Every startup needs a crazy scientist

Anders Haugeto
5 min readDec 8, 2022
Dr. Finkelstein
At their most annoying, when you need them the most

In innovation, hard work alone won't cut it: To realize the vision of the company we also need to think new, aim high and occasionally go a little crazy.

It's true creative work. Not mind maps, brainstorms or “get out of your comfort zone” team building exercises. Nor is it a one-time job: It’s not an onboarding conversation with new employees, a strategy retreat or a board meeting. It’s a continual task, that’s especially important to do when nobody wants it to be done.

Are we pursuing the right goals?
Great traction — but is it the right kind of traction?
Do we have enough structure, or is our current structure starting to limit our potential?
What’s the craziest viable growth hack that we haven’t tried? (Why haven’t we tried it?)
How is the company culture evolving?
Are we still a team or are we becoming a group of people working side by side?
And when things are getting hard, and everyone feels we’ve ended up in a tough spot, remind us: Why did we start this company in the first place?

If everyone walked around in the office in circles every day asking themselves these kinds of questions, we wouldn't get much work done. That's why we need one or two crazy scientists in the company. Their job is to entertain the ideas, thoughts and ways of thinking they in turn can use to challenge the rest of us. To help us go above and beyond what we can achieve by hard work alone. It's easier said than done. Being the crazy scientist is a ceaseless struggle. It’s stressful and it’s mentally exhausting.

Execution work — to design, build, sell and scale — is also fundamental to success. That too is a struggle that’s stressful and exhausting. But it’s a struggle that often takes a very different form. Hard work in execution is about getting up early, getting your sh** together and getting things done. Bugs, outages, angry customers, unpaid bills, unpaid invoices, bad PR, competitors, internal conflicts, external conflicts and so on. When all of this happens (at once), it can be difficult, if not impossible, to recognize the relevance of the crazy scientist, who usually comes across as annoying and out of focus.

In Build, Tony Fadell tells his stories from being a part of building monumentally innovative products like the iPod, the iPhone, Google Nest and more. A key takeaway from his book is the level of chaos that dominates the companies behind such products. He points out that the closer you get to the top of the organization, the worse it gets. Here, it’s not always a matter of structure and predictability. On the contrary, leaders like Larry Page are known for seemingly random and crazy acts that at times can be very frustrating for the people around them. You could even argue it’s a little too risky, especially for established companies like Apple and Alphabet. But it’s most likely also necessary, at least when you want to keep innovating. Which is what these companies, unlike most big companies, keep on doing.

The main compass for a crazy scientist on how to spend their time, is to do the things that maximise their creativity. They too have to spend time at the office, to talk to co-workers, customers and partners. If that alone makes them creative — great. But if they need to get a break, to get away from things, even to let things flow a little bit, in order to break through to the next level of creativity — they should go do that thing. It might look like they took the day off sailing, fishing, sleeping or going to another (stupid) conference or whatever it is. It might be tempting to tell them to stay put and do their share of the hard work. And it’s even more tempting to ask them to shut up when they finally come back and start bugging everyone with even more annoying questions.

If you want to innovate, you have to recognise their work. They are, as much as you are, an indispensable part of the machinery that brings you to success. Moreover: If you want to go beyond pure execution work, you will need the guidance and inspiration of the crazy scientist. In fact, if you see your crazy scientist starting to loose his or her craziness, you should probable ask or even command her to go sing karaoke, climb that wall, brew beer or __________ (fill in the blanks).

I've seen a few crazy scientist in action. Here are some key traits they share:

  • Positively good at bad timing — asking questions when you the least want to hear them
  • Doesn’t care about the conventional — things we should be doing (what others are doing)
  • All into the contrarian — things we could be doing (there are no others)
  • Despite the craziness: Stays grounded in reality, and stays grounded in sound ethics and the values of the company

At times it can be frustrating to be around someone whose job it is to challenge you. First of all, remember that the purpose of the crazy scientist is not to create chaos. It's to challenge everyone to do their very best (but when they do, it can sometimes feel like chaos). It's also important to remember the alternative — what work would look like without the crazy scientist: With less chaos and less challenges we would inevitably go into calmer waters, and it would happen sooner than you'd think. We'd start repeating ourselves. We’d start copying others. Ultimately, we’d stop innovating.

There’s a reason why you’re in innovation. It's not because you're seeking calmer waters. You went here because you want to be part of creating something new, awesome and important. You're on a roller coaster. Don't fight the G-forces — embrace them.

Feel a little crazy? Go for it. You might be the next crazy scientist.

Thx to Dan Krister Holst and Kim Leskovsky.

Read about using disruptive innovation to build a sustainable future on my (other) blog Deep Change.



Anders Haugeto

Founder of Iterate, Norway. A venture builder for platform and software companies.