Dragons’ Den style contests as market devices: Constructing entrepreneurial markets for e-commerce in Southern England

Authors: Erdélyi, P. and Whitley, E.A.

Start date: 11 November 2015

In this empirical paper we trace the emergence, construction, design, composition and functioning of a specific marketplace for e-commerce business services (EBS) in the South of England in 2007 and 2008. This marketplace served as one of the mechanisms for the spread of the innovation of online retailing among start-ups and micro-enterprises in the region. The marketplace occasions in question were provided by two series of semi-public assessment events, the e-Tailers' Den contests, which were developed by a market making micro-enterprise, and were partly fashioned after a popular BBC Two's television series, Dragons' Den.

Drawing on actor-network theory, we used ethnographic methods for data collection and analysis, including participant observation, interviews, and documentary evidence. We describe how these Dragons' Den style events operated as socio-technical devices for the performance of a set of market functions. They facilitated encounters between buyers and sellers of EBS, and offered mechanisms for running experimental assessment processes. These qualification trials enabled the articulation of the qualities of buyers (e-tail micro-enterprises), the sellers (EBS providers), and the market goods (the EBS as prospective long-term service relationships). The e-Tailers' Dens thus functioned as market devices, but also as devices for entrepreneurial reflection and judgement.

While the goings-on at these events could be characterised as manifestations of a 'knowledge-based economy,' the prominent role of contests, aided by the popularisation of their format by mass media, offer an alternative interpretation. They were occasions of a 'test society', an economy and a culture based on the promotion of qualification trials.

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