Is entrepreneurship addictive?
Our research, recently published in the Journal of Business Venturing, suggests that entrepreneurial behavior allows individuals to realize a sense of control in their lives, increase autonomy, and feel distinct, all ultimately leading to high levels of psychological well-being.
For some people, starting and running one venture is enough. For others, new venture creation is a habit. These habitual entrepreneurs create multiple ventures over their lifetimes. Habitual entrepreneurs typically exhibit certain personality traits such as a high need for achievement, strong beliefs in their ability to control their destinies, calculated risk taking, tolerance for ambiguity, and desire for independence.
Among the most successful entrepreneurs, you’ll find traits like passion, tenacity, adaptability, and a love of learning. Passion for the business is what fuels entrepreneurs and gets them excited about bringing their idea to fruition. Excitement is contagious; people want to work with and support those who are excited about and believe in what they are doing. Tenacity is important because business ownership isn’t always smooth sailing; the entrepreneur will face a lot of highs and lows throughout the start of the business. The business will require significant time and energy, sending the entrepreneur on a physical and emotional roller coaster of experiences. Entrepreneurs who look at each mistake as a learning opportunity and use that knowledge to make better choices are poised for greater success.
For people with these traits, entrepreneurship is a great fit. They can take something that starts as a fuzzy idea—a product of an imagination—and transform it into a functioning business entity. Being able to do this helps fulfill entrepreneurs’ high need for achievement.
Entrepreneurship also offers endless opportunities for experimentation with opportunities, markets, and customers. These experiments offer ongoing performance feedback, which keeps these highly motivated individuals primed for adjustments and achievement. Also, an entrepreneur’s projects are often more visible than projects assigned by an employer and offer greater opportunities for recognition.
The Flip Side
Achievement-motivated entrepreneurs need constant stimulation and problem-solving opportunities. Without fertile ground for learning and experimentation, these individuals get bored and restless. Entrepreneurial types can quickly become restless once they resolve the problems they were tackling until they identify a new, sufficiently complex problem to solve.
Once habitual entrepreneurs ride out the initial thrill of mastering uncertainty and ambiguity in a new venture, they can become bored with normal management and growth activities. They typically start feeling the itch to start something new. Finding a way to continually satisfy the habitual entrepreneur’s achievement needs can be difficult.
Breaking It Down
Our research suggests that at a psychological level, habitual entrepreneurs can experience the same behaviors as an addict. The physiological and emotional experience includes:
- Feelings of euphoria or desperation caused by the formidable challenge of starting a business—a roller coaster ride with joyful highs from incremental successes punctuated with frustration and anxiety about incremental failures
- Sensations like sweating, increased heart rate, sleeplessness, and sustained physiological arousal from the excitement of continuous action in the face of uncertainty
- Emotional feelings of overall well-being, intense focus, mental intoxication, superiority, and power, and a sense of being swept up in the joy of living in the moment
Addiction to entrepreneurship can be both positive and negative. On the positive side, addicted entrepreneurs are likely to be hyperaware of the dynamic and competitive environment in which the venture operates. They are likely to spend more time analyzing situations and challenges the business is facing. As a result of this intense engagement, serial entrepreneurs may realize higher levels of venture performance than others. Addicted entrepreneurs might also be more willing to persist; despite failures, they continue to find value and excitement in future entrepreneurial pursuits.
On the negative side, our research found a lot of outcomes for habitual entrepreneurs are similar to other types of behavioral addictions. Addicted entrepreneurs may rely on entrepreneurial success to validate their self-worth at the expense of other relationships. They can become obsessed with thoughts about what needs to be done with the company, or with ideas for additional ventures.
These entrepreneurs may pour more time and money into their business, neglecting other people and hobbies. In addition, they might sacrifice a healthy lifestyle, including healthful eating and exercise, and suffer from poor health effects resulting from the increased illness susceptibility and strain associated with taking on intensely demanding and risky endeavors.
Family members and friends may have a hard time understanding the time and money the entrepreneur continually sacrifices to engage in an ongoing pattern of risky behavior, instead of sitting back and enjoying past successes or running a stable business.
However, we can thank these habitual entrepreneurs for continuing to challenge the status quo, creating jobs, and bringing the next generation of solutions to existing and emerging problems to market. These entrepreneurs are the visionaries of the future.
“Habitual Entrepreneurs: Possible Cases of Entrepreneurship Addiction?” by April J. Spivack of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and Alexander McKelvie and J. Michael Haynie of Syracuse University appeared in the Journal of Business Venturing.