The Long Night Of Mathematicized Economics Is Over.

Sometime in the 19th century, economists got the idea that mathematics was an appropriate language for economics. This was a strange turn, since economics is the science of how human beings, pursuing their own desires and preferences, find ways to exchange with other human beings to produce prosperity. Finding ways to exchange involves creativity, ideation, innovation, forming companies, providing services, importing and exporting – activities and processes that don’t lend themselves to algebraic symbols and mathematical equations. 

Mathematics is inappropriate for economics, yet it has become dominant. Why? Precisely because it removed the human component, the creativity, the subjectivism. The new practitioners didn’t want that mode. They wanted cold, hard calculation. They wanted to be seen as “real scientists”, like physicists and engineers, dealing in scientific precision and not the uncertainty and softness that, in their view, characterized the analytics of social science and social interaction. Human-ness is so messy. Math is clean and sterile.

But the hold of mathematics on economics is breaking. Its inappropriateness as a tool of economic understanding is widely recognized, and new alternatives are becoming well established.

The Illusion Of Knowledge

In an essay entitled The Illusion Of Knowledge, Howard Marks, co-founder of Oaktree Capital Management, points out that the mathematical models of economics can’t predict and can’t guide expectations. There are too many variables and the most important variables are human and therefore unpredictable in their reaction to changing circumstances. He asks

Can a model replicate reality? Can it describe the millions of participants and their interactions? Are the processes it pretends to model dependable? Can the processes be reduced to mathematics? Can mathematics capture the qualitative nuances of people and their behavior? Can a model anticipate changes in consumer preferences, changes in the behavior of business, and participants’ reaction to innovation? In other words, can we trust his output?

Howard Marks, The Illusion Of Knowledge

His answer is no. 

Economics Of Verbs Not Nouns

W. Brian Arthur is another prestigious economist who rejects mathematical modeling for his science. In a paper entitled Economics In Nouns And Verbs, he observes:

The economy is very much a creation of humans and a very complicated one, so given the liberty of human choices and the vagaries of people’s actions, it is not obvious why algebraic logic and calculus should apply.

W. Brian Arthur Economics In Nouns And Verbs.

The core problem, as he articulates it, is that the algebraic symbols of econometric models exclusively represent nouns:

Economics deals with prices, quantities produced, consumption, rates of interest, rates of exchange, rates of inflation, unemployment levels, trade surpluses, GDP, financial assets, Gini coefficients. These are all nouns. In fact, they are all quantifiable nouns— amounts of things, levels of things, rates of things. Economics as it is formally expressed is about amounts and levels and rates, and little else.


The language of mathematics does not allow actions. It can’t answer questions about how an economy or a firm or a development project emerges in the first place, how innovation works, how economic development takes place, or how structural change happens. Anything in the economy that deals with adjustment— whether it is adaptation, innovation, structural change, or history itself—falls through the algebraic mathematics sieve.

Arthur calls for a language of expression in economics that can describe these actions, changes, and innovations, and thereby develop some resemblance to and understanding of the real world.

Language and Austrian economics

Ahmed Elsamadisi, CEO of the analytical software company says that there is one data model that can cope with all these variables: it’s called language. Data has a role to play, but it’s subsidiary to language. Elsamadisi talks about “having a conversation with data” – it’s human beings using language to ask the right questions who are able to find the most value in historical information.

The economics that Brian Arthur is looking for already exists, but most economists ignore it. The unfortunately-named Austrian economics – its first scholars were in Vienna but the research now is global – uses language and deductive logic from first principles to develop its theories. It has no models. 

As economist Per Bylund writes in How To Think About the Economy, economics Is about people and specifically about what they do to meet their own goals. People’s wants are unlimited but their means are not, so they economize, choosing from scarce means to achieve as much as they can. Economics is life: spontaneously and adaptively doing what we can with the resources available to us. As a consequence, the economy Is unplanned order, always in flux. It can’t be modeled.

Subjective Quantification

Professors Peter Lewin and Nicolas Cachanosky propose a novel combination of thought processes to integrate words and numbers in economic calculation. Their term is subjective quantification. Human beings have the unique ability to turn subjective ideas into numbers that express the idea. We find a particular product or service that we feel has potential value to us, and we turn that feeling into a number via our willingness to pay a monetary price to acquire it. That’s turning the subjective – our idea of value – into the objective – the number of dollars we’re willing to pay. Generally, this is the process of economic calculation. Firms estimate revenues they may receive in the future from customers who perform this value calculus. The firm uses its own estimate – a subjective one, by definition – to make plans for investment and business expenditures.

Models promise prediction and guidance on economic variables. It’s an illusion, as Howard Marks puts it.

With the new resurgence of Austrian economics, and its modern expression in what Brian Arthur calls complexity economics (an economics of verbs not nouns), the dominance of mathematics in economics is coming to an end.

187. Per Bylund: The Austrian School Approach to Business versus the Business School Approach

Business is a form of applied economics. Its purpose is to make people’s lives better. Profit is the signal from society that business is doing a good job in the customer’s estimation. This is a completely human system, a form of human action and interaction. Business schools take the approach of mainstream economics, that mathematics is the tool of choice, expressed in data analytics, accounting, financialization, and numbers-based plans and strategies. The Austrian school approach offers a very different path. Professor Per Bylund joins the Economics For Business podcast to highlight some important differences.

Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights

Business logic based on understanding subjective value.

The purpose of business to facilitate customer value. The pursuit of new economic value brings new firms into existence, the continuing realization of new value experiences for customers results in business growth, and recurrent refreshment of value propositions keeps businesses thriving and healthy.

Consequently, value is fundamental to business. Yet it is widely misunderstood. Sometimes it’s misconstrued as shareholder value, a function of stock price performance. Usually, it’s financialized as a set of numbers and indexes.

True value is in the mind of the customer. It’s the experience of feeling better off as result of interacting with a business — making a purchase, taking a subscription, or using a service that makes life feel better, and that feels like a superior choice compared to alternatives.

Customers decide what to value, and therefore what to purchase, and thereby decide the success of a business. All businesses must learn this value logic, and Austrian economics for business provides the understanding that points to the implications for business action.

Thinking in subjective terms.

An understanding of subjective value reverses the flow of business thinking. It’s easy and conventional to think in objective terms about products and prices — what a firm produces and offers and the price the firm charges. It’s harder and somewhat counter-intuitive for businesses to think about how each individual customer feels — what’s important to them, individually and personally, about the unique ecosystem in which they make their choices (e.g., their family profile, what kind of a house they live in, or the subjective resource allocation priorities of each of the individual firm they work for).

The customer decides what is valuable to them, and that’s the basis from which business action must proceed.

Value-guided creativity.

Business is a creative discipline. Because customer preferences and priorities are continuously changing, because competition is continuously aiming at making a superior customer proposition, because technology is continuously making new benefits and new customer experiences possible, and because we can’t possibly know how all this will work out in the future, businesses must always be changing, improving, adding, renewing, becoming somehow better in the future than they are today.

The only way to invent the future in this way is through creativity — new ideas, new combinations, new routes to convenience, new removal of barriers. Creativity can be random and unpredictable — we don’t know what is going to be successful out of all our creative ideas. Therefore, we apply constraints so that creativity operates within productive boundaries, and the generative constraint is customer value. If all our creative ideas are guided by the constraint of “will the customer find this more valuable”, then the opportunity for productive innovation is greater. If we place ourselves in the shoes of customers, and try to simulate what they will feel when they experience a new value proposition, we’re on the track to business success. This is value-guided creativity.

Business as a flow.

Business schools emphasize planning and strategy (and strategies are often just long-term, bigger plans). These are tools of prediction and control — predict the future (we will achieve $10 million in annual revenue this year) and control how we get there (100 salespeople must sell $100,000 each). The numbers can fill a spreadsheet.

Similarly with organization design: the spreadsheet in this case is an org chart, with layers and reporting pathways and divisions and units, another exercise in statics.

The Austrian recognition of constant change results in re-thinking business as a flow. Thinking in statics is potentially disastrous because the world can change while your firm does not. Thinking dynamically opens the firm to feedback loops from the marketplace, listening to customers and monitoring when their preferences change or competition shifts, and being open to adapting and adjusting.

Organization design gives way to orchestration, the constantly changing arrangements dedicated to the improvement of the customer’s value experience.

Every business can and must act entrepreneurially.

Our term for the orientation towards and capacity for constant change — constant pursuit of new customer value — is entrepreneurship.

In the popular vernacular, the word entrepreneurship has come to be associated with charismatic individuals, like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or Reed Hastings. They are identified as the instigators of and catalysts for new value generation. That’s fine — such individuals are important in challenging the status quo. But for effective and commercial and sustainable new value generation, the entire firm must be entrepreneurial — highly sensitive to how a particular configuration of resources and a particular business model and value proposition serves customers, and to changes in the business environment that require adjustment on the firm’s part. The firm must be flexible enough to make these adjustments. Often, the market data comes to the firm from the edge, where front line employees working directly with customers gather the inbound information about change. The entrepreneurial firm ensures that the new information flows freely and is acted upon, and gives those closest to the customer the authority to make responsive changes.

Business schools often teach static and defensive concepts such as economies of scale and competitively insulated market structures. Business for them is production management. Business from the Austrian school perspective is value discovery, value facilitation and responsive change in the form of new products, new services, and new value.

Entrepreneurial empathy as a tool.

When we think of business tools highlighted in business schools, we might think of strategic planning, data analytics, accounting, process management, incentive compensation, and financialization.

The tool of choice for the entrepreneurial firm is empathy. Empathy is customer-first thinking. It focuses on identifying and understanding what customers feel is missing in their life, what they long for and wish for. There’s a gap between customers’ actual experiences and their desired experiences. They can’t articulate solutions, but they’re brilliant at identifying the potential for improvement. If the customer feels that some experiences could be better, or that they’re struggling in some capacity with an experience, that’s a signal for the creative entrepreneurial firm to experiment with new ways to deliver that betterment.

Entrepreneurial firms create better futures for their customers via empathy. They bring customers new things that they can want, that weren’t available to them in the past or of which they were not aware.

It’s not all numbers.

Just as mainstream economics has been rendered irrelevant and meaningless to real people because of its insistence on the use of algebra and mathematical models instead of real world observations, so mainstream business schools have made business into a world of spreadsheets, accounting, data analysis, bar charts and graphs, and structures and formulas.

Austrian school business thinkers understand the role of qualitative assessment — understanding people as humans as opposed to statistics, understanding emergent processes, understanding feelings and subjective value, and that the things that matter to people, both employees and customers, are values not numbers.

That’s why narrative and sense-making stories are taking the place of plans and strategies. Software development provides a good example: user experience design is a narrative about how customers prefer to interact with the software they are using, rather than a focus on lines of code.

Action and feedback loops.

The ultimate replacement for business school concepts of planning and strategy is action. Entrepreneurship is action. Action generates an effect — a feedback loop from the marketplace that signals the result of the action. The customer purchased or did not purchase. The rating improved or worsened. Revenue grew or declined. In the A/B test, B was preferred.

The feedback loop is processed as learning, and new decisions can be made and new actions taken based on that learning, eliminating some possibilities, and opening up others. Innovation is introduced to the market and new learning follows new innovation in a continuous loop.

In the thinking of entrepreneurial action, acting faster and sooner is better, because the effect is generated faster, the feedback loop accelerates, and the resulting new action is fresher and and more responsive to the customer’s needs. When action is bolder and more daring, the feedback loop is more informative and clearer in its signals. The future unfolds as a result of entrepreneurial action.

Entrepreneurs don’t act alone or in isolation. The unfolding of the future is the consequence of many actions on the part of many people and firms. The market, therefore, is a process. Action and reaction keep it moving in unpredictable ways — resulting in what complexity theorists call emergence.

The Austrian School is a complete system for business.

We didn’t have sufficient time with Professor Bylund in the podcast format to cover the complete range of business functions, including marketing and accounting and business model design, but these are all improved and enhanced by what we can call the Austrian approach. The goal of Economics For Business is to deliver this complete system in the form of tools, posts, articles, papers, books, videos, and podcasts like this one.

Additional Resources

Austrian School Versus Business School: A side-by-side comparison (PDF):

How To Think About The Economy: A Primer by Per Bylund: 

186. Jared Wall: How a Courageous Entrepreneur Enters a Formative Market

How do new markets form? When consumers change their tastes and preferences and behaviors, how are the markets to serve them activated? The markets don’t yet exist — entrepreneurial action is required to create them. The answer to the question, of course, is that entrepreneurs — real people taking the real business risk to initiate new business experiments — provide the new energy and new initiative to create markets where previously they didn’t exist.

Jared Wall is one of these creative entrepreneurs, and is his creation.

Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights.

Courageous entrepreneurs lead the way into new markets as they are still forming.

Entrepreneurs bring the energy that opens new markets and new pathways to economic value. New markets can emerge as the result of changing consumer tastes and preferences, new channels or platforms, new forms of delivery, new technologies or a combination of several catalysts — but the energy, initiative and drive of the entrepreneur is always the necessary ingredient for the ultimate emergence of new value and new market arrangements.

New discoveries and new innovations often provide the entrepreneur with market-opening mechanisms.

Serving customers in new and different ways doesn’t always require new products and services, but it is often the case that the discovery or invention of novel combinations can lead to innovation — that is, new and better experiences for customers that were previously unknown or unavailable or narrowly distributed. In the market for consumable cannabis products, there emerged a new THC variant called Delta 8 THC, a cannabinoid that offered both different product performance and different accessibility. The emergent new ingredient provided the pathway to a whole new market opportunity.

Legislation and regulation are complications and barriers in formative markets, but often their ambiguity provides an opening for innovative entry.

The courageous entrepreneurs who lead the way into formative markets often encounter legislative and regulatory barriers, since these are static drags on progress and innovation and never keep up with the changes in markets. At the same time, the regulatory thicket can sometimes be useful to the entrepreneur who can cut a new opening others can’t imagine.

In the market for consumable cannabis products, Delta 8 THC became such a new opening, which was cut when some content in a comprehensive congressional Farm Bill encouraged the commercialization of certain kinds of hemp, of which Delta 8 THC was one of the by-products. Legislators and policy authors can’t think about the future the way entrepreneurs can, and they did not envision the future world of innovation they were unlocking.

The regulatory maze is an aspect of legislation and regulation — but every maze has an exit path.

Innovation in formative markets combines and compounds.

Jared Wall launched to offer Delta 8 THC experiences to consumers. Those who shop at the site find a lot more innovation than just this ingredient. There are multiple new consumable forms for varied experience delivery — gummies, chocolate bars, chewing gum, soft gels, and peanut brittle, among others.

Where do these innovations come from? Not from the R&D labs of major corporations, that’s for certain. They originate in the creative minds of imaginative entrepreneurs, and they take shape in their experiments and prototypes and willingness to try new things. Will they all be big successes? Of course not. But they will all generate feedback loops of acceptance or non-acceptance, reviews and ratings and experience sharing; they’ll contribute to innovation as an ongoing cycle of learning. Society enjoys better choices because entrepreneurs unleash their creativity and don’t hold back from experimental designs.

Market infrastructure and market institutions can’t always keep up with entrepreneurial change, but new supportive services quickly appear to lubricate frictions and provide institutional arbitrage.

All commerce needs infrastructure such as payment systems and institutions such as banks, and market formation can sometimes move faster than infrastructure and institutions can adapt. Jared Wall had this experience — PayPal and major banks cut off services because, while serving legitimate customers with legal products, was deemed a “high risk” business, outside their terms and conditions.

Yet, in a quite inspirational way, business services emerge in these situations to navigate around the barriers of poorly adapted institutions. Jared found consultants who offer the service of connecting so-called “high risk” businesses with value-network partners willing to collaborate with them. Jared was quickly able to replace his payment system and banking infrastructure. There was a service interruption, but it was temporary. A new network of mediating services quickly formed to bypass institutional barriers.

The creation and sharing of new information is a big part of the innovation equation.

Jesus Huerta De Soto1 identifies the creation and sharing of new information as the central activity of entrepreneurs – informing customers of new products and services and new offerings and prices. Entrepreneurs are constantly creating, updating, and improving the information resources they make available to customers. High quality information enhances value.

On, Jared provides information in Q&A form, pull-down menus, and product descriptions. He’s self-published an informative e-book that’s free on the site, and he publishes an informative newsletter. We can sometimes feel unclear about the value of information, but in formative markets its importance is primary not secondary.

185. Jessica Fialkovich On The Business Of Selling Businesses

Every business should have an exit plan in mind from Day 1. Why? Because it’s impossible to control the timing of an exit or the changes in circumstances that might precipitate it. Venture capitalists know this, and build in their exit formulas at the time of their initial funding. Entrepreneurs should think the same way. And, like any business process, selling a business is a knowledge-based process that repays an investment in learning its techniques and critical success factors. Economics For Business talked to Jessica Fialkovich, a successful business builder in her own right, who founded Exit Factor, an advisory firm that helps entrepreneurs get the most from selling their businesses.

Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights

Entrepreneurship provides better career control and security than corporate life.

Jessica climbed the corporate ladder, investing effort and skill into being a great employee. But she was just a name on a list when the GFC came along – a list of those to be let go when Lehman Brothers (her employer’s funder) collapsed.

She realized that entrepreneurship provided her with great security. There’s uncertainty, but the entrepreneur decides what their future is, takes responsibility for those decisions, and accepts the accountability.

She built a successful business through hard work and the discovery process of identifying target customers and finding new and better ways to bring them value. Her chosen business was in wine sales to wine-loving customers, many of whom were connoisseurs. She developed many specialized services including finding rare wines for collectors, and her clientele spanned the globe. She incorporated the latest technologies and innovated in marketing techniques. She worked long hours, talking to customers across 16 time zones from Japan to California.

Then she decided to sell.

Entrepreneurs experience a lot less support when selling a business than when building it.

When you’re successfully growing a business, everyone wants to help, providing you with business services and supplies, and advice and ideas. What Jessica found when she came to sell was that she was on her own. It was hard to find expert help, or the requisite resources, or pretty much any kind of support infrastructure for a transaction of the size she was planning. For big business, there’s investment banking. For the 99.9% of businesses outside the Fortune 500, there was nothing similar. There were some so-called business brokers, but they were not dedicated specialists, not professionals in the specific process of selling, unreliable and poor at client service.

As an alert entrepreneur, Jessica understood that this finding signaled a market need.

The first step to design for an under-served market is to draw on relevant experience from parallel markets.

Business development always starts with first principles: is there a market to be served, in that some potential customers feel an unmet need or have a meaningful problem to be solved? Jessica had first-hand knowledge of the problem, and talking to entrepreneurs in similar situations reinforced her confidence in the market’s potential.

The comparison market Jessica chose was investment banking, which can be thought of as selling businesses of a larger scale. There’s an established investment banking process and a timeline of steps and milestones from preparing an evaluation, to developing the pitch deck, to the identification of the best buyers and the tailoring of a marketing plan for them. Jessica’s husband had some relevant investment banking experience which enhanced the knowledge transfer from one field to another, and provided a reality check for the process design.

Business-to-business services development and execution has its own set of rules; the most important one is the nurturing of relationships.

A business brokerage is a high-intensity B2B service bundle requiring a lot of in-person customized relationship management. There’s pitching the potential customers in the first place, customizing the service tom their particular business and to meet their specific needs, with a big need for staff training to deliver these specialized services. B2B service providers must be both sales experts and process experts. That requires a lot of human capital.

Jessica’s answer was to design and build a system-based model that, once in place, could be repeated and reproduced via well-trained staff with the right IT support.

She has found B2B services to be even more demanding than sourcing rare wines for connoisseurs. Selling a business is somehow more personal and individual. A client’s perception of what their business is worth may be quite different than the market’s perception. It’s the nurturing of relationships that smooths out the potential jagged edges in these transactions.

Some insights for entrepreneurs selling their business.

  • Identify your exit options from Day 1 of your business. Since it’s impossible to control exit timing – which may be due to unforeseen changes in circumstances – it’s best to lay the runway from the start. Plan to run a salable business, as well as one that’s profitable and growing. Don’t have a fire sale or panic sale or be unprepared.
  • Tailoring your selling process to the size and type of your business is important. There are different influences on what moves valuations up or down depending on business size, but, in all cases, it’s a process with a beginning, a middle and an end to be planned for in advance. You’ve got to know how to find buyers, how to source offers, and how to keep your business in good shape for due diligence.
  • Conduct regular health checks for evaluation. Always know what your business is worth. Find out how businesses are valued in your industry or sector. Make sure your business shows well on the criteria that are applied in your field.
  • EBITDA multiples are the dominant valuation metric. You may read in the Wall Street Journal about businesses being acquired for brand value, or for technology integration, or for other reasons of corporate M&A strategy. For small and medium size businesses, EBITDA multiples remain the dominant metric. There’s some art regarding what the precise multiple may turn out to be, but it’d within a range and is not going to vary wildly.
  • There is some room for qualitative factors and subjective valuation. Jessica listed subjective factors ranging from the degree of business involvement of the owner (and the worry that their future absence might be detrimental) to the perceived quality of the brand and its imagery and reputation.
  • The ultimate asset is a proven and scalable business model. If you can demonstrate that your business model returns increases in revenue and profit growth for additional investments in capital or people or marketing, then you are most likely to find an eager buyer. Make sure you can model your business in this way and that the data are clean and credible.

Additional Resources

Getting The Most For Selling Your Business by Jessica Fialkovich:

Jessica on LinkedIn:

184. Rick West: When B2B Goes Click-To-Cart

Do the principles of customer value generation that we espouse in our Economics For Business program apply equally for both B2C and B2B businesses? The answer is emphatically yes. B2B customers are seeking subjective value and a value experience just as B2C customers are. They have a clear sense of the things that matter to them, and those include emotional and personal values as well as price and functionality and performance.

In fact, trends that begin in the B2C domain often quickly begin to influence the B2B domain, and the alert entrepreneur can track those trends in B2C and establish an early advantage by exploring them for their business customers. Rick West has done exactly that with his business services company, Field Agent.

Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights

In addition to identifying a meaningful problem, and providing an effective innovative solution, entrepreneurs in today’s B2B market must offer the right service delivery platform.

Rick West created a company called Field Agent to provide B2B customers with a meaningful service: monitoring their retail stores and shopper behavior and collecting in-store data about the interactions of shoppers, stores, shelves, displays and products. This kind of information is high value for both the retail operators (like Walmart) and the companies that sell products through retail stores (such as Procter and Gamble or The Coca-Cola Company). The set of services often goes by the terminology of “shopper marketing”.

Typically, such business service offerings have a long and cumbersome sales cycle. The service provider and the service client get in contact, there are meetings, prices are negotiated, and contracts are prepared and signed. Then, once the service is executed, there are more steps in analytics and preparation of presentations of findings, and another big meeting to discuss the findings and recommendations. Lots of meetings, lots of travel, lots of time, lots of lawyers.

Is this the right service delivery platform? It’s been virtually institutionalized over time. But it’s not a good fit with modern business models and the modern technology-shaped environment.

The Amazon effect.

Think about purchasing on a shopping platform like The customer first self-educates. If there’s a complex product to buy – such as an expensive flat screen HDTV with internet connectivity and interaction with all the latest entertainment ecosystem devices like Roku and streaming services like Apple TV – the customer might search for information via google, might visit some ratings sites, do some comparison shopping, and generally collect information to get to the point where they are confident of making a purchase. They don’t need to speak to an HDTV salesperson or a “customer success manager” or to sign a paper contract.

Or think of a slightly more complex transaction such as buying a car on Vroom. There are some contracts to be signed via DocuSign, but confident shoppers are comfortable with self-educating, making their decision, committing, and experiencing the delivery of the car to their home, perhaps with the added service of taking away their old one.

This is the world of services and service delivery we live in today. Your B2B customer also has a life as a consumer and an internet shopper, and is fully aware of the efficiency, convenience, and safety of these kinds of transactions. Call it the amazon effect: customers becoming comfortable with the “click-to-cart” experience, without interpersonal interaction with a salesperson or other service personnel.

Why not in B2B services?

Click-to-cart has arrived in B2B services.

Rick West’s customers for Field Agent services can purchase them on A full array of shopper marketing services is offered via pull-down menus in categories such as Audits, Marketing, and Insights. Under these headings are Display Photography, Price Check, Shelf Management, Price Sensitivity Study, and dozens more, all in the language of shopper marketing that’s well understood by the knowledgeable B2B service buyer.

Clicking on any one of these takes the client to a price list and a detailed description of the service and its output, all in the colorful and engaging presentation style of an e-commerce site (like!) The client can create an account online and make a transaction just as easily as buying a TV on amazon (and probably easier than buying a car on Vroom).

Self-educated buyers know exactly what they want, and the description and designation of the services are crisp and clear. Clients can check out testimonials, comparison shop, and take all the steps any smart B2B service purchaser would take to get themselves to the point of confidence and trust.

Some customized services will always be a client requirement, but there will be a rapid shift to more and more self-service.

Some clients and some projects will always require a custom, tailored response, and Rick’s company has both custom service and automated service capabilities. One point he makes is that a first project might be customized and accompanied by in-person client service, while for the second or repeat purchase, the client will be comfortable with the click-to-cart process.

Rick’s guessing a 70:30 split for automated versus customer services over time in his field, especially as the interface software learns and becomes better and better at responding to client needs and preferences.

B2B entrepreneurs are trend-spotters in the B2C domain.

People are people. Economic behaviors that we can observe in consumer shopping and buying are bound eventually to show up in business-to-business markets. They’re the same people – your B2B client is a consumer when not at work. Smart B2B entrepreneurs keep an eye open for B2C trends that can be expected to transfer to B2B and jump on them early.

Additional Resources

Field Agent:


Rick West on LinkedIn:

183. Ahmed Elsamadisi: The Stories Data Can Tell Us If We Ask The Right Questions

How do companies make decisions? Data certainly don’t make decisions, nor do analytics, nor do the computers they run on. Human begins make decisions — the human factor is crucial. Subjectivism is paramount, even in the age of big data and A.I. The key still lies with the people who are interacting with the data to generate human insights.

Ahmed Elsamadisi is one of the leading data scientists in the world. He’s worked on self-driving cars and nuclear defense and some of the biggest business challenges on earth. He believes that it is the stories we tell from data that drive business success. We are privileged to interview him at Economics For Business podcast, and he gave us a lot of useful advice we can all use every day in managing our businesses.

Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights

The data community has made data and algorithmic analysis far too complex, to the point where it’s no longer useful for business.

The path-dependent route to today’s complex data tables was paved with lots and lots of columns and lots and lots of rows. These data tables are leftovers from the early days of computing SQL language was designed to manipulate these rows and columns. A.I. comes along and can analyze all the possible combinations of data cells. Business executives ask their data departments to generate a lot of these combinations to search for patterns. It often takes a long time, a lot of revisions, and generates no clear answers.

Another aspect of history is the use of dashboards. We tend to design dashboards rather than formulate good business questions. The metrics on dashboards are sometimes useful for operations but they’re often not at all useful for understanding the causal connections between data points. Consequently, different people can interpret them in different ways and there is no consensus as to what they mean and what to do about it.

The purpose of data analytics is to generate good decisions that lead to action.

The entrepreneurial method drives towards D and A: decisions and actions. Analytics should help to formulate the hypotheses on which to base decisions. The problem with complex dashboards and algorithmic pattern recognition is that they often don’t give clear direction on recommended action, especially when the interpretation varies depending on who is doing the interpreting.

Ahmed’s experience is that sharing a numerical dashboard with 10 executives is very likely to result in 10 different interpretations, and the resultant confusion and disagreement freezes action rather than accelerating it.

We need data to tell us stories that we can all rally around.

The most powerful tool for developing consensus around action is narrative — often called storytelling. While 10 dashboard interpretations might lead to 10 different action plans, a single well-told story can align everyone who hears it, understands it, and internalizes it. We heard about the power of narrative in episode #181 ( in which Brian Rivera explained the role of storytelling and sensemaking in The Flow System of management, and in episode #152 ( where Derek and Laura Cabrera explained the power of aligned mental models for driving business. Stories achieve alignment.

Ahmed Elsamadisi built his service,, to output data analytics in the form of a story. The complexity riddle is removed and replaced with a narrative that all executives, not just data scientists, can understand. re-integrates data science with the all-important human element of understanding stories.

The way to get data to tell stories is with a conversation.

Ahmed says that the way we ask questions (data queries) is flawed. It’s quite a normal practice to set the A.I. to search the data tables to look for patterns to see if anything interesting emerges. This is what Ahmed calls “lazy hypothesis generation”, which is never going to yield useful actionable insights (yet many big analytics companies are taking in huge customer revenues for just this service). Clients may claim to be making data-driven decisions but that’s mis-characterizing this business behavior, typical though it may be.

Ahmed advises us to think more in terms of a conversation with data. To facilitate this, he has developed a universal data model with just three variables: an entity (such as a customer), an action, and time. Every business question is about a customer taking some action in some time period. The universal data model enables the conversation: what action did the customer take in what period of time, e.g., when did they open the email and what action did they take after opening it. This is not a database query, it’s a more thoughtful question about the customer experience and how to understand it.

Ahmed told us that training customers in this conversational mode of interaction with the universal data model results in a cultural shift in thinking. The conversation can go back and forth in several iterations until the understanding is fully honed. Clients hear the data talking to them through the stories that generates. The have deeper insights and a story to share to form a consensus around the action that the story suggests. clients have used stories for everything from describing new product specs to updating board decks.

Great conversations with data are based on empathy and thinking about the customer experience.

At Economics For Business, we elevate customer empathy a the most important business skill, in the context of an understanding of customer value as subjective, a good feeling from an enjoyable or satisfying experience.

Ahmed advises us to think in this same way when formulating conversations with data to generate insights. If we think about the customer’s experience, desired and actual, and the actions they take before and after that experience, and the time context of the experience, we’ll do well in formulating good questions. The action component of the universal data model is central to the Austrian deductive method: knowing what people do can help us deduce motivation and expectation. Knowing what they did next can shed light on the ends they had in mind. Actions like opening e-mails or repeat buying are also revealing of intent and expectations. The more we converse with the data, the more insight we can gain.

Storytelling with data is another implementation of subjective quantification — with the benefit of enhanced intuition over time.

In episode #176 (, Peter Lewin introduced us to the Austrian concept of subjective quantification — turning customers subjective valuations into numbers such as capital value on a balance sheet. We tested the subjective quantification term with Ahmed, and he endorsed it — with a major addition. It’s important to include the dimension of time. If, over time, we have better and better conversations with data and formulate better questions and hypotheses, we’ll get better and better at generating insights. Our intuition will improve. We’ll get a better “feel” for the data. Even our empathy can become more accurate.

Additional Resources and its excellent blog,

“Top Ten Signs You Have A Data Modeling Problem”:

Ahmed Elsamadisi on LinkedIn: