There’s a brand of economics that goes by the name, in academic circles, of Austrian economics. If I was the brand manager, I would re-brand it, in much the same way that Chrysler (now part of Stellantis) rebranded their truck line from Dodge To RAM. The RAM name is far more communicative of important core attributes like sturdy engineering, power, reliability, and assertiveness than is Dodge. RAM sales have been robust, and so, while we wouldn’t claim to know cause and effect, we might assume that the brand name did not hurt and may have helped.
Austrian economics got its name way back in economic history when the rival, incumbent brand of German economics got annoyed at the disruptive thinking of some young economists from the University of Vienna, and dismissed their ideas as merely “Austrian”. To the Germans, Austrian meant a smaller, subsidiary, irrelevant group that had no place on the world stage.
The disruptive body of thought stuck, however, and made great strides, because it’s more useful to real people than conventional academic economics. It provides better mental models to work with. For producers, Austrian economics is the economics of entrepreneurship and value generation. For consumers, Austrian economics is the economics of individual satisfaction.
From the point of view of entrepreneurial business, of any size from single practitioner to start-up to mid-size to mega-size, here are seven secrets of Austrian economics that can be usefully applied for the achievement of business success.
Understanding Subjective Value
The purpose of business is to generate value. Austrian economics enables businesses to understand value in a new way, and, consequently to generate more of it. Curt Carlson, the authority on value creation, weaves wonderful value stories. in one of them, he imagines the iPack, a wheeled robotic suitcase that will follow you through the airport without effort on your part, via its electronic tether to your iPhone. He goes further, to imagine the iPack understanding your calendar well enough to ship itself to Singapore to your hotel to await your arrival.
Where is the value? It’s not the physical case, and it’s not even its functionality, beneficial though it will undoubtedly be. The value is the feeling that’s created in the mind of the customer, both in the form of anticipation of relief of a travel hassle (“What a great value that will be! I’ll gladly pay for it”) and in the after-evaluation of the experience (“That was the most convenient trip ever!). Curt writes:
It is the space in the minds of potential customers. It is important to them because they have an imagination and an expectation for continuous betterment. The white space for iPack is future travel, which customers can imagine (going to Singapore through Hong Kong – what a hassle) and they have expectations for betterment (wouldn’t it be great if somehow I didn’t have to carry my bag).
Understanding value as a feeling, as the expectation of delight and the evaluation of that delight, unleashes the value generation process.
In the value generation process, the customer is the boss. What the customer says, goes. If a business is unable to conjure the anticipation of delight, new products and services will not be adopted; they’ll never get off the ground. If the business does conjure the anticipation of delight but does not deliver, resulting in disappointment, the customer will not only walk away, they might even destroy the business’s reputation with negative word of mouth. The customer truly decides what is produced, and what succeeds in the marketplace. They decide on prices by establishing their willingness to pay – there’s no point in setting a price that’s higher than this level.
The full acceptance of customer sovereignty changes completely the traditional way of thinking about business. It is typical to think of business as production, as a sequence of steps from conceptualizing a future value, through designing a way of delivering that value, to realize it through exchange in the marketplace. It’s a forward-facing sequence of producer-driven action.
But the opposite mindset is the right one. The true nature of business is working backwards from the customer experience, which is where value originates. If there were no customer experience, there’d be no value.
Who creates value and how do they do it? Obviously, customers are key to value, because they are the ones who experience it. They need a partner because they can’t conjure up value by themselves. They need a producer. That’s the role of the entrepreneur. The entrepreneur – or the entrepreneurial process when it takes place in companies and corporations – performs the function of sensing what consumers and customers want, doing the hard work of designing and producing it, and presenting it to the customer as an option for them, a new choice, a better alternative. There’s uncertainty on both sides. The customer doesn’t know what to want (they couldn’t have designed an iPhone before Apple made one, they just knew they wanted a better phone experience). And the entrepreneur doesn’t know for certain that what they design will align perfectly with what the customer wants. This coming together in eventual alignment is the beauty of entrepreneurship and also its risk.
Entrepreneurship requires a very special empathy between producer and customer, and when this empathy results in what economists call exchange – willing buyer, willing seller, both happy – there is progress, and the world is a better place.
The entrepreneur doesn’t exist in conventional economic textbooks or theory. Entrepreneurship is at the very heart of Austrian economics. Austrians see that entrepreneurship creates betterment, economic growth, happiness, and satisfaction.
Entrepreneurship is difficult, sheathed in multiple challenges. It has typically been portrayed as high-risk. Entrepreneurship might result in failure. Look at all the projects that are started and don’t succeed.
An entire tradition in business schools has been developed to purport to eliminate these risks. Business school professors sell their courses and lectures and books and presentations to present and future business managers on the promise of control and prediction. You can control the future with good planning and strategy, according to the professors, and predict the future outcomes.
Austrian entrepreneurship takes an opposite approach. The future is unpredictable, so the task is to find out what it will be, not to control and predict it. The axiom of entrepreneurship is action. Act, don’t strategize, and don’t plan. Action takes the form of experiments and explorations: try this, what about that? The entrepreneur reads the feedback data from the experiments (did the customer react positively or not?) and adapts to it, making changes and adjustments, or abandoning that experiment and trying another. This is the culture of the start-up as well as that of the agile management method. Fast, tight feedback loops replace the strategic planning process and the 100-page business plan.
Imagination / expectation
Conventional economics favors numbers and mathematical models. At the core of Austrian economics are imagination and expectation. Customers imagine a future that’s better in some way than today, but they’re not sure how it will come about. All they can communicate is their expectations. Entrepreneurs sense this, and imagine the kinds of new solutions and new services, and new products they can offer to meet consumer expectations.
Imagination is a robustly powerful business tool. Entrepreneurs can imagine new services that don’t exist, new processes that have never been used, new lines of code that might unlock some new functionality, and new organizations and structures that might unleash creativity. Their expectation is that, if they act, they’ll learn something positive and identify a future benefit.
Imagination is human, creative, and expansive. It’s about possibilities. Conventional economics tend to focus on scarcity, but entrepreneurial economics is much more focused on abundant possibilities.
Co-generation / value learning
Who produces value and who consumes it? That’s the kind of bi-valent logic that leads to restrictive thinking. Value generation is a collaboration. Customers need to be creative enough to imagine a better future, and to seek improvements in the status quo. Entrepreneurs need to be alert enough to understand customers’ yearnings and creative enough to think of new ideas that can potentially fulfill them.
There is a learning process for both customers and entrepreneurs. Customers are learning what to want, and entrepreneurs are learning what to offer them. They both learn by experience. The customer tries something new, experiences the usage of it, then stands back and evaluates that experience. That’s where value arises: in the customer’s evaluation. The entrepreneur observes and monitors that evaluation, seeking feedback from which to learn. Co-generation of value and shared value learning are the characteristics of Austrian economics at the level of the individual and the firm.
An important underpinning to Austrian economic thought is to view markets and value and customer relationships as flows. The world, the economy, life, and business are in constant flux. There are so many actions and interactions that they can never be understood or captured in snapshots, such as today’s price or today’s market share, or today’s sales, or this month’s GDP figures. Snapshot thinking is static. Austrian entrepreneurs see the market and their business and the mind of the customer as flows. Always changing, never still. Perhaps a trend or a pattern can be detected, but these tend to be imagined by looking backwards then projecting the past into the future and this is dangerous. The flow is not predictable or projectable. The best entrepreneurs embrace the flow, keep the pace of their experiments high, make continuous adjustments and adaptations and revel in the unrestricted wonders of adaptation to complexity.
These are just seven of the ways in which Austrian economics is applied in creative and innovative businesses. More and more entrepreneurs – both inside and outside corporations – are adopting the principles of Austrian economics.