I don’t think it’s just coincidence. In the U.S., entrepreneurs are disproportionately young, disproportionately immigrants and, now, disproportionately dyslexic. This makes perfect sense to me because starting your own business is so often a way to break out of the normal path, get off the track and succeed your own way instead of the so-called normal way.

I picked up the dyslexia information from Brent Bowers of the New York Times in Tracing Business Acumen to Dyslexia last Thursday:

It has long been known that dyslexics are drawn to running their own businesses, where they can get around their weaknesses in reading and writing and play on their strengths. But a new study of entrepreneurs in the United States suggests that dyslexia is much more common among small-business owners than even the experts had thought.

The report, compiled by Julie Logan, a professor of entrepreneurship at the Cass Business School in London, found that more than a third of the entrepreneurs she had surveyed–35 percent–identified themselves as dyslexic. The study also concluded that dyslexics were more likely than nondyslexics to delegate authority, to excel in oral communication and problem solving and were twice as likely to own two or more businesses.

“We found that dyslexics who succeed had overcome an awful lot in their lives by developing compensatory skills,” Professor Logan said in an interview. “If you tell your friends and acquaintances that you plan to start a business, you’ll hear over and over, ‘It won’t work. It can’t be done.’ But dyslexics are extraordinarily creative about maneuvering their way around problems.”

When I used to go to Tokyo one week a month in the 1990s, consulting for Apple Japan, one thing I discovered about entrepreneurship in Japan is that smart women were starting companies in disproportionate numbers. People who seemed to know what they were talking about told me this was because women couldn’t advance easily up the normal corporate ladder.

More recently I’ve seen different research on younger entrepreneurs and women entrepreneurs in the U.S., and now baby-boomer entrepreneurs building businesses instead of retiring. Do you see the pattern? As in people jumping the track when they find obstacles in their way?

As for me, I jumped off the track 20-some years ago to escape boredom and do what I wanted, and I ended up building a company as part of it. I’ve posted about that in this blog.

I don’t think I was either ADD or dyslexic as a kid in the 1950s, even if I did spell my name as Mit in first grade, at least until Sister Clorissa got nervous about it and started using her ruler on my knuckles.

I guess we’re not handling backward-naming the same way anymore. According to the Times story:

The study was based on a survey of 139 business owners in a wide range of fields across the United States. Professor Logan called the number who said they were dyslexic “staggering,” and said it was significantly higher than the 20 percent of British entrepreneurs who said they were dyslexic in a poll she conducted in 2001.

She attributed the greater share in the United States to earlier and more effective intervention by American schools to help dyslexic students deal with their learning problems. Approximately 10 percent of Americans are believed to have dyslexia, experts say.

I like the additional relationship between dyslexics and entrepreneurship in the New York Times story:

One reason that dyslexics are drawn to entrepreneurship, Professor Logan said, is that strategies they have used since childhood to offset their weaknesses in written communication and organizational ability–identifying trustworthy people and handing over major responsibilities to them–can be applied to businesses.

“The willingness to delegate authority gives them a significant advantage over nondyslexic entrepreneurs, who tend to view their business as their baby and like to be in total control,” she said.

William J. Dennis, Jr., senior research fellow at the Research Foundation of the National Federation of Independent Business, a trade group in Washington, said the study’s results “fit into the pattern of what we know about small-business owners.”

“Entrepreneurs are hands-on people who push a minimum of paper, do lots of stuff orally instead of reading and writing, and delegate authority, all of which suggests a high verbal facility,” Mr. Dennis said. “Compare that with corporate managers who read, read, read.”

Indeed, according to Professor Logan, only 1 percent of corporate managers in the United States have dyslexia.

Much has been written about the link between dyslexia and entrepreneurial success. Fortune Magazine, for example, ran a cover story five years ago about dyslexic business leaders, including Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways; Charles R. Schwab, founder of the discount brokerage firm that bears his name; John T. Chambers, chief executive of Cisco; and Paul Orfalea, founder of the Kinko’s copy chain.

Similarly, Rosalie P. Fink, a professor at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass., wrote a paper in 1998 on 60 highly accomplished people with dyslexia.

But Professor Logan said hers was the first study that she knew of that tried to measure the percentage of entrepreneurs who have dyslexia. Carl Schramm, president of the Kauffman Foundation, which financed the research, agreed. He said the findings were surprising, but, he said, there was no previous baseline to measure it against.

Emerson Dickman , president of the International Dyslexia Association in Baltimore and a lawyer in Maywood, N.J., said the study’s findings “just make sense.”

“Individuals who have difficulty reading and writing tend to deploy other strengths,” Mr. Dickman, who has dyslexia, said. “They rely on mentors, and as a result, become very good at reading other people and delegating duties to them. They become adept at using visual strengths to solve problems.”

Mr. Orfalea, 60, who left Kinko’s–now FedEx Kinko’s–seven years ago, and who now dabbles in a hodgepodge of business undertakings, is almost proud of having dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“I get bored easily, and that is a great motivator,” he said. “I think everybody should have dyslexia and ADD.”

Hmmm … I don’t know if I would go so far as to recommend dyslexia or ADD … but if it helps you get going, and that works for you, so be it.

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Tim BerryTim Berry
Tim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Bplans.com. Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.