I am a business owner with ADHD, just like you.
I struggle with time management, being productive, procrastination, overwhelm, prioritization, organization, planning ahead, and follow through. I have a terrible short-term memory. I hid these shortcomings for my entire school and business career. I’m talking about them now because I’ve found that talking about this—and telling you about the strategies I’ve developed for myself and my business—helps you (and me).
This is my story.
First, there are a lot of ADHD coaches out there, and I’m not one of them. Instead, I am a business coach for business owners with ADHD. I started coaching because other business owners started asking me how I got my own business to run so well, for so long.
I started my graphic design studio in 1984. Geez that was long time ago.
I grew that business into a marketing communications and branding firm in three states, ran it for over 25 years, sold the assets of that company, and started coaching business owners full time before I discovered I had ADHD.
I learned a lot about business in the 25 years I ran my firm, and even though my business was pretty successful by most standards, I’ll admit that there were many times I just plain didn’t know what I was doing—especially in the early years.
I was searching for help
Often, there was nothing I wanted more than to have someone show me the way—someone I could ask questions of, someone who’d been through what I was going through, someone to hold me accountable and help me feel confident in going out and fighting the dragons every day.
I knew I had “quirks.” I knew there were things I was really, really good at, and there were also things I just couldn’t get the hang of. And I knew I forgot things almost as quickly as I learned them.
But I couldn’t find anyone to show me the way—everyone who was doing what I was doing, or knew anything about it, was a competitor, and not likely to let me in on any of their secrets. Besides, I got the feeling that many of them didn’t really know what they were doing, either. Oh, sure, we all knew our crafts, our skillsets, and could help our clients, but as far as running our own businesses were concerned, it seemed “the school of hard knocks” was the only available teacher. And that school was tough.
I tried getting a mentor though retired executives programs, but they were too removed from what I was doing and couldn’t relate—or maybe I just couldn’t relate to them. So I plodded on alone, picking things up out of books, and doing the best I could.
I felt like a fraud a lot of the time, not really knowing how to run a business, doing it anyway, and being afraid someone would find out. (Like who? The business police? Crazy, huh? Do you ever feel like that?)
What did I most want?
Mostly, I wanted confidence, I wanted encouragement, I wanted purpose—and the knowledge that I could do it. At first, I wanted to have someone to turn to about the little niggling things that came up, like how to handle clients, negotiate with them, what to say to them, how to make proposals to them. I wanted knowledge about how to set boundaries with clients—how to keep them from taking advantage of me while still attracting them to me. I wanted to know how to set my own priorities, and what I should really be doing each day, how to balance my work and home life, how and when to hire staff, and then how to manage and keep them after I did.
I wanted to know if I was charging enough, or too much, and if I was making enough money for my business to survive in the long run, or until next month. I wanted to know how to get it all done without spreading myself so thin that no one—not my clients, my staff, or my family—was getting the best of what I could offer. And I wanted to know how to stay sane when it was only me, by myself, in charge. I wanted a real person to talk to about all of this—someone who’d been through what I was going through and could relate to my overwhelm, struggles, and doubts.
I wanted my business to feel purposeful. I was charging my clients hundreds of thousands of dollars, and I needed to feel really good about what they were getting in exchange.
I wanted a mentor, someone who would have my back, and be there to answer the silly and frustrating questions I wouldn’t dare ask anyone else, and tell me I could do it—whatever it was. Someone who’d help me figure out if I was doing the right thing. A sounding board for ideas. Someone who would hold my feet to the fire and keep me accountable to the promises I made to myself and to other people.
As time went on, I realized I also wanted someone who could help me see how often I was veering off course and could help keep me focused, without making me feel embarrassed that I couldn’t seem to stay on track.
I used to daydream about this person—and how awesome it would be to work with them.
I never found that person
I trudged through on my own for many years—without this person, of course—making lots of mistakes, until, at the advice of my accountant, I put together my board of advisers. I loved my board, and it worked very well for lots of things for many years, but it also made me realize how much I still wanted (and needed) someone to work with me more closely. I found myself “performing” for my advisers (we met in-person quarterly) and they filled my need for accountability (sort of) and gave me some much-needed structure and purpose.
But there still wasn’t one person I could go to with a “how do I handle this sticky situation” or “Help! I’ve got an immediate problem” type question. There wasn’t anyone who understood the particular way my brain worked and why “regular” time management and organization strategies didn’t work for me. Why I could never seem to be on time and constantly missed important meetings and calls, why I forgot almost everything said in a meeting—even if it was important, exciting, and my idea. And why I constantly bounced around from project to project, not finishing much of anything.
What the heck was wrong with me? Was there even such a person, who would understand the challenges I had? Or did I just have to gut it out?
Eventually I figured out workarounds for the things I just couldn’t do
Some workarounds were better than others.
(I never ever ever ever thought I would be telling the world about this so publicly. I’ve never talked to my family or my best friends about this. It makes the blood rise to my head and I want to hide. Surely, no one will ever hire me again! But you’re different, right? Now that I know you exist, I can tell you. If you’re reading this, I know you know what I mean.)
• I found alternate memory backups. I’ve always had a really bad memory. But my sister has a really great memory, and she was a bit nosey, too, so it wasn’t a problem for her to know everything about me. When we were growing up, I turned to her. It was only recently that I found out she didn’t always tell the truth when I asked her if I liked brussel sprouts or broccoli.
My sister didn’t go everywhere with me, so I had memory backups in other parts of my life, as well. In high school, my best friend kept track of things for me. She was a take-charge person, so she liked telling me what was what. It’s true that I stuck by her at our last class reunion so she could point out to me who I knew and who I didn’t—and for some amazing reason I can’t wrap my head around, she even knew which guys I forgot I had dated!
Even after I became a mom, and then a single mom, I continued the practice of “using” people as my memory. I’d often bring a movie home for movie night with my son, and even as an 8-year-old, he’d sigh and say, “Mom, we saw this movie a few weeks ago.” After several of those, I learned to lean on his strong brain. And to take him with me to pick out movies.
• I crammed and memorized. I got really good grades in school, because my parents expected me to. My siblings were high achievers, and I was expected to be one, too. The subjects I was interested in were easy for me, and I couldn’t get enough of them. The ones I wasn’t interested in, like Math and Science, took most of my evenings and weekends, as I feverishly memorized my notes—and then promptly forgot it all after the tests. By the time I got to my senior year, I had taken all of the required Math and Science and my dad wanted me to move into the optional college-prep AP courses. I begged and cried and somehow was able to pull off a miracle, getting his approval to spend most of my last year in Art, Literature, and Home Ec.
• I wrote everything down. In college I learned to carry a notebook with me everywhere and write everything down. I became the queen of sticky notes. My notes became my alternate memory. I was continually astonished by them and the depth of information they provided, as I would often forget what I had written. Reading them made me feel smart and reminded me that I did understand my course subjects—I just had a challenge with retaining the information. Notes became my secret weapon.
When I started my business I continued taking copious notes in client meetings, which impressed clients with my interest in our conversations. I took nothing for granted and asked lots of questions. I would love to tell you it was all strategic and business focused, and some of it was, but mostly it was out of fear that, without a memory backup person, I’d miss something important—and my miserable memory would be exposed. I took down so much detail that I became known as super organized and detail oriented. Clients felt relaxed and well taken care of because of my paranoia. I learned a lot about my clients and their businesses.
• I became obsessed with reviewing and combing through my notes. If you have ADHD, you know there’s a bit of OCD that comes along with it. No, I don’t keep washing my hands. I keep reviewing my work and my notes. (Aha! You do it too!) When I’d come up with a solution to a client challenge, I’d comb through my notes to make sure I’d answered every nuance. Then I’d work on the solution some more, and document how it segued in with the challenge. Then I’d check my notes again. No detail could escape me! To my surprise, clients noticed. They loved that I caught the details. They loved that I (seemingly) paid attention. They loved that I was obsessed with their challenges.
• I gave up on trying to do everything myself. When I first started in business, I tried, like everyone does, to be a jack-of-all-trades, and do everything myself. Of course, I failed miserably at this. When I gave up and started hiring people to help me, my business blossomed. When I released my stranglehold on the creative output, we started to fly. There are so many people who do things better than I do, and I found a few of them. When I admitted to the things I couldn’t do and found people who could, our team became strong and supportive.
• I found what I was good at. This left me to do the things I was really good at—which was going out and listening to clients and taking lots of notes and making them feel really supported. I was learning what made them tick and how they thought and what they wanted. I could spend time combing through my notes and examining details and challenging assumptions. I could really think wide and deep about how to help my clients and solve problems for them, not just design things for them. This big idea thinking is really what I was good at.
Following up with the details, and actually doing the work? Not so much. My team was better at that than I was.
I did all of these things instinctively, out of fear, out of desperation, and in order to survive. I didn’t know about ADHD. I just knew I wanted my business to survive.
These things worked for me
Working this way became habit for me, and the only way I knew. I tinkered with my business, and added processes and procedures. I made more mistakes and tried to learn from them. And not only did my business survive, it thrived. My marketing communications firm did very well. It kept me and from six to nine people gainfully employed for over 25 years. I was very proud of it, I felt very supported by it, it constantly amazed me, and it sustained me. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the best thing I could have done at the time for myself, my son, my staff, and my clients.
Enter the diagnosis
It was my friend Jacqui who noticed that some of the things I did were very ADHDish. We had gotten together to do a teleseminar or two for our joint audiences because, as a coach for adults with ADHD, she noticed that more of her clients seemed to be business owners, and as a business coach, I noticed that more of my clients seemed to have ADHD, or ADHD tendencies. Jacqui added the ADHD part. I added the business part. People liked the teleclasses, and they grew into a series.
“You have a special way of doing things that really appeals to me. I didn’t know it would help me this much—I didn’t have hope or direction before and now I do. I came into this scattered. Now I feel a lot more focused . . . and my business is profitable again.” — Mark Kawate, DauntlessWebsites.com, York, PA
On one of our calls, after a question from a listener about how I organize my desk, I described my “command station,” which was designed for me by a professional organizer. (That should have been a give-away, right there. What kind of business owners use professional organizers? Business owners with ADHD, that’s what kind!) After I described the long workspace with baskets for my piles (no file drawers for hiding things!) and short shelves at eye level for organizing current projects, Jacqui remarked how that sounded like the perfect workstation for an ADDer.
Later, when we were talking alone, Jacqui encouraged me to look into qualified ADHD testing, as that and several other things leading up to this moment had tipped her off.
If you have a professional ADHD diagnosis, you know what came next: weeks and months of roller coaster emotions.
What? You mean this isn’t just me?
So happy there’s a name for it!
Damn! Why didn’t someone tell me this years ago? Look at all this time I’ve wasted!
This is crazy. I don’t have ADHD. ADHD is something young boys have.
OMG. This explains soooooo much.
People will think I’m really damaged. Or looking for an excuse to be lazy.
Am I really damaged?
No one will believe me. No one does believe me.
Have people been wondering behind my back? How much does it show?
I’m too smart for this.
I just wish it would go away. I don’t want to think about it anymore.
Why don’t we all just forget about it and go about our business?
You hear about successful people with ADHD brushing it off, like it’s a super power with no downside. They sometimes brag about how it helps them hyper-focus on their areas of genius, and we can understand that, because we can do that, too. It feels really great to get in the zone, and no one is better than us when we let loose. Really, normal people can’t grasp the things you can when you’re “on,” can they? Be honest, now.
But everyone isn’t with these same super humans—you—when you’re tired, run-down, exhausted, and frustrated because you’ve hyper-focused all night long, and now your brain is deadlocked in mud and you can’t have a coherent thought or even move out of your chair. You’ve got so many tangents open and so many plates in the air and all engines are revving at maximum velocity in the background—but you can’t engage. You know there is something important looming but since your veins are filled with glue and your brains with silly putty, nothing is going to get done about it. I’m betting those are the times we don’t hear about.
“There were lots of things I needed to work on for business, and a lot of people wouldn’t understand the ADHD side of that. Now I’m getting a sense of what’s realistic and measurable, and I like to see the improvement. I thought it would be more complicated and a lot of work but it’s a relief, it feels more confident and gives me a sense of control.” —Brooks White, NC Sturgeon, Midland, TX
I’ve talked to enough business people with ADHD to know that no matter how great your brain works when it’s on, that “off” time can be soooo awful, so frustrating, so all-consuming, and so so so so bad for business.
We can’t “just forget about our ADHD” and go about our business. It reminds us all the time that it’s here.
In the end, the school of hard knocks was my teacher
I never found what I was looking for—but I developed tenacity, guts (one of my staff called it “balls”), and perseverance. I got good at fighting my way through situations until finally, through experience, I really did get to the point where I felt secure in my business knowledge. Along the way, I had many sleepless nights, lots of uncertainty, and my learning curve was much longer that it should have been.
So now, I’m filling the role of adviser that I couldn’t find for myself. Especially for ADHD business owners
In 2009, I sold the assets of my marketing communications firm and turned my attention full-time to coaching and filling that need for other business owners.
After my own diagnosis, I started working more closely with business owners with ADHD, and now my focus is on ADHD business owners. I’ll share what I’ve learned with you so you won’t have to learn from the school of hard knocks. The systems I developed for my own business have been working well for ADHD business owners since I started teaching them in 2009.
You are beautifully creative
You do wonderful, valuable work that helps people. You are passionate and full of ideas that lead you in a zillion different directions every day. And I understand this means you sometimes feel overwhelmed and constrained by the day-to-day of running a business.
While you are a wizard at solving your clients’ and customers’ challenges, solving your own challenges is difficult. After all, even the sharpest knife can’t carve its own handle.
You may be facing what I faced. If you are, I can help you.
I am just like you
I’m not just teaching something I learned from a book (like some business consultants). I’ve been in the trenches like you, and I’ve actually run a business very successfully for 25 years. I have the same struggles with organization, procrastination, prioritization, distraction, boundaries, time management, memory, and overwhelm that you do—because I have ADHD, too.
I really love this stuff and I love teaching it. I have three grown kids (Grae, Jaime, and Jason), three grandchildren (Austin, Sydney, and Iris!) and two doglets (Amazing Grace, an amazing bichon, and Liesl Diesel Weasel Bezo, a miniature long-hair dachshund, who needs a long name). And in the fourth grade, I was the Hula Hoop Queen of the whole block.
Thank you for making it all the way down this page! I look forward to meeting you during a complimentary Instant Insight session.
Here’s where to find me
Hoeck Associates, LLC
San Diego, California