Get All Access for $5/mo

Worthless, Impossible and Stupid? Why Contrarian Business Ideas Make It Big In his new book, business professor Daniel Isenberg says if people think you're crazy, you're onto something.

By Catherine Clifford

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

If everybody looks at you like you're crazy when you tell them your business idea, congratulations. You might be on your way to becoming a bona fide entrepreneur.

Just being young, innovative and your own boss does not make you an entrepreneur, says Daniel Isenberg, an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School. And if everyone thinks your startup idea is wise and logical, then you are almost certainly not one, he says.

"In order to create and capture extraordinary value, you almost always have to be contrarian," says Isenberg. "You enter the market when everyone else is leaving."

Ideas of truly successful entrepreneurs are often at first considered ridiculous by the majority of the public, Isenberg says in his new book Worthless, Impossible and Stupid: How Contrarian Entrepreneurs Create and Capture Extraordinary Value (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013).

Often, self-employed people call themselves entrepreneurs because they are not working for a boss, says Isenberg. But business ownership is not sufficient to define an entrepreneur. "They may just be sort of plodding along," he says about the interviews he conducted with entrepreneurs from Alabama to Islamabad.

Related: Searching for Business Ideas? 9 Industries that Obama Policies Will Actually Help

And while Isenberg sees nothing wrong with being a small-business owner, he says only 1 to 5 percent of small-business owners are truly entrepreneurial. The word "entrepreneur" is often used to describe intentions, he says. For example, an "entrepreneurial thinker" is someone who identifies opportunities or approaches a task creatively.

Worthless, Impossible and Stupid? Why Contrarian Business Ideas Make It Big

But to be a true entrepreneur, you must not only think about ideas; you must act on them, according to Isenberg. "It is about actually generating results that are more than the market expects," he says.

Ironically, a contrarian entrepreneur can't be identified until after his or her idea has been absorbed or rejected by society, says Isenberg. "In a sense, it is the entrepreneur's job to surprise us, to surprise the market," he says. "There is a certain aspect of entrepreneurship that is unpredictable." That unpredictability makes it difficult to develop public policies to support entrepreneurship, adds Isenberg.

Related: White House Plays Offense: Says Immigration Reform Will Turbocharge Entrepreneurship

For entrepreneurs, Isenberg says the key takeaway of the book is to have confidence and get used to being an outlier. It's important to learn to cope with the adversity, resistance and derision of the market, says Isenberg. "This is a normal part of the entrepreneurship experience."

There are no resume requirements for who will make a successful entrepreneur, but there are a few similar traits of true entrepreneurs, says Isenberg. Namely, they tend to display a willingness to think independently, work hard and persevere, and seek excitement. Most of them held jobs when they were young, so learned the value of hard work early on.

While the common characteristics of entrepreneurs are noteworthy, they don't define every entrepreneur, says Isenberg. Entrepreneurs are born all over the world, come from different socio-economic backgrounds and start up in a variety of industries. "It's not about Steve Jobs and Silicon Valley. It's about the kind of entrepreneurship you can see anywhere, whether it is Slovenia or Brazil or China or Iceland," he says.

Related: How a Coffee Lid Turned into a Million-Dollar Idea

Catherine Clifford

Senior Entrepreneurship Writer at CNBC

Catherine Clifford is senior entrepreneurship writer at CNBC. She was formerly a senior writer at Entrepreneur.com, the small business reporter at CNNMoney and an assistant in the New York bureau for CNN. Clifford attended Columbia University where she earned a bachelor's degree. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow her on Twitter at @CatClifford.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

Editor's Pick

Business Solutions

Increase Productivity with This Microsoft 365 Subscription, Now $25 Off

It can make the entrepreneur life a lot easier.

Business News

Apple Pay Later Is Ending. Here's What's Taking Its Place.

The program was available for less than a year.

Leadership

This Artist Answered a Businessman's 'Powerful' Question — Then His Work Became 'the Poster Child for Juneteenth': 'Your Network Really Becomes Your Net Worth'

Reginald Adams was the executive director of a Houston-based art museum for more than a decade before he decided to launch his own public art and design firm.

Leadership

Harvard Business School Professor Says 65% of Startups Fail for One Reason. Here's How to Avoid It.

Team alignment isn't nice to have -- it's critical for running a successful business.

Business News

Here's What Companies Are Open and Closed on Juneteenth 2024

Since it became a holiday in 2021, Juneteenth has been recognized by some major corporations as a paid day off.

Growing a Business

I Hit $100 Million in Annual Revenue by Being More Transparent — Here Are the 3 Strategies That Helped Me Succeed

Three road-tested ways to be more transparent and build relationships that can transform your business — without leaving you feeling nightmarishly over-exposed.