NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

What Do Small Businesses Do?

Erik Hurst, Benjamin Wild Pugsley

NBER Working Paper No. 17041
Issued in May 2011
NBER Program(s):   CF   EFG   IO   LS   PE   PR

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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This paper was revised on December 5, 2011

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w17041

Published: 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. citation courtesy of

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