Entrepreneurial Hypomania and Finding the next Mark Zuckerberg

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in Boston Startups,Entrepreneurship

The New York Times has an interesting article, Just Manic Enough: Seeking Perfect Entrepreneurs, about Seth Priebatsch, founder of local mobile gaming startup Scvngr. It also features commentary from local VC Paul Maeder at Highland Capital Partners.

The article is mostly a look inside the life and mind of Seth Priebatsch. On the plus side, the now 21-year old started his first company – a real company with 8 offshore employees – when he was 12, his Scvngr startup has 60 employees and has raised $750k from Highland Capital and $4 million from Google Ventures, and he can read upside down just as fast as he can read right-side up. On the minus side, he barely knows how to drive a car and, since his office at Scvngr is also his bedroom, he literally has zero life outside of Scvngr — no socializing, no girlfriend, no books, no bars, no tv, no movies, no days off, etc..

Entrepreneurs Need Hypomania – But Not Too Much

The interesting subtext of the article talks about the traits required to be an entrepreneur. You need to be at least a little crazy to do it. As Paul Maeder says, “You need to suspend disbelief to start a company, because so many people will tell you that what you’re doing can’t be done.”

Entrepreneurs need some mania to fuel their quest. But it’s a fine line. As psychologist John D. Gartner puts it, “If you’re manic, you think you’re Jesus. If you’re hypomanic, you think you are God’s gift to technology investing.” Just the right amount of hypomania gives you the confidence you need to take the necessary risks and the energy you need to maximize productivity as you aggressively go after your goals.

But too much hypomaina can hurt your cause. If you’re arrogant and obnoxious without good interpersonal skills and some sense of humanity, then you’re going to drive with your blinders on 100%. You won’t be open to alternate views and other good ideas. And you’ll likely have trouble getting along with others — including co-founders, employees, and investors. That’s a recipe for failure.

Don’t Be Like Seth: You DO Need to Have a Life

I wish Seth lots of success, and he seems like the kind of guy that will indeed succeed — either with Scvngr or something else. But unlike Seth, I think it’s important to have some life outside of work. Taking some real breaks is important and necessary for your mental health and beneficial for both your perspective and your creativity. If you can’t step back and get some perspective, you’ll be in a world of your own and you’ll start making misguided decisions. And if you don’t give your brain a break, you’re limiting your creativity. I can’t count the number of times I’ve solved tough problems or had (seemingly to me) great ideas when I wasn’t consciously thinking about them — while on a run, at the beach, in the shower, etc.

Many VC’s are happy to see you spending every waking moment on your startup. But that’s not only unhealthy, it’s simply not required. There are plenty of super successful people who don’t.

For example, look at Google. Their 20% time policy genuinely encourages (requires) employees to spend 20% of their time on personal projects that really interests them. Google is doing just fine, and some of their most successful offerings started as personal projects. And look at 37signals founders David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried, who wrote an entire book (Rework) with a central premise that you don’t (and shouldn’t) work more than 40 hours a week. In addition to writing a best-selling book, they started a very successful software company and created Ruby on Rails. That’s not a bad resume.

Life is short, and it’s good to have one.

Misguided: Disruptive Ideas and Mark Zuckerberg Syndrome

The NY Times article also mentions Next Zuckerberg Syndrome — investors’ “urge to find another Mark Zuckerberg before he starts another Facebook.” N.Z.S goes hand-in-hand with the obsession of both entrepreneurs and investors to find the next disruptive technology. But from my perspective, this thinking is totally misguided.

Yes, companies like Netscape, Google and Facebook have created fundamental changes to the way we live our lives. But that wasn’t their initial goal. They set out to solve a problem or to solve a problem better. I hear too many entrepreneurs looking for that next big thing that will make a billion dollars. If that’s your goal, you will almost certainly fail. Instead, focus on a problem that you know and fix it. Don’t worry about how big the problem is or if it will change the entire world. Worry about fixing the problem well and the rest will follow. You might not change the whole world, but if you fix the problem, you will change at least part of it. And more likely than not, you’ll be be very happy about it.

Footnote: The (Irrelevant) Princeton Connection

To throw in a total non-sequetur, on a personal note I found it interesting that Seth dropped out of Princeton. He got his funding from Highland’s Paul Maeder (also photographed and quoted in the article) who also went to Princeton. And his big round of funding came indirectly from Google, home of Princeton grad Eric Schmidt. I guess it’s a small world.

Update:

Matt Douglas, The Startup Swami, seems to agree that Seth needs to get a life.

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