Over the last decade, research and theory development in the field of entrepreneurship has moved from the study of individual differences/personal characteristics (e.g., Brockhaus, 1980; Kalleberg & Leicht, 1991; McClelland, 1961), toward integrated models of entrepreneurship as a process (e.g., Bygrave & Hofer, 1991; Covin & Slevin, 1991; Gartner, 1988; Lumpkin & Dess, 1996). Bygrave (1989a, 1989b) calls the founding of an organization to pursue an entrepreneurial opportunity the "Entrepreneurial Event." Similarly, Stevenson and Jarillo-Mossi (1986) view entrepreneurship as the process of creating value by combining resources to exploit an opportunity. The recognition of the opportunity may be the critical first step of the entrepreneurship process (Christensen, Madsen, & Peterson, 1994; Hills, 1995; Timmons, Muzyka, Stevenson, & Bygrave, 1987).
Although there is no universal definition of entrepreneurship, many definitions of entrepreneurship have increasingly focused on opportunity as central to understanding the phenomenon. Kirzner (1973) argued that the discovery of opportunities is the core issue of entrepreneurship. According to Kirzner (1973), entrepreneurs find and exploit opportunities by taking advantage of economic disequilibria by knowing or recognizing things that others do not.
Cooper (1981) suggested that entrepreneurs informally and intuitively perceive opportunities based upon some "feel" for the market. Koller (1988) reported that most entrepreneurs recognized, rather than sought the opportunities for their firms. Stevenson, Roberts, & Grousbeck (1985) suggested that entrepreneurship is primarily driven by perceptions of opportunity. Building on Gartner's (1990) inquiry into the meaning of the term "entrepreneurship," Sandberg (1991) noted that a number of definitions for one of Gartner's eight factors were clearly opportunity related. These included components such as "identifies a market," "provides aconcept or a product or service," "ability to see situations in terms of unmet needs," "vision of accomplishment," "creates a competitive advantage," and "a special way of thinking." These items are certainly indicators of the role of the entrepreneur as an individual with an ability to recognize opportunities.
Although opportunity evaluation has been addressed substantially in the academic literature, opportunity recognition has received little attention. In recent years, contributions have been made in conceptualizing the phenomenon and empirical studies have begun to generate new knowledge. Yet, there is still little known about the sensitivity of entrepreneurs to opportunities or the cognitive processes they use to identify opportunities. We also know very little about their self perceptions regarding this phenomenon. One particularly important source of opportunities may be entrepreneurs' social networks. Weak ties (Granovetter, 1973) and structural holes (Burt, 1992) within a network may be indicators of accessibility to information that could lead a potential entrepreneur to an opportunity. Weak ties are casual acquaintances who do not require individuals to expend much time or contact to maintain the relationship (as opposed to strong ties). A friend of a friend, or a casual business contact would be considered a weak tie. Granovetter (1973) argued that these "low maintenance" individuals are often the source of unique information. Burt's (1992) discussion of structural holes within a network closely parallels the weak ties argument. Entrepreneurs' social network structure and the quality of ties within the network may be predictors of an individual's opportunity recognition capability. These issues are discussed in this paper.
Due to the exploratory nature of research in this relatively new subject realm, this study had diverse research objectives. They were: (1) To investigate the variety and quantity of selected opportunity recognition behaviors; (2) To measure self-perceived entrepreneurial alertness; and (3) To explore the concept of opportunity recognition as a process. In order to focus our investigation, the role of entrepreneurs' social networks with respect to the four objectives above was studied by investigating the differences between entrepreneurs who recognize opportunities through their personal social networks vs. those who develop the ideas themselves. Because of the exploratory nature of this research we did not develop specific hypotheses to guide our investigation; however, we did expect to find significant differences in opportunity recognition based on whether entrepreneurs viewed themselves as "solo" or "network" entrepreneurs.
The remainder of this paper is divided into three major sections. First, we review salient contributions to the literature on opportunity recognition and introduce aspects of social network literature that may be potentially useful to unlocking theories of opportunity recognition. Then, using data from a large mail survey, we explore aspects of opportunity recognition using frequency data, t-tests, and factor analysis. Finally, we discuss future research directions and the implications of this research for both practicing entrepreneurs and academic researchers.
Funding for this project was provided by the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership of E. M. Kauffman Foundation. The authors wish to thank the Foundation for their generous support.
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