Michael Bernhardt was walking to a business meeting last week when, in mid-sentence, his attention darted to the side.
“Hey, look!” he said, pointing to what looked like a leaf on the ground.
He picked it up. A praying mantis.
That distractibility, brought on by Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, has proved to be Bernhardt’s greatest challenge in life. And also the secret to his varied and successful career as an entrepreneur – most recently as the inventor of a fruit fly trap.
Duane Paddock has dyslexia. He spent years feeling like a failure in school, but spent that time honing the skills he would need to prove to the world he could succeed on his own terms. Today he is the president and CEO of Paddock Chevrolet, a successful car dealership that employs 175 people.
They’re just two local examples of entrepreneurs who took personal challenges and turned them into business advantages. Because they relate to the world in different ways than their peers, they’ve had to devise alternative approaches than the ones most of us learn – and it has made all the difference in their success.
Though Bernhardt was recognized as creative and smart throughout his educational career, he went through three different colleges and changed his major countless times before finally getting a bachelor’s degree in business. Hesitant to join the corporate world, he followed his passions – whatever they were at each stage in his life – and pursued them instead of sending out resumes.
By age 24, he had bought his own home with proceeds from his stint as a day stock trader. Then he bought a recipe for Crystal Beach loganberry and sold the nostalgic soft drink to eager ex-pats in California, Arizona, Florida and North Carolina. Later, he created “Dinner with Danger,” an upscale dinner event for hardcore foodies that commanded as much as $200 per plate.
Most recently, he invented Active Green, a fruit fly trap that is already garnering orders from bars, breweries, grocery stores and hospitals, despite the fact that it has not even hit the market yet.
The driving force behind all of it – the willingness to jump into risky ventures, the intense focus on one project after another, and the high-energy pursuit of success outside the traditional channels – are the characteristics of ADHD, something he learned to harness to his advantage.
And he’s not the only one.
Last year, psychiatrist Dale Archer wrote a story for Forbes called, “ADHD: The Entrepreneur’s Superpower.” It looked at such mega-successes as the founders of Virgin, Ikea and Jet Blue – all of whom share the ADHD diagnosis. He talked about how people with ADHD, much like the most successful entrepreneurs, do best when they’re in crisis mode. Similarly, they are creative, high-energy and resilient; they have a need for stimulation and are willing to take risks.
“It takes an adventurous spirit to strike out on your own,” Archer wrote. “The greatest success stories in business took a leap based on what they saw in the marketplace at a particular moment in time. Rejecting solutions that seemed to be ‘normal,’ they instead trusted their instincts and forged ahead with something new and unproven while their more risk-averse peers shook their heads and insisted it would never work.”
They have also worked out systems to overcome the less helpful aspects of ADHD – procrastination, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness and disorganization.
Focus on bugs
With a somewhat mischievous smile, an easy laugh and brown hair that would grow into wild corkscrews if it wasn’t shorn close, Bernhardt can’t sit at a restaurant patio in the Elmwood Village for more than an hour without someone stopping to shake his hand or shout hello.
Enamored with bugs ever since a librarian gave him a field guide to insects as a child, Bernhardt could sit in class and watch flies buzz on the windowsill for hours on end.
“I was on a first-name basis with the entomologist at the Buffalo Museum of Science when I was in third grade,” he said.
Recently, his attention turned to the fruit flies that had invaded his kitchen. Distracted by, then engrossed in, observing their behavior – and in turn detecting the failures of the other fruit fly traps on the market – he invented the Active Green fruit fly trap.
For two years, he studied the bugs and experimented with trap designs. With intense focus, he took the final trap from concept to prototype to patent application in a single month. He will start filling orders via a Kickstarter campaign that will launch Sept. 21.
The reason the trap works, and the reason it was patentable, is borne of the secrets Bernhardt unraveled watching how the flies interacted with other traps on the market.
Unlike home remedies and passive commercial traps, which rely on the fly drowning itself after coming into contact with liquid bait, Active Green sends a spray of liquid every 10 minutes to flush standing fruit flies from the inside walls of the trap. It wipes out insects in dramatically higher numbers and in much less time.
“I accidentally left it on overnight once and wiped out the entire colony of fruit flies I was cultivating for tests,” Bernhardt said, laughing.
Bernhardt said he can have trouble controlling and directing his attention, but it also gives him a hyper-focus to accomplish important or meaningful tasks.
“That’s when I really get things done,” he said. “Like the day I sat in my kitchen and went through 20 iterations of the trap. I lost track of everything else.”
Now that the ancillary tasks of launching the product are swirling, he switches back and forth and completes them a chunk at a time.
“I use my internal chaos to help me multi-task,” Bernhardt said.
Merry Constantino, principal of ProductLogic and the industrial designer getting Berhnhardt’s prototype ready for market, said she has seen how her client’s ADHD helps him keep two to three projects humming at a time, put also gives him the energy to jump from one project to the next.
Unlike other clients, who bring initial ideas and wait for the company to deliver results, Bernhardt is completely immersed in the process, she said.
“Mike rolls up his sleeves and becomes part of the team,” she said. “I get e-mails late at night and texts on weekends, sharing his latest research or his excitement over a new idea.”
Carving out business success as a person with ADHD is similar to doing it as a person with dyslexia. Both involve facing challenges head on, crafting alternative strategies for navigating the world and turning those unique perspectives and abilities into a competitive business advantage.
When Duane Paddock was in third grade, he spelled almost every single word wrong on his spelling test. His teacher pinned that test to his shirt for all to see.
“It was humiliating,” said Paddock, who is now the president and CEO of Paddock Chevrolet. “Fast forward to today. I never want to make anyone feel that way. I think it has made me a better manager of people.”
The spelling test was just one of many incidents that would leave Paddock feeling like a failure. Because so much of a person’s success for the first 18 years of his life is measured by school grades, and because Paddock’s dyslexia made traditional academic achievements difficult, he looked for other ways to excel. During school, he did it through sports.
“I got enjoyment out of the competitiveness of the game,” Paddock said.
After high school, he tried college, but knew after four days it was not the best path for him. He started working midnights stocking shelves at Super Duper. Each night, he made a game of it, making it his personal goal to stock more aisles than anyone else, and to stock them the fastest and the best. His employers noticed and promoted him.
At 20 years old, he moved on to selling cars. He made that a game, too, getting a thrill with each sale.
“They say people who are blind develop a better sense of hearing,” he said. “It’s very much like that. I developed other strengths to make up for my challenges.”
Today, when Paddock reads a document or even a lengthy e-mail, he has to close his office door, print it out and sit with a high-lighter reading one sentence at a time – reading the same paragraph as many times it takes to sink in.
Tom Ulbrich, executive director of the University at Buffalo School of Management’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, said he’s not surprised that people with ADHD and dyslexia become entrepreneurs. He said such people often succeed in that realm because of their personal challenges, not just in spite of them.
“What it takes to be a successful entrepreneur is that drive, that gut, that determination, that pushing through when other people give up,” he said. “If they come up against a wall, they can go under it, around it, over it, through it – whatever it takes to get it done.”
In other words, entrepreneurs have to find alternative way to tackle difficulties that the general population sail through without a problem. Having to navigate the world while having trouble reading or keeping focus is good practice.
“I always describe an entrepreneur as someone who has dogged determination, which describes the people you’re talking about,” Ulbrich said. “Despite whatever challenges are in front of you, an entrepreneur can find a way to overcome it.”
The difficulty of punching into a regular 9 to 5 job or sitting in a classroom for hours on end sometimes makes entrepreneurship an ideal situation for someone with ADHD.
“In starting a business, there are so many challenges that come up that the average person might just say, ‘It’s easier to work for someone else, I’m not gonna go through all this,’” Ulbrich said.
But for someone like Bernhardt, it’s precisely what makes striking out alone a more attractive option.
“It’s a challenge that I’ve dealt with my whole life and working within that is tough,” Bernhardt said. “But this validates my life choices. I’m able to show the world what I’m truly capable of.”