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Peter Klein on Means and Ends

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02/19/2019Hunter HastingsPeter G. Klein

There are some economic principles that can help entrepreneurs in their business-building endeavors. One is the understanding of ends and means. What ends (goals, objectives) are your customers pursuing, and how do they choose the means to achieve those ends? The customer is in charge of choosing ends, and the entrepreneur takes charge of offering the most attractive and valuable means. How do entrepreneurs solve that equation? We asked Peter Klein. Peter is Professor of Entrepreneurship at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business. He is also Senior Research Fellow at Baylor's Baugh Center for Entrepreneurship and Free Enterprise and Adjunct Professor of Strategy and Management at the Norwegian School of Economics. He knows ends and means.

Show Notes

Economics helps entrepreneurs in a very practical sense by shining a very bright light on human motivation. In economic terms, people act. They do things. And when they do things, they always have purpose in mind. They are goal oriented. The entrepreneur’s job is to figure out how to help customers achieve a goal that they already have in mind.

Thinking about this principle in simple terms helps entrepreneurs develop a deep understanding of customer value chains. Why for example, do people choose to drink coffee? It doesn’t just happen. People raise a coffee cup to their lips because they want to enjoy the taste. Or maybe to give themselves a caffeine boost. Or perhaps they are drinking coffee in a social context and they want to enjoy the shared experience. Economists are always thinking about the customer’s goal in taking a certain action — and entrepreneurs can benefit from thinking the same way.

How and why do people decide on their ends? Economists — and entrepreneurs — don’t judge. We just want to find out what ends the customer is pursuing. And how behavior might change if circumstances change — for example, if prices rise, the customer might buy less or stop buying altogether.

How can entrepreneurs find out about what motivates customers to pursue certain ends and use certain means? By immersing themselves in a market — like the consumer market for coffee as a beverage — and thinking about it from all angles: psychology, economics, history, culture, fashion, supply chain, marketing. Like Howard Schultz observing coffee shop behavior in Milan as a precursor to launching Starbucks in the US. He deduced from his observations what Americans might derive from a similar experience if he provided it.

How do entrepreneurs develop the appropriate skills and knowledge? Not from reading books, that’s for sure. It’s instinct plus tools. The tool discussed in this episode is the Means-Ends Chain (see also the How-To-Use-It tool). It’s the tool that helps entrepreneurs understand that they are not selling — and the customer is not buying — coffee, but an experience.

The skillful entrepreneur links the proximate product — the coffee — to the desired experience — the “third place” experience as Starbucks calls it — in a convincing and persuasive manner. This requires exploration and experiment to get it right. It’s never obvious.

That’s why economists refer to uncertainty — it’s the situation all entrepreneurs face. You never know the future outcome until you try. The entrepreneur must be flexible in exploring the customer’s ends and means. Uncertainty rules.

Entrepreneurs exercise judgment, and try to develop insights, but can never achieve certainty. Data might help but it’s not infallible. Eventually, the entrepreneur must decide to “go for it” without certainty of being right. It’s the “plunge” decision. Learning, big data, and surveys are inputs, but they can’t make the decision; only a human can.

Experience can help. In the US, the average age of the first-time entrepreneur is mid to late 40s. Experience in an industry and lived experience are helpful. And intergenerational sharing of experience — like finding a mentor — can also contribute the experience you don’t have.

Entrepreneurship is not rocket science. Know your market, know your customers, and trust your judgment and your instincts.

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