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Hoping to Win, Expected to Lose: Theory and Lessons on Micro Enterprise Development


  • Karlan, Dean S.
  • Knight, Ryan
  • Udry, Christopher


Many basic economic theories with perfectly functioning markets do not predict the existence of the vast number of microenterprises readily observed across the world. We put forward a model that illuminates why financial and managerial capital constraints may impede experimentation, and thus limit learning about the profitability of alternative firm sizes. The model shows how lack of information about one’s own type, but willingness to experiment to learn one’s type, may lead to short-run negative expected returns to investments on average, with some outliers succeeding. To test the model we put forward first a motivating experiment from Ghana, and second a small meta-analysis of other experiments. In the Ghana experiment, we provide inputs to microenterprises, specifically financial capital (a cash grant) and managerial capital (consulting services), to catalyze adoption of investments and practices aimed towards enterprise growth. We find that entrepreneurs invest the cash, and take the advice, but both lead to lower profits on average. In the long run, they revert back to their prior scale of operations. The small meta analysis includes results from 18 other experiments in which either capital or managerial capital were relaxed, and find mixed support for this theory.

Suggested Citation

  • Karlan, Dean S. & Knight, Ryan & Udry, Christopher, 2012. "Hoping to Win, Expected to Lose: Theory and Lessons on Micro Enterprise Development," CEPR Discussion Papers 9100, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  • Handle: RePEc:cpr:ceprdp:9100

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    5. Dean Karlan & Martin Valdivia, 2011. "Teaching Entrepreneurship: Impact of Business Training on Microfinance Clients and Institutions," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 93(2), pages 510-527, May.
    6. Dean Karlan & Robert Osei & Isaac Osei-Akoto & Christopher Udry, 2014. "Agricultural Decisions after Relaxing Credit and Risk Constraints," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 129(2), pages 597-652.
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    11. Bruhn, Miriam & Karlan, Dean S. & Schoar, Antoinette S, 2012. "The Impact of Consulting Services on Small and Medium Enterprises: Evidence from a Randomized Trial in Mexico," CEPR Discussion Papers 8887, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    12. Santosh Anagol & Alvin Etang & Dean Karlan, 2017. "Continued Existence of Cows Disproves Central Tenets of Capitalism?," Economic Development and Cultural Change, University of Chicago Press, vol. 65(4), pages 583-618.
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    Cited by:

    1. David N Margolis, 2014. "By Choice and by Necessity: Entrepreneurship and Self-Employment in the Developing World," The European Journal of Development Research, Palgrave Macmillan;European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI), vol. 26(4), pages 419-436, September.
    2. Robert W. Fairlie & Dean Karlan & Jonathan Zinman, 2015. "Behind the GATE Experiment: Evidence on Effects of and Rationales for Subsidized Entrepreneurship Training," American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, American Economic Association, vol. 7(2), pages 125-161, May.
    3. Gabriela Calderón & Jesse M. Cunha & Giacomo De Giorgi, 2013. "Business Literacy and Development: Evidence From a Randomized Controlled Trial in Rural Mexico," Working Papers 742, Barcelona Graduate School of Economics.
    4. Driouchi, Ahmed & Gamar, Alae, 2014. "Hofstede’s Cultural Indicators, Knowledge Economy and Entrepreneurship in Arab Countries," MPRA Paper 58731, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    5. David McKenzie & Christopher Woodruff, 2014. "What Are We Learning from Business Training and Entrepreneurship Evaluations around the Developing World?," World Bank Research Observer, World Bank Group, vol. 29(1), pages 48-82.
    6. Baylis, Kathy & Mallory, Mindy & Songsermsawas, Tisorn, 2015. "Effects of credit and market access on farm gate prices in India," 2015 AAEA & WAEA Joint Annual Meeting, July 26-28, San Francisco, California 205434, Agricultural and Applied Economics Association;Western Agricultural Economics Association.
    7. Cho, Yoonyoung & Honorati, Maddalena, 2014. "Entrepreneurship programs in developing countries: A meta regression analysis," Labour Economics, Elsevier, vol. 28(C), pages 110-130.
    8. Karlan, Dean & Knight, Ryan & Udry, Christopher, 2015. "Consulting and capital experiments with microenterprise tailors in Ghana," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 118(C), pages 281-302.
    9. Doi, Yoko & McKenzie, David & Zia, Bilal, 2014. "Who you train matters: Identifying combined effects of financial education on migrant households," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 109(C), pages 39-55.
    10. Axel Demenet, 2016. "Does Managerial Capital also Matter Among Micro and Small Firms in Developing Countries?," Working Papers DT/2016/12, DIAL (Développement, Institutions et Mondialisation).
    11. Campos, Francisco & Coville, Aidan & Fernandes, Ana M. & Goldstein, Markus & McKenzie, David, 2014. "Learning from the experiments that never happened: Lessons from trying to conduct randomized evaluations of matching grant programs in Africa," Journal of the Japanese and International Economies, Elsevier, vol. 33(C), pages 4-24.
    12. Shenoy, Ajay, 2014. "Risky Income or Lumpy Investments? Evidence on Two Theories of Under-Specialization," Santa Cruz Department of Economics, Working Paper Series qt4649j8k0, Department of Economics, UC Santa Cruz.
    13. Eduardo Nakasone & Maximo Torero, 2014. "Soap Operas for Female Micro Entrepreneur Training," IDB Publications (Working Papers) 87916, Inter-American Development Bank.
    14. Yoonyoung Cho, 2015. "Entrepreneurship for the poor in developing countries," IZA World of Labor, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA), pages 167-167, July.
    15. Jordi Brandts & Christina Rott & Carles Solà, 2016. "Not just like starting over - Leadership and revivification of cooperation in groups," Experimental Economics, Springer;Economic Science Association, vol. 19(4), pages 792-818, December.
    16. Diether Beuermann & Maria Amelina, 2014. "Does Participatory Budgeting Improve Decentralized Public Service Delivery?," IDB Publications (Working Papers) 87095, Inter-American Development Bank.
    17. Berlinski, Samuel & Busso, Matias, 2017. "Challenges in educational reform: An experiment on active learning in mathematics," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 156(C), pages 172-175.
    18. Grimm, Michael & Paffhausen, Anna Luisa, 2015. "Do interventions targeted at micro-entrepreneurs and small and medium-sized firms create jobs? A systematic review of the evidence for low and middle income countries," Labour Economics, Elsevier, vol. 32(C), pages 67-85.
    19. Fafchamps, Marcel & McKenzie, David & Quinn, Simon & Woodruff, Christopher, 2014. "Microenterprise growth and the flypaper effect: Evidence from a randomized experiment in Ghana," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 106(C), pages 211-226.
    20. Blouin, Arthur & Macchiavello, Rocco, 2014. "Tropical Lending: International Prices, Strategic Default and Credit Constraints among Coffee Washing Stations," CAGE Online Working Paper Series 211, Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE).
    21. Christopher Udry, 2012. "Misallocation, Growth and Financial Market Imperfections," Annual Meeting Plenary 2012-3, Society for Economic Dynamics.
    22. Shapiro, D.A., 2015. "Microfinance and dynamic incentives," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 115(C), pages 73-84.
    23. Laurin Janes, 2013. "Can capital grants help microenterprises reach the productivity level of SMEs? Evidence from an experiment in Sri Lanka," Economics Series Working Papers WPS/2013-18, University of Oxford, Department of Economics.

    More about this item


    business training; consulting; credit constraints; entrepreneurship; managerial capital;

    JEL classification:

    • D21 - Microeconomics - - Production and Organizations - - - Firm Behavior: Theory
    • D24 - Microeconomics - - Production and Organizations - - - Production; Cost; Capital; Capital, Total Factor, and Multifactor Productivity; Capacity
    • D83 - Microeconomics - - Information, Knowledge, and Uncertainty - - - Search; Learning; Information and Knowledge; Communication; Belief; Unawareness
    • D92 - Microeconomics - - Micro-Based Behavioral Economics - - - Intertemporal Firm Choice, Investment, Capacity, and Financing
    • L20 - Industrial Organization - - Firm Objectives, Organization, and Behavior - - - General
    • M13 - Business Administration and Business Economics; Marketing; Accounting; Personnel Economics - - Business Administration - - - New Firms; Startups

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