Saturday, 26 January 2013

Qualitative E-Research on E-Entrepreneurs

Not long ago entrepreneurs depended on financial capital to build the physical stores and factories needed to launch a business. And while costly physical operations are still important in some lines of business, 21century entrepreneurs see social capital as essential to a new venture. “Social capital” is the ability to build mutually-beneficial networks of partners, allies and customers (Adler & Kwon, 2002, p. 214; Carolis & Saparito, 2006; OttÓSson & Klyver, 2010; Xiong & Bharadwaj, 2011). Free or cheap technologies make it possible for start-ups to build social capital and sell products and services without huge initial investments. How do women entrepreneurs perceive their opportunities given the availability of these technologies and how do they use them to build networks that generate business? How have their choices vis a vis use of technology influenced the types of businesses they chose to run– and the goals they have for the future? This set of questions drove a study I conducted last year (Salmons, in press), and continued research.

Scholars have studied women entrepreneurs, and online entrepreneurs, but little research has explored the bootstrap, creative, small-scale woman entrepreneur who uses the social web to do her own thing. As well, it was apparent that much of the literature on women entrepreneurs is quantitative—and many studies draw on the same Big Data sources. A prominent one is the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) which publishes excellent reports and offers access to dataset downloads. Such data allows us to look at the gap between men and women entrepreneurs, the rate of start-up activity, the growth of women-owned firms, and other topics. Robust as this resource may be, it does not offer exemplars that allow for in-depth exploration of entrepreneurs’ motivations and purpose or to ask why they succeeded (or not), what they hope to achieve and how they feel about it. And the data collected by GEM and others makes little reference to the specific uses of social media and online communications by these entrepreneurs. To probe below the surface, qualitative methods are needed!

Using an exploratory grounded theory and situational analysis approach (Charmaz, 2006; Clarke, 2005), I studied a group of women e-entrepreneurs by following their digital footprints and by interviewing them online. Charmaz points out that in interviews the researcher "starts with the participant's story and fills it out by attempting to locate it within a basic social process" (Charmaz, 2003). Inthis study, participants' stories were located within the social process of business start-up and the entrepreneurial situation. The situational analysis approach allowed me to look closely at the situation by exploring inter-related human (entrepreneur, partners, allies, customers etc) and non-human aspects (technologies) of each entrepreneur’s unique case (Salmons, in press).Social Capital theory (Alfred, 2009; Nahapiet & Ghoshal, 1998) offered a view of the "situation" that focused on the beneficial effects of electronic networks comprised of trusting relationships with partners, online followers or friends, and customers.

Half of my sample included women whom I defined as real-world e-entrepreneurs and half were defined as digital e-entrepreneurs. Real-world e-entrepreneurs use online communications with vendors and customers, partners and allies, and for promotions and advertising. However, products and services are physical and in some cases inherently face-to-face, delivered or purchased on location. Real-world e-entrepreneurs for this study included a jeweler, a designer for an architecture firm and a therapist. Digital e-entrepreneurs similarly use online communications, but are in the business of selling electronic products and services. Electronic products and services online writing, teaching, training, consulting, web design or programming.

Participants created online presence for their businesses using diverse approaches that aligned with business activities. Websites, blogs, wikis and a variety of social media sites allowed for communication, product sales, training, events, networking, advertising, or crowd-source funding. For this study I was not interested in the traffic or the content of a quantity of posts. I was interested in the unique characteristics of each case and through review of participants’ online activities I was able to learn about each respective business, and to generate specific questions for each interview.

Findings for the study include a set of themes which will provide the foundation for the next stage of research. While I gained understanding about ways entrepreneurs can use social media and online communications to build successful businesses from scratch, the study also offered new insights about the ways researchers can use online tools at every stage of the study. I used social media (Twitter, Linked In, Facebook, Kickstarter) to recruit participants by posting a link to a description of the study posted on my own website. I used Survey Monkey to create an electronic consent form (see discussion of this approach and example). Interviews were conducted online in Adobe Connect, using text, verbal and visual modes of communication. While the resulting chapter will appear in a book, I have used excerpts in various posts and presentations to disseminate some of the findings. One reflection is that online interview research concerns more than the interview, that online qualitative research is inherently multi-modal involving inter-related and overlapping participant and outsider observations, document and records analyses. Now I want to build an intentionally multi-modal approach into next phase of the study—stay tuned!

Janet Salmons, PhD

References

Academy of Management Review, 27, 17-40.

and learning. New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education(122), 3-12. doi:
10.1002/ace.329

entrepreneurial opportunities: A theoretical framework. Entrepreneurship: Theory &
Practice, 30(1), 41-56. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6520.2006.00109.x

qualitative analysis. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

turn. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

organizational advantage. Academy of Management Review, 23(2), 242-266.

capital among entrepreneurs. Journal of Enterprising Culture, 18(4), 399-417.

the digital age. In L. Kelley (Ed.), Women Entrepreneurship: New Management
and Leadership Models. Westport: Praeger.



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