Cultural entrepreneurship and symbolic management perspectives portray entrepreneurs as skilled cultural operators and often assume them to be capable from the outset to purposefully use ‘cultural resources’ in order to motivate resource-holding audiences to support their new ventures. We problematize this premise and develop a model of how entrepreneurs become skilful cultural operators and develop the cultural competences necessary for creating and growing their ventures. The model is grounded in a case study of an entrepreneur who set up shop and sought to acquire resources in a culturally unfamiliar setting. Our model proposes that two adaptive sensemaking processes – approval-driven sensemaking and autonomy-driven sensemaking – jointly facilitate the gradual development of cultural competences. These processes jointly enable entrepreneurs to gain cultural awareness and calibrate their symbolic enactments. Specifically, while approval-driven sensemaking facilitates recognizing cultural resources to symbolically couple a venture’s identity claims more tightly with the cultural frames of targeted audiences and gain legitimate distinctiveness, autonomy-driven sensemaking enables recognizing cultural constraints and more effective symbolic decoupling to shield the venture from constraining cultural frames and defend the venture’s autonomy and resources. We conclude the paper with a discussion of the theoretical implications of our study for cultural entrepreneurship and symbolic management research.