Although I receive requests quite regularly to review business books on my blog, my decision is based in large part on how much value it holds for small business owners. “Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive”, by Erik Wesner, met that criterion in spades. When I learned that Amish businesses have a 95% success rate over a 5 year period, nearly twice the success rate of other small business start-ups, I decided to read and review the book.
The book is well written and an easy read, in part because the topic is so fascinating. Any small business owner can take away something that will benefit their business by reading it. My first impression of the book was how well Erik Wesner knows his subject. As a recognized expert on the Amish and their business practices, Wesner writes the popular Amish America blog.
Although they are often perceived as stand-offish, world-wary, and suspicious of outsiders, Wesner obtained in-depth insights into these “plain people” by working and living in Amish communities and studying their culture. He conducted more than fifty interviews with Amish business owners to gather first-hand knowledge about how they achieve such remarkable success.
Amish business success at double the rate of other small business start-ups is impressive. But, it is downright astonishing when you consider the obstacles Amish businesses face:
- Typically no higher education than eighth grade
- Restrictions on technology (computers, phones, credit cards, pagers, etc)
- Little or no advertising, i.e. radio, TV, internet and social media
- No accounting, human resources, information management, or marketing training
Wesner’s book begins with a surprising backdrop for the story. “A surprising thing happened across America in recent years: many Amish farmers abandoned their plows to become entrepreneurs. And they succeeded. This quiet, mini Industrial Revolution in Amish-land trailed the rise of factories in the larger society by more than a century.
“Barefoot Amish entrepreneurs walked right out of cow stables to assume the ownership of mircoenterprises in dozens of communities. With no family lineage in business or cultural tradition in manufacturing, they founded hundreds of start-from-scratch operations. Today, some nine thousand Amish-owned and operated enterprises thrive in North America.
“Most of these Amish enterprises are not modest mom-and-pop operations selling homemade root beer, rugs, butter, cheese, and brooms on back-road stands. Although many are small, and lean heavily on family labor, some have a dozen or more employees and annual sales above $5 million. Some shops manufacture products that are marketed across the nation, and occasionally even around the world. A few enterprises have contracts with businesses as diverse as Kmart and Ralph Lauren.”
Success Made Simple was written for the non-Amish reader and includes a number of universal, time-tested principles designed to build better, smarter, and more successful enterprises. Wesner has distilled the essential lessons these “plain people” have to teach about Amish business success. Wesner describes a number of principles in the book that underpin successful Amish businesses. Here is a partial list:
- Fear and faith. Although Amish business owners feel the same responsibilities and fears as other business owners, their faith keeps them grounded.
- Amish business owners cultivate a well-formulated, deeply held vision, believing as one Pennsylvania Amish Entrepreneur, “If you don’t have a dream, what do you got?” The business exists for a larger purpose, not just to make money.
- Put relationships first and profits will follow. Amish employees usually are members of the entrepreneur’s family and community. Therefore, they are respectful and honest with each other. Successful Amish businesses live and die by the strengths of their relationships with employees, suppliers, distributors, and customers.
- A conservative, slower, deliberate, and mindful approach to decision-making, growth, and spending helps keep the business to a manageable scale.
- Everyone knows the Amish story. It’s about old fashioned quality and tradition.
Marketing won’t solve the fundamental problem of a subpar product because all three means of communicating: telephone, television, and “tell-a-Amish” are lightening fast.
- Produce and protect quality, especially when expanding. Expanding too fast can threaten quality and drive away customers.
- Unhappy customers talk faster and louder than happy ones. Resolve customer issues quickly. Better yet, avoid them by following customer first principles.
- Education does not produce character. When given a choice, select employees with less education and fewer skills but a desire to do well.
- Getting your hands dirty earns employee’s respect. Humility opens ears and minds. Fear and intimidation may motivate employees for a while but respect gets longer term results.
- Organization and systematic analysis can yield efficiencies and savings. Make sure that all tasks performed contribute to the effectiveness of the business.
While many business owners may espouse some of these principles, they may not implement them with fervor and discipline of the Amish. They may even feel some of them are a bit naïve. But, when you compare the remarkable success of Amish start-ups to other new businesses, it is clear that they work. Perhaps this is why many Amish businesses were not affected as seriously by the recession.
The “Amish” story is full of lessons, a business parable of sorts. The Amish brand is a shining example of how products and companies that are simply made succeed. For this reason, I highly recommend that small business owners read and apply the lessons contained in “Success Made Simple” by Erik Wesner.
Posted by: Mike Clough