Describing someone as entrepreneur gives us no sense of what they are trying to do, other than looking to change the world in some way. To say they are starting a new venture is similarly uninformative. They are trying to make something work, but what?
We need a reference to what they have in mind, the blueprint for their entrepreneurial journey. This is what the notion of opportunity represents, an articulation of what an entrepreneur is aiming to do or achieve. Early on, when one has nothing but their imagination, an opportunity can be described and thus constructed only through words or other symbols.
Entrepreneur and opportunity are two sides of the same coin. We cannot speak of someone as an entrepreneur without a sense of the “opportunity” they are pursuing. Similarly, we cannot speak of an opportunity in an a-personal sense, without someone actually pursuing it. Otherwise, ‘entrepreneur’ would become a label reflecting past achievements and thus detached from current efforts. Similarly, opportunity would become a label for idle speculation (someone might do it) and thus detached from any commitment. In scientific discourse, the concept of opportunity has been a source of confusion, mainly because it implicates the stance of the scholar in regard to the focal entrepreneurial effort and thus brings into question the relationship between scholar and entrepreneur.
Entrepreneurship research has been motivated by the observation that new products and services arise in the economy from which no markets previously existed. This naturally poses the question of understanding and explaining how they come into existence. While it is clear that human enterprise is part of the answer – without nothing would happen – it is also clear that it is not enough. When we think about the ultimate success of an entrepreneurial effort, it is intuitive that it has been made possible by a multitude of factors beyond the control of the entrepreneur. This set of favourable conditions and contingencies has been defined as opportunity, aiming to serve as complement to human enterprise in explaining entrepreneurial success. Hence the notion of entrepreneurship as a nexus between enterprising individuals and lucrative opportunities.
This is where problems start to arise. The above formulation implies a totalising view, connecting initial efforts and ultimate outcomes. Just as we look retrospectively to evaluate past efforts from their current outcomes, so one could imagine that current efforts will one day be evaluated in the light of future outcomes. In other words, were the current entrepreneurial efforts to succeed, the opportunity for their success would be determined by such retrospective evaluation that can take place only in the future. Hence, when opportunity is defined as the conditions that make entrepreneurial success possible, it is obvious that it can be deployed as a concept only in a retrospective sense. Thus, many scholars would argue that we cannot speak of opportunity when discussing current, unrealised entrepreneurial efforts.
In the sense in which being an entrepreneur is an effort to change the world rather than an already realised accomplishment, there is no future to speak of in a factual sense. Whatever future is discussed at this point is imaginary in nature for it involves relationships and outcomes that do not yet exist. This does not prevent the entrepreneur from speaking about such future – and indeed painting a vivid picture of it in our minds – as a way of articulating their aspirations, generating excitement, and garnering support. Thus, the entrepreneur speaks of opportunity.
A difference therefore arises between (1) opportunity as word, i.e. the content of the entrepreneur’s speech and (2) opportunity as world, i.e. the conditions that would make future success possible. This is the difference between “opportunity” and opportunity. To speak of the first is simply to say that someone believes something to be an opportunity and is compelled enough to act in its behalf. In this sense, a scholar is merely reporting another person’s beliefs and reasons for acting, without any commitment to their veracity. To speak of the second is to commit the scholar directly to the truth claim that certain future success is possible. Of course, no scholar would commit to that.
This distinction helps explain the ambiguity in the statement ‘entrepreneur pursues opportunity’ as arising from two different scholarly stances. A scholar interested in explaining why the entrepreneur acts implicitly thinks of opportunity in the sense of “opportunity”, i.e. as something the entrepreneur articulates to explain what s/he is doing. In contrast, a scholar interested in explaining why the entrepreneur succeeds implicitly thinks of opportunity in the sense of opportunity, i.e. as the external conditions of success.
Here we have it: “opportunity” as what the entrepreneur says and opportunity as what the world needs to be like for what the entrepreneur says to be ultimately true. The former reflects that entrepreneurs are unbounded in what they can imagine, aspire to, and express. The latter is a reminder that their efforts are ultimately accountable to the real world.