Entrepreneurship Unplugged: Amish and the Internet
"The products marketed by OCC are crafted and manufactured by various plain communities. It is our goal to represent them with sensitivity and integrity." --From the catalog's back cover
No Amish are reading this article. Or, at least, any Amish that are reading it probably won't be Amish for much longer.
This article, of course, exists on the Internet. And, as with most other contraptions that this century's parade of technological progress has brought forth, the Amish have decided -- not surprisingly -- that the impersonal chaos of the Internet poses a threat to their intimate, insular community life. Those who venture into cyberspace risk being shunned by the community.
Normally, this prohibition would not be a problem. Farmers who have never used a telephone, much less a computer, would have little inclination to navigate the mish-mosh of cyberspace. But lately, driven by the escalating price of farmland, the Amish of Lancaster County, Pa., have been starting their own small businesses by the bushel. (See "The Virtue of Necessity," in the December 1996 issue of Inc.) And the Internet is a natural tool for finding more customers. Olde Country Connections, a Lancaster County start-up, is one company that has chosen to dance on the rim of the Internet volcano. It has survived one eruption so far.
Olde Country Connections was founded by three Amish and four non-Amish partners as a sort of clearinghouse for the goods of small-scale Amish entrepreneurs. It peddles their merchandise -- items such as wooden tables, quilt racks, and toy horses -- to outside retailers, including superstores such as Wal-Mart, through a catalog and a two-day trade market every spring. By all accounts, the market has been a success: the number of Amish businesses buying booths there has climbed from 27 to 74 in three years (they pay between $175 and $600), and nearly 600 buyers attended last spring's market. "Some of the Amish producers said they did enough business at this market to keep them busy until the next one," boasts Rollin Rheinheimer, Olde Country Connections' non-Amish managing director. Now the company is planning a similar market for suppliers of Amish businesses.
The three Amish partners -- Moses Glick, Ivan Stoltzfus, and David Stoltzfus (about every third person in Lancaster County is named Stoltzfus) -- are each established entrepreneurs in their own right; they ponied up $30,000 apiece for the venture. According to Rheinheimer, their motives are at least partially altruistic. "They're doing it to help the younger entrepreneurs get started," he says. "The older established businesses don't need us. They have their own lists of buyers. It's those that are trying to get started and have more capacity than they can sell."
"It's an effort to keep the Amish working at home," concurs Michael Stoltzfus, an Amishman whose wheelbarrow company, Scenic Road Manufacturing, buys space at the markets. "It helps a husband or a father market his own things so he can in turn work at home with his family," rather than go to work for non-Amish "outsiders."
But not everyone considers Olde Country Connections such a boon to the community. "There are some sensitive issues here," admits Rheinheimer, who was once a minor league ballplayer in the Boston Red Sox farm system and now raises ostriches and emus around his pastoral home. "The Amish shun publicity, and here we are doing all sorts of publicity for them." The company must therefore walk a fine line. Its catalog, for example, was printed in black and white rather than color to avoid accusations of overly brazen marketing.
"We also have to be careful we don't do the market as a tourist thing," Rheinheimer says. "We can't call it a 'show' or 'fair' or 'exhibition.' Some of the [ Amish] bishops who are involved in trade are not very keen about what we're doing. Others say it's fine because it lets the Amish stay Amish. There's no single answer. But we can't violate their rules. If we do, we're dead."
For a while, Olde Country Connections avoided incurring the church's displeasure. Then it started flirting with selling goods over the Internet.
The local newspaper, the Lancaster New Era, caught wind of this development and reported it. Recounts Rheinheimer: "The bishops read this in the Lancaster newspaper and said, 'the Internet -- isn't that where there's pornography?' And all of a sudden I got the carpet jerked out from under me."
At the next company board meeting, the Amish partners expressed extreme discomfort with going online. "I suspect what happened is that it was mentioned in church," says Rheinheimer, who, despite being English (as non-Amish are called in Amish country), is no stranger to the ways of the Plain People: his grandfather was Amish, and his father spoke the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect to him when he was growing up in LaGrange County, Ind. "In a sermon on Sunday morning, it would be mentioned that 'we should stay away from this Internet stuff.' And whoever's sitting in the audience gets the message loud and clear."
Now Rheinheimer has settled on a policy of simply not telling the Amish partners about the company's Web plans, thereby giving them plausible deniability should there be another clash with the church. "I don't mention it at the board meetings," he says. "It's 'don't ask, don't tell.' "
If Olde Country Connections does get on the Web, it will find it's not the only company using the Internet to sell Amish goods. Among its competitors are Amish Country Treasures, based in New Holland, Pa.; Thee Amish Connection, in Strasburg, Pa.; and The Amish Experience, in Las Vegas. Amish Heritage Publications, in Leavenworth, Kan., also has a Web site and offers books, videos, and textbooks for home schooling.
Meanwhile, collaborating with Amish partners has been an education in itself for Rheinheimer, who formerly worked at Apple Computer. It's not just that he has to pick them up at their homes every time there's a meeting (no cars, remember). It's that the Amish are not used to consulting anyone but themselves when making decisions.
"Their yea is yea, and their nay is nay," says Rheinheimer. "There's no dialogue. They don't verbalize decisions." In their own businesses, he explains, "they're CFO, COO, employee -- everything. If a decision turns out to be profitable, great. If not, they just swallow hard. But this is a democracy" -- where many people share the credit and blame -- "and they're not used to the give and take [ of shared decision making] ."
At the same time, says Rheinheimer, the passive aggressiveness that characterizes so many business meetings is happily absent among the Amish. "The subtle jabs we give people are missing," he says. "The put-downs aren't there, even indirectly. ... It has maybe elevated our way of doing business."
And, of course, Rheinheimer has learned how to do business more cautiously and conservatively -- especially when it comes to the Internet. "We have to guard against hochmut," he says, invoking the German word for pride. "We're trying to stay in the spirit of who these people are. They're not proud."
Jerry Useem was a staff writer for Inc. magazine when this article was published.
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