Why Crackpots, Screwballs, and Nutjobs Make Great Entrepreneurs

Young woman painting
Simon Winnall | Getty Images
Young woman painting

At NEA, we’ve been lucky to work with some of the world’s most extraordinary entrepreneurs — the founders of Silicon Graphics, Juniper, WebMD, TiVo , Salesforce.com, Groupon— and I’m frequently asked what makes a great entrepreneur.

To me, great entrepreneurs are artists: they see things others can’t—or see things in ways others can’t. They are powerfully visionary and slightly irrational. Entrepreneurs believe that their idea will succeed against overwhelming evidence that it will not (and often an outright absence of evidence that it will). Why else do they frequently walk away from high-paying jobs, take out second mortgages on their homes, and make huge personal sacrifices to bring their ideas to life?

The very best entrepreneurs I’ve encountered don’t think of their work as a choice.

It’s a vocation and a necessity: to do anything else would be a waste of a life. We should all be thrilled these people exist. Last week on NPR’s “Car Talk,” the Tappet brothers—encouraging a caller to carry out his plan to put a Prius engine into an antique Ford—asked, “How else does humanity make progress without crackpots, screwballs, and nutjobs, who are willing to do something that’s never been done before?”

The answer is that it doesn’t: the meek may inherit the earth, but they’re not the ones pushing us forward. Without these crackpots, screwballs, and nutjobs, progress might very well stop. Last year, venture-backed companies accounted for 12 million jobs (11 percent of U.S. private sector employment) and $3.1 trillion in revenues (21 percent of our GDP). Without impassioned entrepreneurs who create new technologies and new industries, many of those companies would never exist.

To me, a good venture capitalist is like an art agent: the very best of us know enough about art to identify talented artists and to bet on their success. But we do much more. We bend over backwards to nurture and promote them, get their work shown to important audiences, and make sure their art makes the impact that they imagine, and that we need to advance.

Everyone at NEA is humbled and privileged to be part of these surprising and singular stories. I always smile when I hear the slogan of another NEA, the National Endowment for the Arts: “A great nation deserves great art.”

This couldn’t be truer for our brand of art, too.

Patrick S. Chung is a partner at venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates (NEA), where he leads the firm’s consumer and seed investment practices.