Teaching entrepreneurship, I often hear students and clients say they want "to become an entrepreneur," "to be their own boss," and "to run their own company."

I have to distinguish between thinking and behaving entrepreneurially and "becoming an entrepreneur."

Examples of Thinking and Behaving Entrepreneurially

Richard Branson started Virgin Airlines when his flight was canceled. Realizing everyone else on his flight had the same problem, he called to find the cost to charter another plane, which was $2,000. He then sold tickets to other stranded passengers to cover the charter (including his share).

Everyone benefited: him, the other flyers, the new charter provider, and even the old one, which would now get fewer complaints. Yet it took no capital, no business plan, no investment, no presentations, or anything else business schools and lean startup or other methodologies teach.

Many successful entrepreneurial thinkers and actors have similar stories. Not just the famous ones with big results, though certainly them.

Microsoft's contract with IBM, which led to its dominating in operating systems, as opposed to computer hardware, wasn't part of a business plan. It resulted from knowing the market needs.

Sometimes such people look lucky--in the right place at the right time. More likely they created their own luck by being near the problem and the people it affected.

Examples of "Becoming an Entrepreneur"

By contrast, many of my students think you have to solve a huge problem to get big like Facebook. That's trying to "become an entrepreneur."

It means putting you and your solution first, before the problem and the people feeling it.

But Facebook wasn't trying to take on the world. It scratched an itch at Harvard. Then it grew from that protected niche. We think of how fast it got big, but it grew only in niches in the beginning, it wasn't going for the whole world.

For that matter, taking on MySpace would have seemed crazy at the time.

Same with Google, which didn't intend to take on the big portals of the time. Remember Excite and AltaVista?

Walmart satisfied the needs of people Sears didn't. Sears went for big cities, which people saw as the more lucrative market. Bigger, yes. More profitable, no. Not with all the competition.

Smaller cities that could only support one store turned out to be more profitable. Someone wanting to "become an entrepreneur" wouldn't have seen it. But someone looking to solve people's problems couldn't ignore it.

What It Means to You

Many entrepreneurs succeed by understanding and solving problems, not by trying to "become entrepreneurs."

Thinking and behaving entrepreneurially means identifying problems that people would pay you to solve, solving them, creating sustainable models to implement the solutions, attracting teammates, marketing and selling the solutions, and so on.

Everything here emerges from the problem and the people feeling it. They come first, not you. You serve them. The solution and everything after depends on the problem and the people feeling it.

"Becoming an entrepreneur" means you want to start a company or be your own boss, so you decide to do so and you do so.

If anything characterizes the starting point for entrepreneurial thinking and behavior, it's empathy and compassion. If anything characterizes "becoming an entrepreneur," it's self-interest. The problem comes second to your interest.

The Value of Thinking and Behaving Entrepreneurially

When people who think and behave entrepreneurially enter the market, they listen to people feeling the problem--their future customers--to improve their plans on how to solve it and sell their solution. When the people with the problem hear them, they feel understood and become helpful. These entrepreneurs create communities of helpful people.

When people who want to "become an entrepreneur" start, they come up with their solutions by themselves, often keeping them secret so they can prepare bigger launches. When they tell others about their solutions, they lead others to evaluate them and their solutions. That judgment makes them not helpful and leads people to look for alternatives.

In Summary

"Becoming an entrepreneur" follows the popular media portrayal of the entrepreneur. It's like cargo cults: You're just doing what you see without understanding what happens behind the scenes that creates the results.

When you "become an entrepreneur," you put the cart of selling a product before the horse of understanding the problem and the people feeling it, which would lead to customer demand. You end up trying to put the square peg of your solution into the round hole of their problem.

If you're lucky, you might find overlap, but that's luck, not effective entrepreneurial practice.