When looking at business creation, people tend to take more interest in the project than in the entrepreneur behind it. However, starting a business has strong personal implications. Assessments of personalized support programs would be more relevant if they paid greater attention to gauging how entrepreneurs feel about their ability to see their project through to completion, particularly as regards the strategic and financial aspects.
What drives someone to want to start a company? Obviously there is the initial project, which may or may not result in the creation of a start-up, but above all there is the individual behind the project, the budding entrepreneur, who will end up transformed by the experience, whatever the result. The process is a form of apprenticeship, during which the business creator acquires new skills, develops new ways of looking at things, and builds networks. If the individuals manage to create their business, this personal transformation will provide them with valuable skills for the company’s development. If not, they will be able to draw on these newly-acquired skills to prepare an entrepreneurial project later in life, or to use their new knowledge working for someone else.
Taking greater interest in the perceived abilities rather than the number of creations
People with new business projects do not have to go through the process alone. They are even encouraged to participate in support programs, which may have a profound impact on the project as well as the person behind it. Unfortunately, when assessing such programs, this personal dimension is rarely taken into account: to evaluate their effectiveness, we tend to focus on the participants’ satisfaction with the program or the fact that they managed to create their business, but not on the effects that the programs have had on the budding entrepreneurs. Our study looked at people participating in a support program set up by Brittany Chambers of Commerce and Industry (CCI). The aim of the study was specifically to analyze this personal impact. Rather than focusing on the project leader’s actual skills, we studied their perceived entrepreneurial self-efficacy , i.e. how the individuals perceived their ability to create a business.
This perceived entrepreneurial self-efficacy – originally developed in the field of psychology – is a key determining factor in the process of creating a company, because not feeling capable can be a major obstacle. If properly evaluated, it can even foster the entrepreneur’s tenacity in the face of difficulties. However, this remains a perceived ability, which is not necessarily representative of the actual ability; indeed, certain individuals have a tendency to underestimate their abilities whereas others overestimate them. Finally, the perception can change, according to four major influences: personal experience, observation of others, verbal persuasion by third parties and emotional state.
The shock of reality
The study sought to measure the change in the perceived self-efficacy of budding entrepreneurs who took part in a support program by interviewing them at the beginning of the project, and then a year later. While we might expect participation in a personalized support program to have a positive effect on entrepreneurial self-efficacy (that is to say, the project leaders feel more capable of creating their company), the results of the study actually show an overall decrease in self-efficacy. If we look in more detail, the only positive impact was on entrepreneurial administrative self-efficacy – concerning the planning of the project and formalities – whereas perceptions related to strategy and finance tended to deteriorate.
These results can be explained by what we could term a “reality check”. At the start of the process, many budding entrepreneurs think that the administrative side is highly complex and focus on this aspect; then they realize that this is not actually the most complicated aspect, particularly since a number of measures have simplified business-start-up procedures over recent years. At the same time, they start to realize how difficult it is to find customers and funding, that there are competitors in the market, and that they never have enough time to do everything. All these aspects are often under-estimated when they build their project.
However surprising it may be, this result shows the value of having an objective assessment of start-up support programs, by focusing on the personal impacts: the aim of support programs is to help people with start-up projects set up viable businesses and understand the realities of the market, not to simply ensure that the majority of the individuals actually start their businesses. With this in mind, it is not necessarily a bad thing for prospective business creators to feel less capable at the end of the process than at the beginning. Participants who ultimately decide not to start their business, after appreciating the importance of having a customer base and a network, have the opportunity to ask themselves the right questions, to readjust their perceived ability, and sometimes realize they are simply not made to be entrepreneurs. They will be better equipped for the next project, or at least thy will have more realistic perceptions.
A practical tool for improving programs
This evaluation method is a valuable tool for improving support programs, with practical uses that can be taken advantage of almost immediately. For example, it may be interesting to adopt a differentiated approach depending on whether the people at the start of the program underestimate or overestimate their ability to create a company, in order to help them reach a more realistic self-perception. In relation to the case analyzed in this study, the support programs could focus more on strategic issues and funding.
These results are a step towards achieving an objective assessment of support mechanisms for budding entrepreneurs. Now, it would be useful to fine-tune the results with a more representative sample group of budding entrepreneurs and extend the research to different types of support initiatives.