The following is excerpted from “Company of One: Why Staying Small Is the Next Big Thing for Business” by Paul Jarvis. Copyright © 2019 by Paul Jarvis. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Introducing a company of one
A company of one is a collective mindset and model that can be used by anyone, from a small business owner to a corporate leader, to take ownership and responsibility for what they do to become a valuable asset in any marketplace — in terms of both mental practices and business applications. It’s a blueprint for growing a lean and agile business that can survive every type of economic climate, and ultimately it leads to a richer and more meaningful life — no cable-cutting or moving to the woods on an island required.
Just as Michael Pollan’s food ideology is summarized in three simple rules — “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” — the “company of one” model can be laid out in a similar fashion: “start small, define growth, and keep learning.”
Simplicity sells quickly
According to entrepreneur and author Dan Norris, you don’t learn anything until you launch.
It might sound obvious, but a product is built to solve a specific problem. But as Dan points out, you won’t know how well your product solves that problem until people are actually paying for it and using it. Whether you’re selling cars, accounting software, or falafels from a falafel stand, these products exist to fix or address an existing and pressing problem. You can travel great distances quickly having a vehicle that goes much faster than walking. Keeping track of expenses and sales is important to every business — doing it with automated software beats using scrap paper. And falafels? They solve hunger (or guilty pleasure cravings).
Every minute you spend as a company of one in the ongoing development of a new product is a minute you aren’t seeing how well it solves a problem, and even worse, you aren’t making money from it or building toward your MVPr (minimum viable profit). That’s why getting a working version of your product released as quickly as possible is important: your company needs to start generating cash flow and obtaining customer feedback.
Andrew Mason founded Groupon as a basic website where he manually typed in deals and created PDFs to email to subscribers from Apple Mail. Pebble, a smartwatch, started with just a single explainer video and a Kickstarter campaign (no actual product, even) that raised more than $20 million to fund its development; Pebble was eventually sold to FitBit. Virgin started as a single Boeing 747 flying between Gatwick, England, and Newark, New Jersey.
Once these startups were up and running, they were able to build from customer feedback and make positive changes.
In much the same way, companies of one need to continually iterate on their products to keep them useful, fresh, and relevant to the market they serve. So, launch your company quickly, but then immediately start to refine your product and make it better. When you launch a first version of a product, you’re guessing at a lot of things — how it’s positioned in its market, how easy or difficult it will be to reach your target audience and get its attention, and how willing people will be to buy it and at what price. But the good news is that once you launch the first version, data immediately starts to pour in. How are sales going? How are the reviews? How is customer retention? Are they so excited about your product that they are telling others? You can and must use this data to further refine your product to be an even better and more useful solution to the problem you set out to solve.
I can’t emphasize this point enough: finding a simple solution to a big or complicated problem is your strongest asset as a company of one.
Your unique ingenuity can’t be outsourced to artificial intelligence or to a massive team. Your ability to problem-solve with simplicity will keep you and your skills relevant in any market. The benefit of starting small is that you can start with only a few customers using your product and you can speak to them directly — for feedback, suggestions and improvements.
For a company of one to launch a new product, the process has to be simple. Your launch should be simple in choice, simple in messaging, and simple in hyper-targeting only one audience.
There are three elements to the psychology of simple, according to Harvard professor George Whitesides: predictability, accessibility, and serving as a building block. Being predictable means that simple products are easy to instantly understand. A product that solves a single problem, like a Casper mattress helping you get a good night’s sleep, is simple. Casper doesn’t make 108 styles of mattresses, they make three. Being accessible means being honest: Casper makes no over-the-top claims, but backs its product with solid research and overwhelmingly positive reviews from over 400,000 customers.
Finally, to serve as a building block is to build on an existing and understood concept. Casper didn’t invent a soft and rectangular piece of foam to sleep on and call it a mattress. They simply built off an existing industry, an existing product, and made it better. Everyone knows what a mattress is, so Casper doesn’t have to explain that; they just have to explain why their mattress is better. In effect, Casper doesn’t market mattresses but rather better sleep, with their mattresses being a means to that end. They’re consistent in this message across all media (social media, their blog and any other advertising). The hyper-focused target market for a Casper mattress is younger people who are ready to upgrade their lumpy mattress but hate going to stores and talking to salespeople. These are the customers who’d rather buy online, with a guarantee that if they don’t like the product, they can return it (after 100 nights’ sleep).
Keeping your launch simple lets you avoid roadblocks in getting your product to market and then sharing it with the market. If it’s not simple, you’ll have to spend too much time first creating your product, and then explaining what it is and what it does. Simple lets you hit MVPr sooner and really start learning how your product is faring in the market.
“Company of One: Why Staying Small Is the Next Big Thing for Business” is available now at fine booksellers and can be purchased via StartupNation.com.
Paul Jarvis headshot courtesy of Lisa Lipka