Being different while being similar: Entrepreneurial ventures and the pursuit of legitimacy

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School of Business | Doctoral thesis (article-based)
Degree programme
72 + app. 102
Aalto University publication series DOCTORAL DISSERTATIONS, 199/2017
Legitimacy is a judgment about an entity's appropriateness and/or desirability within the established beliefs and norms of a social setting. Attaining legitimacy generally enhances organizational survival since audiences are more likely to support firms that are judged as legitimate. Legitimacy is especially relevant for entrepreneurial ventures given that these organizations need to attract resources for growth. Thus entrepreneurs commonly engage in communication activities that seek to influence audiences' judgment of their firms' legitimacy. An important body of scholarly work has addressed how the legitimacy of entrepreneurial ventures is pursued but current understandings on the discursive aspects of this pursuit continue to be limited. The main purpose of my study has been to develop a rich understanding of how entrepreneurs discursively strive to legitimate their firms. My dissertation is composed of three essays, each one based on the case of an entrepreneurial venture and focusing on a particular facet of discursive legitimation. Essay 1 is based on the study of a new firm in the mobile game industry and addresses the discursive strategies employed by entrepreneurs. In particular, this essay reveals how entrepreneurs seek to legitimate their organization by claiming both conformity to the organization's field and distinctiveness from it. In essay 2, I delve specifically into stories as legitimation strategies. Over time, stories can become misaligned with changed circumstances such as the development of new capabilities, or changes in the competitive environments. While entrepreneurs may revise their ventures' stories to cope with these changes, preserving the continuity of the foundational story that ensured success in the first place is essential to avoid scepticism from audiences. In essay 2, I study this tension between continuity and change. Finally, essay 3 is based on the case of a new venture in the fashion industry. Aiming at gaining the support of investors and business partners, the entrepreneurs employed verbal and visual discursive strategies to strive for legitimacy. In particular, I identified and explored two strategies grounded in the visual mode of communication. My research adds to the current literature by characterizing the discursive strategies employed by entrepreneurs in the pursuit of their ventures' legitimacy. These strategies are based on both the verbal and the visual modes of communication. Importantly, my study reveals that a tension between distinctiveness and similarity underlies the challenges faced by entrepreneurs when pursuing the legitimacy of their organizations, and sheds light on these challenges.
Thesis advisor
Piekkari, Rebecca, Prof., Aalto University, Department of Management Studies, Finland
Karjalainen, Toni-Matti, Dr., Aalto University, Department of Management Studies, Finland
entrepreneurship, discourses, discursive strategies, identity, legitimacy, legitimation, materiality, narratives, organizations, stories, visual communication
Other note
  • [Publication 1]: Santos, Fernando Pinto. Legitimation of new ventures: embracing conformity and distinctiveness. Unpublished essay. The full text of the essay is available only in the printed version of the dissertation.
  • [Publication 2]: Santos, Fernando Pinto. Changing without changing: the revision of entrepreneurial legitimation stories. Unpublished essay. The full text of the essay is available only in the printed version of the dissertation.
  • [Publication 3]: Santos, Fernando Pinto. The visual legitimation of new ventures. Unpublished essay. The full text of the essay is available only in the printed version of the dissertation.