What is an opportunity?

What is an opportunity?

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.

Opportunity as friendship

Entrepreneurship is typically defined as the pursuit of opportunities. But what is an opportunity?

Let’s answer this question by trying to construct one. As a basic minimum we need three things: (1) a product or service, (2) one or more agents who consume it, and (3) one or more agents who produce it. But just the simple collection of such agents and artifacts is not enough; the essence of the opportunity lies in the relationships among them. Behind each relationship lies a distinct pattern of interaction, for example exchanging money for the product or exchanging labor for money. In other words, an opportunity is a set of interactions, a social structure.

Friendship is also a social structure. It requires at least two people. But the simple collection of them does not produce friendship; it is their distinct pattern of interaction that does so.

As social structures, opportunities and friendship are emergent phenomena, i.e. they amount to more than the sum of their parts. It is the interaction of these parts that give rise to the structure in question.

Given this, what does it mean to identify, recognize, discover, research, or even create an opportunity? Well, these terms make no sense when applied to friendship, so why should they make sense for opportunities? In a forward looking sense, the relationships that constitute an opportunity or a friendship do not exist; they can be imagined and aspired to. An opportunity or a friendship arises – if at all, that is – only when those relationships are fired up and sustained.

We do not plan our friendships. We take small steps to interact and, if there is a mutual spark, keep the interactions going. Over time, these sustained interactions become friendship.

Let’s revisit the opening definition of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is the taking of many first steps, some of which may give rise to opportunities.

Sticking with the good ideas; abandoning the bad ones

Entrepreneurship is exciting: it makes life dynamic and, when used to harness inventions and new technologies, changes both its daily nature and quality. But in becoming an entrepreneur one is humbled by the impossibility of knowing whether the business idea at hand is the “right one”. It just does not have the aura of inevitability that one senses in the stylized retrospective accounts of others’ successes. It is one thing to explain the past, but another to anticipate and embrace the future.  So, what is one to do? On the one hand, going forward is fraught with irreducible doubt about the chosen path. On the other hand, turning away is marred by counterfactual regret; what if … The balance perhaps lies in taking manageable steps forward, while staying alert to the evolving signals about the market feasibility and economic viability of the pursued opportunity.  Judging the merits of the opportunity is not a one-time exercise, but a continuous process.

In a recent study, I examined what happens to people – nascent entrepreneurs – who set out to pursue their business ideas. The data came from the Panel Study of Entrepreneurial Dynamics (PSED), the largest and most representative study of this most elusive part of the entrepreneurial process. The results show that the entrepreneur’s confidence in the opportunity at hand occupies centre stage in the process: where confidence is strong a viable venture is more likely to emerge; where it is undermined entrepreneurs are more likely to call it quits. More importantly, factors that are typically perceived as instrumental for entrepreneurial success, such as prior experience and proper planning, matter inasmuch as they help the entrepreneur learn about the opportunity at hand. Active exploration of the merits of the opportunity can provide a basis for more informed judgment and timely termination of venturing efforts with poor prospects.  In this sense, planning can be an important learning tool for the nascent entrepreneur.

Even the most skilled and knowledgeable individuals can run after “bad” ideas; it is just that they may be able to realize the futility of their efforts more quickly and efficiently. Arguably, every idea deserves a chance when first articulated and this is what makes entrepreneurship both exciting and difficult to manage as a rational decision process. That many ideas would ultimately fail should be considered an instrumental feature of the process. As A.G. Lafley, former CEO of Proctor & Gamble, says, “the key is to fail early, fail cheaply, and don’t make the same mistake twice”. In other words, we need to recognize and celebrate both the successes and the well intentioned failures.