KEHLAN KIRWAN: Small business column: The signs of a business addict

In this week’s column Kehlan Kirwan looks at creating and maintaining a business and why it’s tantamount to an addiction.

The irony is that you send emails at 11pm, knowing that it won't be seen until the morning anyway

People who start a business must be a little crazy. You start out with the best-laid plans and we all know how they work out.

As soon as you decide to create a start-up the odds are instantly against you. Depending on where you live in the world you have a 75-90% chance of failing. 

So, what is the connection between all these people who start on these paths? 

Sure, initially it’s the idea, but ideas change and companies constantly move in different directions. 

In amongst this is the belief that all others before did it wrong, but you have this under control. The simple fact is that it becomes an addiction.

You have weeks of extreme lows where you work desperately to get the high back. The need for the buzz is powerful. 

There are those desperate days, where you’re looking for money to keep everything going. Calling favours in, making promises. 

Next time will be different, you’ll have the money. Everything will be fine. You’ve still got this, it’s all under control.

A recent paper published in the US by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism identified three characteristics of addiction — executive function, incentive salience and negative emotionality. 

The combination of these three is an overriding factor for the growth of an addict.

Executive Function is how the brain problem solves. This is the part of the brain that enables large-scale thinking and allows you to see the ‘bigger picture’. 

Addiction brings all of that to a halt. There becomes less of an ability of long-term viewing. Attention span narrows and poor judgment takes over.

When you’re so consumed by your work it can be a constant situation of asking ‘what next? You begin to lose the bigger picture as you believe in the immediate future. 

The more you concentrate on the short-term problem solving the more it spirals into only seeing the immediate future and not the long-term goal of the company.

I’ve seen this issue with many start-ups. The obsession of going out to get funding or attending every pitch competition under the sun. Meanwhile, the product you’re supposed to be building lingers in the background.

Incentive salience is effectively why we eat things which we know are bad for us. Takeaways, sweets and of course alcohol, are all bad for us. Yet we know people can get addicted to these. This is the rewards part of your brain telling you that this makes you feel good, you should have more.

Dopamine is one of many ‘in house’ chemicals that release into the body when you like something.

However, in addictive brains the size of the chemical reward gets a bigger chunk than usual. It begins to influence what you like and gives higher priority over other things.

That priority then overrides everything else. You begin to think of only that thing, wanting it and getting it.

In business, it can be very hard not to get addicted to what you’re doing. The more that you spiral downward into it, the more difficult it can be to stop. 

I know, for myself, that I find it incredibly difficult to turn off work mode. Even when I’m home and have no immediate priorities that day or week, I still open my laptop. Still checking and answering emails or doing some social media work. 

It has become an addiction. So much so that things like exercise and sometimes even dinner are pushed away. I keep telling myself that I need to do this, I must do this — when the reality is I probably don’t. 

The irony is that you send emails at 11pm, knowing that it won’t be seen until the morning anyway.

Negative Emotionality is simply that people with addictions have higher negative outlooks than those without. It’s what makes the addiction more intense. Now you’re telling yourself you need the lift because the consequences of not doing things will be dire.

I have known people who have gone week-to-week not knowing whether this will be the week that they finally close their doors for good. It eats away at them and they live from week-to-week. 

They forget to find the solution to the problem. They forget the long-term view — that they need to find a new way of doing business or creating more clients.

The addiction is survival. The noblest of causes. However, it is that very belief in survival that is killing them and their business. That is when things do spiral out of control. They begin to make rash and poorly judged decisions and in the end, it will be their undoing.

Two years ago the Journal of Business Venturing, issued a report on business addiction and the signs of a business addict. These will sound familiar to some of you, I’m sure.

It showed that people neglect their own health through the prioritising of work over family or friends.

Financial success continually escapes you and yet the reality that you need to get a job is ignored.

You engage in desperate behaviours, treating people badly, or using them to get what you want. The overriding arch to all of this is that there needs to be a balance in how you work.

Having a start-up is an incredibly tough thing to do. It is extremely difficult to manage all things and do it successfully.

That difficulty can be managed, though; a lot of entrepreneurs fail to realise that.

Difficult scenarios will arise, they always do. It’s how you react to them that determines what the outcome will be. Being addicted to your company is not a good thing. 

Many people I know parade it as a badge of honour, but I know eventually it will catch up with them. Next week or 20 years from now, it will catch up with you.

Recently we’ve had a debate on minimum alcohol pricing in Ireland. Like addiction within a business, it has failed utterly to see the point.

It’s not the price of something that kills you, it’s your inability to give it up or to just look for help.


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