Can You Be Addicted to Starting Companies?

Startup founders are known to forsake food, family, and the light of day to get their companies off the ground. People who put themselves through the process more than once earn the label of serial entrepreneurs. Three business school professors would like to suggest another phrase: addicts.

That’s the gist of a new article in the Journal of Business Venturing, which argues that certain aspects of entrepreneurship can reinforce behavioral addiction. In other words, people who have experienced the highs (and lows) of starting a company may feel a psychological or even physical urge to go through the process again and again.

“Some of these aspects include the physiological arousal from operating within a context of uncertainty and ambiguity,” the authors write. Other characteristics of entrepreneurship that repeat founders have a hard time living without: the intense emotions they feel when their startups succeed (or crash and burn), and a sense of self-worth tied to their identity as entrepreneurs. The paper was written by April Spivack of the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, and Alexander McKelvie and J. Michael Haynie, both of Syracuse University.

The academics are talking about behavioral addiction, a category that includes such habits as Internet use or gambling, rather than addiction to substances like drugs or alcohol. And their work is largely theoretical: They interviewed six repeat entrepreneurs, but their main purpose is to offer a framework for describing entrepreneurship addiction, not to study startup founders in the field.

You may be addicted to entrepreneurship if you think obsessively about your business, experience withdrawal symptoms like anger or depression when you’re forced to disengage, or if you’re neglecting friends or outside interests. Also if your tolerance—the amount of time or money you spend on your business—is increasing, or if you put your business ahead of your good health or personal relationships. Sound like anyone you know?

If so, the authors say it’s both a blessing and a curse. There are real consequences to behavioral addiction, including effects on physical or emotional well-being, and the chance that developing an addictive personality will lead to other kinds of addiction.

But before you plan an intervention for the startup addict in your life, note that the paper identifies potential benefits of such traits. The same obsessive thinking that can poison personal relationships may provide a competitive advantage. Habitual entrepreneurs, to use the authors’ phrase, may become inured to failure in a way that allows them to take greater risks.

The entrepreneurship addicts whom the authors describe sound a bit like a more familiar species of modern professional: the workaholic. Lots of hard-charging employees take the same obsessive (perhaps addictive) attitudes into the workplace.

Here’s the difference: When workaholics on salary pull all-nighters and work through vacations, they sacrifice personal well-being for benefits that mainly accrue to their employers. Entrepreneurs, who own all or part of their companies, share the gains of their obsessive behavior directly.

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