Narcissists. Bullies. Sociopaths. These are just a few of the charming personality types you’re likely to encounter on your entrepreneurial path. For some reason, the people who rise to the pinnacle of the business world always seem to have shaken a few screws loose along the way, having all but forsaken common sense on their relentless route to riches.

Now much as we might like to believe that the success of a fledgling business is entirely dependent on the level of skill and expertise on offer, the reality is that without professional networks in place, our entrepreneurial ideals are all but dead in the water.

So we smile politely when the CEO of a partner agency explains that visiting the bathroom is a waste of valuable time. We nod graciously when forced to travel to obscure destinations for ‘team building’ exercises that are nothing but a front for keeping us under close surveillance. We grin obligingly when our time is blatantly wasted because it’s clearly not as important as our older, more established comrades. All the while dying a little on the inside.

The sad reality of a start-up is that we’re not really in a position to turn away business, even if it comes complete with a side-order of psychosis. So if we’re approached to partner up with a thriving enterprise heaving with big-brand clients, we have no choice but to say yes. Even if it is presided over by someone nuttier than a Christmas fruit cake.

Usually these types of unholy alliances come complete with a slew of bold promises. “We’ll be a team, equal partners,” they might say. “All the business we get, you’ll be involved in too,” they’ll likely add to sweeten the deal. All of this is of course delivered with ample charm and back-slapping bonhomie, typical of those with outlandish mental health issues.

And so you sign on the dotted line, rather chuffed with yourself for giving your business a fat kick-start and grateful for the opportunity to work with such esteemed contemporaries. And for a little while, it’s all sunshine and rainbows. You touch base often, discuss shared goals, explore exciting opportunities. You pinch yourself regularly, wondering just how you lucked out so spectacularly.

But then the cracks start to show….

Before long, you realise your role is less that of equal partner and more one of eternal servitude, requiring you to drop everything at a moment’s notice so as to satisfy the increasingly bizarre whims of your inexplicably odd new accomplice. Suddenly, you’re excluded from client meetings – in fact, your public existence is all but wiped from the face of the earth, lest you somehow take credit for any of the work you’ve done.

But the pay cheques keep coming, so you put a lid on your objections. There’ll be more great opportunities on the way, you tell yourself. It’s worth the indignities suffered.

And then the crazy starts ramping up a notch. Suddenly, you’re being forced to travel to an obscure destination in the middle of nowhere for regular ‘team’ get togethers, which usually involve simply having to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at the work of your supposed colleagues for extended periods. You’re being forced to sleep in a bunk bed, which you’re SHARING WITH YOUR COLLEAGUE, because your newly minted business partner prefers having you under their roof.

Yes, you are now officially being gaslighted. Because surely this can’t be real? People don’t sneak out of their rooms in the middle of the night in search of a comfortable hotel bed when they’re working on a glamorous global client? Do they? Suddenly the world is upside down, and you can no longer be sure whether you actually have a solid handle on reality.

And no, this is not a hypothetical scenario. This actually happens. Yet somehow, like those afflicted by Stockholm Syndrome, we keep returning to our captors, convinced we can change them, resolute in our naive assumption that things will improve with time.

But at what point is enough enough? Perhaps it’s the 15th time they blow off your scheduled meeting time only to call you back for a 90 minute chat after 10pm? Or when you’re forced to drop everything and fly to the back of beyond only to be asked to work on a client pitch that’s clearly not going to benefit your business in any way? Or do you wait until your own employees start leaving you, so frustrated are they by the constant upheaval inflicted on their day-to-day?

The important thing to remember is that no client, no matter how glamorous or international, is worth you sacrificing your own ethics and standards. There will be other opportunities, and there are in fact quite lovely people in this world who are willing to give you money to be more than just a glorified PA.

To help avoid you making the same mistakes I’ve made, here’s a handy little checklist you might wish to consult when an unsettlingly charming individual approaches you with an offer to good to refuse:

  • Do some investigation. You can be sure that anybody working for a lunatic is just desperate for an opportunity to spill the beans. If you get even the slightest whiff of religious cults or accountants having to massage the boss every afternoon, run.
  • Assess the convenience level. If a new partnership forces you (and potentially additional members of your staff) to travel regularly or operate at outlandish times, you might want to consider the ramifications to your business.
  • Establish the facts. Bold promises are easy to make, but do they hold any water? Before you make a deal with the devil, it’s important to know whether they are in fact connected in the way they say. Because once you realise that the important phone calls they’re constantly on are largely with others’ voicemail services, it’s often too late to make the break.