Remember when renting a movie meant schlepping to the video store, pawing through the leftovers, and often paying a stiff late fee for the one you returned? Most of us grumbled, "There must be a better way," but then went about our business.
Not entrepreneur Reed Hastings, who founded Netflix in 1997 after paying $40 in late fees for the movie Apollo 13. Capitalizing on his frustration, Hastings created the online DVD rental company that allows customers to pick a wish list of movies, receive them in the mail, and keep them for as long as they like.
The entrepreneur's gift, says Anthony Warren, director of the Farrell Center for Corporate Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Penn State, is the ability to see an opening. "They'll see opportunities in some complex picture of the world which mere mortals don't see. Entrepreneurship is a way of seeing."
Typically very focused, with strong social skills, entrepreneurs are persuasive leaders and great networkers who work productively with a high degree of autonomy, Warren adds. Often, they achieve success by using someone else's resources to their benefit—what Warren calls bootstrapping.
Netflix is a good example. Its founder piggybacked on an existing distribution network—the U.S. Postal Service—and two innovations in technology. DVDs can be easily mailed in a way that videocassettes can't, notes Warren, and the Internet allows customers to easily register their requests without ever talking to a live worker. Look out Blockbuster.
Surprisingly, many entrepreneurs don't realize what they are capable of achieving until they face a certain set of circumstances. "Only in talking to a number of entrepreneurs do I realize that a significant part of them never planned it," says Warren. "They stumble on an opportunity and they say, 'Well, why not?'"
Accounts of reluctant entrepreneurs show that entrepreneurial skills can be taught, says Warren. "For some people, I suspect there is a strong innate wish to be your own boss, but if you've just got that glimmer in your brain, we can certainly make that blossom."
In his undergraduate entrepreneurship class, Warren has students form teams—with no teammates from the same major. As they come up with ideas for their own companies, he explains, this diversity helps them connect the cross-disciplinary dots in the way that entrepreneurs typically do.
"That's where you get the spark," says Warren. "I think most people have those buried capabilities and if you can awaken them and provide them with the tools, off they go."
Warren, who has designed a four-day course to train high school teachers to teach entrepreneurship, believes the skills students learn there can have broader impact. "The world is really changing," he says, "and we need to give every student some self-confidence that they can create their own opportunities."
Anthony Warren, Ph.D., is Farrell clinical professor and director of the Farrell Center for Corporate Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the Smeal College of Business. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.