Frontiers of Entrepreneurship Research 1995

Frontiers of Entrepreneurship Research
1995 Edition

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    Candida G. Brush- Boston University
    Radha Chaganti- Rider University


    Cooperative strategies are of growing interest in small and new companies. Current research focuses on high tech companies with less known about cooperative activities in non-high tech businesses. This research employs quantitative methods to assess usage and characteristics of cooperative strategies in non-high tech businesses, then uses a qualitative method, comparative case analyses, to examine dimensions of cooperative strategies in three non-high tech and three high tech companies. All six cases exhibited a condition of constrained resources, and had cooperative arrangements with competitors. Differences between non-high tech and high tech businesses were reflected in goals and approaches to cooperative strategies.


    New and small businesses are engaging in various forms of collective activities, partnerships and alliances. "Resource pooling", sharing of facilities, equipment and personnel is common among small companies and business incubators (Wall Street Journal, 10/16/92, B-2); while high technology companies often participate in co-marketing, joint research, and distribution agreements (Boston Globe, 6/21/92, p. 37). Anecdotal evidence suggests small companies in local geographic areas will join together to share customer lists, equipment and information by "teamnetting" in order to do together what they cannot do individually (DeMott, 1994). Venture Economics of Massachusetts counted 14,000 large-small company alliances nationwide among predominantly high-tech companies (Boston Globe, 6/21/92, p. 37).

    Research on the variety of cooperative arrangements in new and small companies is limited, and focuses primarily on high-tech companies (McGee, 1993; Forrest, 1990; Esposito, et al, 1993; Hatfield & Pearce, 1994). Although studies have found high-tech firms grow more rapidly and are thus appealing research topics, these businesses comprise a comparatively small proportion of all small companies (Kirchoff & Phillips, 1989). Consequently, little is known about cooperative arrangements in non-high tech companies which compose a significantly larger proportion of all small businesses. Furthermore, non-high tech companies may be more susceptible to failure due to a lack of a distinct competitive advantage, hence the use of cooperative arrangements may have the benefit of complimenting or conserving existing resources (Jarillo, 1989), or decreasing risk and creating legitimacy (Larson, 1991).

    This study seeks to provide information about cooperative strategies in non-high tech ventures. The lack of research on cooperative arrangements in general, and specifically on their usage in different types of companies suggested an exploratory approach to examine the what, "why" and "how" of cooperative strategies (Yin, 1989). Our objectives were twofold; first, to assess usage and characteristics of cooperative strategies in non-high tech new ventures; and second, to compare content dimensions in non-high tech and high-tech new ventures. To this end, we utilized quantitative and qualitative data (Jick, 1979). Quantitative data derived from a matched sample of 18 non-high tech users and 18 non-users. In-depth interviews with 3 non-high tech and 3 high tech users of cooperative strategies provided qualitative data. Findings from this research imply directions for future research.


    Theoretical work on the topic of cooperative strategies exists mainly in the field of Strategic Management, but recent investigations of strategic alliances, or partnerships is emerging the field of Entrepreneurship. Unfortunately the range of terms and definitions referring to cooperative relationships is quite broad, many being used interchangeably despite distinct differences in meaning. For instance; collective strategies generally occur within an industry and are a formal, systematic response by a set or organizations that collaborate (Astley, 1984; Dollinger, 1990); strategic alliances are cooperative agreements that result in some type of continuing business exchange or linkage (Hamel, Doz & Prahalad, 1989); value added partnerships are relationships between companies that work together to manager flows of goods or services in the value chain (Johnston & Lawrence, 1988); and cooperative strategies are voluntary or contractual relationships where mutual collaboration results in risks or gains (Neilsen, 1988). Because the intent of this research is to focus on company strategies rather than collective relationships, this work will follow Neilsen's (1988) definition.

    Empirical research cooperative strategies reflects two different theoretical approaches. The first stream employs transaction cost economics (Williamson, 1985) which argues firms will engage in cooperative arrangements to minimize costs and achieve efficiencies. Studies of high tech companies have examined subcontracting relationships (Esposito, et al 1993), use of cooperative arrangements as competitive strategy (McGee, 1993), and the evolution of strategic alliances (Niederkofler, 1991). The second theoretical approach follows social network theory (Granovetter, 1973) positing the entrepreneurial process relies on premises of gathering scarce resources from the environment, which are obtained through contacts and relationships with the entrepreneur's social network (Aldrich, Rosen & Woodward, 1987). Studies have examined on the use of network relationships to implement competitive strategies (Ostgaard & Birley, 1994), networking as a means of gaining business resources (Foss, 1993), and effects of cooperation in networking on innovative process and success (Lipparini & Lorenzoni, 1993).

    Findings from both streams show multiple goals and approaches used by companies engaging in cooperative relationships. Lipparini and Lorenzoni (1993) found variations in inter-firm relationships with some companies having an "open" approach and others having a "protected" approach. Esposito, et al (1993) described six modes of subcontracting ranging from "closed" to "co-maker". Relatedly, Hatfield and Pearce (1994), using goal theory from Strategic Management to study joint ventures, found an array of objectives including knowledge transfer, efficiency, and market power, arguing that because of this variety of goals, a broader conception of performance was needed.

    Field studies have provided rich data on strategic alliances and performance. Niederkofler (1991) studied 6 cases of large/small firm alliances finding strategic and operating fit were important, and that compatible interest and complimentary resources often motivated the alliance. Larson's (1991) work identified resources as an important motivator, and noted that trust was often more important than the written contract. Both studies found cooperative activities included marketing, distribution, shared information and personnel. Relatedly, research by Butler, Phan and Hansen (1990) exploring the evolution of interorganizational networks in a sample of 54 wineries concluded that small firms failed to make full use of cooperative relationships and that a more conscious effort to develop strategic alliances would be valuable to these small companies. Finally, in an discussion strategic alliances of small technology based firms, Forrest (1990) theorized that these relationships could benefit small firms by compensating for weaknesses, and potentially improve survival of these companies. Hudson and McArthur (1994) in a conceptual articulation of contracting strategies of new and established companies, proposed new ventures face different environments, and suffer from resource constraints. Consequently, the entrepreneur must devise contracting strategies different from those of established companies, in order to overcome risks and uncertainties associated with the firm's liability of newness.

    In sum, while research to date is inconclusive and sparse, there is evidence that a variety of motives, approaches and goals are apparent in cooperative activities of new and small companies. Further, the preponderance of these findings arise from high-tech businesses raising questions about their generalizability to non-high tech companies. The following sections describe and discuss our research which examines cooperative strategies in non-high tech companies.


    This study utilized qualitative and quantitative data (Jick, 1979) which is appropriate for exploring a new phenomenon. First, usage of cooperative strategies was examined in a matched sample of non-high tech new ventures, 18 using cooperative strategies and 18 non-users. All 36 companies were identified from a larger sample of 235 non-high tech small (less than 500 employees) companies located in New Jersey, and were less than 8 years old. The users were identified because they employed cooperative strategies, and the comparative sample of non-users were randomly selected from the existing data base. All companies were primarily service and retail oriented, employed fewer than 100 employees, and had an average annual sales level of $900,000.

    As noted earlier, studies of cooperative strategies are few, and measures are quite diverse. We carefully reviewed earlier studies (Golden & Dollinger, 1991; Larson, 1991; Niederkofler, 1991) and derived eleven variables as measures of cooperative strategies. These included shared use of: office space and related facilities; transportation and storage, purchases of materials, facilities and equipment, market related information, joint promotional activities, hiring of technical staff, joint selling of products and services, joint fundraising, and joint product/service development and design. For each category of activity, respondents were asked first, to indicate the degree to which the activity was central or core to the firm's financial well-being; second, to describe the type of partner (competing or non-competing company); and third, to note if there was a formal contractual agreement. In general, these questions were designed to determine the "what" or descriptive aspects of cooperative strategies.

    In order to explore patterns of cooperative strategies, and address the "how and why" of these activities (Yin, 1989), in-depth interviews were carried out with 6 founder/owners, 3 from non-high tech new ventures and 3 from high tech new ventures located in New Jersey and Massachusetts. Comparative case method is an inductive approach particularly suited to new areas of investigation for which there is little theory (Eisenhardt, 1989. Entrepreneurship researchers have followed this methodology to generate theory (Keeley & Knapp, 1993; Subramaniam & VanderWerf, 1993). Each author was responsible for half of the interviews, which lasted about two hours each and included reviews of company materials. Companies were identified using a network or snowball approach, with our main criteria being usage of cooperative strategies. Following the interviews, transcripts were evaluated separately by both authors, where general themes and dimensions were identified. Subsequently, these broad themes were discussed and interpreted, in an iterative manner. Interviews utilized broad open questions, designed to encourage the respondent to talk in detail about the nature of cooperative strategies, why they were motivated to engage in these, what their objectives were, and how these strategies were implemented.


    Quantitative Data- Users and Non-users

    In order to examine the extent to which cooperative strategies were used, descriptive statistics for the eleven dimensions of cooperative strategies were run on the 18 users (see Table #1). These results show a greater level of cooperation with non-competitors overall, with highest level of sharing in industry data, joint advertising promotion, and selling. Sharing of management expertise and product/service development also was very high. Most of the 18 companies noted some cooperative activities with competitors also, particularly industry data, purchasing, management expertise and marketing. Importantly, nearly all of the 18 companies indicated these cooperative activities were not central to core activities. As Table 1 indicates, the only area to be noted somewhat central to core activities was sharing industry data with competitors, and the mean here was only 2.23 on a 5 point scale (5 being central and 1 being not central to core operations).

    In the second analysis, the 18 users of cooperative strategies was compared to 18 non-users. T-Tests were run on selected firm dimensions to determine if users differed from non-users. These results showed no significant differences in industry type, company size (employees), industry growth, company age or profitability (ROA). The only significant variation between the users and non-users of cooperative strategies was sales level (F=5.95, p <.02) in that non-users had slightly higher sales and served a broader geographic market.

    From these initial results, we drew the following conclusions about the usage of cooperative strategies. Cooperative strategies were in fact being utilized by some non-high tech ventures, the areas of cooperation were generally considered "non-core", partners were just as often competitors as non-competitors. Areas of greatest cooperation were market information, joint purchasing of inputs, shared office space, and shared use of management experts. However, the fact that there were no significant differences between users and non-users was puzzling. In other words, if there was no apparent outcome or performance benefit (profit, growth or ROA), we wondered why non-high companies would utilize these strategies and what they hoped to gain. These findings led us to the second phase of our research which was to explore in greater detail why and how non-high tech companies used cooperative strategies.

    (Table 1)

    Qualitative Data- Case Studies

    The six companies comprising the data set for this portion of our exploratory study were generally representative of small and new companies. The ages of these companies ranged from 4-12 years old, and all had engaged in cooperative activities within the first 4 years of operations. All companies employed fewer than 350 employees, and company sales were less than $30 million. The non-high tech companies were a child care facility (River Heights Schools), a screening service for a state employment office (Marvin Enterprises), and a graphics design business (Larkspur Graphics).1 These types of businesses are generally representative of non-high tech small companies, service, educational training an child care (The State of Small Business, 1990). Similarly, the high-tech companies were companies were involved in commercial software data base and applications (Pavillion Software Applications), systems engineering (Moonstone Data Systems), and environmental monitoring equipment (Eddleton Environmental), which are representative of high technology businesses.

    This phase of our data analysis utilized pattern matching and content analyses techniques (Yin, 1989). The data for each set of interviews was reviewed by the author conducting these interviews for broad themes addressing "why and how these ventures engage in cooperative strategies?" Drawing from a grounded theory approach (Glaser & Straus, 1967; Eisenhardt, 1989) we compared similarities and differences across cases within and between technology sector. From this process, the following broad themes emerged, suggesting propositions.

    1. Political or Industry Issues Motivated use of Cooperative Strategies with Competitors.

    In four of the cases cooperative strategies with competitors, involving shared resources or personnel to lobby for or against a particular issue, were in evidence. Marvin Enterprises, a screening service for state employment opportunities, participated in fundraising, and joint hiring of academics or professionals to assist in monitoring and making presentations to Congressional hearings about issues of importance. Bess Marvin, co-founder of the company noted her company cooperated with competitors extensively to "jointly hire, staff and direct lobbyists" through monthly planning meetings. Alternatively, Ned Nickerson, of Moonstone Data Systems described his company's collaboration with competitors on a trade mission to China, designed to increase export opportunities. Moonstone shared market information, specifics of trade opportunities, and information about licensing agreements.

    Prop. #1. Issues having political or industry significance will motivate use of cooperative strategies with competitors.

    2. Constrained Resources were a Factor Motivating Cooperative Strategies.

    All six cases made reference to the idea that resource constraints encouraged collaboration. According to Hank Gruen, President of Pavillion Software Applications, 130 employee and $18 million in sales company; "The major factor is our ability to leverage off of other organizations skills and size...(as a result of cooperative relationships) we have the ability to accomplish things that would be impossible for a company of our size alone." Nancy Drew of River Heights Schools, which has 5 locations and more than 6 cooperative arrangements, notes that some of their arrangements allow access to facilities at low cost, in exchange for new market (customer) access and a wider range of offerings. For example, a joint venture with a riding academy permitted River Heights to reach new customers and offer new activities (pony rides) in exchange for management and administration. Without this collaboration, River Heights, with sales at approximately $7 million and 100 employees, would have been able to afford the costs of providing their services in this area. Moonstone Data Systems (sales $28 million), which produces simulation equipment, would not have had access to certain markets without cooperative arrangements in sales and distribution. Similarly, Bess Marvin notes, sharing of personnel "has saved clients money, and at the same time, maintained and developed a strong program which might not have been otherwise possible".

    Prop. #2. A condition of constrained resources will be an important factor motivating use of cooperative strategies in new ventures.

    3. Strong Influence of Government

    We were surprised that five of six companies were strongly influenced (regulated) or dependent on State or Federal Government Agencies. The three high-tech companies were all subject to regulatory reporting, and had either U.S. or non-U.S. government agencies as customers. Similarly, River Heights Schools was a contractor to provide day care services to the New Jersey Department of Human Services, while also being subject to strict regulatory requirements for child care. Marvin Enterprises was dependent on legislative approval for employer tax credits to hire disadvantaged and disabled people. Larkspur Graphics was the only company that did not have a government agency as a customer, and was not subject to stringent regulatory reporting. The relationship between the strong influence of the government and cooperative strategies was not directly evident in any of our cases. However, costs resultant from government paperwork requirements at Eddleton Environmental, and costs associated with lobbying in Marvin Enterprises were mentioned as factors constraining resources.

    Prop. #3. New ventures dependent or heavily influenced by government regulations will be likely to enagage in cooperative strategies.

    4. Patterns of Cooperative Strategies in Non-High Tech Business

    Our analysis showed there were different patterns of cooperative strategies between the non-high tech and high tech businesses, across dimensions of goals, partner choices, and approach. (These patterns are summarized in Table #2.)

    The non-high tech companies stated goals in cooperative strategies sharing labor, sharing facilities, expanding customer base and decreasing costs. For example; River Heights Schools cooperated with the riding stable as a means of expanding services, and reaching new customers. Similarly, their arrangement to run an insurance company day care center had these same objectives, in addition to reducing costs of facilities rental, and decreasing seasonal fluctuations in revenues and capacity. Larkspur Graphics also engaged in cooperative arrangements with a larger advertising agency in order to have steady revenues, and reach customers that otherwise would not be reached. Marvin Enterprises noted that having cooperative strategies, increased business service capabilities. In the words of Bess Marvin, "we were able to appear to be more of a full service company at a time when we were not ready to step into other areas".

    Another similarity across the non-high tech businesses was the wide variety of partners in their cooperative strategies. For River Heights Schools, their partners were resource suppliers (building owner- provider of facility; pizzeria- provider of food) and substitutes (insurance company day-care; riding academy). On the other hand, Marvin Enterprises, partners were smaller competitors (shared employees, information and subcontracted work) and customers (former clients in charge of job training). In contrast, Larkspur Graphics partnered with a large substitute (advertising agency).

    (Table 2)

    The nature of cooperative strategies were both formal contractually based, and informal. Larkspur Graphics never had a formal contract with the advertising agency, yet was a steady subcontractor for more than two years. Likewise, River Heights Schools began its arrangement with the riding academy without a contract, on a purely informal basis and this evolved into a more formal written agreement. Marvin Enterprises joint hiring and lobbying efforts with competitors were non-contractual, although subcontracting arrangements with smaller competitors was formal.

    In all three cases, the areas of collaboration or sharing were viewed as pooling of services which although were not described as central to business operations, often included key personnel providing services utilizing expertise of certain employees (i.e. child care providers, graphics design, job training). Further, the personal nature of relationships was stressed by all three, where frequent contact and communication was deemed important to the success of their cooperative strategies.

    Prop. #4. Non-high tech new ventures will engage in cooperative strategies having the objectives of sharing labor and facilities, or expanding markets; and seek a variety of partners who will share core and non-core activities through formal and informal personal relationships.

    5. Patterns of Cooperative Strategies in High-Tech Business

    Goals in cooperative strategies for the high-tech businesses were either to increase profits, or to achieve market entry. Hank Gruen, of Pavillion Software Applications stated; "Our goals in using cooperative strategies are to maximize profits". Likewise, Burt Eddleton of Eddleton Environmental pointed out that all collaborations were aimed at achieving profits. Moonstone Data Systems noted their objectives for cooperative strategies were to gain market access, especially internationally.

    Partner choices for high-tech companies were less varied than for non-high tech businesses. All three high-tech companies collaborated with distributors of their products, and vendors. Hank Gruen, of Pavillion, stated; "we bring different things to our vendor relationships (in particular) state of the art technology". Moonstone,yalty and trust were noted as important to the success of these operations. Eddleton Environmental also noted that "no disadvantages exist in cooperative arrangements if the contract is properly written".

    Prop. #5- Hi tech new ventures will engage in cooperative strategies to obatin new market entry or maximize profits, partnering with suppliers of distrbutors, through formal contractual agreements dependent on loyalty and trust.


    This research used quantitative methods to describe extent of usage of cooperative strategies, and characterize shared activities in non-high tech businesses. We found market information, purchasing inputs, management expertise, and facilities to be areas most often shared in cooperative strategies, with only 3 of 18 noted these activities were central to "core" operations. The quantitative results provided preliminary information as to the "what" of cooperative strategies, but did not address "why and how". The qualitative phase of our research addressed these questions utilizing 6 cases, 3 non-high tech and 3 high tech. Results showed similarities across all cases, and differences between cases depending on non-high tech or high tech business type.

    Following previous research, this study found that all 6 companies were constrained by a lack of resources, motivating use of cooperative strategies with competitors (Foss, 1993; Larson, 1991). However, no previous studies have described cooperative strategies with competitors in new ventures to be motivated by political or industry issues. Furthermore, the strong role of the government as regulator and customer was unexpected, but could in part be due to non-random sample selection procedures.

    Case data from the non-high tech companies seems to support our initial empirical findings and other studies in that management expertise, facilities and information are areas of frequent cooperation (Niederkofler, 1991). The approach or process used in non-high tech companies included goals to decrease costs, share labor or facilities or to expand their customer base. Their partners were often suppliers, customers or competitors, and they shared both core and non-core activities. Cooperative strategies frequently evolved from informal personal relationships into formal contractual agreements.

    In contrast, the high-tech companies engaged in cooperative strategies with the explicit purposes of market entry and profit. Their partners were frequently distributors or vendors, and they shared only non-core activities. Cooperative relationships were generally contractual, structured, and deliberate. These findings parallel work by McGee (1993), Esposito, et al, (1993) and others who have examined collaboration in high tech ventures.

    Given the exploratory nature of this study, generalizations and predictions to other populations are not possible, however we were struck by the apparent similarities between the two theoretical streams and our split sample. The explicit descriptions of cooperative strategies in "exchanges" or "contracts", with goals expressed in economic terms, seems to suggest that the transaction cost economics theories may have greater explanatory power in the context of cooperative strategies in high-tech companies. In contrast, the non-high tech businesses emphasized "personal relationships" and "frequent contacts", stating they were able to gain resources not otherwise achievable through these relationships. Hence cooperative strategies in non-high tech businesses appear better explained by social network theory. However, we are most cautious in suggesting anything more than further testing given the exploratory nature of this study. These preliminary speculations about possible application of theories imply future directions and propositions for research. Further, this exploratory study did not examine other important aspects of cooperative strategies, including perceived success and performance (Hatfield & Pearce, 1994). In other words, this research identifies differences in approaches to cooperative strategies in non-high tech and high tech businesses, but further investigations are needed to determine if and why these differences might matter.

    This study fills an important gap providing information about the use cooperative strategies in non-high tech new ventures. The differences we found between high-tech and non-high tech companies with regard to reasons, types and approaches to use of cooperative strategies imply prescriptions for use of cooperative strategies cannot be generalized across both high tech and non-high tech companies. In addition, because of the variations in approaches and goals in cooperative strategies across non-high tech and high tech companies, performance outcomes and measures similarity may differ.


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    1 All companies and respondents have been disguised at their request.

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