We show that most small business owners are very different from the entrepreneurs that economic models and policymakers often have in mind. Using new data that sample entrepreneurs just before they start their businesses, we show that few small businesses intend to bring a new idea to market or to enter an unserved 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 craftspeople, lawyers, real estate agents, health care providers, small shopkeepers, and restaurateurs. Lastly, we show that nonpecuniary benefits (being one's own boss, having flexibility of hours, and the like) play a first-order role in the business formation decision. 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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pp. 73-118
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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