In his book, Narrative Economics, Robert Schiller, Nobel Prize-winning economist, tells us that the greatest influences on the nation’s economy come from the stories we tell ourselves about it.
A depression lasts longer when people tell themselves and each other that it’s going to be a long time before things turn around. Recoveries accelerate when people turn optimistic and tell each other that the good times are just over the horizon and will be back soon. Currencies lose their purchasing power when people tell each other prices are going up and its best to exchange cash for products now and not wait for the higher prices. Trade unions are vilified when people start talking about excessively high wages pushing up inflation. Schiller has a lot of stories, or narratives, as he calls them.
These are macroeconomic tales, about trends in GDP, and the price level. But the same is true at the microeconomics level. The reason why there is so much negativism about business, capitalism and free markets is that people are telling each other negative stories about business aggressiveness, unsustainability, lack of sympathy and general coldness. We’re angry at business, it seems.
One source of this anger are the business school instructors, and their textbooks and business biographies and histories that portray businesspeople as a warrior class and business competition as warfare. Invading industries, taking beachheads, fighting for market share. The Art Of War by Sun Tzu is often cited as the most popular business book, and a source of business strategies.
Another military metaphor is defensive – protecting your castle. “You need a “moat” — essentially, a barrier that can protect your business from potential encroaching forces”, says one writer in Medium.
The military narrative is a horrible metaphor for business. The blood and gore and destruction and operational chaos that war metaphors bring to mind have no place in our image of what businesses do and the service they provide. Customers buy products and services only if they believe that, by so doing, they’ll make their lives better in some way. Otherwise they wouldn’t buy. Businesses exist to generate this sense of betterment, of satisfaction, of well-being among their customers. If they are not good at it, they’ll lose the patronage of that customer to a business that pleases them better. Consequently, businesses are always trying harder to understand what will make their customers happy, and to perfect their own knowledge of how to deliver that happiness.
We need a new narrative of business formation and business action that is an alternative to the military metaphor, especially so that we can teach our kids in school that business is a channel for their aspirations, not a regimen to which they are to be subjected. We need a business-is-beautiful metaphor. That its purpose is to serve and to please and to make life better. That it’s the source of what’s good: income to nurture families, products and services to nurture life.
One business guru who is leading us in this direction is Per Bylund, a professor at Oklahoma State University’s Spears School Of Business. He writes about business owners and executives and managers building an island – an island that is inviting enough to attract visitors who will enjoy their time there, and perhaps become residents. An island that’s separate but well connected by bridges and ferries and transportation to bring people comfortably to and fro. Like any island, it’s unique. No two are the same.
Professor Bylund calls them “islands of specialization”, designed by entrepreneurs and their management teams to serve customers in a specialized way that will merit their patronage, keep them visiting, and make them loyal. His strategic advice to businesses has no military overtones.
“Aim to please” is his first principle of beautiful business. To attract people – customers – to the island is simply a matter of understanding what will please them. This requires empathy – understanding people, their hopes and dreams and desires and preferences, and catering to them. It’s a matter of discovery and translation. Business strategy, in this vision, is not aggression but deference: seeking to please others.
“Don’t copy – move beyond” is the next principle. The military metaphor sees competition as conducting wars over business territory, or fighting for customer attention. That’s a misconception of the economic concept of competition. In the economic way of thinking, there is no new value for customers when a firm merely copies what is already offered by others. Value emerges from what’s new and better and different. Smart entrepreneurial island builders assess the current landscape, predict where the customer will be in the future, and navigate to that place to build a new island.
Once they establish the new location, entrepreneurs build from strength. They distinguish what is unique about their resources that can be of benefit to customers. Much of the uniqueness is subjective – the owners’ or the business’s identity, their unique knowledge and expertise, their relationships and interconnections that can co-ordinate the assembly of specific solutions. It’s not about arraying more destroyers on the battle lines than the opponent; it’s arraying a set of uniquely desirable and attractive brand features and attributes that are attractive to the customer.
And the island builder keeps on building. Not for scale or market share or maximizing output. The direction of growth is to maximize value. Value is a feeling of satisfaction in the customer’s mind. Maximization, in this view, refers to higher levels of satisfaction, over a wider range of experiences, for more customers on more occasions. Maximization is not a quantitative or mathematical concept, to be compared with rivals to ascertain who is “winning”. It’s a qualitative concept – what quality of value has been experienced, and how can it be improved.
The four guiding principles – aim to please, in unique ways, based on your own identity and strengths, always thinking about the value that’s experienced by customers – lead to beautiful businesses. If you are developing visual island imagery in your mind’s eye as you read this, think of a balmy climate, vibrant flowers and trees, bubbling streams and distinctive animals and birds. Perhaps there’s an attractive resort hotel welcoming and catering to customer-guests. Let your imagination run free in conjuring up beauty – that’s what entrepreneurs do as the start, grow and sustain their businesses.
Per Bylund, PhD, is assistant professor of entrepreneurship and Records-Johnston professor of free enterprise in the School of Entrepreneurship at Oklahoma State University. His areas of research are entrepreneurship, management and economic organization. He is author and editor of four books.