There has been a significant uptick in business formation for the Amish in recent years. It is estimated that an Amish business has a 95% chance of being open after five years (run by people who have no more than a formal 8th grade education.) The rate for the general population is about 50%. What might we learn from the Amish? That is what Erik Wesner wanted to know so he conducted in-depth interviews with Amish from a number of communities. What he learned is the subject of his new book.
Success Made Simple: An inside Look at why Amish Businesses Thrive isn’t exactly what I expected but that isn’t a criticism. I was expecting more of a comparative study. Instead, Wesner interviews various Amish business owners and looks for themes about their success. Clearly community plays a big role. The Amish resistance to prideful behavior helps restrain some of the excesses that too many small business owners fall prey to. There are lessons about the importance of frugal living. There are important lessons about seeing your work in terms of transcendent reality. That has implications for how you relate to employees and customers. Wesner uncovers all this with some delightful and entertaining narrative.
It occurred to me as I read the book that there may at least three factors that may work to the advantage of the Amish:
First, business studies show that the single most important determinate of whether someone succeeds in business is whether or not one of their parents was a business owner. The Amish have traditionally grown up working in the family farm business. That develops both the work ethic and the acumen to manage an operation.
Second, probably the most critical juncture at which businesses fail is when they try to make the leap from being a fledgling operation to being a significant producer. Case studies in business school are rife with stories of businesses who tried to expand too quickly without enough capital. The Amish model tends to tap down grandiose visions and ambitions toward more practical expansion. Furthermore, it appears that many of the businesses are not amenable to large-scale production in the first place.
Third, there is a tight knit support community. As Wesner points out, there is competition between the Amish but there are also strong community ties of mutual support. A key factor in the failure of small businesses is an insufficient support network for the business owner.
The book is a fascinating read. The book has raised my interest in business in the Amish world and I recently purchased Donald Kraybill’s book about Amish Enterprise. Wesner’s book is a great read for anyone looking for a window into Amish life in general but into their business life in particular.