Popular types of entrepreneurship (e.g. Gazelles, Unicorns, Hidden Champions) receive high attention from the media, academia, and policy makers. In contrast, non-popular firms (e.g. small and mundane firms) receive little attention. What are key drivers of popularity and what role do different actors play in the popularization of entrepreneurship? In an interview, David Audretsch, an expert on research in international affairs and development, public finance and economics provides insights into which mechanisms may influence the popularization of entrepreneurship.
David Audretsch is a Distinguished Professor and the Ameritech Chair of Economic Development at Indiana University, where he also serves as director of the Institute for Development Strategies. He is an Honorary Professor of Industrial Economics and Entrepreneurship at the WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management in Germany and a part-time professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Klagenfurt in Austria. David Audretsch is one of 16 world-class researchers from six countries to receive the Clarivate Citation Laureate, an international honor reserved for researchers whose work has been deemed to be “of Nobel class” as demonstrated by analysis carried out by the Institute for Scientific Information.
What do you associate with popularity in general? And what dimensions are important in defining popularity?
To me, popularity is the enthusiasm across a population for a subject. As far as dimensions are concerned, there are two aspects for me. One is the spread of the subject, the other is the relative importance for people.
What is popular entrepreneurship?
It has a “Doppelbedeutung”. There are two meanings to it. The first would be in the sense of to what degree is it understood and known across the population; what percentage of people have heard of it and understand it. And the second is more about the importance or about positivity. That is one way. The other is the actual engagement, because entrepreneurship is more than an idea, it is an actual activity. It is something that everybody does, it used to be things like social media or using computers or other technologies. In the beginning it is not popular in that sense, people have not heard of it, then it becomes more popular. By the end, when it is mature, we are all engaging in it.
When I ask you to name three popular entrepreneurs, who comes to mind?
Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg. All three of those entrepreneurs are connected with very strong narratives, stories, myths. They have this narrative. Are they the most important? I don’t know. There are other entrepreneurs. Oprah is an entrepreneur. People do not think about her as an entrepreneur. We have got the founders of SAP, they are certainly important, but they do not have the narrative. I think narrative is very important. For example, Apple had the most famous commercial ever in television history. I remember seeing it in 1984 at the halftime show of the Super Bowl. It depicts these men, all wearing the same outfit, they are in the audience, a big speaker on a screen who says: we will do this, we will do this, we will do this. It is meant to be like Big Brother. And then this woman comes in, a young woman in running clothes and running shoes, which was new at the time, and she throws a hammer at the screen and breaks it. And then we read: Why 1984 won't be like 1984, introducing Apple and attacking IBM. But the narrative for the company and for Steve Jobs of a social movement is played out. >
I think that there are in fact many great examples of entrepreneurs, but they do not have the narrative, they do not have the publicity or the symbolism. I think that three things are key here. One is the visibility, the other is the narrative, and the third is the existence of a problem that is solved or overcome.
Do you think there are differences between the United States and Germany?
It is interesting that Germany celebrates, acknowledges, focuses on, and nurtures its Hidden Champions and - more generally - the Mittelstand. The word Hidden Champion comes from Germany. It was invented by a German, applied in Germany first. And there is a paradox because if being hidden is so important, then why is it being celebrated, nourished and exposed? But the real question is, as Hermann Simon points out in his work, many countries have them, and the United States may have the second most Hidden Champions, which is one of the biggest secret in America. We do not see them; we are not aware of them. We do not measure them; we do not nourish them. If anything, we tend to disdain them or look down on them because they are small, they are not scale up innovative Silicon Valley firms. We have them, we do not know that we have them and whenever we see them, we wish we did not have them. From an American perspective, this is a great treasure and resource that we are just ignoring, wasting, not making the most of.
What is the role of scientists or experts in driving the popularization?
I think there is an interaction between the emergence of a new concept or an idea and then its acceleration, and then continued diffusion of popularity. Sometimes the ideas come from science, like getting vaccines against Covid. And science plays a role because it helps to accelerate and disseminate it. I am fascinated by this whole process. Science spreads the diffusion of it and not just gives it validation. When something becomes important in the world, then science starts to take it seriously and starts to understand it. And as we understand it better, then the world starts to understand. And so we get this dance between the two worlds, the popular world and then the scientific world.
What is the role of policy makers?
I think policy makers went to Germany to look at the successful firms such as Siemens, VW and so on. I would say that the world becomes more aware of the Mittelstand relative to the policy makers, who are focused on the highly innovative venture-financed startups. And I think, it is at the heart of what you are interested in because it is also about the diffusion of an idea in the policy community. And among policy makers entrepreneurship is perceived positively, but only the one kind of entrepreneurship. For the Mittelstand, I think that there is more awareness than there was 20, 30 years ago, but not that much more. So strangely enough, policy makers, especially in the United States, almost don't talk about the Mittelstand, the Hidden Champions. I think, it is a mistake because, there are many types of entrepreneurship and it fits into the context of the “Standort”. Not every type of entrepreneurship fits a “Standort”. The policymakers do not know that. They think there is only one kind, the Silicon Valley kind. Their understanding of entrepreneurship, or at least its variety, is limited. I think it is hurting policy, and I think it is hurting many communities because they would be better served to try to create their own Mittelstand and Hidden Champions. And I think that is either a global problem or global opportunity.
What role do experts and elites play during a crisis?
When there is a crisis or a problem, the population wants solutions and turns to somebody, whether it is Covid or whether it is the war in Ukraine. Now some people say that Covid was somehow overexaggerated by governments. But then the population wants solutions and is willing to turn power over to the governments to try to solve the problems. What does that mean for entrepreneurship? I think what it means is that there are still opportunities for entrepreneurship, but it gets dictated more by governments than it would be from the bottom up, which is strange because that shift to the government controlling things, that is coming from the demand of the population. So it is coming from the population and then it limits what the population can do and then kind of directs where to go from there. And that gets to the idea that people point out of, say, China and Singapore and Vietnam, of the entrepreneurial state or the developmental state, they got a lot of entrepreneurship, but only in areas that they want or that they prioritize. And you do not see this kind of more bottom-up entrepreneurship.
What is the future for entrepreneurship in solving great challenges such as climate change? In your article “The future of entrepreneurship: the few or the many?” (Kuratko & Audretsch, 2022) you mentioned a crossroads. Is it about polarization or is there a future in the middle when it comes to major social or societal issues?
I think both. I am really obsessed with this idea. There is research out there to back it up that says that when most industries emerge, whether it is cars or computers, it is out of the passion of the people who want to solve problems. Now they could be problems for society, or they are just what they are working on, or of what they are doing. But it is out of a passion. It is not for money. And that draws out people. Once it starts to become clear that there is profit, we see much more people joining into that. It is the job of governments to try to align incentives so that where there is a problem, entrepreneurs can earn a living doing it. So, I think my answer is: In the beginning we see the few, not the rich ones, but the few that are passionate. I think ideally there is a kind of convergence between the few and the many. I am optimistic about climate change, but it needs the governments’ incentives to be there and needs people with passion to go there.
The concept of popularity and models of (popular) entrepreneurship
Popular firms such as Gazelles, Unicorns, or Hidden Champions and the success factors of ecosystems such as the Silicon Valley are frequent research topics (Aldrich & Ruef, 2018; Lehmann et al., 2019). More recent studies have brought (non-popular) everyday entrepreneurship to the forefront of the academic debate as a counter-image to popular images of entrepreneurship (Welter et al., 2017). In research, two prevailing explanatory models address selected types: the Silicon Valley model as prime example of high-tech entrepreneurship and the German Mittelstand as an excellent example of everyday entrepreneurship.
Kuratko and Audretsch (2022) claim that entrepreneurship is at a crossroads. Gazelles and Unicorns (high-growth companies) are multiplying at a breathtaking pace, but the true heartbeat of a dynamic economy is in the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). SMEs account for over 90% of businesses and 50% of employment of the worldwide population contributing up to 55% of the GDP in developed economies. Nevertheless, fast-growing “blitzscaled” ventures dominate the public discourse (Kuratko & Audretsch, 2022, p. 269).
Why does the current public debate still praise the Silicon Valley model of entrepreneurship, contrasting the mundane, small and medium-sized enterprises as low-growth, low-tech and non-innovative (Pahnke & Welter, 2019)?
Audretsch and Lehmann (2016) highlight that global competitiveness and outstanding economic success is not necessarily linked solely to the existence of a Silicon Valley model of entrepreneurship and stress the importance of small and medium-sized enterprises for stability and resilience – “small is beautiful”. Pahnke and Welter (2019) emphasize that the German Mittelstand including its Hidden Champions is considered as the backbone of the German economy and has proven to be resilient to the financial crises (Pahnke & Welter, 2019). However, comparative studies are rare. An exception to this is the study of Lehmann et al. (2019) examining Hidden Champions as a counterpart to the high-growth Silicon Valley firms and emphasizing the institutional context, in particular the provision of human capital.
Does the future belong to the few or the many? Kuratko and Audretsch (2022) conclude with a set of guiding thoughts on this crossroads, as the vitality of the academic field of entrepreneurship needs to reflect the full vibrancy and richness of entrepreneurship. In the literature, less empirical consideration is given to aspects of transformations of the popular. The key underlying mechanisms and the extent to which certain actors drive popularization has not yet been adequately researched.
From the interview with David Audretsch it becomes clear that he, like Hermann Simon, has a positive view of popularity. By emphasizing entrepreneurial activity, he adds another important component related to popular entrepreneurship. Further research on popularity should focus on the underlying motives to explain enthusiasm, engagement, and dedication of entrepreneurs in solving important problems. Additionally, very little attention has been paid to how concepts and ideas of entrepreneurship become popular: from the idea to its relevance, to its dissemination to ultimately dominating the public discourse.
Besides size, performance, and visibility, the interview highlights the importance of narratives for popularization. Given that entrepreneurship is popularized selectively, regardless of whether the entrepreneur is portrayed as archetypal warrior, hero, or lone wolf that propagates a very specific stereotype. Ecosystems such as Silicon Valley (as universal gold standard for entrepreneurs) (Audretsch & Lehmann, 2022) or the German Mittelstand with its Hidden Champions as stars in the province are at the forefront of public interest. Further research should investigate how narratives are spread and diffused by media and science and their corresponding interplay. Recent research stresses that the media play a key role, as the coverage of entrepreneurship not only reflects but also co-creates entrepreneurial stereotypes (Smith & Warren, 2022, Anderson & Warren, 2011). Greater effort is needed to ensure why non-popular types of entrepreneurship are still invisible to the public and which mechanisms influence popular entrepreneurship remaining elitist (Smith & Warren, 2022).
Aldrich, H. E., & Ruef, M. (2018). Unicorns, Gazelles, and Other Distractions on the Way to Understanding Real Entrepreneurship in the United States. Academy of Management Perspectives, 32(4), 458–472. https://doi.org/10.5465/amp.2017.0123
Anderson, A. R., & Warren, L. (2011). The entrepreneur as hero and jester: Enacting the entrepreneurial discourse. International Small Business Journal: Researching Entrepreneurship, 29(6), 589–609. https://doi.org/10.1177/0266242611416417
Audretsch, D. B., & Lehmann, E. (2016). The Seven Secrets of Germany: Economic Resilience in an Era of Global Turbulence. Oxford University Press.
Audretsch, D. B., & Lehmann, E. E. (2022). Narrative entrepreneurship: bringing (his)story back to entrepreneurship. Small Business Economics. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11187-022-00661-2
Kuratko, D. F., & Audretsch, D. B. (2022). The future of entrepreneurship: the few or the many? Small Business Economics, 59(1), 269–278. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11187-021-00534-0
Lehmann, E. E., Schenkenhofer, J., & Wirsching, K. (2019). Hidden champions and unicorns: A question of the context of human capital investment. Small Business Economics, 52(2), 359–374. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11187-018-0096-3
Pahnke, A., & Welter, F. (2019). The German Mittelstand: Antithesis to Silicon Valley entrepreneurship? Small Business Economics, 52(2), 345–358. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11187-018-0095-4
Smith, R., & Warren, L. (2022). Observing legitimacy building in the reproduction and promotion of an entrepreneurial elite: the Scottish'entrepreneurial exchange', 1995-2015. International Journal of Business and Globalisation, 31(4), 478–499.
Welter, F., Baker, T., Audretsch, D. B., & Gartner, W. B. (2017). Everyday Entrepreneurship—A Call for Entrepreneurship Research to Embrace Entrepreneurial Diversity. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 41(3), 311–321. https://doi.org/10.1111/etap.12258