Grappling with the Unbearable Elusiveness of Entrepreneurial Opportunities

By Dimov, Dimo | Entrepreneurship: Theory and Practice, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Grappling with the Unbearable Elusiveness of Entrepreneurial Opportunities


Dimov, Dimo, Entrepreneurship: Theory and Practice


The notion of opportunity, as currently discussed in entrepreneurship research, is theoretically exciting but empirically elusive. This article seeks to stimulate a new conversation about entrepreneurial opportunities by distinguishing two conceptions of entrepreneurial behavior--formal and substantive--and situating the construct of opportunity within the latter. It discusses three substantive premises for studying opportunities empirically: (1) opportunity as happening; (2) opportunity as expressed in actions; and (3) opportunity as instituted in market structures. These premises stimulate research questions that can invigorate and expand the study of entrepreneurial opportunities. They invite a continuous dialogue between qualitative and quantitative methodologies in behalf of understanding how opportunities emerge and evolve at the level of individual entrepreneurs.

Introduction

On September 4, 2009, Jim Safka, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Chegg.com, a college textbook rental company, appeared on CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" program. Asked by the anchor, Erin Burnett, "Where did you get this idea, textbook rentals?", he replied,

   Well, it is a lot like Netflix, (1) but for college textbooks. When
   I was in school, over 20 years ago, textbooks were way too
   expensive. What shocks me is, at this point, 20 years later, the
   problem still exists.

Viewed from the pedestal of Chegg's having raised just over U.S.$33 million in venture capital, the notion of combining a persistent unfulfilled need for cheaper textbooks and the innovative business model of Netflix seems both prescient and inevitable. Once this opportunity has been made obvious to us, it is impossible to look at the past and not see it there.

The question of the origin of entrepreneurial opportunities looms large in the academic dialogue. Entrepreneurship scholars have been excited and invigorated by a shared goal of understanding how and by whom entrepreneurial opportunities are discovered, evaluated, and exploited (Shane & Venkataraman, 2000; Venkataraman, 1997). Yet, for what should have been the "golden age" of opportunity as a subject for academic enquiry, empirical studies of opportunity discovery appearing in the major journals have been not only restricted to a handful, but also quite diverse in their methodology, findings, and conception of opportunity (e.g., Baron & Ensley, 2006; Corbett, 2007; Dimov, 2007a; Gregoire, Barr, & Shepherd, 2010; Haynie, Shepherd, & McMullen, 2009; Ko & Butler, 2006; Shane, 2000; Shepherd & DeTienne, 2005). Implicit in these studies and in our overall conversation about entrepreneurial opportunities is a narrative of the entrepreneur as a prescient progenitor following a hidden but linear path. As the following example illustrates, this narrative has not only acted as a blinder, directing exclusive attention to the "entrepreneur," but has also made opportunity an elusive construct.

Cheggpost.com, the precursor of what is now Chegg.com, was launched in October 2000 by Josh Carlson and two friends at Iowa State University (ISU) to allow ISU students "to buy and sell books with other ISU students" (Gardeen, 2003). Notably, it was one of over 300 websites launched at universities around the United States after 1995 to tackle the problem of high textbook prices (Dimov & Gras, 2010). Each website was driven by a sense of opportunity and vowed to ease the financial burden on students. In 2005, Osman Rashid and Aayush Phumbhra joined Josh Carlson to take the venture "to the next level," "to eventually roll out to 200 major campuses and their near-by community colleges" (McLain, 2005). They eventually assumed full control of the company and are ultimately described as "the co-founders of Chegg.com" (Helft, 2009). Their original conception of Chegg was as "an online marketplace for college students to buy, sell and trade items locally" (Guynn, 2006), "fashioned after Craigslist (2) and geared toward students" (Dawson, 2006). …

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