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WisBusiness: Author Says Being Slightly Nuts Is Helpful for Entrepreneurs

By Brian E. Clark

Does it help to be somewhat kooky if you want to start your own business?

Yes, says John D. Gartner, author of “The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (a Little) Craziness and (a Lot of) Success in America” and one of the lead speakers at the fourth annual Wisconsin Entrepreneurs Conference next month.

“Hypomanics can be almost like unstoppable forces of nature,” said Gartner, a psychotherapist and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School.

“They swing for the bleachers,” he said.

This year's Entrepreneurs Conference will be held on June 8 and 9 in Milwaukee at the Hyatt Regency, 333 W. Kilbourn.The theme of the conference is “Pathways to Success” and is tailored to the needs of business people who are launching start-ups or growing early stage companies.

In his book, Gartner posits not only that most contemporary entrepreneurs have a hypomanic temperament, but that many of our most successful forebears – including Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie and Alexander Hamilton – had those same traits.

In other words, they didn’t take “no” for an answer, were and are energetic, ebullient, restless, bold, self-confident, have lots of ideas, are optimistic, impatient, often arrogant, charismatic and sometimes even messianic, he said. For better or worse, they exhibit what are often considered relatively common American personality characteristics.

In fact, he says, the United States may well be the driver in the world’s economy because immigrants had the genes that made them willing to risk life and limb to come here.

That’s still true, he said in a recent phone interview, noting that many Latinos die crossing the Sonora desert to enter the United States. Those who aren’t willing to risk all stay home, he said.

Gartner, who also has psychology practice in Baltimore, speaks in rapid-fire bursts and describes himself as slightly hypomanic.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have lots of energy, think fast, be impulsive and have lots of confidence,” he said. “You just have to learn how to manage it so that you can still have some balance in your life and perhaps take off some of the rough edges.”

Gartner said he has spoken to many entrepreneurial and venture capital groups.

“And every time, their eyes light up because I’m describing a lot of them,” he said. “It’s like a ‘Eureka!’ moment. They go a little nuts, actually. They get so excited that someone has diagnosed them and explained whey they have been different from someone else for all these years.”

Gartner said hypomania is “almost like sexual orientation. You have it from birth and there is nothing you can do to change it. For better or worse, that’s who you are.”

Because hypomanics are only a “a little crazy,” he said they do not – unlike those with bipolar disorder - tumble into paralyzing stages of depression. Generally, he said, they experience only the invigorating aspects of mania.

“If you are manic, you might think you are Jesus,” he said. “But if you are hypomanic, you could simply think you are God’s gift to technology.”

Gartner described America as an “amazing natural self-selection experiment.

“They were the ones who had the energy and the risk tolerance and restlessness to strike out for the New World while their less ambitious cousins stayed home,” he said.

“If you populate a whole continent like this, you’ll end up with a population who are genetically predisposed to take on entrepreneurial endeavors.

“And that helps explain why America is such an entrepreneurial nation,” describing the 1990s Internet boom as the heyday of hypomanic CEOs.

Behind the United States for starting new companies per capita are Canada, Israel and Australia – all immigrant nations.

Countries in the middle are European nations, while those with the lowest number of new companies are China, Japan and Korea – which have very low immigration.

“Right now we are very focused on China’s growth and economic power,” he said. “But for new companies, it’s very small per capita compared to the United States.”

Gartner said his argument is not entirely new.

“Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish immigrant, said much the same thing more than 100 years ago,” he said. “Carnegie argued in his book, ‘Democracy Triumphant,’ that immigration was the ‘golden stream’ responsible for America’s wealth and was more valuable than the country’s natural resources.”

Likewise, Gartner said, Henry Ford was hypomanic, as are more recent business visionaries like Apple’s Steve Jobs and Netscape’s Jim Clark, or genetic pioneer and Celera founder Craig Venter.

But for every hypomanic success story, there are plenty of failures, Gartner said. And they sometimes can lead others astray.

“That doesn’t stop them, though,” he said. “They will try again and again and again. That’s just part of their psychological makeup.”

To register for the Wisconsin Entrepreneur’s Conference, go to the Wisconsin Technology Council Web site at http://www.wisconsintechnologycouncil.com or call (608) 442-7557 or (888) 443-5285.

In addition to Gartner, other speakers will include:

-- Mark G. Heesen, president of the National Venture Capital Association. Heesen also oversees the NCVA’s affiliate, American Entrepreneurs for Economic Growth, which represents 14,000 emerging growth companies.

-- Steven S. Little, senior consultant for Inc. magazine and author of “The 7 Irrefutable Rules of Small Business Growth.”

-- John May, often called the “father of angel networks.” He is the managing partner of the New Vantage Group in Vienna, Va., co-founder of the Investor’s Circle, associate director of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, and chairman of the Angel Capital Association.

The conference also will unveil the winners of the third Governor’s Business Plan Contest and the third “Seize the Day” award.

More than 20 panel discussions over a day and a half will focus on the basics of running a start-up business – and moving those businesses to the next stage.

In addition, Gov. Jim Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett have also been invited to speak.


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