As public and private organizations are spending resources fostering entrepreneurship, an industry around entrepreneurship has emerged. Using the entrepreneurship industry in Sweden as a case and example, this chapter provides an explorative analysis of the emergence, manifestations, and consequences of cultural ideals within this industry. The analysis reveals how the entrepreneurship industry is not only a producer of goods and services for opportunity discovery and development; but also a producer of entrepreneurship culture. Moreover, it reveals how the production and consumption of entrepreneurship culture can lead to problems of inefficiency and discrimination, problems which ultimately hamper the entrepreneurial output that the industry is supposed to produce.
- Entrepreneurship culture
- Entrepreneurship industry
- Cultural ideals
- Lifestyle entrepreneurship
In research literature and the popular press, entrepreneurship is portrayed as a solution to the grand challenges of our time (Brattström & Wennberg, 2021). It is not surprising that governments and private organizations across the world are spending significant resources on promoting entrepreneurship. Paradoxically, this has led to an explosion in entrepreneurial activities—but not corresponded to an explosion in entrepreneurial outcomes. At the level of society, the number of new innovative firms has been in steady decline in both Europe and North America (Decker et al., 2016; Heyman et al., 2019) and innovation in the overall economy is stagnant (Bloom et al., 2020). At the organizational level, most new firms started—even in knowledge-intensive sectors—generate limited economic outcomes (Nightingale & Coad, 2014). At the individual level, working for new firms is a risky job that generally pays less than working for more established firms (Burton et al., 2018; Styhre, 2018).
Instead of generating entrepreneurial outcomes, many initiatives contribute to building an entrepreneurship industry—“goods and services explicitly intended for opportunity discovery and development by current and prospective entrepreneurs” (Hunt & Kiefer, 2017, p. 231). Recognizing the gap between the growth of an entrepreneurship industry and the lack of tangible outcomes that result from it, scholars have offered rich insights into the functional reasons for why support initiatives often fail to produce outcomes (e.g., Amezcua et al., 2013; Karlson et al., 2021; Malerba & McKelvey, 2020; Sandström et al., 2018). As a consequence, we know a lot about how financial support, networking support, as well as tools and methods, more or less efficiently support aspiring entrepreneurs. These functional analyses are important for understanding how to generate more entrepreneurial outcomes. They do not explain, however, why we currently witness such an explosion in entrepreneurial activities (Hartmann et al., 2020).
For example, functional reasons cannot explain why—on an average day in an average European urban hotspot—the number of entrepreneurial networking events, breakfast seminars, or virtual workshops can offer more support than any entrepreneur could acquire with full-time employment. They do not explain why corporations are swapping their sterile office environments and strict office dress codes in favor of more entrepreneurial attributes, such as bean bags, colorful post-it notes, and jeans-and-sneakers attire. Nor do they tell us why Helsingborgs Stad—a municipality in southern Sweden—has hired both a Head of Future; a Storyteller; and a Strategic Influencer (Påverkansstrateg), all with salary levels considerably higher than an average high school teacher in Sweden.
The present chapter posits that to understand these phenomena, all representing an increase in entrepreneurial activities but not necessarily outcomes, it is useful to address the entrepreneurship industry from a cultural perspective. I position entrepreneurship as a cultural ideal—a social institution to which everyone is supposed to adhere (Brandl & Bullinger, 2009; Hwang & Powell, 2005). Using the entrepreneurship industry in Sweden as a case and example, I seek to understand current ideals around entrepreneurship within the industry and how these ideals are shaping actors and their activities. My approach is explorative and inductive, based on interviews with actors in Sweden’s entrepreneurship industry. The analysis reveals how this industry is not only a producer of goods and services for opportunity discovery and development; but also, a producer of entrepreneurship culture. Moreover, it reveals how the production and consumption of entrepreneurship culture can lead to problems of inefficiency and discrimination, problems which ultimately hamper the entrepreneurial output that the industry is supposed to produce.
2 Theoretical Background
2.1 The Entrepreneurship Industry from a Cultural Perspective
The entrepreneurship industry is “the goods and services explicitly intended for opportunity discovery and development by current and prospective entrepreneurs… Its raison d’être … is to promote the belief that individuals who are motivated to develop opportunities through entrepreneurial action have the potential to harvest lucrative outcomes” (Hunt & Kiefer, 2017, p. 233). As implied by this definition, the entrepreneurship industry does not only encompass entrepreneurs, i.e., individuals engaged in the creation of new ventures; but also many other actors. This includes public and private incubators; accelerators; investors; matchmakers; policymakers; educators; inspirational speakers; consultants and coaches.
Sweden’s entrepreneurship industry has previously been addressed in both academic (e.g., Elert et al., 2020; Karlson et al., 2021; Sandström et al., 2018) and public (e.g., Ejermo, 2016; Karlson et al., 2021; Sandström et al., 2018) reports. These studies provide important functional insights into the different private, public, and academic actors that participate in the entrepreneurship industry; what elements of the entrepreneurship industry are more or less efficient; as well as insightful policy recommendations for how to improve the functioning of the industry. In comparison, the present study is less functionalistic. My aim is not to suggest how we can increase the output of the entrepreneurship industry, but rather to understand its cultural underpinnings, in the hope of also understanding why entrepreneurial activities are increasing.
2.2 Cultural Ideals
As the entrepreneurship industry grows in size and significance (Hunt & Kiefer, 2017), it also undergoes a process of institutionalization (Brandl & Bullinger, 2009; Hwang & Powell, 2005). Processes of institutionalization do not only encompass the establishment of standards, professions, and formal rules (Hwang & Powell, 2005; Powell & DiMaggio, 2012). They also encompass cultural ideals, or implicit, taken-for-granted assumptions about what is desirable and appropriate (Berger & Luckmann, 1967). Cultural ideals are important if we acknowledge that entrepreneurship actors are social beings (Granovetter, 1985). They interact with others, collaborate with others, and spend their time in social communities within the entrepreneurship industry. In this way, entrepreneurship actors become “suspended in a web of values, norms, rules, beliefs, and taken-for-granted assumptions, that are at least partially of their own making” (Barley & Tolbert, 1997, p. 93). By adhering to cultural ideals, actors in the entrepreneurship industry gain legitimacy, while at the same time, they themselves contribute to a process of institutionalization. In this way, the entrepreneurship industry not only produces economic value, such as in the form of new ventures. In addition, it produces cultural products (Hartmann et al., 2020) which its actors consume and reproduce. In this chapter, I seek to understand what the cultural ideals are within the entrepreneurship industry in Sweden, how they manifest themselves, and the consequences they have for actors and their activities.
Because of the lack of prior academic research on entrepreneurship as a cultural ideal in the entrepreneurship industry, I relied on an inductive, explorative approach (Edmondson & McManus, 2007). I collected data from two different sources: (1) interviews with actors in the entrepreneurship industry in Sweden; and (2) public documents from actors in this industry, in which they explain who they are and what they do. Informants are listed in Table 1, all names are pseudonyms.
My analysis follows standard procedures in inductive theorizing from qualitative data (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Miles & Huberman, 1994). I started with an open coding of interview transcripts, seeking to identify manifestations of values, norms, rules, beliefs, and taken-for-granted assumptions related to the entrepreneurship industry in Sweden. An initial central theme to emerge from this open coding was the idea of entrepreneurship as a positive, cultural ideal—albeit one that was fuzzy and difficult to define. As one informant said,
It is dangerous with terms where people do not see both the upside and the downside; terms that have these assumed, positive connotations…and there is a lot of that when it comes to entrepreneurship and innovation. Because it is seen as the solution to all of the problems of humanity (M. Entrepreneurship Scholar).
Because the idea of entrepreneurship as cultural ideal was salient in many interviews, I engaged in a more focused, thematic analysis of my interviews, trying to identify what that this ideal implied. This analysis centered around five core themes: Informants’ descriptions of (1) core actors and their activities in the entrepreneurship industry in Sweden; (2) entrepreneurship as a cultural ideal being present in the entrepreneurship industry; (3) how this ideal emerges and becomes sustained; (4) how this ideal is visually manifested—here, language and looks emerged as two central categories; (5) the consequences of cultural ideals in the entrepreneurship industry. I systematically coded all interviews with respect to these five themes, creating first-order codes to capture individual opinions, observations, and anecdotes. Thereafter, I systematically analyzed these first-order codes, integrating them into a more systematic narrative, accounted for in the Sect. “Findings: Production of Entrepreneurship Culture in the Entrepreneurship Industry”, below. Finally, in Sect. “Discussion”, I synthesize these observations to outline the implications of entrepreneurship as a cultural ideal for the entrepreneurship industry.
4 Findings: Production of Entrepreneurship Culture in the Entrepreneurship Industry
In this section, I start with a description of the entrepreneurship industry in Sweden to illustrate how this industry was described by informants. Thereafter, I provide an empirical account of how actors in this industry perceived cultural ideals, their emergence, manifestations, and consequences.
4.1 The Entrepreneurship Industry in Sweden
In interviews, informants described the industry as fragmented, involving both public and private actors. P., for example, an entrepreneurship scholar and author of multiple reports about innovation policy support, described a system that involved participants at all different levels, from government to regional and private actors:
Policy decisions are made by the government…VINNOVA have a lot of responsibility, but there are also other councils, like Formas, for example. And we have the semi-private institutions as well, that finance activities too. We have, for example, Almi, a semi-public organization…regional actors like Region Skåne… .And then we have the universities, that are working with their own innovation units…innovation offices and technology transfer offices. So even at the university level, it is fragmented with different organizations that are engaged in innovation…and then we have the industry that also finance a lot of innovation. (P. innovation scholar)
To illustrate the degree of fragmentation, Table 2 provides an overview of a subsample of the entrepreneurship industry in Sweden, listing public-funded actors in Skåne, southern Sweden. As illustrated in this table, this subcategory involves numerous actors (n = 82)—even though it does not include private companies or private investors.
Informants often struggled to grasp the full structure of the industry. Even though all informants were asked a similar question to describe the industry and its core actors, their answers to this question differed widely. At the same time, it was striking that even though informants provided different accounts of actors and their relationships, they provided similar accounts of the activities pursued by those actors. In particular, they emphasized terms such as innovation, scaling, growth, incubation, and facilitation. Below is an example of such a description, from K., an entrepreneur and innovation manager in a publicly owned, for-profit company in southern Sweden:
I was just in a meeting with Ideon Open…but there are numerous groups to work with. Sustainable Business Hub and some other organizations in Malmö. And Sustainable Innovation Hub, or whatever their name is…in Helsingborg, we have HEDGE, Helsingborg Tech House, started just last year by a driven entrepreneur…they seek to create a startup environment where you can incubate and then, later on, accelerate with angel investors. Like a non-profit organization, run as an association…they collaborate with SUP24 from Stockholm…don’t know if you heard about them, Sweden’s largest startup community. They opened their first satellite office in Helsingborg…Other than that, you have something called Get AI in Helsingborg… focus on startups but most importantly, these are four visionary individuals that want to help other get going with applied AI… .we [i.e., the organization K. is working for] have also come together with four competitors to create a new company. A sort of incubation unit. Where we can enter unchartered territory and try to find new ideas, services, startups, where we can co-invest, facilitate, develop. A mix of incubation and investment…in Helsingborg, you also have HBG Works. A public accelerator seeking to bridge the private with the public. (K. entrepreneur and innovation manager)
Recognizing this industrial fragmentation and the somewhat vague understanding of what scaling, facilitation, incubation, and so forth really meant, several informants described a lack of efficiency in the industry. As S. laconically concluded,
There are a thousand different actors and no one understands what they are doing. It all just costs a lot of money. This is something that has been talked about, an issue that has been on the table for a long time. But it is not as if anyone has a solution, saying “this is what we should do about it!” (S. entrepreneurship support actor).
4.2 Entrepreneurship as a Positive Cultural Ideal
In contemporary discourse, entrepreneurship is often portrayed as a process that contributes to economic growth (Wiklund & Shepherd, 2003) or the solution to societal challenges (George et al., 2021). This perspective was shared by all informants. In interviews, they emphasized the importance of entrepreneurship for regional and societal development and they provided different insights into how the entrepreneurship industry could be structured to create the most appropriate conditions for such development to occur.
At the same time, most interviewees also described entrepreneurship as more than a vehicle for economic and societal progress. More profoundly, they described entrepreneurship as a positive cultural ideal. By a positive ideal, I mean an implicit assumption of entrepreneurship as something inherently beneficial for individuals and society, and as such, in need of support and stimulation. As a cultural ideal, I mean that they saw entrepreneurship as not only something that actors do (e.g., create new ventures) but something that more fundamentally relates to their way of being.
To exemplify how this positive cultural ideal was manifested in interviews, consider the following quote, from S. who represents a central actor in the entrepreneurship industry in southern Sweden. He advocated a more entrepreneurship-oriented education system, comparing Sweden to the USA and suggesting for entrepreneurship to become a topic taught in school already in third grade:
We need to talk about entrepreneurship at a much earlier point in our educational system…compare with the U.S., they talk about entrepreneurship from third grade…it would be fantastic to get [entrepreneurship] as a focus issue as early as possible; so that it comes natural already from the beginning. Very often, it is too late to start talking about it in high school…it needs to be planted in people’s heads much earlier. (S. entrepreneurship support actor)
Reflecting on this ideal, X., an entrepreneurship scholar, further concluded,
It’s the creational story of our times. And it is about who is in power in contemporary society, making entrepreneurship hot, desired, and wanted. And when that happens, there is less room for learning. (X. entrepreneurship scholar)
4.3 Emergence of Entrepreneurship as a Cultural Ideal
If entrepreneurship is not only a vehicle for growth but also a positive cultural ideal, it is relevant to understand how such an ideal has emerged and how it has been sustained in the entrepreneurship industry. Informants from this study described both bottom-up and top-down processes.
From a bottom-up perspective, several informants described a cultural ideal, imported from pop culture and the U.S. West Coast. T, for example, works for a public support organization that connect aspiring entrepreneurs to other actors in the industry. He provided rich examples of what it could imply to be an entrepreneur. This was not necessarily something related to the venture, idea, or business case, but rather the personal aspiration, dreams, and identity of the entrepreneur:
It is “American west-coast.” A certain dress code that originates there, to be “relaxed” and “nice” … There are people here who just “are” entrepreneurs. They really do not have anything but their entrepreneurial dream. They have read all the books and seen all the episodes of Silicon Valley [a TV-series] and they know exactly how it all works. They just lack a business idea. They are looking for one. But their business cases are weak, even though they are really good at pitching and making power points. (T. entrepreneurship coach)
W., an entrepreneurship scholar, also described this ideal as something very tacit, imported from Silicon Valley, but difficult to define and capture. He said,
Many business leaders went to a Silicon Valley field-trip. They went to visit fun tech companies and heard a lot of stories. And they read reports about technology shifts, about incumbents being left behind. And they are thinking: what to do now? We need to learn. These startups, they have something we lack. We have no idea of what that is, but it is something. Maybe there is a secret elixir or something? We need to lure them in. Look at them. Touch and feel. Look inside them when they sleep. They [the incumbents] do not have a super clear understanding of the problem or what they are looking for. Just a general feeling of something being there, that is very attractive and that they lack. Just a feeling. (W. entrepreneurship scholar)
Interestingly, several informants described how such bottom-up, cultural processes were being adopted by public actors in the entrepreneurship industry. This created a self-reinforcing pattern, whereby the bottom-up cultural processes were also promoted from a top-down perspective. One example was academia. All academic institutions in Sweden offer courses and programs in entrepreneurship. Informants with insights into such programs—educators as well as former students—emphasized the importance of these programs in reproducing cultural ideals and artifacts. Again, aspiring entrepreneurs are being trained in how to be an entrepreneur, over and beyond how to start a new venture. One informant, herself an academic, described educators as being caught in an entrepreneurship discourse. One that entailed a package deal, including certain tools and norms, which did not necessarily help entrepreneurs improve their ventures, only to be more entrepreneur-like. She called for more critical reflection on entrepreneurship education:
We are all caught in a discourse. A discourse about effectuation and lean startup where we have just adopted certain taken-for-granted things… We have been caught up in the idea that our students need to pitch. We consider the pitch to be super important. But, you know, what really does the pitch represent? And what is the purpose of the pitch? Do we ever think about that? No, I do not think so. We just consider it part of the package deal. (X. entrepreneurship scholar)
In addition to universities, informants also emphasized the role of public support programs in enforcing a top-down cultural ideal of entrepreneurship. Take Skåne, the most southern region in Sweden, as an example. In 2017, Skåne in southern Sweden stated the ambition to “become the most innovative region in Europe by 2020” (RegionSkane, 2017). Numerous initiatives have been taken to support this initiative. For example, Helsingborg, one of the largest cities in the region, has launched Hbg Works, “a place for innovation work in the city of Helsingborg. Here, colleagues from all administrations and companies meet and collaborate in initiatives that deal with innovation” (HelsingborgsStad, 2021). Similar initiatives are being made in other municipalities as well, one of the more recent examples being Level in Malmö, an incubator formed in collaboration with both private and public actors, supported mainly by public funding.
Reflecting on the purpose of such initiatives, informants described how they are not only taken to promote entrepreneurs—creating more and stronger new ventures. Over and beyond, these initiatives seek to infuse a more entrepreneurial mindset in the population, with the assumption that an entrepreneurial way of thinking is a fruitful road to efficiency:
In my view, it is not startups, but the logic of startups that they find attractive. To do a lot out of a little. I believe this is influenced by pop-culture. You know, books and stuff that had a major breakthrough. (W. entrepreneurship scholar)
4.4 Language and Looks as Visual Attributes of the Entrepreneurship Ideal
Even though cultural ideals are tacit, ingrained in implicit understandings of what is good and beneficial, they often have visual representations. When trying to formulate how the entrepreneurship ideal was manifested, informants converged on two central attributes: language and looks.
Talking the Entrepreneurial Talk
Language is an inherent element of all cultures. Through language, culture is produced and through language, culture manifests itself. This seems to hold for entrepreneurship culture as well. D. for example, said,
When you talk to an investor, language is super important. They can immediately tell if you’ve got it. If you understand how an investor thinks. How much return he or she is looking for. How fast he or she expects that return. (D. serial entrepreneur)
As this quote illustrates, entrepreneurial lingo serves as a marker of legitimacy. By talking the talk, you are more likely to be perceived as credible. T., an actor in the entrepreneurial support system, recalled an experience of an entrepreneur who pitched at a major workshop. In her pitch, she meant to describe her “unique selling point” (USP)—i.e., the core characteristic of her business idea that differentiated it from competitors. Instead of USP, however, she used the term IP, which stands for Intellectual Property. T. remembered this as a disastrous pitch that completely undermined her credibility as an entrepreneur. Not because of what she had to say, but for the way she expressed it:
We had this entrepreneur who consistently and frequently during a presentation used the word IP [intellectual property] when she meant USP [unique selling point]. [mimicking with a funny voice] ‘Our IP is to do this.’ One does not take her very seriously as an entrepreneur. One does not trust that she knows how to build a venture. Not because she could not separate the terms, but because it was clear that she tried to present herself as something that she was not. (T. entrepreneurship coach)
As in any subculture, the language of entrepreneurship helped actors in the entrepreneurship industry to distinguish between in-groups and out-groups, between authentic actors and wannabes. Thus, an important role for actors in the entrepreneurship industry was to educate prospective entrepreneurs in this language. T, for example, said,
This lingo we learned at Lund University entrepreneurship program. It is really used. Everyone is talking about MVPs and VC, pitch decks and all of those terms. (T. entrepreneurship coach)
To identify the central terms in this language of entrepreneurship, I asked an entrepreneurial team to make me a list of the most prominent need-to-know words. This team was led by a serial entrepreneur in his early 40s, about to make a successful exit from his second startup. At the time of the interview, he had recently spent 3 months at Antler in Stockholm,Footnote 1 being trained in the profession of entrepreneurship. Table 3 lists the terms his team put forward, adding also a few terms picked up in other interviews. A similar but more extensive list of words has also been put together by MIT Orbit, known as the Entrepreneurship Jargon Translator (2021).
Comparing the list of words that my informants spontaneously developed with the Entrepreneurship Jargon translator, it is apparent that the entrepreneurship culture as manifested in Sweden is an international import, closely linked to the U.S. West Coast. As also clear in Table 3, there is a great deal of Swenglish in entrepreneurship language, a blend of Swedish and English words used in everyday expressions. It is also interesting to note the military references in the entrepreneurship lingo, such as beach head (the first customers) or blitz scale (following the Blitz Krieg during World War Two).
A good example of military terms is manifested in one of the latest trends in the entrepreneurship industry: to organize traditional companies in terms of tribes and squads, instead of business lines and units. Take Danske Bank, for example, one of the main incumbent players in the Nordic banking industry. Danske Bank has recently implemented a major reorganization, following a template that is supposedly adopted from high-tech giants. Instead of the traditional business line structure, Danske Bank is now organized in terms of tribes and squads. These tribes operate in different habitats in the bank, in the hope that “it should be easier and more fun to work in Danske Bank” (2020).
Walking the Entrepreneurial (Cat)Walk
In addition to knowing how to talk the entrepreneurial lingo, informants emphasized the importance of “the entrepreneurial look”. As described by T,
There is a certain look. To not be overdressed. To not be overly groomed. It is good to not be shaved, signaling that one is too busy to have time to groom [laughs]. (T. entrepreneurship coach)
In a Swedish context, Sebastian Siemiatkowski is a famous example of this entrepreneurial look. As a young CEO of the fintech company Klarna, Sebastian Siemiatkowski is known for his dressed-down look, wearing jeans, t-shirts, and hoodies in interviews and other public appearances. Interestingly, this look is a stark contrast to how he presented himself 10 years ago, when Klarna first launched. Presumably in a time when entrepreneurship as a cultural ideal was less outspoken, press pictures back then show a traditional outfit: the haircut slick; the tie arranged carefully; and the suit traditionally gray.
The dressed-down entrepreneurial look is not only apparent in individual dress codes, but also in office designs. A good example is MINC, the largest startup incubator/office space in Malmö, Sweden’s third-largest city. The MINC webpage (2021) displays colorful pictures of post-its, pillows, and plywood, populated with entrepreneurs with a similarly unique, laid-back style. Reflecting on these looks, one informant saw them as central to entrepreneurship culture. Comparing the city of Lund (a university city) to Malmö (18 km. from Lund), T. classified Malmö “more entrepreneurial,” based on dress-code attributes:
Malmö is much more entrepreneurial. Silicon Valley. Entrepreneurial archetype. For example, if you walk around in a suit at MINC [a local incubator]—you would be considered weird. Like, trying to be ‘a business man, with a fax machine’ [laughs—a business man with a fax machine is apparently NOT what you want to be perceived as]. (T. entrepreneurship coach)
4.5 Consequences of the Entrepreneurship Ideal
As demonstrated in the prior sections, interview data supports the idea that activities within the entrepreneurship industry are not free of cultural connotations, but unfold according to a cultural ideal: a social institution to which actors in this industry are supposed to adhere. In addition to providing insight into how this ideal has emerged and how it manifests itself, informants also provided reflective discussions about its consequences.
The People that Get Lost in Translation
Several informants acknowledged that the practices of the entrepreneurship industry were complex and tacit, making it difficult for newcomers to understand how to play the industry in their favor. As S. reflected,
It is all about knowing which organizations that are out there, knowing where to turn to for help…for those of us already working in the industry, we do not always see that, but for an entrepreneur that is not familiar with the system, it must be very confusing. (S. entrepreneurship support actor)
Not all entrepreneurs understand how to play cultural ideals in their favor. And those who do not are less likely to be perceived as legitimate. In this way, the presence of cultural ideals in the entrepreneurship industry leads to problems of discrimination, whereby prospective entrepreneurs who fall outside the normative ideal are less likely to receive support. As T. reflected,
Say that you are a 70-year-old engineer who just invented a new microinvector for solar panels that improves efficiency by 7.3%. And you come to pitch in this format that we run [i.e., in the support organization]: a sort of dragons’ den. Then you are an oddball. And you will probably not be let in, but you have to team up with someone who is a little more ‘entrepreneurial’. (T. entrepreneurship coach)
A similar point was furthered by Z., a serial entrepreneur engaged in social entrepreneurship. In her view, the entrepreneurship system in Sweden over-supports technical entrepreneurship, but under-supports social entrepreneurship. As this quote illustrates, the entrepreneurship industry does not necessarily foster a broad base of entrepreneurs, but targets the rather narrow crowd that fits the entrepreneurial ideals:
There is an enormous amount of support in Skåne. But in the field where I work, social entrepreneurship, there is not enough support… social entrepreneurship is difficult in the entrepreneurial system, because the people themselves are not ‘entrepreneurs.’ (Z. serial entrepreneur)
The Ideas that Get Lost in Translation
It is not only individuals that are lost in translation, but ideas too. As N. concluded, when there is a hype around high-tech entrepreneurship with strong Silicon Valley connotations, there is a risk of forgetting the plainer aspect of entrepreneurship:
It is a pity that we do not support plain, simple entrepreneurship…the ordinary, the unsexy, is forgotten. (N. entrepreneurship scholar)
Advancing a similar point, X. reflected that with a cultural ideal that emphasizes speed, there is a risk that the value of more profound, slow thinking is lost. Instead of spending time understanding fundamental problems, there is a risk of jumping to solutions in an environment that is hot and fast paced:
Because entrepreneurship is so hot, we uncritically take in all of these terms, like the lean startup, effectuation, agile work processes. And those tools are developed to speed up prototype development and solutions. And it becomes a problem that we spend too little time on understanding the more fundamental problems we seek to solve. We just have a hint of the problem, and then focus on the solution. (X. entrepreneurship scholar)
In all, this suggests that the prevalence of cultural ideals is not only enabling but also constraining for the individuals, ideas, and reflections that fall outside of the cultural norm.
Entrepreneurship as a Lifestyle Choice
Several informants described how entrepreneurship is becoming a lifestyle choice, in addition to a means to make a living or grow a business. D. for instance:
It is becoming a lifestyle choice. To be able to say: I have a startup. I went to Hyper Island [a private entrepreneurship education in Stockholm] and I know it all. (D. serial entrepreneur)
That individuals pursue a particular lifestyle is not problematic per se. It is a privilege of people in the richer world to be able to choose how to live their life for themselves. It becomes problematic, however, if taxpayers’ money or private capital goes into supporting lifestyles, when it is meant to support the development of the economy. This was brought up by A.:
I met a lady the other day, she has been around for a year, …creating a platform for yoga teaching. I asked “okay, how many yoga teachers do you have?” and she is like “10” and I’m like, “okay, how long have you been doing this?”—“for a year”. And I look at this, it’s a freaking website with 10 [users]. So, what have you been doing for a year of your life? She is 27, 28 years old, probably has a degree from some top university here, paid by taxpayers’ money, under the excuse of being an entrepreneur. (A. serial entrepreneur and entrepreneurship educator)
In addition to deploying resources, informants also emphasized that lifestyle entrepreneurship floods the entrepreneurship industry with actors and activities that do not add substantial value. In short, cultural ideals contribute to an increase in entrepreneurial activities, but not a corresponding increase in entrepreneurial outcomes. N. for example, said,
There are a lot of different [support] actors, that all chase the same entrepreneurs. (N. entrepreneurship scholar)
D., himself a serial entrepreneur, said,
It is becoming a lifestyle…but as the quality of events decrease, and the quality of the entrepreneurs accepted into incubators decrease, then you are just educating people in entrepreneurship…There are two-three startup events every night in Stockholm…and that dilutes quality. You can go to an investor matchmaking event where there is just one registered participant—because no one else has time to go. The quality of events has decreased, but even more the quality of participants. (D. serial entrepreneur)
Infused by Cultural Ideals, the Entrepreneurship Industry Becomes Self-Sustaining
As the entrepreneurship industry has developed its own cultural ideals, these ideals have created a reinforcing pattern, institutionalizing the industry further. T., for example, emphasized the importance of name-dropping in the industry and how entrepreneurs, instead of working on the new venture, needed to spend time proving that they were in fact “an entrepreneur”:
You need to know the right names. There is a lot of name-dropping. Have you talked to this person? Do you know that person? A lot of time [in meetings] is spent on the entrepreneur proving that he or she is an entrepreneur, rather than on the company. (T. entrepreneurship coach)
Several informants described how this has led to a sustaining of the entrepreneurship industry. Representatives of the support system (coaches, incubator managers, matchmakers) recommended themselves and their peers as a way to maintain the industry, rather than necessarily to help the entrepreneurs. As one informant said,
In one incubator, we received the advice: “you need to talk to Olof [pseudonym], he can help you grow.” This means that we sat with a former incubator member, who had a private consultancy company, and advised us to acquire services from their private company, using public funding. That is completely unethical but it happened several times. To get the advice “this won’t cost you anything, you can use the verification funding [i.e., public money].” There is a group of parasites that work as consultants and live out of the public support system. They do not contribute to economic growth; they just live out of the entrepreneurship industry. (D. serial entrepreneur)
W., an entrepreneurship scholar, offered a similar line of reasoning:
There are a lot of people sitting and thinking about how they can help. But often, it is more about how they can keep themselves busy. By applying for funding from the E.U., or VINNOVA to create an idea about how to contribute to the ecosystem. (W. entrepreneurship scholar)
Z., a serial entrepreneur, had a similar reflection. In her view, the entrepreneurship industry is populated with support actors, who claim to support entrepreneurs but who are primarily supporting themselves:
To be honest, and now I might not be ‘politically correct,’ but consider all these people in the “system”…it is a small community, where everyone basically knows everyone…there are a lot of people in the system that gain from the system being the way it is… .Had the system been more effective, these people would not have been needed. We could have gotten rid of ourselves. (Z. serial entrepreneur)
She described a collegial culture, with support actors attending each other’s events. This creates the perception of the entrepreneurship industry being a vibrant, growing industry, whereas in fact its population are Tordenskjold Soldiers; like extras on a T.V. production set to create the perception of a crowd.Footnote 2
We do not work to make things better. We just muddle around, patting each other’s backs. Attending each other’s events…We call it Tordenskjold’s Soldiers… It is the same people over and over again. Same people that attend the conferences. The same people working in the system. The same people supporting each other. We do not change it because then we lose our own jobs. (Z. serial entrepreneur)
Insights from interviewees support the idea of entrepreneurship as a cultural ideal, whereby actors in the entrepreneurship industry internalize and re-create taken-for-granted beliefs, assumptions, and norms about why entrepreneurship is important, what an entrepreneur is, and how one is to behave. In this way, the entrepreneurship industry in Sweden not only produces goods, services, and new ventures. It also produces culture (Hartmann et al., 2020). Looking at entrepreneurship in this way provides a deeper understanding of why we currently witness such an increase in entrepreneurial activities. This complements the more functionalistic understanding of how the entrepreneurship industry ought to be organized to maximize entrepreneurial outcomes. In the present study, I have explored what entrepreneurship ideals entail in the context of the entrepreneurship industry in Sweden; how these ideals emerge; how they manifest themselves in language and looks; as well as what consequences it fosters for actors and their activities. For entrepreneurship research and policy, the analysis comes with two core implications.
5.1 Alternative Investments if the Outcome Is Culture Not Profit
Entrepreneurship is a risky activity for the individuals involved. It takes many years for a new venture to become profitable and most new ventures do not even survive at all. The expected income is much higher from a regular job in an established firm (Åstebro, 2012) and those working for new ventures earn less than their counterparts in established organizations (Burton et al., 2018). Therefore, it is important that aspiring entrepreneurs enter the entrepreneurship industry with their eyes open. If activities in the industry are geared toward the creation of culture instead of profit, this needs to be clear at the outset.
Informants in this study provide several examples of how cultural attributes (language and looks) are being fostered and reproduced at the cost of more substantial content. Moreover, informants discuss how established actors in the industry work to sustain themselves and their entrepreneurial activities, not necessarily entrepreneurial outcomes. For the entrepreneurs who enter the industry without a thorough understanding of the production of culture, in addition to the production of entrepreneurship, this can lead to financial losses and broken dreams.
At the societal level, it is relevant to consider how investments of taxpayers’ money can create benefits to the many, not only to those who consume cultural products inside the entrepreneurship industry. For example, there is clear evidence that entrepreneurs who are well educated are more likely to succeed than those who lack education (Hvide & Møen, 2010; Marinoni & Voorheis, 2019). At the same time, evidence in favor of incubators or entrepreneurial support structures is very weak (Amezcua et al., 2013; Schwartz, 2013). If activities in the entrepreneurship industry increase entrepreneurial activities instead of outcomes, it is relevant to consider whether resources are better spent on primary school teachers.
5.2 Problems of Discrimination and the Need for Evidence-Based Advice
Entrepreneurs are entirely dependent on outsiders’ help to realize their ideas and need to be perceived as legitimate in the eyes of external stakeholders (Stinchcombe, 2000). In a field in which formal signs of legitimacy are few—new ventures typically do not have a strong brand, obvious assets, or preexisting track record—adhering to cultural ideals increase the legitimacy of the entrepreneur. For entrepreneurs themselves, understanding and playing along with the cultural ideals can be a strong asset (Aldrich & Fiol, 1994; Zott & Huy, 2007). For example, Zott and Huy (2007) demonstrated in a field study how British entrepreneurs engage in various symbolic actions to be perceived as more legitimate.
For entrepreneurs who fall outside of the norm, however, cultural ideals lead to problems of discrimination. This is also something that has been highlighted in prior research, in which scholars have shown that entrepreneurs that do not fit with gender stereotypes (Ahl & Marlow, 2012; Kanze et al., 2018), demographic stereotypes (Blanchflower et al., 2003), or who do not adhere to an accepted communication style (Gino et al., 2020) are less likely to receive external support. Insights presented here, however, show that it is not only individuals that become subject to discrimination. In addition, informants testified to mundane ideas being discriminated against in favor of those that fits with a sexy-and-hot ideal; as well as of slow-paced, reflective thinking being discriminated against in favor of fast-paced, action-based approaches. Ultimately, this leads to a reductionist approach to entrepreneurship, whereby actors in the industry seek to follow what is assumed to be the one best practice.
This is problematic because entrepreneurship research has consistently demonstrated that there is not one best practice available. For example, that there is not one unifying personality trait that characterizes successful entrepreneurs (Kerr et al., 2019; Rauch & Frese, 2007), but they come with different cognitive abilities (Levine & Rubinstein, 2017) and different degrees of action-orientation (Yu et al., 2021). Contrary to the reductionist perspective, entrepreneurship is a process of equifinality, meaning that different starting points and different means can lead to similar outcomes. To better understand this process, theory that advances a mechanism-based approach (Kim et al., 2016) or design principles to entrepreneurship (Berglund et al., 2018) could be a useful starting point.
In all, it would be useful to establish a more evidence-based approach in the entrepreneurship industry. In particular, it is noteworthy that many of the researchers interviewed for this study were themselves critical of the lack of science-based evidence in their own teaching. As an analogy, consider the field of medicine. This field underwent a radical transformation in the nineteenth century, when science-based approaches to medicine radically replaced approaches based on common sense or practical experience. Perhaps it is now time for the entrepreneurship industry to make a similar leap, before unsubstantiated cultural ideals crowd out better-substantiated efforts.
In recent decades we have witnessed the growth of an entrepreneurship industry in Sweden and elsewhere. The present study leverages explorative interviews to understand implicit assumptions about entrepreneurship as a cultural ideal within the industry: what this ideal entails, how it is produced, as well as its consequences. Emerging from this analysis is a critical perspective of the entrepreneurship industry, identifying how cultural ideals lead to problems of efficiency and discrimination. Undoubtedly, entrepreneurship has positive consequences both for individuals and society, as it contributes to economic growth and positive societal change. Undoubtedly, many skillful actors in the entrepreneurship industry are engaged in important value-creating activities. With this book chapter, I hope to offer an interpretative lens that helps entrepreneurs and their supporters realize that potential more fully.
Antler is an investment company, entrepreneurship educator, and business accelerator. Antler accepts applicants with startup ambitions into a six-month program. In the first phase, participants form a team (or try out different teams), identify a business idea, and start to build a new venture. In the second phase, the new venture is accelerated with the aim of securing external investments.
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The author is grateful to Sebastian Maric for excellent research assistance and to VINNOVA and Ragnar Söderbergs Stiftelse for funding.
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Brattström, A. (2022). Cultural Ideals in the Entrepreneurship Industry. In: Wennberg, K., Sandström, C. (eds) Questioning the Entrepreneurial State. International Studies in Entrepreneurship, vol 53. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-94273-1_8
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