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TASA Conference 2005, University of Tasmania, 6-8 December 2005

Getting past the spin: challenges in researching entrepreneurs


Dina Bowman Faculty of Life and Social Sciences, Swinburne University of Technology dbowman@swin.edu.au Abstract In Australia there is growing interest in the study of entrepreneurs but it is mainly from a business rather than a sociological perspective. In part, this may be due to Marxist research traditions in Australian sociology as Michael Gilding (1999) has suggested. Another reason may be that researchers of entrepreneurs face a number of specific practical challenges: entrepreneurs are often hard to find, they generally have more power than the researcher, they value their privacy, and they often have well developed PR skills. In doing my research on entrepreneurs and their families, I confronted three related methodological challenges: identifying entrepreneurs and gaining access to them, when interviewing them moving past the PR spin, and when I succeeded in getting past the spin dealing with issues of confidentiality and anonymity. This paper discusses these challenges and suggests some strategies for overcoming them. Introduction Much of the renewed interest in entrepreneurs has been from a business rather than a sociological perspective. Perhaps one reason is that, as Michael Gilding (1999: 176) suggests, Australian sociology casts entrepreneurs as an ideological artefact, both celebrated and exaggerated by neoclassical economics and New Age capitalist ideologues. Another reason may be that researchers of entrepreneurs face a number of specific practical challenges: entrepreneurs are often hard to find, they generally have more power than the researcher, they value their privacy, and they often have well developed PR skills. As Gilding (1999: 176) notes, it is much more straightforward to do research on public companies, foreign ownership, and class institutions than entrepreneurs.

In this paper, Ill explore three related methodological issues I confronted in doing my research on entrepreneurs and their families.

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TASA Conference 2005, University of Tasmania, 6-8 December 2005 Studying entrepreneurs

Sociologists and economists have been interested in the role of entrepreneurs since at least the early18th century. Classical theorists (Weber, Durkheim and Simmel) in the period from 1890-1920 were all interested in and wrote on the economy (Swedberg 2003:1) and to a greater or lesser extent focussed on entrepreneurs. Since then economic sociology has fallen in and out of vogue and interest in entrepreneurs has similarly fluctuated. For most of the twentieth century (1920s - 1980s) interest centred on the corporation and the managerial thesis (Berle and Means 1968). However, a few key theorists did focus on entrepreneurs, notably Joseph Schumpeter (1934).

Since the 1980s there has been renewed interest in economic sociology especially in the USA. US sociologist Richard Swedberg (2004: 8) argues that the main novelty in recent economic sociology relates to entrepreneurship. He highlights the work of Mark Granovetter and AnnaLee Saxenian as being influential in the development of a sociology of entrepreneurship. In the USA, universities now offer courses in the sociology of entrepreneurship. These courses focus on the importance of different forms of capital (including social, human and cultural), competition, trust, networks, informal and formal economies, and examine recent bubbles of entrepreneurial activity around new technologies.

In Australia, a sociology of entrepreneurship is less developed. Michael Gilding (2005; 2004; 2002; 1999) has been one of few Australian sociologists to explore private wealth and entrepreneurship. His work has focussed on the intersection of the new wealth of entrepreneurs with the structure of power and wealth (Gilding 2004:127), and new technology entrepreneurs.

The sociology of entrepreneurship examines both the individual and the social processes involved in and stemming from entrepreneurial activity. The relatively new field of entrepreneurship adopts a quite different approach. Entrepreneurship research tends to focus on the individual and the processes by which he or she achieves entrepreneurial success. Shane and Venkataraman (2000: 218) define the academic study of entrepreneurship

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TASA Conference 2005, University of Tasmania, 6-8 December 2005

as the scholarly examination of how, by whom, and with what effects opportunities to create future goods and services are discovered, evaluated and exploited. Entrepreneurship research is rooted in business and management studies, but grows out of psychology, economics, and sociology. As Patricia Thornton (1999: 34) observes in her review of the sociology of entrepreneurship, [e]ach of these disciplines asks different questions, employs different metatheories, and focuses at different levels of analysis. The problem with this, as Ulla Hytti (2003: 49) notes, is that entrepreneurship researchers have not maintained links with the original disciplines, which means that they often have been ignorant about developments in the relevant fields. Hytti (2003: 48) argues that entrepreneurship research confronts a number of other profound problems including the lack of agreed upon definitions and the heterogeneity of the field.

As a new and perhaps uncertain - discipline entrepreneurship research has been dominated by positivist research methodologies. Comparatively little qualitative work on entrepreneurship has been done (Chandler and Lyon, 2001) and when qualitative methodologies are used the focus has been on content analysis or retrospective interviews (Hindle 2004: 577).

My research Im interested in the often unacknowledged family resources that are used in generating and maintaining new wealth and the effects on intimate relationships of the often bumpy pursuit of success. My work is informed by entrepreneurship research and sociology. It builds on the work of UK sociologist, Kate Mulholland (2003: 1) who explored the role of women in the wealthy family enterprise. This paper is based on research conducted as part of my studies towards a PhD.

Over a fourteen month period from 2002-2004, I invited seventy entrepreneurs across Australia to participate in my research. Of those approached, sixteen (23%) did not respond and twenty-three (33%) declined (some provided no reason; others said that they were too busy or overseas or were just not interested). Thirty-one entrepreneurs

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TASA Conference 2005, University of Tasmania, 6-8 December 2005

or 44% of those contacted accepted the invitation to participate and were interviewed (eleven female entrepreneurs, twenty male entrepreneurs).

I sought to interview entrepreneurs and their spouses to gain two perspectives on the experience of entrepreneurship and its intersection with family life. My approach was to interview the entrepreneur and towards the end of the interview to invite participation of the spouse. Only one entrepreneur immediately said no: He won't even talk to me, so he's unlikely to talk to you. He hasn't talked to me for four years. I can imagine, actually that would be really interesting. That would be so funny if I gave you his name. But I won't. In total I conducted fifty interviews. I interviewed thirteen male and six female entrepreneurs and their spouses, three couple entrepreneurs, and six entrepreneurs (four male, two female) whose spouses declined or were unavailable.

Identification and access Finding entrepreneurs has been compared with hunting heffalumps and gazelles they are hard to define and hard to catch (Ernst and Young 2002: 3). I developed a database of potential interviewees from a range of business lists including the Business Review Weekly (BRW) Rich List, which estimates the wealth of Australias richest families and individuals, the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year award winners and finalists (national and state) as well as BRW lists such as the Young Rich, and the Fastest 100 and other business award lists. All these lists celebrate wealth and business success; most invite participation and can be important marketing tools for businesses and individuals. The Rich List is different because people do not choose to be included, and they often resent being listed.

I sourced potential interviewees from business lists over the period 1999 - 2004 for four reasons. Firstly, by sourcing interviewees from these lists I limited potential interviewees to acknowledged entrepreneurs and thus avoided the bulk of Australian small business owners whom Hindle and OConnor (2005: 3) describe as quiet under-achievers who are not really entrepreneurial. Secondly, I wanted to capture people at various stages in their pursuit of success. Given the instability of newly acquired wealth, some of the entrepreneurs I approached had experienced or were TASA 2005 Conference Proceedings

TASA Conference 2005, University of Tasmania, 6-8 December 2005

experiencing financial and business stress, while others were enjoying the more recent celebration and acknowledgement of their success. Thirdly, I wanted to maximise the potential for anonymity and confidentiality. Given the small size of Australias business community relying on several sources increases the potential for anonymity. The final reason is that I wanted to be able to answer the question: How did you get my name? Surprisingly, only one person asked me that question.

I adopted a number of strategies to approach entrepreneurs to invite participation in my research; the most successful strategy was to send an invitation and information sheet by email. It is remarkably easy to access direct email addresses, which are particularly useful in bypassing gatekeepers such as secretaries and personal assistants. Most entrepreneurs replied to me promptly and we arranged interviews quickly.

Interviewers and researchers often describe their sense of anxiety about interviewing the rich and the powerful. For example, Michael Gilding described how he struggled to overcome his feelings of reticence in approaching entrepreneurs. For a long time, I put off doing the interviews. I cannot imagine anyone on the Rich Lists agreeing to talk with me. I read academic studies of wealth. None of them involve interviews. One American researcher writes that he tried but he gave up partly because no one would talk with him, and partly because the few people who did talk were so guarded about what they said that it wasnt worth the effort (2002: 6). Gilding notes that his anxiety was about not only researching the rich, but also breaking the taboo of asking about money. Entrepreneurs are both very private and very public people. Much of their business success depends on having a convincing story to tell and a high public profile. At the same time, entrepreneurs are very private about money, and their family lives. I wrestled with two kinds of anxieties: who would agree to speak to me, and how I could broach the taboo topics of money and family.

I invited participation in my research by casting my research as focussing on the topical issue of work and family balance. Of those who accepted my invitation to participate, all were in heterosexual couple relationships and all had children (ranging in number from one to ten, and in age from a few months through to early fifties). The TASA 2005 Conference Proceedings

TASA Conference 2005, University of Tasmania, 6-8 December 2005

interviewees were predominantly from Anglo-Australian backgrounds and most had tertiary qualifications.

The interviewees identified three reasons for participation in my research. The first is a desire to share their knowledge and act as a mentor to others. For example, Julia says: Thats whats missing in the world. There are people like me who become entrepreneurial with nobody guiding them about the pitfalls theyre about to fall into, and you keep falling in and thinking, Oh God! I wish somebody had told me about that. Second, the interview was quasi-therapeutic. Being an entrepreneur can be lonely and being the spouse of an entrepreneur can be lonelier still, especially when one is obliged to keep up appearances. As Toni said: Its important not to look broke because youre never going to get anywhere if [...] you look [] desperate. And weve carried that. Friends and family think that were loaded [] because we happen to rent a big house and we act like weve got money. The fact that the interview was confidential and anonymous meant, perhaps, that participants felt freer to talk about personal matters. Several interviewees said how much they enjoyed the interview and how it felt therapeutic.

The third reason is public relations. A number of interviewees appeared confused at first about the purpose of the interview despite the provision of information about the research prior to participation. Several offered me samples of their products and gave me tours of their business premises. The interview may have seemed just another in a long series of interviews. This confusion led to the second major challenge confronting a researcher: getting past the public relations spin.

Getting past the spin Entrepreneurs are often experienced media performers. Often I already knew their stories through the business and popular press so the challenge was to get past the well-worn spin. The business story generally follows a set pattern (Hytti 2003; Mulholland 2003; Benoit 1997) whether it is the story of success, failure, or triumph over failure. As one entrepreneur said, We have a good story. Its a story which TASA 2005 Conference Proceedings

TASA Conference 2005, University of Tasmania, 6-8 December 2005

weve polished over the years. The stories can be seductive and it can be hard to negotiate a pathway between hero worship and criticism when researching the powerful. As Malcolm Alexander puts it: a sociologist of business is confronted with a difficult choice. Do they write to the business class they are studying, or do they use their research and knowledge to expose this class to its critics and class opponents? (2004: 3). I structured the interviews so that I moved from the familiar territory of business to the more challenging terrain of personal relationships. Each person has a different story and a different perspective and neither is necessarily true (see RibbensMcCarthy et al. 2001). Mulholland highlighted the ways in which the wives of entrepreneurs frequently challenged their husbands' embellished accounts and the marginality of their own work in the enterprise' (2003: 19). In my research, I found that both husbands and wives of entrepreneurs challenged the story of individual effort and happy families. For many of these spouses the public story seemed somewhat irrelevant: Rachel was asked to deliver a message. Id heard her story, sort of lived her story, I suppose, and it was clear at some of those [award] functions that I was really superfluous. Interviewees would often censor themselves in an attempt to maintain the public story. For example, the husband of one entrepreneur described the financial pressure experienced in the early days of his wifes business: Really, I didnt oh theres probably things I cant tell you here. We dont want people to know, but I mean if wasnt for [my company] there wouldnt be [her company] Well, if [her company] had went down there wouldnt have been [my company]. The bank would have had it. Confidentiality and anonymity Anonymity and confidentiality are crucial tools in getting past the spin, but they also create challenges of their own. High profile entrepreneurs are easily identifiable, which means that the quirky detail that makes the data so rich has to be cut. At times interviewees were breathtakingly frank about business and personal issues. Several of the interviewees referred to criminal or unethical behaviour. This openness itself created another challenge: what could I do with the material?

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TASA Conference 2005, University of Tasmania, 6-8 December 2005

I also have to consider confidentiality between partners as some of the material is potentially hurtful and damaging to the relationship. Interviewees were often quite scathing in their assessment of their partners. For example, Sophie talked about her husbands huge ego and anger management issues, Brent was disparaging of his wife whom he referred to as hopeless and Mrs Negative, while Louise described her husband as deluded. Interviewees often sought reassurance that what they said would remain confidential from their husband or wife. I wouldnt want him to hear that [laughs] this is between us isnt it? Its not going to go anywhere? youre not really A Current Affair are you? The importance of maintaining their trust means I have had to modify my initial plan of comparing his and her stories, as one partner may recognise his or her own story and by association his or her spouses story. Other researchers such as Dempsey (2002) and Mulholland (2003) have adopted the approach of referring to husbands or wives while not necessarily matching individuals as couples. To some extent this dilutes the power of the data but it is unavoidable if confidentiality and anonymity is to be maintained.

Conclusion There is growing interest in the study of entrepreneurs but it is mainly from a business rather than a sociological perspective. The emerging sociology of entrepreneurship remains undeveloped in Australia. In part, this may be due to Marxist research traditions. Methodological considerations may also discourage research of entrepreneurs. In doing my research, I confronted three related challenges: identification and access, getting past the spin, and dealing with confidentiality and anonymity. Entrepreneurs are an increasingly prominent group in Australian society. It is important not to let methodological considerations get in the way of studying this relatively overlooked group.

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TASA Conference 2005, University of Tasmania, 6-8 December 2005

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TASA Conference 2005, University of Tasmania, 6-8 December 2005 Hindle, K. and A. O'Connor (2005) Westpac GEM Australia: a Study of Australian Entrepreneurship in 2004. Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship Research Report Series, Vol. 2, No. 1. Melbourne: Swinburne University of Technology.

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