I'm a Little Bipolar--and It Helps My Business

Last Updated Jul 27, 2010 1:41 PM EDT

By Cameron Herhold, Founder of BackPocket COO, Vancouver, British Columbia
I started running my first real company, a College Pro Painters franchise in Sudbury, Ontario, in 1986 while in my second year of college. I had 12 full-time employees and I thought I was going to take over the world. But I also spent a lot of my time stressed out.
None of my friends understood what I was going through, and I felt alienated from them. I recognized early on that I was different, but I didn't realize until later that I was going through periods of mania and depression. It also took me a while to recognize that symptoms of bipolar disorder are fairly common among entrepreneurs.

The power of passion

I read an article in the late '90s that nicknamed manic depression "the CEO's disease." CEOs and entrepreneurs are constantly riding an emotional roller coaster, but some don't realize that what's going on could be a matter of brain chemistry, rather than just the normal ups and downs of business.

I did a presentation a few years ago in front of a group of about 300 entrepreneurs. I told them I was going to read from a list of traits of successful entrepreneurs and that I wanted them to stand up when they heard five traits that they thought applied to them. After I read the first nine traits-flooded with ideas, driven, restless, and unable to keep still, easily irritated by minor obstacles-95% of the room was standing. I then told them that I'd made a mistake and was actually reading from a list of traits used to diagnose bipolar disorder. Pretty much everyone had identified with the traits of the disorder.

I'm not saying they were all clinically bipolar-I've never been diagnosed myself, actually, nor do I take any medication to deal with these symptoms. Still, symptoms of bipolar disorder are common among successful CEOs because mania helps executives to be passionate about their ideas, almost to the point of being zealots.

The mania is what a lot of employees need to follow; they want that passion and that fire. The excitement and enthusiasm you feel when you're swinging towards the manic can help you really motivate your employees to take chances on new and potentially risky ideas. Steve Jobs does a great job of doing this at Apple and many people think he has a touch of bipolar. He's constantly talking about wanting to develop products that change the way people live their lives, and because he can motivate his employees, he actually goes out and accomplishes his goal.

Riding the roller coaster
A few years ago, a colleague asked me how I was doing, since I didn't look so good. I told him I was fine and then promptly collapsed in tears. When I went to see a doctor, he asked me how I was doing and I told him "Fine." I then proceeded to rattle off a list of all the things that were going on in my life: The markets were in a meltdown, I'd just had to fire 150 employees, I'd just bought a house, I was newly married, and my wife and I had just found out that she was pregnant. It turns out I had nine of the top 15 major stress events, but I still thought I was okay. I did have a nagging metallic taste in the back of my throat, and it turned out that's a chemical cue of high stress.

From that experience, I learned how to identify when I'm under a lot of stress. Once I know I'm stressed I can do something about it: I cut back on coffee for a few days and I go out for a run or go to the gym. In October 2000 I joined 1-800-GOT-JUNK?-a full-service junk removal company with hundreds of franchises across three countries-as its COO. At one point, the CEO and I were going through a tough growth phase and were really stressed. I was pretty down. So we got together and spent four hours cleaning out the storage room. It was a mindless task, but it was about the only thing we were capable of at the time. I recognized that I was in a downward swing and chose what I was doing accordingly.

If you think you have these manic and depressive swings, you can either try to medicate them or you can learn how to leverage them. I do the latter. When I'm feeling really powerful, I can pull employees together, I can talk to the media, and I can go out and sell. What I can also do is make bad business decisions-such as setting a wildly aggressive budget or buying advertising that I don't need-because I'm overly optimistic. So when I can tell I'm in a manic mood-I'm talking fast and jumping from idea to idea-I've learned to set aside certain business decisions for a few days until I've come back down a little.

The mania side of things is a big help in my current work at BackPocket COO, the business I founded in September 2007 that helps mentor entrepreneurs. It allows me to get groups excited about following my systems and ideas. I don't want to talk about revenues, but business is good. I have CEOs that I mentor in five different countries and I do paid speaking events around the world with an average speaking fee of $10,000 each. And while the stress and the depressive swings don't really help, I'm okay with not having awesome days all the time. I know that being down once in a while is the counter to being up so often.

There's a tendency to live silently in the fear that you're feeling down because you are failing. Many entrepreneurs don't realize that most other entrepreneurs experience the same bouts of self doubt during low mood swings. The tendency is to share with others when you're excited but keep to yourself when you're down, so most entrepreneurs don't let on to each other when the stress is getting to be too much. But it doesn't have to be that way. -- As told to Peter McDougall

Cameron Herold mentors and coaches entrepreneurs who want to grow their companies. While he was COO at 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, the company ranked as #2 Best Employer To Work For in Canada, and was twice ranked the #1 Employer in British Columbia.
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