YOU COULD CALL hurtling head first into one risky venture after another youthful exuberance or just blind gall. Mac Lackey, a 36-year-old self-described “start-up junkie” who has founded five companies since his 1994 college graduation, calls it a rush.
For instance, Lackey spent 14 months plying his second enterprise, InternetSoccer.com, with licenses and rights to broadcast live sporting events — and then almost immediately put the soccer-centric media company on the block. In the hopes of starting a bidding war, the Charlotte, N.C., native hopped on a plane to meet with the company’s three biggest competitors in London. A few days and several negotiations later, InternetSoccer sold for $15 million in July 2000. The entire process from start-up to sale “was stressful,” he says, “but also extremely satisfying.”
Lackey, now working on his fourth and fifth companies — BlackHawk Capital Management, a hybrid investment fund in Charlotte, and Mountain Khakis, a clothing company in Jackson Hole, Wyo. — says: “When you get the bug, it’s very hard to get rid of it.”
Sure, starting a business promises considerable financial rewards, but it’s also arguably the hardest stage of the business cycle. Not only are entrepreneurs usually required to spend long hours working for little or no pay for years at a time, but the process is typically fraught with uncertainty.
Yet, a number of entrepreneurs such as Lackey say once they start a business, they just want to do it over and over again. Often dubbed “serial” entrepreneurs, these business owners typically experience financial success, even though it sometimes comes at a cost to their personal life or even health. The question that perplexes many psychologists and researchers is whether these repeat entrepreneurs are born with an inner drive to start multiple businesses. Or, is the rush of the start-up just plain addictive?
Nature vs. Nurture
“To understand the entrepreneur, you have to understand the psychology of the juvenile delinquent,” says Abraham Zaleznik, a psychoanalyst and professor emeritus at the Harvard Business School. “A juvenile delinquent is impulse-driven.” Likewise, he says, “a lot of entrepreneurs are impulse-driven.”
Marvin Zuckerman, a psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Delaware who pioneered research in the 1960s and ’70s on personality traits of “sensation seekers,” would likely agree. Why? Well, for the same reason that one person likes to ride the tallest and fastest rollercoaster at an amusement park while another is content with kiddy rides. “They have a thirst for intense, novel and complex sensations and the willingness to take risks to attain it,” he says.
According to Zuckerman’s research, people are born with sensation-seeking traits, which are essentially personality traits that may be amplified in some individuals. People who rank high on the sensation-seeking scale for “susceptibility to boredom,” for example, will have an aversion to regularity or routine. “When conditions are boring or the environment is unchanging, this person gets restless,” says Zuckerman. If people feel these pangs of boredom with heightened sensitivity, he says, it’s likely they’ll also be quicker to move on to the next sensation.