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The True Story Of Capitalism.

Many people today are skeptical about capitalism. Suspicious of it. In some cases, downright hostile. These people believe – or have been led by others to believe – that capitalism is bad for society overall. They believe that capitalism is extractive – it extracts work and effort from masses of people to produce financial reward for a narrow few, with limited benefit (or maybe a net deficit) left for those who do the work. A particular sliver of the financial elite has some specific techniques for extracting the vast bulk of available value for themselves via special tools such as hedge funds, currency trading, and all kinds of esoteric instruments. They believe the biggest corporations extract wealth for shareholders and executives to self-reward themselves with stock awards, stock options, share buybacks, and dividends. They believe that there is monopolistic control over markets exerted by these large-scale corporations. They believe that first-world countries and corporations take value from less-developed countries via resource extraction, cheap labor, and short-term economic activities that don’t leave behind long-term infrastructure or institutions. They believe the inequality of wealth and income in capitalism is deliberately and malevolently manipulated.

But none of this is the true story of capitalism. There are two good places to start in telling the real story. The first is 19th-century America. After the Civil War, the US was in economic expansion mode. The population was growing, supplemented by immigration, and was economically mobile, moving West, establishing cities, starting businesses, learning how to enjoy new lives. Technology was evolving, bringing new enablements for those new lives, including affordable illumination (from oil refining), rail transportation (from steel making and steam engines), better clothing (from sewing machines and new fabric technologies), better food (from mass manufacturing and mass distribution made possible by factory organization) and more. It was in this environment that great entrepreneurs invented customer capitalism. They identified the unstated, unmet needs of customers – such as affordable light for families at home at night for a better quality of life and extended productivity, safe and nutritious food, soaps for more hygienic washing, better communications – and designed systems of unprecedented scale and complexity that could be implemented to meet those needs. Factories, production lines, precision machines for manufacturing, international supply chains, secure packaging, mass distribution and mass marketing – these were all innovations of the times to serve customers in better and better ways. The energy behind these innovations came from a new invention, unique to America at the time: the corporation and its managerial methods. The entrepreneurs invented the managerial corporation because it was necessary to do so to harness the vast potential for value creation of their machines, factories, supply chains, and transportation and distribution networks. The challenge had never before been encountered, but the coordination enabled by new decentralized corporate management systems solved the problem. 

Customers were learning what they could want in the new world of technology, manufacturing, and economic expansion. Those corporations that were able to fulfill those new wants were the ones to thrive and grow into powerful commercial entities of a new type, size, and form. They became the engines of capitalism, doing far more to advance the capacity and achievements of the new country than anything than government could. 

At the same time, in the heart of Europe, a group of researchers in economics were discovering the principles that would guide the further development of customer capitalism as a system of organizing the economy. First, they established the principle of value that guides all economic production: value is in the mind of the customer. It’s not a number or a price, it’s a flow of life enjoyment, a flow of experiences becoming better and better over time, satisfying ever more needs and fulfilling ever more wants. The job of the corporation is to facilitate and sustain this flow.

The method of doing so, identifying value (what the customer is learning to want), and designing new and innovative ways to enable them to enjoy the future experience they are anticipating via a method called entrepreneurship, was another discovery of these economists. Another of their principles, a crucial one, is that entrepreneurial value generation is an adaptive, experimental and creative activity, and can’t be planned in advance or from the top down. This excludes government, as a central planning agency, from any role in customer capitalism, and also guides the private corporation in the design of their organization and processes to make them adaptive to feedback from customers and markets. Those that become bureaucratic and unresponsive are condemned to fading and failure. Continuous innovation is the only route to sustained success.

The early research came from the University of Vienna and has inherited the name Austrian economics over time. But the research tradition has continued in the US after many of the pioneers fled Europe to do their work in universities in the US. The continued further development of Austrian economics in the USA nurtures and enhances the innovative free market traditions of customer capitalism.

These two parallel streams of corporate commercialism in the US, harnessing technology and organization to profitably serve customer needs, and the continuous refinement of free market economic principles and institutions to make that commercialism viable, combine in the true story of capitalism. Capitalism is for the benefit of all: first and foremost for consumers, whom corporations and other producers are aiming to serve and please. The economic activity of doing so creates jobs and meaningful employment for many. Corporations aim to gain the support of the communities in which they establish offices and factories, improving community life, especially for the families that live and work and school their children there. And for investors, the success of corporations in serving customers can result in the profits that pay dividends and spark stock appreciation. And the system requires the institutional support of a prevailing set of economic thinking to strengthen the culture and mindset that attracts the best people to roles as entrepreneurs, managers, investors and workers.

Customer-focused corporations and the economics of entrepreneurial value creation are the true story of capitalism.

Austrian Economics Is On The Right Side.

Iain McGilchrist is a neuroscientist, psychiatrist and philosopher who devoted his research work to illuminating the proposition of hemisphere differences in brain function. We all have a left brain hemisphere and a right brain hemisphere, and they function (or “see the world”) differently. McGilchrist makes long lists of the differences in worldview attributable to the hemispheres.  We can selectively highlight a few here:

The left hemisphere (LH) deals with detail, the local, what’s in the foreground, and easily grasped. The right hemisphere (RH) deals with the whole picture, including the periphery and the background. this local versus global distinction is one of the major differences in the processing of the two hemispheres.

  • The RH is on the lookout for and better st detecting and dealing with what is new. The LH deals with what is familiar.
  • The LH aims to narrow things down to a certainty, while the RH opens them up into possibility. The RH is comfortable with ambiguity and holding pieces of information that appear to have contrary implications, whereas the LH makes an either/or decision in favor of one of them.
  • The LH’s world tends towards fixity and stasis, that of the RH towards change and flow.
  • The RH recognizes uniqueness and individuality. The LH tends towards more generalization.
  • The RH is essential for empathy, and emotional receptivity and expressivity are greater in the RH.

McGilchrist’s thesis is that the left hemisphere and its mode of thinking has become dominant in today’s world, and that dominance is a disaster for civilization. Why? What he calls the left hemisphere world 

  • has lost the broader picture
  • favors data over knowledge
  • has lost the concepts of skill and judgment
  • favors bureaucracy (procedures that are known and predictable)
  • elevates quantity as the only criterion versus quality
  • dismisses common sense
  • discards tacit knowledge
  • has a need for total control
  • has more anger and aggression
  • loses social cohesion
  • is characterized by passive victimhood

In the field of economics, we can clearly see McGilchrist’s left hemisphere versus right hemisphere dominance in action. Mainstream economics, the style that is practiced by government and the Federal Reserve, taught in academia and written about in the New York Times, exhibits a left-hemisphere dominated pattern. Austrian economics is more right-hemisphere, in stark contrast.

mainstream economicsAustrian economics
Principally concerned with mathematicization, modeling, aggregates and related variables (x causes y).Principally concerned with the economic system and its emergence as a result of the purposeful actions of individuals reasoning subjectively.
Empirical, working with data series and tables and numerical outcomes.Verbal and logical, working with language and reason, observing behavior to deduce motivation and purpose.
Captures data in re-usable mathematical symbols and algebraic formulae. Seeks to construct reusable/repeatable models.Deals with uncertainty, dynamics, constant flux, and flow.
Equations are solved, models are completed and self-sufficient. Point predictions.Descriptive and not predictive. Assumes constant change, uncertainty and non-linearity.
Positivist, adopting the methods of physical sciences.Humanist, adhering to the approach of social sciences.
The economy as a machine to be tuned.The economy as a complex adaptive system. Interaction of many components. Emergence.

The focus of Austrian economics on real people, individuals interacting in the pursuit of subjectively-assessed value, creating a dynamic flow of activity of benefit for all contrasts starkly with the mainstream economics focus on mathematical models and solving equations, aggregate quantities like GDP, and unremitting regulation and government intervention aimed at control.

Until we rebuild our institutions from a more balanced perspective, releasing the hold of the left hemisphere on our thinking and behavior, we are condemned to follow the downward spiral into a command-and-control economy.

192. Mark McGrath on Orientation and the Adaptive Entrepreneurial Method

When firms apply the principles of Austrian economics to business management, we call the result the Adaptive Entrepreneurial Method. It’s adaptive in that it is a continuous learning process, and it’s entrepreneurial in elevating customer value realization as the most important business purpose.

Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights.

The Adaptive Entrepreneurial Business Method

Businesses that follow the adaptive entrepreneurial method put customer value first.

Value in Austrian economics is customer value: contributing to customers’ feelings of being better off as a result of the interaction with an entrepreneurial business or service provider. A useful way to think about value is in terms of alignment and order. A value exchange is a harmonious alignment between customer and entrepreneur, in which both parties benefit and both parties’ interests are served. Order is represented by the customer’s decision, a point of clarity in a world of multiple choices, overlapping preferences and broad-based uncertainty.

Entrepreneurial businesses make value their purpose and identify it in alignment and harmony with customers. Everything else — cash flow, profits, growth — follows.

Entrepreneurial orientation enables the right interpretation of data and information for customer value realization.

Mark McGrath emphasizes the powerful role of entrepreneurial orientation in business success. Orientation is a mindset — a kind of internal operating system — that guides firms to translate information from customers, partners, competitors and the market into an effective, winning vision and mission.

The essence of orientation is learning. Uncertainty is assumed, and orientation is the unique set of filters through which entrepreneurs and management teams process the quantitative and qualitative data that customers and markets present. Mises called it economic calculation: the entrepreneurial capacity for combining a constantly changing stream of information into a business decision. The decisions are always reviewable and revisable; a learning mindset makes entrepreneurs comfortable with frequent decision changes in response to changing information and feedback. Principles — such as the primacy of customer value — remain the same; it’s actions that are adjusted.

Businesses that don’t learn can get locked into models that no longer reflect the realities of the marketplace, and lose their effectiveness.

People, ideas, and things.

Learning, adapting, and changing are difficult capabilities to master. Continuous change can feel disorienting absent the right mindset. How do companies achieve this mastery? Mark McGrath quotes Joh Boyd on the eternal verity of people, ideas, and things — always in that order.

The first critical component are the people engaged in and operating the business. They must be good at change, comfortable with constant flux. They must accept VUCA — volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity — as the normal condition. At the same time, management must be conscious of how each new change or wave of change impacts people, and anticipates the effect it will have on them.

In this change-accepting environment, unlimited new ideas can emerge via the creative process. They can be tested, and marketplace results become the yardstick. When new ideas look promising in terms of the results they potentially enable, then things can be changed: capital can be redeployed in new combinations, marketing campaigns can be revised. When people are pre-prepared, smooth transitions are achievable.

Continuous Reorientation And Entrepreneurial Intent.

While entrepreneurial orientation is the firm’s operating system for processing information, it is not fixed. Adaptive firms are continuously reorienting, Active reorientation supports learning, recognizing that all perceptual models are only as good as the moment they were developed. They must be renewed to stay relevant. Challenging assumptions and reframing problems must be continuous in order for firms to thrive and use change to advantage. Effective orientation looks to the future rather than the present, emphasizing agility and avoiding clinging to outdated models.

Reorientation precedes intent and reshapes it. Entrepreneurial intent can be equated to what systems thinkers call vision. A vision is shared and provides a North Star for everyone in the firm, but that doesn’t preclude adjustment in continuous alignment with customers. The vision is to serve customers, and customers are also changing and adjusting. Thinking in terms of intent (rather than, say, implementing a rigid plan) permits greater flexibility in pursuit of the vision.

Entrepreneurial judgment is decision and action.

The theory of entrepreneurship emphasizes judgment — that mysterious-sounding capability of entrepreneurs to make economic calculations from a mix of data and intuition. That can sound like a kind of mulling over of options. But it’s much more active than that. The entrepreneurial method emphasizes deciding and acting. Decisions are recognized as hypotheses; it’s impossible to know exactly what to do, so action-oriented develop hypotheses about what actions could have the effect they desire. The hypotheses are carefully aligned with their intent in order to double-check the logic as far as possible. But the purpose is not to be “right” but to generate feedback information so that alignment can be better informed by reality.

Action — the implementation of decisions — is an experiment, a test of the hypothesis. Action produces interaction (with customers, with retailers, with competitors, with the changing market environment) and thereby provides new information in the form of feedback, which might indicate the need to change actions next time.

The number of hypotheses and tests can be narrowed; what’s important is that they reflect as wide a range of perspectives as possible — from those at the front line interacting with customers, whether in person or at the call center or online, from engineers and operatives, from finance and HR, and from all relevant points of view. The more diverse the range of perspectives, the more likely it is that different angles of view will provide new insights and illuminate blind spots. Make sure that internal communications are organized so as to make it possible for all perspectives — including dissenting Cassandras – to be recognized and acknowledged.

Candid self-assessment of people in business leadership roles is a good place to start the adaptive entrepreneurial journey.

Some elements of the adaptive entrepreneurial model require the discarding of standard ways of managing. For example, many businesses spend considerable time and effort developing plans that lock in budgets and resource allocations, and don’t make allowance for constant adjustment and change. It’s useful to take inventory of these practices and question whether they can be abandoned or reformed in pursuit of agility.

Additional Resources

The “Adaptive Entrepreneurial Method” Graphic (PDF): Mises.org/E4B_192_PDF1

“Destruction and Creation” by John Boyd (PDF): Mises.org/E4B_192_PDF2

Mark J. McGrath on LinkedIn: Mises.org/E4B_192_LinkedIn

“Orientation: Bridging The Gap In The Austrian Theory of Entrepreneurship” (AERC 2022) by Mark J. McGrath and Hunter Hastings (PDF): Mises.org/E4B_192_PDF3

191. Allen Mendenhall: Putting Humanness and Ethics Back Into Business Economics

We are living through a particularly bad moment in history for free markets and capitalism. Government, not business, is promoted as the solution to all problems. Young people have never known any other environment, and one of the consequences is the skepticism about capitalism that they learn in school, college, and university. One solution to this problem lies in better business education — shaping how young minds think about business by shedding light on the social and individual benefits of capitalism that might otherwise be deliberately shadowed by misinformation and misdirection.

Allen Mendenhall is leading the way with a new business curriculum at Troy University.

Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights

There are unmerited concerns among young people today about the ethics of capitalism and business.

Business is too often cast as the “bad guy” in the movie of life. Business is portrayed as exploitative and greedy, and businesspeople as self-serving. Historical scandals like Enron and WorldCom are cited as case studies. But this presentation is a caricature; there’s no evidence to support it. Business is the essential component of the capitalist system that has raised standards of living and quality of life all over the globe and especially in the West, where markets are somewhat freer.

Business didn’t have the same bad rap in the past. In the nineteenth century, there was a great celebration of the civilization-advancing commercial republic powered by the protestant work ethic. The image of the businessperson was a positive trope — it was a good role to be a businessperson creating value for others. Businesspeople were the good guys. They innovated, collaborated and served. We’ve lost that imagery.

A lot of the unmerited concern emanates from educational institutions, especially universities.

Who is teaching young Americans to be skeptical about capitalism and business? A large portion of the blame goes to educational institutions, and especially universities. There’s an anti-business and anti-capitalism bias among the teaching profession in higher education that is communicated to students.

In this academic anti-business campaign, there’s a special role for economists, who have dehumanized economics by trying to make it a mathematical science. All their equations and computer models have the effect of taking humanness — the role of subjectivism, individual preference, and individualized emotion — out of economics. They try to reduce human behavior to a predictive data-driven algorithm.

The heritage of economics is humanizing.

The mathematical approach to economics is not the tradition of the Austrian school approach, which embraces a humanizing perspective. Commerce cultivates virtue; the pursuit of honorable profit leads businesses to act with good faith and integrity in joining with partners to produce products and services that are valued and welcomed by customers because they serve their ends in their search for betterment in their lives.

The concept of honorable profit is often alien to students, and requires new learning: that profit is an emergent result of all the detailed interactions of individuals in a market, sending price signals to producers to indicate what society wants them to produce. Profit is a result of these signals indicating that society wants the producers to continue offering their goods and services.

Understanding value is central to understanding the ethics of capitalism.

The emergence of profit is an outcome of the generation of value for customers. Value is central to the ethics of business, and Professor Mendenhall’s new course at Troy University places it squarely in the center. Value is subjectively determined by the customer, and the purpose of business is to help them realize the value they seek with the right products and services responsive to their wants, preferences and goals.

But here’s where the plot twists. The big corporate business community — representing less than 1% of businesses by count but the biggest proportion of GDP by dollar revenues – has been incentivized by Wall Street to pursue shareholder value (goosing stock prices) and stakeholder value (the diversion of value away from customers in favor of non-customer interest groups). Value for customers and even profit now takes a back seat to supposedly serving constituencies such as climate activists, victim groups, and, of course, government. Stakeholder value can act as cover for the CEO who fails to generate profit: they can claim to be focused on socially more important things.

The generation of value for customers, guided by the confirmation signal of profit, is no longer primary — except in Professor Mendenhall’s Troy University curriculum.

The perspective of entrepreneurship can help students appreciate ethical business.

While young people express disdain and distrust for capitalism, they often have a more positive attitude about the concept of entrepreneurship. They realize that entrepreneurs are problem solvers, and that they add value to people’s lives. People benefit from the risks entrepreneurs take and the personal sacrifice they make. Entrepreneurial innovation makes lives better.

Students appreciate this, and can even identify some corporate CEO’s to whom they are willing to grant ethical approval — individuals such as John Mackey or Richard Branson. And many young people see entrepreneurship as aspirational — they want to start their own businesses and make a lot of money (i.e., profit!). Looking at business from an entrepreneurial perspective generates more positive attitudes, and we can show that all businesses started entrepreneurially, and are sustained by their continuing entrepreneurial performance, i.e., profitably delivering value for customers. If there are questions about corporate ethics, they relate to their non-entrepreneurial functions — such as HR (whence a lot of corporate wokeness emanates), legal (the people who write the opaque and deceptive terms and conditions that justify surveillance), finance (directing activities like stock buybacks that divert value from customers), and compliance (keeping corporations closer to government and more distant from markets).

Part of Allen’s approach to his students is to teach the entrepreneurial mindset — not just for business, but for life in general. He calls it “unleashing the inner entrepreneur” and includes what he calls “the economics of your dreams”, the secret of win-win, the creativity of the market, the entrepreneurial principles of career building, starting a profitable business, and character and leadership.

He also covers personal finance skills — developing knowledge of stocks and bonds and mutual funds and other financial instruments, insurance, retirement planning (even at age 18!), investing, spending, and, of course, personal management of student loans. It’s the entrepreneurial approach to life.

We should develop a new value proposition for business schools as humanness schools.

Business schools today are part of the problem. They don’t focus enough on how business can be the catalyst for positive change. They should be committed to solving problems affecting not just business, but humanity as a whole. But reading business school leaders’ and graduates’ speeches and their books demonstrates that they’re not trying to help humanity as a whole but a few selected businesses and a few particular industries. They’re not dedicated to helping ordinary people, as they should be.

Allen’s new curriculum aims to redress that imbalance.

Additional Resources

AllenMendenhall.com

“Corporate Wokeness Hurts The Groups It Purports To Help” (AEIR) by Allen Mendhall: Mises.org/E4B_191_Article1

“Troy professor: Students ‘very enthusiastic’ over anti-woke business scholars program” (Yellowhammer News) by Dylan Smith: Mises.org/E4B_191_Article2

Allen Mendenhall on Fox Business—”Ending Wokeism in the Corporate World”: Mises.org/E4B_191_TV

190. Peter Klein: Why Managers Still Matter:

Entrepreneurial businesses embrace adaptiveness and change, and continuous innovation enabled by flexible and responsive organizations, empowered at every level. That doesn’t mean there’s no role for managers. Inside the corporation, entrepreneurial management co-ordinates the business flow of responding to changing customer wants and preferences, so that resources are allocated and reallocated to the production activities that customers value the most. In fact, management is becoming more important, not less. Professors Peter Klein and Nicolai Foss explain entrepreneurial management in their latest book, Why Managers Matter: The Perils of the Bossless Company (Mises.org/E4B_190_Book), and Peter Klein visits Economics For Business to highlight the key points.

Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights

Management co-ordinates the constant flux of entrepreneurial business.

The essence of the adaptive entrepreneurial organization model is responsive change. Entrepreneurial businesses don’t lock themselves in to 5-year strategies and annual plans. They recognize that markets are in constant flux as a result of changing customer preferences, changing competitive activity, changing technologies, and changing conditions in business channels and in the economy. Change is the normal condition. It’s what Ludwig von Mises termed constant flux.

Management is required inside the firm to adapt and respond to change outside the firm. It’s not possible to manage the change in markets, but it is a necessity to manage resource allocation and productive activities inside the firm.

Management is co-ordination and orchestration, not authority and hierarchy.

We might think of the concept of management in its industrial age guise of authority and hierarchy: some people “higher up” in the organization telling others “lower down” what to do. This kind of hierarchical authority can’t work in the digital network age; it’s too slow to process incoming data from the marketplace and too rigid to quickly or effectively implement newly imagined responses to those incoming data.

But in Professor Klein and Professor Foss’s analysis, management no longer equates to old-fashioned authority and hierarchy. Management is co-ordination: assembling the right resources — both human capital and complementary capital assets such as supportive technologies — in the right combinations (often referred to as “teams” in today’s management language) for the right shared task with the right shared goals. Professor Klein likened this to orchestration — there’s a conductor who guides the orchestra in playing the same symphony together, without telling the individual players how to play their instrument, and leaving the details of implementation to the individuals and their specialized skills.

Some orchestras may have better results than others because their teams have been well-recruited and well assembled and they respond better to management co-ordination. All firms and teams are complex adaptive systems, with emergent outcomes influenced by internal forces, one of which is management.

Management is culture more than authority.

How do managers achieve a better outcome as a result of managing their teams? Professor Klein believes that they institute a successful culture, as opposed to designing an organizational structure. He defines culture in terms of norms, customs and practices — the accepted way (or simple rules) of “how we do things around here”. More specifically, in the customer-centric entrepreneurial firm, “here’s how we plan to facilitate value for our customers around here”. Skilled managers paint the pictures — the “vision”, if you will — in the minds of employees of the customer value standards the firm will achieve, and the customer experiences that the firm will facilitate.

Modern managers are comfortable with and quite expert at adaptation.

The modern managerial culture is a far cry from traditional hierarchical managerial authority. It has the built-in flexibility for adaptiveness to the rapid rate of change in today’s digital business world. A well-functioning management process in a loosely structured organization can change internal production processes, teams and resource allocations in response to external changes in customer demand and marketplace conditions.

In fact, Professor Klein points out, through relevant case studies, such a management structure can be better at adaptation than, for example, a network of independent contractors and suppliers that would be challenged to orchestrate responsive changes to an external change, since each would have a different experience and process it through a different cultural orientation. They wouldn’t co-ordinate as well or as quickly as internally managed teams.

In certain cases, management authority can sometimes be a relevant organizational tool, so long as it is applied in a contingent fashion.

The relevance and usefulness of authority varies by circumstance and business situations. Its usefulness is contingent, and managers must be sensitive as to when to apply authority and in what style.

Why Managers Matter identifies two distinct styles of managerial authority, Mark 1 authority and Mark 2 authority. Mark 1 authority is traditional command-and-control, exerted top down — superiors telling subordinates what to do.

Mark 2 authority is exercised through design rather than command: finding the right person for the task, combining the best-qualified people in teams, and giving them a goal with a wide latitude in their process and implementation in achieving the goal.

An important element of the contingent approach is to empathically identify the subjective preferences of employees. Some will respond well to flexible, open-ended direction that enables them to exercise their own initiative. Others might prefer the certainty of clear direction. One type of salesperson might be highly motivated by a 100% commission remuneration plan, another might feel more secure with a base salary with the potential for an achievement bonus upon exceeding quota.

Professor Klein identifies two broad sets of conditions for the exercise of Mark 1 and Mark 2 authority. When there is a high degree of interdependence between people, teams and tasks, such that it is critical that tasks are highly coordinated, completed at the same time and combined in a highly specific fashion, then management intervention is required and it will include Mark 1 elements. When production is more modular, when tasks and projects can be completed interdependently, then Mark 2 management can be exercised through a decentralized, flat and culturally aligned organization. (Professor Klein cited the example of the type of higher education institution where he works; all the professors can design and teach their classes, do their research, and publish their papers and books with a high degree of autonomy.)

Management is becoming more important, not less.

In a rapidly changing world, where employee attitudes and experiences are very different than in the pre-digital world, and where global markets and their interconnected structures are more uncertain and cyclically unreliable, and where the pace of disruptive technological innovation is accelerating, good management is more important than ever for the success of our economy and our society. Smart managers are needed to find the right balance between operational excellence through established processes and adaptive change through adjustment and experimentation, a balance that business scholars call the ambidextrous organization. It can’t happen without management, and without managers.

Additional Resources

Peter Klein’s book page: Mises.org/E4B_190_Klein

Why Managers Matter: The Perils of the Bossless Company by Peter Klein and Nicolai Foss: Mises.org/E4B_190_Book

Public Affairs book page: Mises.org/E4B_190_PA

189. James Kent: Carving A Differentiated Growth Space In A Well-Established Market

Entrepreneurs always generate new value for customers; that’s what they get paid for. It’s not always necessary to create a new market; there are many creative ways to expand the value potential of established markets and carve out a territory in the new expanded space.

James Kent, founder of the innovative apparel brand Rogue, White and Blue, talks to E4B about the entrepreneurial value creation method he pursues in growing a distinctive and differentiated brand in what might look to outsiders like a crowded market, but which to him looks like unbounded opportunity.

Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights

Entrepreneurs start with what they love — it’s the first source of differentiation.

James is a lover of open-air experiences — of walking and hiking and exploring trails and off-road lands, of snowboarding in the mountains, and enjoying all the freedoms of exploration and everything to do with the great American outdoors. “What do I love?” is one of the first questions an entrepreneur asks of themselves, and James is certain of his answer.

Adding knowledge and experience fortifies the entrepreneurial recipe.

All experience and most knowledge are individual. What we pay attention to, and how we learn is always unique to us personally. James picked up some valuable experience by working in sporting goods retail stores, both interacting with customers in stores and working his way up the corporate ladder into management positions. This commercial experience in sporting goods was highly complementary to his love of the outdoors, and the two became a productive combination in James’ entrepreneurial approach.

James was able to gain some even more fine-tuned experience by working as the first employee of a start-up, running an office in a location removed from the head office. This provided exposure to the entrepreneurial experiences of risk-taking, autonomy, maximizing the use of limited resources and using business development tools like Google AdWords — all directly useful for a future business journey.

A third layer of relevant experience came from joining the National Guard in a patriotic spirit of service. The service ethic is fundamental to all entrepreneurial endeavors.

The stage is set: what kind of business to launch?

James asked the entrepreneurial questions. What do I love? The outdoors and outdoor recreation. What do I know? Apparel and apparel retail. What are my resources? Passion, the genuineness and clarity of commitment, design ideas, and a small amount of savings. Who are my customers? People who share the same passions.

Where will differentiation come from? It came from a reservoir of genuine feeling and the combination of two streams of thought: recreational love of the outdoors and patriotic love of country. The combination became the brand Rogue, White and Blue, described by customers as “the patriotic version of Patagonia”. It’s wild and unexpected like the American landscape, and it embodies patriotic design ideas, both in visual look-and-feel and in functional attributes such as Made In America.

The commitment to a differentiated brand platform creates a differentiated supply chain, differentiated production, and differentiated presentation.
Entrepreneurs design their production infrastructure and supply network backwards, starting with the brand and then identifying the system components that will bring it to life.

James had design ideas in his mind. He self-taught himself Adobe Illustrator to get them from his mind into digital documentation, occasionally hiring outside designers on Fiverr at low variable cost for some specific refinement tasks. Modern technologies ranging from design software (and the training videos and additional user content available online for new adopters) to digital printing to internet-enabled collaboration sites like Fiverr can be combined to create a complete value network with limited fixed cost investment.

The next step down the supply chain was to find screen printers and James tested alternatives until he identified the best craftspeople in that specialized profession. He made them his business partners, which enabled him to benefit from their expertise in identifying the right Made-In-America apparel manufacturers and the right high-quality fabrics. By ordering garments through the printers, he was able to give the printers a more profitable business model while offloading some risk (e.g., of misprinting) onto them. The shared value space was big enough for everyone in the network.

The integrated platform of a differentiated brand and a differentiated supply chain is the result of entrepreneurial commitment: to brand integrity, quality, style, and consistency.

Finding customers through entrepreneurial action.

At the outset, there wasn’t any marketing budget for Rogue, White and Blue. How does a brand get customers in those circumstances? Not by advertising but by entrepreneurial action: by meeting customers personally. James had a good instinct for who his customers would be based on input from like-minded friends and family. So, he went out to meet similar people by setting up a sales table at selected events where they might congregate. The first one was a gun show, and then more broadly outdoors-themed events. James vividly remembers the excitement of show attendees stopping by his booth, immediately bonding with the “patriotic version of Patagonia” brand feel — they didn’t need to be told, they understood it without prompting — and paying cash for the products. Rogue, White and Blue started with a batch of 96 T-shirts which quickly sold out.

Growth is funded by cash flow and there is no shortage of growth drivers and growth ideas.

Cash flow is the most important financial indicator of business performance and it’s the most important source of growth capital. Profit is an accounting notion, and debt-financed development has its own set of risks. Cash flow is a pure indication of customer approval and customer value. Therefore, it provides the best funding source for both working capital and investment capital — turning the value experienced by consumers into the funds that enable expanded and enhanced value experiences in the future.

Rogue, White and Blue has expanded into more designs, new apparel items, a strong website to drive sales, and a reinforced brand presence.

Customer feedback loops ensure continuous improvement and progress.

Meeting customers face-to-face or getting their feedback via the internet — these are feedback loops that help entrepreneurs refine their offering. The feedback may concern product quality, design, or brand imagery; it’s all positive input for an entrepreneurial business that is open and not defensive whenever there is criticism.

The entrepreneurial life is exciting.

How are we all going to share in the productivity of the economy? The old way was to take a job and participate as an employee, hopefully ascending the hierarchical ladder of a firm or translating increased experience and skill in a profession for higher wages.

As the digital economy unfolds, and more of the work is being performed through algorithms and A.I. and machine learning that’s translated into process automation, the traditional ways of sharing in economic production will be blocked.

The better alternative is economic participation and reward through entrepreneurship. James Kent describes the entrepreneurial life as exciting and fulfilling. It requires a thorough commitment and it’s hard work — he described the long nights he’s devoted to the Rogue, White and Blue brand — which he finds energizing and motivating. There’s a commitment and a service ethic, and a consequent freedom.

Additional Resource

Check out James Kent’s website: Rogue, White and Blue.