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Young Billionaires: Does Being Weird Make You A Successful Entrepreneur?

Young Billionaires

First Posted: 08/26/11 11:52 AM ET Updated: 10/26/11 06:12 AM ET

There's a fine line, we know, between genius and insanity. The same might be said for entrepreneurial eccentricity. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg only eats the meat of goats, pigs and chickens that he kills himself. Flixster's Joe Greenstein, in his 30s, counts himself as a loyal Vanessa Hudgens fan. Mint.com's Aaron Patzer identifies with the fictional character Howard Roark in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. So when we hear little nuggets like this, we have to wonder, is America's startup boom producing a generation of weird entrepreneurs? Or is this current crop of whiz kids' willingness to let their geek flags fly, like all geniuses are prone to do, simply accentuated by the jaw-dropping, billion-dollar valuations that some of their companies command?

A little Bill Gates geekdom may be harmless, but there have been more than a few billionaires whose actions border on Howard Hughes crazy -- like John duPont, the chemical fortune heir who called himself the Dalai Lama and was convicted for the murder of an Olympic wrestler. The hand-in-hand relationship of wealthy and crazy, after all, goes all the way back to classics such as Sarah Winchester and Hetty Green.

Sure, today's star entrepreneurs may be cerebral, frugal, introverted, socially awkward, with a penchant for little-boy haircuts and super casual clothing. Having made their money relatively quickly and in the shadow of a recession, they appear part Peter Pan, unwilling to make the adulthood leaps into marriage and home ownership, and part Ahab, monomaniacal about their startups. But that doesn't necessarily make them an entrepreneurial abberation -- they just happened to come of age during a time and entrepreneurial culture that welcomes a little weirdness.

Indeed, these entrepreneurs may not necessarily be any odder than past generations -- just freer to be themselves. "In the old days, you needed people skills and a lot of charisma to rise within a company," says Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success." "But today, you can sit in a garage or a dorm room and be a child genius. I don't necessarily think that weirdness is either an asset or liability today -- it's just more permissible."

In fact, to feed into their iconic status and tap Silicon Valley's geek cachet, these entrepreneurs may even play up their nerd persona. "Think mathematicians or Einstein," Dweck says. "If you're a genius, you're supposed to be a little weird. I think [some of these startup entrepreneurs] are very shrewd and wily beneath their veneer of weirdness."

The blurring of the lines between normal and weird can be seen in these startup billionaires' lifestyles. For example, they choose to live far beneath their means in a society that equates riches with spending. The new wealthy often swing to the opposite end of the pendulum as Dennis Kozlowski, the former Tyco International CEO and symbol of excess who bought a $30 million Florida mansion and another $30 million Fifth Avenue apartment in Manhattan. By contrast, Zuckerberg, worth an estimated $13.5 billion, just bought his first home in May for a modest $7 million. Kozlowski paid six times more for his infamous $6,000 gold shower curtain than Greenstein pays for his monthly rent. And whereas Kozlowski bought a collection of airplanes and a rare vintage yacht, Dustin Moskovitz of Facebook, named by Forbes as the world's youngest billionaire, rides his bicycle to work, while Patzer, who sold Mint.com to Intuit for $170 million, drives a Subaru Outback.

Digg founder Kevin Rose says his 2011 New Year's resolutions include "drink more water," "take a cooking class" and "train my dog to walk off leash." Like many startup superstars, Rose claims to prefer staying home on weekends, cooking with his girlfriend and hanging with their dog.

"It's very much a value, especially here in Silicon Valley, of being a regular person, of having humane values and giving back," Dweck says.

But that's actually where many of them differ from us little people: While Zuckerberg owns a relatively attainable five-bedroom, 5,000-square-foot home in Palo Alto, Calif., he splurged on a $100 million donation to a public education system on the other side of the country. This is what Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist and a grandfather of the wealthy weird movement, calls "nerd values." The ultimate status symbol for many of these new billionaires is not to display wealth, but to use it.

"[Billionaires] like Bill Gates led the way in saying, 'We have amassed more wealth than we ever need. There are a lot of problems in the world and we are the people who can address them.' People resonated to that," Dweck says. "A lot of them are focusing on education or on health. They're looking for problems to solve. Once you have a billion dollars, you can matter."

Editor's Note: The original version of this story contained a reference to Broadcom co-founder and CEO Henry T. Nicholas, citing drug-related allegations. All charges against Nicholas were dismissed in 2010.

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