Noam Wasserman’s new book The Founder’s Dilemmas came out today. It is an excellent mélange of thorough research and starkly practical observations about successfully starting a business. If you do either of these things (start businesses or research them) I recommend you pick it up.
Unfortunately, it seems to me his work is a bit of an outlier. In my reading of the entrepreneurship literature I have been struck by the large gap between entrepreneurs and people who study entrepreneurship. The group of people who self select into entrepreneurship is almost entirely disjoint from the group of people who self select to study it. Such a gap exists in other fields to greater and lesser degrees. Sociologists, for instance, study phenomenon in which they are clearly participants whereas political scientists are rarely career politicians but are often actors in political systems.
But in the case of entrepreneurship the gap is cause for concern. My sense is that all too often those studying entrepreneurship don’t understand, even through exposure, the messy process of creating a business, nor, due to selection effects, are they naturally inclined to think like an entrepreneur might. At Kauffman, we have had multiple scholars say to us that they’ve found that talking to entrepreneurs is useful in their research.
This should be obvious, but it’s not. The result is research that can lack grounding, perspective and credibility. As a researcher I understand the natural impulse to keep things neatly ordered so as to create elegant papers and clear conclusions. But the fact of entrepreneurship is that it is anything but pretty or neat. More importantly, the research product resulting from such a disconnect can present a distorted view of the entrepreneurial process that may actually hinder our understanding of it. Such ill-informed research can then go on to form the basis of a policy directed at entrepreneurs – without ever having involved or understood them.
If entrepreneurship is indeed a driving force in the economy – and it is – then we need to be able to understand it in systematic and rigorous ways. In other words, academics are necessary. The tough part, it seems, is convincing some of them that entrepreneurs are too.