Cheng Gao - Faculty & Research - Harvard Business School
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Cheng Gao

Doctoral Student

Cheng Gao is a doctoral candidate in strategy at Harvard Business School. His research focuses on institutional and entrepreneurial strategy in nascent markets, and his dissertation examines how firms navigate market and regulatory uncertainty in new industries. He is a recipient of the Strategy Research Foundation (SRF) Dissertation Scholar award and the Harvard University Certificate of Distinction in Teaching. His research is forthcoming in Strategic Management Journal
Before academia, Gao was a management consultant at Oliver Wyman, where he conducted engagements in strategy, operations, and risk management for Fortune 500 clients and served as co-captain of the Harvard recruiting team. Previously, he was principal research assistant to a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state at CSIS, a non-partisan Washington policy think tank. Gao graduated from Harvard College with high honors in economics and was a recipient of the Dunster Shield Award.

Journal Articles
  1. Overcoming Institutional Voids: A Reputation-Based View of Long Run Survival

    Cheng Gao, Tiona Zuzul, Geoffrey Jones and Tarun Khanna

    Emerging markets are characterized by underdeveloped institutions and frequent environmental shifts. Yet they also contain many firms that have survived over generations. How are firms in weak institutional environments able to persist over time? Motivated by 69 interviews with leaders of emerging market firms with histories spanning generations, we combine induction and deduction to propose reputation as a meta-resource that allows firms to activate their conventional resources. We conceptualize reputation as consisting of prominence, perceived quality, and resilience and develop a process model that illustrates the mechanisms that allow reputation to facilitate survival in ways that persist over time. Building on research in strategy and business history, we thus shed light on an underappreciated strategic construct (reputation) in an under-theorized setting (emerging markets) over an unusual period (the historical long run).

    Keywords: emerging markets; Institutional voids; reputation; business history; Intangible Resources; Emerging Markets; Reputation; Business History;


    Gao, Cheng, Tiona Zuzul, Geoffrey Jones, and Tarun Khanna. "Overcoming Institutional Voids: A Reputation-Based View of Long Run Survival." Strategic Management Journal 38, no. 11 (November 2017): 2147–2167. (Pre-published online. Video Abstract.)  View Details
Working Papers
  1. Pivoting Isn't Enough: Principled Pragmatism and Strategic Reorientation in New Ventures

    Rory McDonald and Cheng Gao

    New technology ventures often experience deviations from their original plans that oblige them to reorient in pursuit of better fit between their evolving products and target customers. Yet research is largely silent on how entrepreneurs explain and justify their ventures in the wake of fundamental redirections in strategy. Since ventures attain legitimacy and resources based on original aims that constituencies find compelling, entrepreneurs’ initial claims are likely to complicate subsequent course corrections. To shed light on how ventures effectively manage strategic reorientations, we conducted an inductive, longitudinal field study of two startups in the “robo-advisor” sector. Despite similar initial profiles, parallel reorientations, and comparable end products, the startups’ fortunes diverged in a conspicuous way that is difficult to reconcile with prior research. We develop a theoretical model introducing principled pragmatism—a novel strategy process that enables entrepreneurs to make changes to their fledgling businesses while portraying faithfulness to enduring aims. Our framework suggests that technology ventures’ success depends not only on sensible redirections, but also on how entrepreneurs anticipate, communicate, and pace these changes to various external supporters. In other words, how they explain strategic reorientations may matter as much or more than the changes themselves. Successful entrepreneurs do not merely generate and test hypotheses, like scientists, to find viable product solutions; they also resemble adept politicians—convincingly justifying deviations from plan to diverse constituencies.

    Keywords: strategic reorientation; technology entrepreneurship; innovation; product development processes; organizational adaptation; qualitative methods (general); Technology; Organizational Change and Adaptation; Communication; Entrepreneurship; Alignment; Innovation and Invention; Product Development;


    McDonald, Rory, and Cheng Gao. "Pivoting Isn't Enough: Principled Pragmatism and Strategic Reorientation in New Ventures." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 17-031, October 2016.  View Details
  2. Competition as Strategic Interaction

    Rory McDonald and Cheng Gao

    Strategic interaction has been a topic of scholarly inquiry dating back to the 1960s. Drawing on several early examples, we explore the nature of the concept, comparing it to other forms of competition in strategy and organizations. Next, we organize and review the findings of three ostensibly separate theoretical perspectives that have arisen from game theory, competitive dynamics, and institutional theory—each with its own assumptions, constructs, methods, and findings—and we identify core insights about how firms compete against one another in established markets. Based on our evaluation, we argue that a promising research opportunity for strategy lies in exploring how firms strategically interact in nascent product markets and which moves are most effective in these contexts.

    Keywords: competitive strategy; strategic interaction; competitive moves; institutional contestation; new markets; Research; Competitive Strategy; Emerging Markets;


    McDonald, Rory, and Cheng Gao. "Competition as Strategic Interaction." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 15-067, February 2015. (Revised February 2017.)  View Details
Cases and Teaching Materials
  1. HomeAway: Organizing the Vacation Rental Industry

    Rory McDonald, Feng Zhu and Cheng Gao

    In less than 10 years, cofounders Brian Sharples and Carl Shepherd had transformed HomeAway from just another Internet startup into the world's leading vacation-rental marketplace—a global online platform that links customers seeking vacation-home rentals to the property owners and managers who supply them. The case traces HomeAway's founding and acquisition-led growth, its 2011 IPO, and the core elements of its subscription-based business model. By 2014, incumbent travel giants like TripAdvisor and high-profile startups like Airbnb had begun to enter the vacation-rental sector. To stay ahead, HomeAway initiated a pilot cross-platform collaboration to list some of its properties on Expedia's site. More momentously, Sharples was also weighing a new commission-based revenue model that promised to attract a broader array of property listings but at the risk of undermining HomeAway's existing business.

    Keywords: strategy; innovation; entrepreneurship; technology; Acquisitions; operations management; Technology Platform; Acquisition;


    McDonald, Rory, Feng Zhu, and Cheng Gao. "HomeAway: Organizing the Vacation Rental Industry." Harvard Business School Case 615-036, December 2014.  View Details