What Is A Business Model? It’s Not What You’ve Been Told.

What is a business model? It’s a question asked frequently on Google Search, so there must be doubt in businesspeople’s minds.

The reason for the uncertainty is clear. The term business model sounds like a thing – a completed canvas, a written document, a spreadsheet with macros. But it’s not a thing, it’s a lived experience, for both business executives and their customers.

The Austrian Business Model

In a recent edition of the Economics For Entrepreneurs podcast with Dr. Per Bylund of Oklahoma State University, we described a very different kind of business model framework we called the Austrian Business Model, based on principles of Austrian economics. It’s a recipe for business success. We chose the term “recipe” purposefully, to communicate these features:

  • A recipe is a non-linear process: there are inputs and outputs, there are many different sub-processes progressing at different rates designed to integrate at critical points, and subject to adjustment by the operator as new information is revealed (“the oven’s on fire!”; or, “this tastes like it needs more salt”).
  • A recipe is dynamic. All parts of it are in motion all the time – assembling, combining, mixing, cooking.
  • A recipe is adaptive. If the chef does not have all the ingredients at hand, he or she may substitute or leave out some elements. If a guest does not like some ingredient, the chef might work around it. New methods of cooking may lead to a better outcome with the same ingredients. There is learning from experience about what techniques work best.

Like a recipe, a business model is also a non-linear process, dynamic, always in motion, adaptive and improved with experience and learning. And, like a recipe, it unites multiple lived experiences. There is the chef’s lived experience, operating the recipe this time, as well as applying accumulated experience from previous times, and perhaps the inherited experience of family members from past time. And there is the lived experience of the recipient who tastes the output, in the context of a dinner party or a family meal. An experience is always shared.

In fact, the focus on experience is critical in a business model. Its end result is a value experience – value perceived by a customer, sufficient to justify the price they’re willing to pay for anticipated value, sufficient to deliver value in the use experience, and sufficient to support an assessment of value after the fact, looking back on whether the experience met expectations.

The experience-centric business model

An experience-centric business model traverses four phases of value learning for the entrepreneur.

Understanding Value

The foundation of a business model is an understanding of value for a specific set of customers. There are conventional business models that talk of “creating value” – whether that is the economic value of returns on capital that are higher than the cost of that capital, or shareholder value in the form of higher stock prices, or even brand value and product/service value. But all of these routes to “value creation” are misdirections. Firms can’t create value. It is customers who create value through their experiences. Value is something customers experience after they have made the economic calculation to buy a product or service, used it, and then stepped back after usage and assessed the experience compare to their going-in expectation. Value is formed in the customer’s domain, and not by the producer.

That’s why economists refer to value as subjective. It’s a perception that varies with each individual customer, with changes in context, and with changes in time and circumstances. The task of the business model developer is to understand the subjective value preferences of a specific set of customers in a specific context at a specific time.

Value Facilitation

Producers can suggest to customers that they can help them bring about the value experience they seek. The word “help” is important. Operating a business model is not an exercise in “making things happen”, it’s the art of helping them to happen.

In the business literature, there is talk of the design process – designing experiences for customers based on listening to their feedback. That is all very  well-intentioned, but it doesn’t quite capture the art of value facilitation. Customers form value through cognitive, mental and emotional processes, consciously or unconsciously, interpreting interactions and information and constructing an interpreted and experienced reality within which their feelings of value are embedded. Value is formed in people’s life experiences and it’s not the role of the producer to act as designer.

Producers and marketers must ask, how does the customer live their life? What is the life context? What are the challenges the customer faces? These and many more questions prepare the producer to humbly request to fit in and contribute to the customer’s life. If invited in, there is the possibility of value facilitation.

Value Exchange

Your customer is going to undertake a complex subjective balancing of the value they perceive based on your proposition and their own willingness to pay, in the context of all their alternative choices and any historical experiences they have had, either with your proposition or others. You can try to understand their process, but you can’t direct it. For example, you can’t set pricing. The customer determines the price they are willing to pay, and the producer’s job is to discover that price, through testing. Therefore your revenue model must balance the price the customer decides upon, with the costs you choose to include in assembling your offering. Costs are never forced upon businesses – they are always chosen. In the Austrian business model, entrepreneurs buy as many inputs as possible on the market, where costs are known and are rendered efficient through competition, as opposed to keeping costs internal, where they can’t be known exactly and may be unstable or hard to control. Your margins are emergent from this equation of customer-chosen pricing minus entrepreneurially-chosen costs. Don’t try to set margins in advance.

The best metric to monitor is not margin or profit, but cash flow. Keep it positive, monitor it weekly, and adjust to its signals.

Value Agility

Once invited into the customer’s experience, the producer has an opening to act as the value facilitator-on-the-spot for the customer. As the customer lives the experience – operates the recipe – there will be questions, unexpected occurrences, errors to fix, context changes, and many more unanticipated twists and turns.

The entrepreneur’s business model secret at this stage is agility. Business models that talk about strategic pillars and similar unchanging elements risk failure in the light of customer volatility and change.

A key to success lies in good feedback loops. Your business model must prepare your firm to be dynamic in response to customer preference changes and all the new information coming to you from the market every second, minute and hour. If you don’t maintain dynamism, your business model will weaken and your grip on competitive advantage will loosen. Your value proposition must strengthen and improve continuously. Your model of customer preferences must be kept fresh. Your value facilitation must demonstrate continuous improvement at a faster rate than the customer’s value experience erodes.

Empathy, humility, adaptability, and agility. These are the components of the contemporary business model. There’s a framework you can use to shape these components for your own unique application of the model, in The Austrian Business Model video.

How Murray Rothbard’s Theory of Entrepreneur-Driven Progress Can Be Applied to Modern Businesses

Recently, on the Human Action Podcast, Jeff Deist and I discussed the Rothbardian theory of the entrepreneurial economy in chapter 8 of Man, Economy, and State, titled “Production, Entrepreneurship, and Change.” In this article I will illustrate just how this Austrian theory is applied effectively in the business world.

In chapter 8, Rothbard establishes the principles of what he calls the progressing economy, one in which gross investment in capital goods is increasing, productivity is growing, and firms are making profits, indicating social affirmation that they are deploying resources in the ways best adjusted to the most urgent and evolving consumer needs. Specifically, firms are making an economic profit—returns higher than the going rate of interest derived from social time preference.

Importantly, economic profits (returns higher than the cost of capital) are hard to achieve and even harder to maintain. Rothbard points out that, to succeed in this challenge, entrepreneurs must demonstrate superior foresight and judgment, and practice continuous dynamic improvement in their assembly and reassembly of assets to serve the consumer. This urgency is sharpened by the competition of new entrepreneurs who see the high returns that the pioneering entrepreneur has achieved and are willing to enter the same space for lower margins so long as returns remain higher than the going interest rate. Eventually, all the superior returns will be competed away—unless the first entrepreneur keeps changing and advancing to serve more and higher-valued consumer needs.

More specifically, Rothbard’s construct is that economic profit is the result of entrepreneurs identifying discrepancies in the capital structure where capital is overdeployed in the service of less acutely felt consumer wants and underdeployed in the service of some more acutely felt consumer wants. The function of entrepreneurship is to make the adjustment that consumers are demanding. Entrepreneurs buy factors that are underpriced because of the discrepancy and recombine them to serve currently underserved needs. The adjustments are always in the direction of higher and higher productivity. The prices of the new consumer goods and services generate a profit and a return that is higher in the new, adjusted arrangement of factors than in the prior arrangements.

Rothbard also deduces that the economic profit margin will erode over time because more entrepreneurs, seeing the high return for the new arrangement, will enter the economic space and compete away the high returns, pulling them down toward the going interest rate. Entrepreneurs must continue to find more new urgent consumer needs to address, rearrange their capital structure even further, and maintain a continuous dynamism both in their capital structure and in their consumer offerings.

Man, Economy, and State is a treatise of Austrian economic theory. To what extent is it translatable to and applicable to the realities of business in 2020? The answer is that Rothbard’s acute theoretical insights can be applied directly in business strategy to great effect.

A recent McKinsey Insights article confirms every one of Rothbard’s theoretical points in real-world analysis.

First, the McKinsey consultants confirm the challenges inherent in the effort to achieve economic profit. Their S-curve distribution (they call it a “power curve” for marketing purposes) illustrates how very few firms make high economic returns and most hover close to, or in some cases below, the break-even (i.e., zero economic profit) line.


Exhibit 2

The McKinsey consultants conclude that:

  • Market forces are pretty efficient. The average company in our sample generates returns that exceed the cost of capital by almost two percentage points, but the market is chipping away at those profits. That brutal competition is why you struggle just to stay in place. For companies in the middle of the power curve, the market takes a heavy toll. Companies in those three quintiles delivered economic profits averaging just $47 million a year.
  • The curve is extremely steep at the bookends. Companies in the top quintile capture nearly 90 percent of the economic profit created, averaging $1.4 billion annually. In fact, those in the top quintile average some 30 times as much economic profit as those in the middle three quintiles, while the bottom 20 percent suffer deep economic losses. That unevenness exists within the top quintile, too. The top 2 percent together earn about as much as the next 8 percent combined. At the other end of the curve, the undersea canyon of negative economic profit is deep—though not quite as deep as the mountain is high.

With further data analysis, the McKinsey consultants identify the strategic actions that need to be taken to place a firm in the highest echelons of economic returns in their industry—and they confirm all the implications of Rothbardian theory. They propose five strategies of adjustment that effectively derive directly from Austrian theory.

First, they confirm the importance of continuous dynamic reallocation of resources by firms in order to achieve high returns.

Winning companies reallocate capital expenditures at a healthy clip, feeding the units that could produce a major move up the power curve while starving those unlikely to surge. The threshold here is reallocating at least 50 percent of capital expenditure among business units over a decade. When Frans van Houten became Philips’ CEO in 2011, the company began divesting itself of legacy assets, including its TV and audio businesses. After this portfolio restructuring, Philips succeeded at reinvigorating its growth engine by reallocating resources to more promising businesses (oral care and healthcare were two priorities) and geographies. Philips started, for example, managing performance and resource allocations at the level of more than 340 business-market combinations, such as power toothbrushes in China and respiratory care in Germany. That led to an acceleration of growth, with the consumer business moving from the company’s worst-performing segment to its best-performing one within five years.

They also identify an accompanying strategy for dynamic allocation of resources in the form of frequent M&A (mergers and acquisitions) activity—buying new assets and selling old ones. They call this strategy programmatic M&A: continuously buying and selling capital assets and turning over factors to dynamically manage capabilities.

You need a steady stream of deals every year, each amounting to no more than 30 percent of your market cap but adding over ten years to at least 30 percent of your market cap. Corning, which over the course of a decade moved from the bottom to the top quintile of the power curve, shows the value of disciplined M&A. Corning understands that doing three deals a year means it must maintain a steady pipeline of potential targets, conduct due diligence on 20 companies, and submit about five bids.

Beyond reallocation and M&A, strong capital expenditure is required to maintain profits.

You meet the bar on this lever (strong capital expenditures) if you are among the top 20 percent in your industry in your ratio of capital spending to sales. That typically means spending 1.7 times the industry median. Taiwanese semiconductor manufacturer Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) pulled this lever when the Internet bubble burst and demand for semiconductors dropped sharply. The company bought mission-critical equipment at the trough and was ready to meet the demand as soon as it came back. TSMC had been in a head-to-head race before the downturn but pulled clear of the competition after it ended because of its investment strategy. That laid the foundation for TSMC to become one of the largest and most successful semiconductor manufacturing pure plays in the world.

In addition, it is critical to maintain a strong productivity program.

This means improving productivity at a rate sufficient to put you at least in the top 30 percent of your industry. Global toy and entertainment company Hasbro successfully achieved the top quintile of the power curve with a big move in productivity. Following a series of performance shortfalls, Hasbro consolidated business units and locations, invested in automated processing and customer self-service, reduced head count, and exited loss-making business units. The company’s selling, general, and administrative expenses as a proportion of sales fell from an average of 42 percent to 29 percent within ten years. Sales productivity lifted, too—by a lot. Over the decade, Hasbro shed more than a quarter of its workforce yet still grew revenue by 33 percent.

The fifth strategic lever is improvements in differentiation. Modern Austrian economics identifies the importance of differentiation in Per Bylund’s islands of specialization theory and our focus on brand uniqueness as a source of superior profits. McKinsey uses gross margin as a proxy for differentiation, and their consultants say:

For business-model innovation and pricing advantages to raise your chances of moving up the power curve, your gross margin needs to reach the top 30 percent in your industry. German broadcaster ProSieben moved to the top quintile of the power curve by shifting its model for a new era of media. For example, it expanded its addressable client base by using a “media for equity” offering for customers whose business would significantly benefit from mass media but who couldn’t afford to pay with cash. Some of ProSieben’s innovations were costly, sometimes even cannibalizing existing businesses. But, believing the industry would move anyway, the company decided that experimenting with change was a matter of survival first and profitability second. ProSieben’s gross margin expanded from 16 percent to 53 percent during our research period.

Each one of these Rothbard-derived strategies can be effective in driving superior returns. Even more effective is to combine them, a recommendation with which Rothbard would concur.

Big moves are most effective when done in combination—and the worse your endowment or trends, the more moves you need to make. For companies in the middle quintiles, pulling one or two of the five levers more than doubles their odds of rising into the top quintile, from 8 percent to 17 percent. Three big moves boost these odds to 47 percent. To understand the cumulative power of big moves, consider the experience of Precision Castparts Corp. (PCC). In 2004, the manufacturer of complex metal components and products for the aerospace, power, and industrial markets was lumbering along. Its endowment was unimpressive, with revenues and debt levels in the middle of the pack, and the company had not invested heavily in R&D [research and development]. PCC’s geographic exposure was also limited, though the aerospace industry experienced enormous tailwinds over the following ten years, which helped a lot.

Most important, however, PCC made big moves that collectively shifted its odds of reaching the top quintile significantly. The company did so by surpassing the high-performance thresholds on four of the five levers. For mergers, acquisitions, and divestments, it combined a high value and large volume of deals between 2004 and 2014 through a deliberate and regular program of transactions in the aerospace and power markets.

PCC also reallocated 61 percent of its capital spending among its three major divisions, while managing the rare double feat of both productivity and margin improvements—the only aerospace and defense company in our sample to do so. While nearly doubling its labor productivity, PCC managed to reduce its overhead ratio by three percentage points. It lifted its gross profit-to-sales ratio from 27 to 35 percent.

The combination of a positive industry trend and successful execution of multiple moves makes PCC a showcase of a “high odds” strategy and perhaps explains why Berkshire Hathaway agreed in 2015 to buy PCC for $37.2 billion. Could our model have predicted this outcome? Based on the moves PCC made, its odds of rising to the top were 76 percent.

McKinsey’s reputation in business strategy consulting is second to none. To see these consultants apply Austrian economic theory so directly in their recommendations is a strong confirmation of its value.

This article was originally published by Hunter Hastings on Mises Wire

Where’s The Profit In Digital Innovation? It’s In Reduced Transaction Costs.

Economists tend to use weird and unhelpful language. One of their terms is Transaction Costs and these things are really important. They’re the reason why firms exist at all, and they’re the reason why the new digital platforms like and Uber get to be so big and grow so fast and assume such great prominence.

Let’s see if we can unpack the language.

When a consumer or a customer buys a service, they pay a price in money. Let’s call this the final price, after all discounts and savings and haggling, it’s the amount of cash you part with or the amount on the cheque that you write.

But the final price does not reflect the total cost to you, the buyer. There are a lot of other costs involved in many transactions, some of which we think about and try to compute, some of which we are not conscious of or don’t compute.

The High Price We Pay For Transaction Costs.

Since we have already mentioned Uber, let’s use the purchase of a taxi ride to illustrate transaction costs. If you are in the big city on a dark rainy night and you’d like to get a taxi ride to a destination several blocks away, you might compute the expected price in your head as $15 plus a tip, and decide that it represents a good value to you. You stand in the rain and the wind at the edge of the sidewalk waving at passing yellow cabs, feeling like an idiot and getting yourself and your clothes wet, thinking that there may be a visit to the dry cleaners in your future. Eventually you think you’ve snagged one, but just as it pulls to the curb a burly and brutish-looking guy runs up, pushes you out of the way, yelling “This one’s mine” and you are left disappointed and disheveled. Eventually, after waiting much longer than you had planned and worrying about being late for your appointment, you do get in the cab. It’s uncomfortable, cramped, dirty and doesn’t smell very nice. Nor does the driver. He mumbles to you in a foreign sounding accent you can’t understand. Does he recognize the address you’ve given him? He seems to be taking a long way round. Should you argue? Safer not to, probably. Eventually, you arrive. The fare is higher than you thought. You consider giving no tip but fear the confrontation this may bring on, so you demur. You take out some bills, negotiate some change, then you get out feeling wet and badly treated, and you consider a stiffer drink than you had originally planned.

These inconveniences of time, discomfort, fear and undesirable aesthetics are transaction costs. The cab ride cost $15 or $20 plus tip plus all of these transaction costs. Its value to you must be greater than the money price plus transaction costs for you to feel as though you got a good deal – that’s the essence of a voluntary market transaction, that both parties feel better for having made the exchange. Odds are that you don’t feel that way. There must be a better alternative.

Smartphones And Software Sharply Reduce Transaction Costs.

Now there is: Uber. You install the software on your smartphone. On the next similar occasion, you initiate a transaction. The software knows who you are (you’ve pre-entered the information), and it knows where you are, by the magic of GPS. It finds you a car and a driver, and gives you a rating that suggests to you that you can trust the driver and will have a good experience. The car comes to you, and you can track its incoming progress. No-one pushes you out of the way, asserting they have a prior claim. After minimum time in the rain (perhaps you have to run from the doorway to the car, but no standing), you are safely ensconced, feeling good, and on your way. You pay with one tap (you’ve already entered your payment information and the system has verified it). You arrive on time. You are unstressed, happy to be at your destination, and can get by on a regular sized alcoholic beverage.

Uber has saved you a significant amount of transaction cost. The money price of the ride may be higher, yet you feel you received good value and you’d repeat the experience.

Triangulation, Transfer And Trust.

In his new book, Tomorrow 3.0, Transaction Costs And The Sharing Economy, Michael Munger tries to wrap up these transaction costs in a catchy alliterative expression of three T’s: triangulation, transfer and trust. The affectation is a bit forced, but let’s go with it.

Triangulation refers to information about who you are, who the Uber driver is, the location of the pick-up and of the destination (and the car’s location as it makes its way to you). It’s about getting two parties to the exchange together. Munger also includes making an agreement on a price in his definition of triangulation, which you can also do with the software. All of this is easier / better / more comfortable with Uber.

Transfer refers to the way of transferring the service and the payment for it that is immediate, convenient and as invisible as possible. Software, and the pre-registration of a payment mechanism (your credit card) and the in-built processing capability make transfer easy and safe.

Trust is the way the software creates a feeling of assurance, anticipating honest dealing, with both sides living up to expectations, and performance of the terms of the contract. Both parties can anticipate that their expectations will be met by a trustworthy service provider and a trustworthy customer.

When all of the potential transaction costs are eliminated or highly reduced, the value received for the final price plus transaction costs is much higher in the consumer’s perception.

The Entrepreneurial Opportunity.

Munger’s major point is that there are tremendous amounts of entrepreneurial value creation available in the reduction of transaction costs. He refers to the sharing economy and paints the picture of  future where, if transaction costs are sufficiently reduced, no-one will need to own anything, and we’ll all get by on entrepreneurially-facilitated sharing. Need an electric drill to make a hole to hang a picture? Click on an app, have the drone or robot deliver the drill in a secure package to which you have the unlocking software code, use it for a couple of minutes, and send it back. Same with cars (don’t own one, borrow or rent one for a while), lawnmowers, perhaps even some clothes (like specialized formalwear).

Who is creating these low transaction cost experiences? Entrepreneurs. They see consumers saying, “I wish it were easier to ……..” or “I wish I had XXXX here right now” or “I really disliked my last experience with YYYY”, and they immediately think of ways to solve those problems and meet those needs. They can design an app, assembling the code from Github or by hiring an app developer on Upwork, go to market, and quickly find out whether they can sell the low transaction service improvement.

The new era of low transaction cost digital service provision is, in Munger’s telling, a revolution, as significant as the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century. Each of us as consumers will have the opportunity to lead more convenient, more efficient, and safer lives. And each of us as entrepreneurs – from Uber drivers to coders – will thrive by delivering new value creation through transaction cost reduction.

Entrepreneurs Bring Economic Progress – Which Is Far More Important To People Than GDP Growth.

Economists tend to represent economic growth as growth in the level of income and of GDP. But economic progress is far broader than that, and to focus on GDP growth is to ignore the most important elements of economic progress – the elements that improve people’s lives.

Why do economists miss this point? Because they don’t understand entrepreneurship, and the role of entrepreneurs in economic progress. In economists’ models, firms are run by managers who choose low cost resources and manage processes in order to achieve greater efficiency. In a competitive economy, this would drive companies out of business. Continuous improvement and innovation are the drivers of economic progress, and they come from entrepreneurs not managers.

We invented economic progress only recently. It began in the late eighteenth century with the industrial revolution. Before that, the standard of living and the quality of life was much the same in 1750 as it was in 1650, and it was much the same in 1650 as it was in 1550 and, indeed, as it was in 550.

Since then, economic progress has been greater in the nineteenth century than the eighteenth, greater in the twentieth century than the nineteenth, and every indication is that the progress will continue to accelerate in the twenty-first century.

In the United States, per capita GDP was nearly seven times greater at the end of the twentieth century than it was at the beginning. But looking at only growth numbers seriously misrepresents the nature of the economic progress that took place in that century.

At the beginning of the twentieth century only about 1 percent of American households had cars; by the end of the century 91 percent of households had them. Largely because of advances in medical technology, life expectancy rose from 47 years at the beginning of the century to 77 years by the century’s end. Telephones were rare at the beginning of the century, but commonplace by the end of the century. Information acquisition and entertainment were completely transformed in the twentieth century. At the beginning of the century there were no movie theaters, no radio broadcasts, and no television. By 1900 electricity was available to some, and was used mainly for lighting, but by 1950, electricity powered radios, electric washing machines, and refrigerators.

By 2000, most people classified as poor in the United States had indoor plumbing, air conditioning, telephones, and automobiles. The Internet revolutionized communication and allowed business ventures to span the globe. While only a few computers existed in the world in 1950, many people had more than one computer in their homes by 2000. Computers did not become common until the 1980s, and the World Wide Web did not exist until the 1990s. The first airplane had not yet flown at the beginning of the twentieth century, but by the end of the century travel throughout the world in jet aircraft was commonplace. Despite the tremendous GDP growth over the twentieth century, when one reflects on economic progress over the century, it is apparent that the primary component of economic progress is not the amount of income growth, as impressive as it was, but rather the substantial change in the qualitative nature of the economy’s output, and the extent to which people enjoyed consuming it.

They were also able to enjoy producing progress. At the beginning of the twentieth century the average work week in the United States was about 50 hours, and by the end of the century it had fallen to about 35 hours. Again, this quantitative change in hours worked, while impressive, does not reflect the changing nature of work, which became less dangerous and less physically demanding. People worked more with their minds and less with their bodies by the end of the century, and this is reflected in the fact that at the beginning of the century only 22 percent of adults had completed high school, while by the end of the century 88 percent had at least a high school degree. Accidental deaths, including those on the job, fell from 88 per 100,000 to 34 per 100,000 over the course of the century.

While people work fewer hours for more income, the more significant element of progress in the work people do is not the quantitative reduction in work hours or increase in output, but rather the qualitative changes in the nature of work. At the beginning of the century the reward for work was money, and most jobs were mainly manual labor. While money was still a primary motivation at the end of the century, people considered the pleasantness of a job, including intellectual stimulation, challenges, and workplace amenities as significant rewards for employment. Many people enjoy the work they do: something that would have been much rarer in 1900, when work was often physically demanding, dangerous, and tedious. One can look at growth in terms of increased output per hour of work, but the progress in terms of qualitative changes at the workplace is at least as significant as the quantitative growth.

Henry Ford was the entrepreneurial innovator who brought assembly line production to the automobile industry, which enabled a substantial increase in the output of automobiles per worker. But focusing on growth in output per worker misses the much more important truths about the transformation of lifestyles that resulted. People’s transportation options were greatly enhanced, making automobile travel available to a large segment of the population. This changed many other things – such as shopping for example. Supermarkets, shopping malls and large discount stores would not be feasible if people could not drive their own cars to transport substantial quantities of goods. Because shoppers can buy more each time they shop – because they can transport more in their automobile – stores can offer a greater variety of goods at a lower cost. Entrepreneurs who supply the retailers are encouraged to think up a larger variety of new goods for sale.

Because of the introduction of low-cost long distance telephone calling – and now the internet – these entrepreneurs can contact sellers thousands of miles away to order new products immediately. Sharp declines in transportation costs make it feasible to ship individual purchases thousands of miles to buyers. The variety of goods and services offered for sale continues to expand. Progress in one area leads to progress in others. Life gets better. Progress brings economic growth with it, but growth is a minor component of economic progress.

Progress is not brought to us by managers striving for efficiency, but by entrepreneurs developing specialist knowledge about their area of expertise and thereby discovering new opportunities to serve customers better and to make a profit doing so. The profit-and-loss system amplifies progress. Profits reinforce the pursuit of ideas that are wealth-enhancing for entrepreneurs, and losses terminate the ideas that are not. As a result, the positive impact of successful entrepreneurship is much larger in magnitude than the negative impact of unsuccessful attempts. That’s how progress occurs. Specialization is an important element – something Adam Smith knew at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Men are much more likely to discover easier and readier methods of attaining any object, when the whole attention of their minds is directed towards that single object, than when it is dissipated among a great variety of things. . . . It is naturally to be expected, therefore, that some one or another of those who are employed in each particular branch of labour should soon find out easier and readier methods of performing their own particular work, whenever the nature of it admits of such improvement. (Adam Smith, Wealth Of Nations, 1776)

Entrepreneurs invest in producing the specialized knowledge that will enable them to make future entrepreneurial discoveries. Their pursuit of knowledge makes innovation and progress more likely.

To read more, see Progress And Entrepreneurship; Randall G. Holcombe; QJAE Fall 2003.

Entrepreneurial Initiative Beats Corporate Innovation Process Yet Again. When Will They Ever Learn?

According to the Wall Street Journal, Altria, maker of Marlboro and other cigarettes, is planning to invest in Juul, maker of a cigarette alternative which vaporizes nicotine-containing liquids. These devices are often called “vapes” and the practice of using them, “vaping”. A company dedicated to addicting people to smoking burning tobacco is now adding to its portfolio a company dedicated to terminating that addiction. At the same time, Altria has made a $1.3 billion investment in Canadian cannabis company Cronos Group, Inc. It will all make for interesting portfolio management.

However, for entrepreneurs, the most important aspect of the investment combination of Juul and Marlboro is what it tells us about innovation and who is capable of delivering it. Altria has been aware for a long time of the evidence that the long term future of the cigarette market is threatened by external trends, including the subjective lifestyle preferences of consumers (and the non-consumers who dislike the “second hand smoke” problem), but also including regulation, taxation and the resultant deterioration in the price-value proposition.

Faced with such negative long term trend signals, the good and wise corporation, prompted by the business school community that has populated the executive ranks in addition to marketing its tools through consulting, seminars and books, initiated an internal innovation process. This produced the idea of so called e-cigarette products, like MarkTen and Green Smoke, devices in which tobacco is heated but not burned, which purportedly makes smoking less risky. The process also produced a device called iQOS, developed in partnership with Philip Morris International, which is a sister company spun out of Altria to sell cigarettes in international countries outside of the glare of the US legal profession and its alliance with state and federal regulators.

Philip Morris International took the lead in marketing iQOS and claimed some early success in Japan, so much so that the company diverted significant resources from conventional cigarettes to the heat-not-burn “breakthrough”. After initial growth, Motley Fool in October 2018 reported “disappointing earnings” at Philip Morris International attributable to a “significant slowdown in the e-cig’s primary market, Japan”. Motley Fool reported some early trial among a younger demographic, but “a wall of resistance among older cigarette smokers”.

It looks as though Altria has seen the warning signs as an indication of failed corporate internal innovation, and has swerved to the alternate lane of acquisition of the innovative ideas of external independent entrepreneurs.

Its investment of $12.8 billion for a 35% stake in Juul Labs Inc suggests a roughly $38 billion valuation, making Juul one of the most valuable private companies. The Juul team has created this much value in about three years, while Altria and Philip Morris international were destroying value in their failed attempts at internal innovation.

The Failure Of Centrally Planned Innovation Processes.

They should have known. Corporate innovation processes are doomed to failure. That’s because innovation is not a process. It can’t be centrally planned by executive wing geniuses, no matter how much they spend on consulting and business school seminars. Innovations like Juul are emergent results of marketplace experimentation by entrepreneurs and consumers. The consumers become dissatisfied with the current set of offerings available to them – that particular phenomenon is strikingly apparent in the cigarette market. They begin to experiment with alternatives – they might try nicotine chewing gum, or patches, or snus (tobacco pouches placed in the mouth) or even iQOS. They are not yet declaring their loyalty to a new solution, but simply looking round at alternatives.

Entrepreneurs are dissatisfied with the supply side of the market. They sense the consumer dissatisfaction and match it with their producer dissatisfaction. They, too, experiment. There have been many such producer experiments in the cigarette market, and Juul is the one that has, for the moment, risen to the top. Why? It’s usually random luck combined with a co-creation collaboration with the consumer – continuously adding and changing features and attributes and measuring consumer response until the best combination emerges. There are so many experiments among so many producers and so many consumers that one combination eventually emerges as the most preferred. The outcome can not be predicted, it can’t be modeled, and it can’t be managed. The genius of the market is that all of the failed experiments result in very small losses and a lot of learning. The one successful experiment eventually incorporates all the learning, attracts a large number of customers, creates a lot of value in a short period of time, and generates a huge amount of economic progress far in excess of the losses from the failures.

The scale and reach of this experimentation, the rapid exchange of knowledge and learning in the network of entrepreneurs and consumers, the flexible adaptiveness that allows for the rapid abandonment of the resources committed to failed paths and the agile transfer of resources to the path of success, can not be matched by a centrally planned corporate innovation process. Decision-making in hierarchical structures can’t reproduce the emergent properties of interconnected knowledge-sharing networks. Processes with their stages and gates can not compete with the spontaneous order of free experimentation. Corporate investment guidelines can not compete with entrepreneurial risk-taking.

The Future Of Innovation Lies With Interconnected Individuals.

The future of innovation lies squarely in the initiatives of the independent, interconnected entrepreneur. As new technologies like A.I. and global idea exchange platforms augment individual capacity, the trend towards individually ideated innovation will accelerate.

This does not mean that corporations will not try to suppress it rather than adopt it. Glaringly, in a follow-up report in the Wall Street Journal, we learned that one of the results of the Altria investment in Juul will be collaboration between the two companies’ regulatory teams. Speaking of cronying up to government regulators, the Altria CEO was quoted as saying, “We have years of experience” in such regulatory negotiating and another spokesperson spoke proudly of Altria’s possession of  “a level of sophistication they (Juul) need”.

This reveals a downside of capitalism. Altria has enough money to invest in Juul Labs, and enough left over to smother it in corporate process and bind it with regulatory collaboration. While there is no inherent objection to scale, it usually brings with it the insidious integration with government that is anathema to further economic progress. Not to worry; the independent entrepreneurial network will nurture new innovations through its experimentation and co-creation activities faster than incumbent corporations can capture the emergent value through M&A.

Here’s How Small Business Will Take Over The Planet.

Small business generates about 45% of US GDP, provides close to half of the jobs in the US Economy, and, in a typical year, accounts for more than 60% of the new job creation.

That all adds up to big economic impact. And the news is that small business impact is going to get bigger. In fact, small business will grow to dominate and take over the economy as the problems of managing big business compound.

Big Technology Comes To Small Business.

We have become habituated to the idea that big business deploys technology at scale to achieve reach, coverage and efficiency that small business can’t match. Giant telcos have vast, expensive networks; cable companies have their wired infrastructure; amazon has warehouses and airplanes and unlimited computing power. Today, all infrastructure is variable rather than fixed. It can be rented by the minute and on demand, so that small business can use big technology at the time and in the amounts and for the highly targeted purposes it is needed. Big technology can be downloaded from the internet, and economies of scale are no longer the barriers to entry or to efficient operation that they used to be. Flexibility, agility and timeliness are far more important economic attributes for a winning business, and small business has a good shot at not just competitiveness but at superiority on those dimensions.

Science Comes To Small Business.

We may traditionally think of small business as the product of hard work, super-specialization and local relationships rather than as a child of advanced science. Artificial intelligence and adaptive machine learning will change all that. Small businesses will be able to employ the cognitive assistance of software and robotics to personalize and tailor their services for individual consumers. Aestheticians will be able to offer and implement individually tuned facial treatments and cosmetic procedures. Landscapers can design and manage plantings and gardenscapes and irrigation systems customer by customer. Vehicle fleet owners will pick up and deliver at precise times door-to-door for their local and global clientele. Lawyers will have the searchable data from every relevant case, judgment and law text at their disposal with a robot paralegal who is smart and fast and productive: the best in the world at what they do. Personalized medicine can be practiced by the local doctor, and the local dentist will be able to implant the latest in dental construction and architecture into their patient’s mouth at the neighborhood clinic. Rapid prototyping and fast-turnaround micro-testing will be fully available to small businesses and keep them on the leading edge.

New Organizational Forms Favor Small Business.

The age of bureaucratic management is coming to a close. Bureaucracy has always been a problem for business. Big business needs it to exercise control over far flung organizational outposts, over budgets, over project management and resource allocation and HR policies. But bureaucracy slows response times down in an era when agile responsiveness is a requirement to maintain customer loyalty, and it alienates talented employees in an era where individual creativity is becoming the most important tool to manage in-market performance.

The replacement for bureaucratic management is small, agile, customer-obsessed networked teams with unrestricted autonomy for responding to customer requests and marketplace changes. There is no waiting for HQ approval. There’s no actual organizational model – every company is capable at arriving at its own form of organization that works best for its customers in its geography and its business. Therefore this organizational style is not mediated by business school-imposed standards or consultants’ print-outs. As a result, it’s hard for big business to adopt, which is one reason why small business will take the lead in organizational innovation.

Small Business Will Win With Humanity.

It’s remarkable how many people complain about their jobs in large corporation. Gallup’s global survey (2016 edition) on the subject of employee engagement (whether employees find their jobs meaningful and look forward to their work) indicates that only 13% of employees worldwide say they are engaged. The rest actively hate their jobs or merely put up with them. If they can’t engage with their jobs, how can they engage with customers? Gallup calls it an engagement crisis.

Entrepreneurial small businesses operate on empathy. They are tasked with understanding their customers’ needs and responsively designing services that meet those needs and are simpatico with customers’ values and are able to compete with every other offering that’s available. Small businesses depend on their humanity to succeed – their success in matching values with their customers in an extended and deep relationship depends on it. Digital tools can help in tracking the state of the relationship, but it is the subjective, emotional, and idiosyncratic elements in business exchanges that will be the mark of future winners. Big business will find that they can’t be successful on these dimensions.

People Prefer To Deal With Small Businesses.

We live in a time when people’s tolerance for unresponsive, insulated institutions is at a low point. This is true for political institutions like Congress and the Presidency. NPR reports that only 8% of Americans have a great deal of confidence in Congress, 19% in the Presidency, and 22% in the Supreme Court. The number for big business is 12%. If you let people down, and don’t act with humanity, you lose trust. Small business has a much greater incentive than a bureaucratic management team to be human, to engage, to respond and to earn customers’ trust.

In a 2017 Public Affairs Council poll, 41% of respondents expected small business owners to exhibit high honesty and ethical standards and only 5% expected them to have low standards in those departments. For employees of major companies, there was an expectation of high ethical standards among only 18% of respondents, and that number declined to 9% for big company CEO’s.  (Only elected officials in Washington polled lower: 7% of respondents expected high honesty and ethical standards there!)

People prefer to deal with those they know, like and trust. Small business can win big on these three fronts. More and more customers will make the choice to buy from small business, especially now that technology, science, efficiency and organizational effectiveness are no longer reserved to big business.