Thursday, February 2, 2012

Erik Wesner, author or Success Made Simple, on Amish Businesses

It’s such an honor to have Erik Wesner on Amish Crossings. His website, Amish America  is considered one of the most reliable sources to learn more about the Amish. But I’m not the only one saying that.  American Experience, the PBS documentary show, has a link to his website for further reading after watching their film, The Amish.  He's also contributed to Amish-themed articles for Time Magazine,, The Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur Magazine, The Washington Post, and numerous other media. OK, it's obvious I'm honored to have him on my blog!
Erik’s book, Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive is based on 60 interviews with Amish businesses. I found the book fascinating. Let’s jump into the interview.
 Erik, from all you've learned from the Amish and share in your book, Success made Simple, what advice do you have for people who want to start a business in 2012?
Let me just share a few ideas commonly seen with Amish that may fit to the present circumstances.  One is that many Amish don’t dive in without a backup plan.  A lot of the entrepreneurs I spoke with started businesses as “sidelines”—a furniture-making business done in extra hours after a main job, for instance.  This allowed them to build the business up while keeping the security of a main job.  I think this is particularly relevant in the current economic climate.
Related to this is the concept of wise money management.  We associate the Amish with frugality, and they are generally wise with finances.  This doesn’t mean the Amish are afraid to borrow money—they do, from a number of sources, both for personal needs (home mortgage) and for building a business.  But the Amish are careful with the expenditures they make.  I think it is more a no-frills approach that helps them get the most out of the money they spend.  It’s a mindset, a habit of asking if each expense is really indispensable, or if there is an alternative that can work just as well. 
Another element is having a vision for your business.  Many of the Amish businesspeople I spoke with had clear goals and objectives which they wanted to accomplish.  Some are quite competitive and ambitious, contrary to what we might think.  They seek growth and want to be providers in their communities, able to employ a lot of people (in some cases non-Amish employees as well). 
Others have a vision of simply having an occupation that lets them work at home and be around family, something that is very important to Amish.  It’s not as money-oriented as it is mapping out what kind of lifestyle would I like to achieve, and how can this business be a vehicle for getting me there.   But the vision is different for each individual, and establishing what it is for you before you start is important.  It gives meaning to what you do, especially when hitting the inevitable bumps in the road.
I hear starting a small business takes all your time and money. Is that true for the Amish?
I touched on this a bit above.  You do have some Amish that are borderline workaholics, and a few of my interviewees shared that they’d had challenges with overwork.  Often a spouse would guide them back to priorities (i.e. family time).  They do realize that success demands sacrifice, and I heard a lot of stories of doing without in early years.
 However the Amish example also shows that it’s really your own animal.  Some businesses are set up as part-time ventures and they remain that way.  Some Amish like a mix of occupations—farming and a small shop, or working in a factory and doing something at home on the side.   
 Since everything is online now, how do the Amish survive and thrive without social media?
Some Amish are tapping into resources via the web and social media.  Amish might have third parties who operate a website for them.  This is technically allowed in some congregations (or may be grey area), but it does give Amish access to the web without having to own a computer or be on the public electric line. 
That said, most Amish do not have a web presence.  They are relying on old-fashioned advertising (road signs, catalog placements, ads in publications) as well as a lot of word-of-mouth business.  I talk a good bit about how they generate this in my book, and also how they approach marketing, which some are doing in a quite sophisticated way. 
 Can you share one of your favorite Amish small business stories?
One of the most inspiring for me personally is one harness maker who is partially paralyzed.  He moves around with extreme difficulty, sort of a shuffle around his shop.  He just has a small business, but one that has reached customers across the country.  His attitude is about the best you will find.  There is such a warm gratitude there when he speaks—for his customers, for the opportunity God has given him—that it really makes you take a look at your own situation and realize your blessings.
You can find Erik's book, Success Made Simple, wherever books are sold! Grab it and learn!

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