Tell your entrepreneurial friends you want to turn your business into the next Epic Games, Magic Leap or Instacart and you’ll get plenty of social reinforcement. Not many will question your dream of building the next hot, venture-backed startup.
For one-person business owners who embrace the small-is-beautiful mindset, however, it’s often the complete opposite. If you dare to mention that you want to run a boutique-size business so you can enjoy life more, you’re bound to hear that you’re not thinking big enough. Some of the folks around you may decide you’re actually unemployed.
Paul Jarvis’s just-released book Company of One will offer powerful reinforcement to anyone who has decided to take a mindful approach to running an ultra-lean business and refused to buy into the grow-big-or-go-home mindset. It takes a deep dive into the benefits that many solo entrepreneurs would never give up, like autonomy, resilience, simplicity and speed.
Jarvis, who lives on Vancouver Island, 60 miles west of Vancouver and about 80 miles north of Seattle with his wife, knows his subject well. He has spent the last two decades of freelancing as a web designer and writer through his weekly Sunday Dispatches newsletter, which has more than 30,000 subscribers, and two podcasts, “the freelancer” and “Invisible Office Hours.” Recently, he launched the Company of One podcast, which features interviews with entrepreneurs profiled in book, as well as experts.
He also offers online courses such as Creative Class, which teaches business fundamentals like pitching, pricing and managing your finances, and Chimp Essentials, focused on deploying Mailchimp for email marketing. Along the way, Jarvis built several software companies, such as ofCourseBooks, which lets his followers create branded workbooks to accompany courses they teach.
Company of One emerged after an article Jarvis wrote for his mailing list touched a chord. His subject: Why he didn’t care about growth. About 1,200 people replied. “It was all people saying, ‘I thought I was the only one who felt this way,’” recalls Jarvis.
“People need to be talking about this,” he told himself.
Although Jarvis questions the mindset that growth is always good, he is not against scaling up. “Every business needs to scale,” says Jarvis. “Every business needs that mindset at the beginning. We all need to grow from 0 to 1.”
We recently spoke about the thinking behind the book. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
Elaine Pofeldt: There’s a lot of pressure on founders to scale. What are the arguments against scaling?
Paul Jarvis: The reason we start working for ourselves is ego. We think we can do better in the marketplace than someone else. That’s a good thing. We need that push, with a bit of ego, to start.
Things start to go awry when we see our social stature change with the business. If someone asks me what my workday looks like, well, I sit in my sweatpants in my home office at a computer. At the same time, I have a pretty full life. I take a lot of time away from work. But if I said I have 1,000 employees in 12 offices across eight countries, that would sound better to other people.
The argument against scaling is “Who are you running your business for?” If it’s for social standing, then grow. You’ll look better. If you want freedom, enjoyment and fulfillment, you have to take yourself into account.
A lot of the counter arguments against scale are “Why did you start in the first place?” It’s harder to work for yourself, but you have freedom. If it’s sunny I can go for a hike or a bike ride with my wife and enjoy the day or be out in my garden.
People don’t necessarily start a business to scale. They start a business in the beginning to have more freedom than they do in the corporate world.
Elaine Pofeldt: How do you look at growth?
Paul Jarvis: A lot of growth is growth for growth’s sake. We need to make 20% more next year than we did this year to appease investors.
The Startup Genome Project found that 70% of high-growth tech startups fail because they scale up too quickly. The Kauffman Foundation found that more than two-thirds of the companies on Inc.’s fastest growing companies list went out of business five to eight years later.
I was both pleased and horrified that I found data and research studies to back my argument. It was almost the opposite of what the narrative is in the entrepreneurial world.
Basecamp has a profit focus instead of a growth focus. You can’t have both at the same time. It’s very difficult. I think that we all need to find what “enough” is for our business. Airbnb would not survive if it had two properties on its website.
I wouldn’t want to start a business like that. I know there would be scale and growth involved in that. When I’ve started new businesses, that was always something on my mind: Does this require growth to succeed or can this be a smaller size and make enough profit to be useful to me?
Elaine Pofeldt: How can founders find personal and professional growth if they don’t scale? Where do they bring the challenge into their business, so it does not get boring?
Paul Jarvis: I haven’t had a boring day in my business ever. There are always challenges. There are always new things in my life and business that are changing. I have to constantly be aware, constantly adapt, constantly grow personally.
I started working for myself in the 90s doing web work. At the time the technologies were completely different, a lot easier. Unless I kept up with the technology and back-end architecture I’d be completely irrelevant. We always can be learning, even if it’s learning about our customers’ changing needs and the demands of our business.
If the point of the book is finding “enough,” enough is never stagnant.
Elaine Pofeldt: What do you see as the future of the one-person business?
Paul Jarvis: Large, at-scale businesses are a tiny blip on the radar. Large businesses only started about 120 years ago.
In 1860, 80% of the workforce was self-employed. In 1977, 7% was. I think we’re realigning back to the way things used to be. There were smaller, interconnected businesses that all were part of the supply chain. Nowadays we have more reach with technology and the way we can communicate.
My newsletter is an example. It takes me just as long to write an email to one person as it does to 30,000 people on my mailing list. I don’t need a team of sales people to connect with my audience.
Setting up ecommerce used to take months. You used to have to spend a lot of money on a merchant account. Now PayPal is free.
There are many ways to work in the way business has always worked. Today, they’ve been kicked up a notch with technology and communication.