07/06/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Entrepreneurial Adventure

In a week when the big media stories have been about disasters involving an oil spill off Louisiana, immigrant legislation in Arizona and bomb plots in Times Square, my "story of the week" was quite different. It was written in a San Francisco newspaper on April 29th, 1852. The story is a tale of a business adventure under the headline "San Francisco Girls Receive San Diego Cats."

I believe that entrepreneurial opportunities are all around us and that they only need an adventuresome spirit to unlock them. I also believe that we now have several generations of Americans who don't realize that. We have legions of people from college students to retirement ready folks who simply are not attuned to thinking like entrepreneurs even though in reality they should.

Let's get back to that favorite story of mine from 1852. "It was reported that "Terrance "Phatty" Boden brought in a wagonload of cats the other night and cleared 50 dollars in profit by selling them to lonely dance-hall girls. Phatty says that he conceived the idea when he noticed the loneliness of the dance-hall girls when he was here (San Francisco) before as a stage driver. Upon his return to San Diego, Phatty resigned his job and bought a spring wagon and six mules to do some "shotgun freightin." He offered two boys two bits (25 cents) apiece for all the cats they could find and he left with 250 or more cats---practically the entire cat population of San Diego. Setting up shop below Auggie's Saloon, Phatty sold his cats for prices ranging from two to three dollars depending on their size."

The story is a simple classic demonstrating the magic combination of perceiving an opportunity, figuring a way to fill a need or interest and assuming a bit of a risk. I doubt that Mr. Boden had ever heard the word entrepreneur or that he had an extensive education but he certainly knew how to act on a hunch based on something he'd seen. In the California of 1852 just about everyone had the ability to succeed grandly or fail miserably without a lot of interference or support.

To put this into context, I should mention that the California Gold Rush was in full frantic swing from 1848 through 1855 and was one of the great entrepreneurial adventures of the 19th century. As we have recently seen with the Wall Street meltdown, unguided capitalism can attract some of the best and worst human behavior. When James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter's Mill in Coloma it unleashed a torrent of 300,000 people of all ages and many nationalities coming to California. It was all about the perceived opportunity to get rich quickly from gold or from the other people who were seeking it.

The California that we now know began to emerge because the intense business activity surrounding the Gold Rush. San Francisco grew from a small settlement into a booming town. It was a period when other towns, churches, schools and roads were built up and down the state. The wild frontier was tamed by a system of laws and levels of government that lead to the admission of California as a free state within the union in 1850. During this period, names that we recognize today on street signs and public buildings such as Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins and Leland Stanford began to earn their reputations as "robber barons". Some of them weren't digging for gold, but they were selling the shovels and pick axes that the prospectors needed. These were hard driving and sometimes ruthless people who among other accomplishments built chunks of our railway system. I don't agree with some of their most rapacious ways, but it took large doses of the can-do American spirit for them to push past almost unimaginable difficulties. Like Steve Jobs, Walt Disney and Bill Gates in the 20th century, they began as ambitious small business owners whose visions became very big. They were people who made things happen instead of waiting for things to develop. For example, if you wonder how Stanford University was born, thank Leland Stanford who founded Leland Stanford Junior University with the equivalent of $400 million (in 2005 dollars) as a tribute to his late son.

While Terrence "Phatty" Boden's name is not on street signs, performance venues or a great university I love his story and his spirit nonetheless. Whether dealing in gold nuggets or feral cats, the essential lesson is the same. The young men and women of today could benefit from realizing that they have to take that kind of initiative to make thing happen and realize their ambitions, no matter how modest or grand. At some level, everybody is a business owner of at least one enterprise---yourself. If you see it as an adventure, not some fearsome and impossible journey, you'll be following in the footsteps of people who helped make our country great. If we want a future of greatness, entrepreneurial adventurers will have to be an important part of it.