Entrepreneurship and business support: What are the knowledge gaps?

By Anna Segura Lladó & Lou-Davina Stouffs on Tuesday, 10 August 2021.

Bridging the gap between business support research and practice

Every year, billions of dollars are spent worldwide in programs and policies to support entrepreneurs and business owners start and grow their businesses. However, very few of these interventions are informed by rigorous evidence on what works and what does not to support business.

One barrier that is consistently mentioned by policymakers and practitioners in not using scientific evidence more often is the difficulty to find rigorous evidence that is relevant to their work and context, and a lack of actionable recommendations.

That’s why as part of this IGL project, supported by the Kauffman Foundation, we aim to create a series of evidence summaries that make it easier for policymakers and business support providers to access and act on the most rigorous evidence to support entrepreneurs and businesses.

We need your support to ensure these evidence summaries are as useful and relevant as possible. Complete our open call and help us choose which topics to write about!

Collecting evidence needs from key actors in the US ecosystem

With our evidence summaries, we want to support policymakers and practitioners who are shaping business support schemes. To start, we ran a series of workshops with key actors of the US entrepreneurship and business support ecosystem to learn about what topics and questions are top of mind, so that we can ensure our outputs are as useful and relevant to them as possible.

So far, we’ve talked to 17 US-based organisations, including ecosystem builders, funders and business support providers offering entrepreneurship training, accelerator programs, grants, venture capital, mentoring, technical assistance and support to innovation, among other types of business support. As key actors in the US entrepreneurship and business support ecosystem, they share the objective of doing their bit to create a favourable environment to entrepreneurship and business growth, whether it’s through their programs to directly support entrepreneurs and small businesses or through activities to strengthen the business support ecosystem.

One of the key challenges they face is how to make their programs and policies as impactful as possible. So when day-to-day operation allows for it, they’re on the lookout for new information and ideas on how to improve them: consulting internal implementation data if available, identifying good practices undertaken by peer organisations but also seeking scientific studies and academic research. Nevertheless, as mentioned at the beginning of this post, when it comes to rigorous causal evidence on what works to support businesses, it can be challenging to identify and access studies that are relevant to their context or to the decisions that need to be made in their organisations regarding how to design and deliver this support. 

So, to all of them, we asked the following: what type of evidence would you find useful to improve the support programs that you are offering to entrepreneurs and small businesses?

Are you part of an organisation that provides business support? Engage in our open call to discover what others have identified as their evidence needs and vote for the ones that you are also interested in! 

What’s top of their mind?

Given the diversity of the workshop participants, our participants’ interest was spread along the entire entrepreneurship cycle. The key challenge for some of them was how to foster a cultural shift in favour of entrepreneurship that increases the entrepreneurial spirit and enhances the creation of new businesses in the US, while for others it was how to raise survival, growth rates and social impact of already existing businesses. In between, interest was also shown in how to facilitate entrepreneurs’ and small businesses’ access to key resources, improve their internal operations and practices and expand their commercial activities.

However, we also identified some cross-cutting questions:

  1. How to create a policy environment that is supportive to entrepreneurship?

  2. How to strengthen the business support ecosystem?

  3. How to make entrepreneurship more inclusive?

To start with, participants were interested in accessing evidence about what local policies impact entrepreneurship either directly and indirectly, with tax breaks and better infrastructure being mentioned as some of the examples.

Moving to how to uplift business support, a common concern was about how to improve entrepreneurs and small businesses' access to support programs, especially for those who are less likely to put themselves forward to participate and are therefore more difficult to reach. Thus, learning about what outreach strategies work to get more entrepreneurs and businesses to engage with support was a topic that came up frequently. 

A second concern was about programs and policies that are designed under a ‘one size fits all’ rationale, and therefore do not take into account the specific needs of different groups like early stage ventures, social entrepreneurs or minority-owned small businesses.

Thirdly, there were questions about which components should be included in specific support schemes, such as accelerator programs, mentoring or entrepreneurship training, to make them more impactful and the effects of different delivery alternatives - like how online programs compare to face-to-face interventions.

Finally, and not surprisingly for a country in which most of new entrepreneurs are still white men, a lot of interest was shown to how to increase diversity in entrepreneurship: with questions ranging from how to increase the diversity of people who participate in entrepreneurship to how to improve access to support for traditionally underserved communities, and how to tailor business support to the specific needs of entrepreneurs from disadvantaged backgrounds.

You can take a look at all the questions that came up during the workshops here.

We also want to learn about your evidence needs! Complete our open call and let us know which open questions you have on how to improve business support.

Can you help us shape this project?

If you belong to an organisation that provides entrepreneurship and business support, we want the evidence summaries to be useful and relevant to you. So to complement the views collected during the workshops, we are launching an open call for inputs from any organisation in the business support ecosystem to contribute to shaping this project.

To help us make this work more relevant to policymakers and practitioners like yourself, engage with our open call to find out about the specific open questions that were identified during the workshops, vote on the ones that you are more interested in and add in your own to the list. Your input will help us decide on which topics to write about!

Share our open call for inputs with your peers and colleagues so they can also have the chance to shape this project!

If you want more information about this project, please contact us at innovationgrowthlab@nesta.org.uk 

This project is generously supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in project materials are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.