– Legitimacy is not static, it is developed through a process. Startups can influence this process, which means that they can be strategic about how they build legitimacy, says Ph.D. candidate Karolina Lesniak in Engage.
By Stine Vedvik
Karolina Lesniak is a PhD candidate at NTNU and has a background in interdisciplinary cultural studies and entrepreneurship and innovation. During her second master at NTNU she became interested in how some startups make successful companies and how others fail. – This was something that led me to the research I’m doing now, to get more insight on topics connected to a successful startup, says Karolina.
Karolina’s current research examines how startups strategically influence the process of building legitimacy.
– Legitimacy is not static, it is developed through a process. All entities, also startups, can influence this process. This means that they can be strategic about how they build legitimacy, Karolina says. Through her research, Karolina is trying to figure out how those strategies evolve through time, and how startups adjust those strategies to different stakeholders depending on who they work with.
– It can be investors, customers, or the general public. And most importantly how they combine individual tactics, how they develop framing of who they are, how they use already existing support and endorsement, Karolina says. She is trying to figure out how all these individual tactics are used in the coherent strategy.
– The main word is ‘legitimacy’. The term comes from sociology and political science, and refers to a situation when some entity become accepted and gain popularity in already existing systems. This entity can be a company, an organization, a person, or simply a new idea or concept. In the case of startups, they invent a new product or service, and in order to realize those ideas they need to get access to resources. These resources can be skilled employees, financial resources, customers, and general support. To acquire all the resources they need, startups need to “justify” why they are appropriate part of existing environment – build legitimacy, Karolina says.
– Bigger themes like sustainability transformation, energy transition, medical technology and innovation in health services could really profit with more insight on legitimacy, according to Karolina. New ideas within these areas often require change in behavior, developing new values, norms and attitudes. – I truly believe that if we look into innovative startups we can really learn from them how they manage to build acceptance for something new, Karolina says.
– The main word is ‘legitimacy’. The term comes from sociology and political science, and refers to a situation when some entity become accepted and gain popularity in already existing systems.Karolina Lesniak
A holistic approach towards legitimacy
Karolina’s research is based on qualitative, process studies. Through following technology startups over a longer period of time with frequent interviews, Karolina was able to get detailed and fine-grained data, and she got to observe the holistic process of building legitimacy. This is important, because previous studies are often focused on the individual tactics for building legitimacy and don´t take into account what happens on a daily basis.
– I don’t focus on one single mechanism, I try to holistically follow the whole process and see how it evolves and what elements are on different stages, Karolina says. – Legitimacy is built in micro-steps, so therefore this approach to research the process of building legitimacy is very valuable.
– I think this holistic approach to building legitimacy is also valuable because research tends to have almost a tunnel vision and focus on how communication activites are used in building legitimacy, like for example having an amazing story about the company, or how the company uses framing or argumentation, and so on, Karolina says. Something she found in her studies is that startups combine legitimacy strategy with general company strategy. Strategies for attracting customers, for example, played an important role in the overall process of building acceptance and support for the startups. What’s more, sometimes companies would need to skillfully adjust their internal strategies to reach their legitimacy goals.
Towards a framework on building legitimacy
Through her research, Karolina is trying to identify how to put all these individual elements into a coherent framework that startups can use flexibly and adjust to their needs. – The main contribution of this research would be the framework of strategic legitimation, meaning how we can build some kind of model or recipe for startups to use when they face building legitimacy, Karolina says. She would like this framework to be easy to follow, something that describes the process and can be actively used and adjusted to their needs.
– I think what is needed is knowledge with a practical approach on how startups can get active support, and how they can successfully introduce their innovative ideas.
Bigger themes like sustainability, energy transition, medical technology and innovation in health services could really profit with more insight on legitimacy.Karolina Lesniak
– This framework might have a very practical value because the tricky part with legitimacy is that it’s hard to realize that one is legitimate. We only notice when we stop being legitimate, when someone doesn’t grant us legitimacy. This means it is easy to forget and to take legitimacy for granted. One might think that because one investor was convinced the company is legitimate, the company will be legitimate for everyone. This is not the case, this is something one has to work continuously with, Karolina says. In this sense, Karolina believes her research can be valuable to help both established entrepreneurs in addition to students. When asked about who would benefit from this kind of framework, Karolina responds: -The framework would be applicable to basically any startup that is somehow innovative.