Abstract: A Theory of Entrepreneurial Exaptation

Peter Jaskiewicz, James Combs, and Sabine Rau


An entrepreneurial legacy (EL) is a business family's rhetorical reconstruction of past entrepreneurial achievements or resilience. Recent research shows that imprinting an EL on the next generation motivates family incumbents and successors to engage in activities that foster transgenerational entrepreneurship in the family firm. The present study extends this line of research by developing theory to explain how next-generation members who are NOT successors can be motivated to become entrepreneurial inside or outside of the focal firm. As such we develop theory on entrepreneurial exaptation – the extent to which entrepreneurial capabilities that are developed in one context (i.e., the family firm) will be applied to other contexts (i.e., a new firm). Based on 88 in-depth interviews with 13 German multi-generation business families active in the wine-making sector, we find that a strong EL, strong levels of family cohesion, and low levels of family adaptability focus male non-successor, next generation members on entrepreneurial behaviors as secondary participants in the family firm or, if that is not possible, in other wine businesses in the same region, indicating some entrepreneurial exaptation. In families with moderate levels of cohesion, EL, and family adaptability, male next generation members turn their entrepreneurial energies to new firms, industries and regions – indicating strong entrepreneurial exaptation. Our findings, however, do not apply to female next generation members: Despite an entrepreneurial motivation, they are blocked from pursuing entrepreneurial behaviors by traditional family rules that favor sons; the only exception appear to be families lacking sons.