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What Do Small Businesses Do?

  • Erik Hurst
  • Benjamin Wild Pugsley

In this paper, we show that most small business owners are very different from the entrepreneurs that economic models and policy makers often have in mind. Using new data that samples early stage entrepreneurs just prior to business start up, we show that few small businesses intend to bring a new idea to market. Instead, most intend to provide an existing service to an existing market. Further, we find that most small businesses have little desire to grow big or to innovate in any observable way. We show that such behavior is consistent with the industry characteristics of the majority of small businesses, which are concentrated among skilled craftsmen, lawyers, real estate agents, doctors, small shopkeepers, and restaurateurs. Lastly, we show non pecuniary benefits (being one's own boss, having flexibility of hours, etc.) play a first-order role in the business formation decision. We then discuss how our findings suggest that the importance of entrepreneurial talent, entrepreneurial luck, and financial frictions in explaining the firm size distribution may be overstated. We conclude by discussing the potential policy implications of our findings.

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File URL: http://www.nber.org/papers/w17041.pdf
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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 17041.

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Date of creation: May 2011
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Publication status: published as Erik Hurst & Benjamin Wild Pugsley, 2011. "What do Small Businesses Do?," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 43(2 (Fall)), pages 73-142.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:17041
Note: CF EFG IO LS PE PR
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  1. Silvia Ardagna & Annamaria Lusardi, 2010. "Explaining International Differences in Entrepreneurship: The Role of Individual Characteristics and Regulatory Constraints," NBER Chapters, in: International Differences in Entrepreneurship, pages 17-62 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. Steven J. Davis & John Haltiwanger & Ron S. Jarmin & C. J. Krizan & Javier Miranda & Alfred Nucci & Kristin Sandusky, 2007. "Measuring the Dynamics of Young and Small Businesses: Integrating the Employer and Nonemployer Universes," NBER Working Papers 13226, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Hugo A. Hopenhayn & Galina Vereshchagina, 2003. "Risk Taking by Entrepreneurs," RCER Working Papers 500, University of Rochester - Center for Economic Research (RCER).
  4. Erik Hurst & Geng Li & Benjamin Pugsley, 2014. "Are Household Surveys Like Tax Forms? Evidence from Income Underreporting of the Self-Employed," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 96(1), pages 19-33, March.
  5. Zoltan Acs & David Audretsch, 1990. "Innovation and Small Firms," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262011131, June.
  6. Xavier Gabaix, 2009. "Power Laws in Economics and Finance," Annual Review of Economics, Annual Reviews, vol. 1(1), pages 255-294, 05.
  7. John Haltiwanger & Ron S. Jarmin & Javier Miranda, 2010. "Who Creates Jobs? Small vs. Large vs. Young," Working Papers 10-17, Center for Economic Studies, U.S. Census Bureau.
  8. Veronique de Rugy, 2005. "Are Small Businesses the Engine of Growth?," Working Papers 49882, American Enterprise Institute.
  9. Evans, David S & Leighton, Linda S, 1989. "Some Empirical Aspects of Entrepreneurship," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 79(3), pages 519-35, June.
  10. Audretsch, David B. & Keilbach, Max C. & Lehmann, Erik E., 2006. "Entrepreneurship and Economic Growth," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780195183511.
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