profit and loss.
Source: Austrian Perspectives on Entrepreneurship, Strategy and Organization, Peter G Klein, Nicolai Foss, and Matthew McCaffrey, “Austrian Perspectives On Entrepreneurship, Strategy and Organization”: Get It Here
In Chapter 4 of this book, the authors discuss the concept of social entrepreneurship. This is an idea that seems to be gaining traction, especially among millennial business owners and millennial entrepreneurs. The idea is that business should be focused on something more than profit and loss. It should provide some “social value”, making the world better. Klein, Foss, and McCaffrey provide some robust Austrian thinking with regard to social entrepreneurship.
“However, these metaphors (“social value”, etc) often imply a false conflict with traditional entrepreneurship. For example, the contrast between conventional market entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship implies that the former is somehow not social, or even anti-social. This is misleading, however; for example, Austrians would respond that Mises’s calculation argument demonstrates that the entrepreneurial market economy is profoundly social. Entrepreneurs, by bearing uncertainty in an effort to satisfy consumers, work ceaselessly to improve the welfare of all members of society, and their work in turn strengthens bonds of cooperation between individuals and communities, while at the same time disincentivizing conflict and exploitation. This is social behavior in its most fundamental form.”
Steve Jobs improved society greatly by inventing the iPhone. The impact on society was considerable — better communication and information sharing, and higher productivity for billions of people.
Every venture — including social ventures — must grapple with basic economic problems. Taking on a social mission does not relieve the firm of the pressures of the marketplace. Social enterprises are business organizations, and if they earn revenues through the sale of goods and services, they must apply judgement to allocate scarce resources in the face of uncertainty. Genuine participation in the marketplace requires them to be subject to the profit and loss test.
Klein, Foss and McCaffrey make the point that “social value” is incalculable. What’s good for one individual is not the same as for another. Individuals value things subjectively. When a business pleases one group, it may be adversely affecting another.
Profit is not evil. It’s impossible to make a profit without serving your fellow man. You are doing good for society by being an entrepreneur, by producing things that people want and value. You forego your own consumption by investing in your business, and so you are making a sacrifice to serve others. And if social entrepreneurs are not subjecting themselves to the profit and loss test — if they are supported by charity or grants — then they are not receiving the signals form consumers that they are allocating scarce resources in the way that consumers — i.e., society — prefers.
The ethic of entrepreneurship is to serve, and to make others’ lives better, and to receive the approval and reward of customers via the profit and loss mechanism of the market.
Free Downloads & Extras From The Episode
“The Use Of Knowledge In Society,” F.A. Hayek (American Economic Review, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, September 1945; pp. 519–30): Get It Here
Bureaucracy, Ludwig von Mises (Yale University Press, 1944): Get It Here
Human Action, Ludwig von Mises (Mises Institute, 1999): Get It Here
Competition and Entrepreneurship, Israel Kirzner (Liberty Fund, 1978): Get It Here
Austrian Perspectives on Entrepreneurship, Strategy and Organization, Peter G Klein, Nicolai Foss, and Matthew McCaffrey (Cambridge University Press, 2019): Get It Here
“The Austrian Business Model” (video): https://e4epod.com/model
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