This article originally appeared in Xconomy.
What makes someone an entrepreneur? Most simply defined, an entrepreneur is a person who identifies a need and starts a business to fill that void. But others will argue that a “true” entrepreneur must come up with an innovative new product or service and then operates their business to sell and profit from that innovation.
Under the broader definition are those people who become entrepreneurs out of necessity – starting their own business after losing a job, to supplement their income, or to gain the flexibility to attend to other demands in their lives.
Take Joanne, for example. Joanne started her holistic health business about eight years ago. Although she doesn’t necessarily consider herself an entrepreneur, the necessity of a family member’s health situation created both a challenge and an opportunity that shifted her path of employment. As a graduate of Boston University with a degree in math, and Syracuse with an MBA, Joanne had been working as a technical engagement director managing large-scale database development projects.
However, she was also managing the special needs of a son at home with learning differences. She was hit with a layoff from her job about the same time that her son required more services. She was doing tons of research to help him in any way possible, including alternatives to mainstream treatment, and she started an unpaid e-mail service to friends and family sharing what she learned. The response was tremendous – several people told her that she had changed their lives and she should make a career out of it. She decided to take the plunge, pursued further education, and then started JBS Holistic Nutrition where she offers health coaching and healing alternatives. The nature of her business allows her to be flexible. She is currently working part-time, which enables her to manage the needs of her family and help take care of an ailing parent. She sees her business as an opportunity to help people change their lives for the better.
Joanne is someone I’d consider a necessity-based entrepreneur. Often, necessity is financially based, but pursuing a passion and work-life balance issues also play into necessity.
One of the first references to “necessity entrepreneurship” was in the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) report in 2001. This third annual GEM assessment researched entrepreneurship in 29 countries. Respondents were asked to indicate whether they were starting and growing their business to take advantage of a unique market opportunity (opportunity entrepreneurship) or because it was the best option available (necessity entrepreneurship). At the time, the average opportunity entrepreneurship prevalence rate across the 29 GEM countries was about 6.5 percent, while the average for necessity entrepreneurship was 2.5 percent.
Interestingly, GEM’s most recent report for 2017-2018 looks at entrepreneurship through a few more complex lenses, but it states that most entrepreneurs around the world are opportunity-motivated. On average, three-quarters of global respondents stated that they had chosen to pursue an opportunity as a basis for their entrepreneurial motivations, with 83 percent of entrepreneurs in North America falling into this category. Women were more likely to start businesses out of necessity, compared to men, in all regions except in North America.
My guess is that necessity-based entrepreneurs may be somewhat under-represented in these numbers as they may not self-identify as entrepreneurs. Necessity-based entrepreneurs also may be less likely to respond to this type of survey.
Some of the early research on the topic discusses a push-pull analogy. “Push” (or necessity-based) entrepreneurs are those who may be faced with a job loss, dissatisfaction with their current positions, or lack of career opportunities. For these reasons – unrelated to their entrepreneurial characteristics – they are pushed to start a venture. “Pull” (or opportunity-based) entrepreneurs are those who initiate venture activity because of the attractiveness of the business idea and its personal implications. They may seek independence, increased earnings, and opportunities to carry out their own ideas.
A study out of Stanford on Opportunity versus Necessity Entrepreneurship explores the common and seemingly paradoxical finding that business creation increases in recessions. It looks at two distinct motivations, “opportunity” entrepreneurship and “necessity” entrepreneurship (with the simple definition of a necessity entrepreneur as initially unemployed before starting their business). The research found that opportunity entrepreneurship is generally pro-cyclical and necessity entrepreneurship is strongly counter-cyclical – that is, recessions drive necessity-based entrepreneurs to start their own businesses. Opportunity entrepreneurship was also found to be associated with more growth-oriented businesses.
I believe there are many profiles of the necessity-based entrepreneur, and it’s a segment of entrepreneurship that deserves more attention. Not every entrepreneur is the genius superstar with a new technology. Some forms of entrepreneurship are a bit humbler.
An example of this are gig economy entrepreneurs. These “gigs” are often short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to (or in addition to) permanent jobs – think Uber and TaskRabbit. Although this is an emerging form of entrepreneurship, is it a positive experience for the entrepreneur (and the economy)? Or, is it a necessary side hustle some people need to survive?
Women and minority entrepreneurs are often necessity-based entrepreneurs. The startup rate for businesses created by both women and minorities exceeds the overall rate for new startups. The Minority 2018 Small Business Trends survey by Guidant Financial surveyed 2,600 business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs, and found that 45 percent of small business in the country were owned by minority ethnic groups and 26 percent were owned by women in 2018. What is driving these business owners, and are we measuring their contributions effectively?
While economic gain is certainly one component of necessity-based entrepreneurship, a broader definition includes entrepreneurs who are motivated by their belief that the traditional labor options available are insufficient to meet their non-economic needs and goals as well.
At MIT, we foster entrepreneurship through programs like our delta v student venture accelerator where our students are out to change the world with their innovations. But, entrepreneurship has many forms and there is no one right model or best way to measure success. Necessity-based entrepreneurs are shaping their own success in a way that works and should be included in the broader study of entrepreneurs.
This article was published in Xconomy on November 26, 2018.