In their dogged pursuit of growth, some startups wind up growing too fast and burning out their employees or founders. Writer and designer Paul Jarvis takes a contrarian approach to business success in his new book, “Company of One: Why Staying Small is the Next Big Thing for Your Business.”
Jarvis has been a company of one for the past two decades, working with personalities like basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal and online business maven Marie Forleo, as well as brands like Microsoft and Mercedes-Benz. He now teaches online courses and hosts several podcasts, including Invisible Office Hours, a seasonal podcast for entrepreneurs and creative professionals.
We caught up with Jarvis to find out why he values profits over growth, how entrepreneurs can make this shift and more.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
StartupNation: What inspired this book?
Paul Jarvis: I think the main inspiration was feeling like I was the only person in the business world who thought that growth wasn’t always good. I thought that made me a business weirdo or something. Then I actually started to write about it for my weekly newsletter. One of the columns I wrote was something like “Why I don’t care about growth.” I got inundated with replies of people saying, “Oh, I actually feel the same way,” or “I actually don’t want to have a big company.”
I was just floored by the number of people who felt basically the same as I did about growth. I think that there’s a trend happening here that not enough people are talking about. I think that sometimes we see, “This is what success looks like, and this is what a successful business person is.” It becomes one narrative, and business is so much more than that.
StartupNation: Are you still considered a company of one if you work with a bookkeeper, a web designer or other contractors?
Paul Jarvis: For sure. Tim Ferriss’ “4-Hour Workweek” doesn’t have to be taken as, you literally work four hours, and then you stop working for the week.
A company of one is kind of the same. A company of one doesn’t mean you literally have a one-person business, it just means that you question the idea that growth is always good, always beneficial, always the next logical step.
Even for my business, I have freelancers that I work with. I think it’s actually really difficult to run a one-person-only business for things like legal and accounting. I’ve been running my business for 20 years and I still have no idea how to file taxes, because for a few days of the year I hire an accountant who does the job.
In the book, I talk about businesses like Basecamp. They’re 30 to 50 employees, but they value profit over rapid growth, so they work a business like a company of one using more than one person.
StartupNation: What do you think separates a successful company of one that runs smoothly and earns enough money to support the entrepreneur from one that struggles?
Paul Jarvis: I think the business has to be profitable, but it also needs to support the entrepreneur’s life. If your business is basically just making money, that’s great, but is it making enough money to cover expenses and profit, and then using that profit to pay you a salary? A business needs to support at least one employee; otherwise, it’s not going to work.
Until that happens, you do need to employ a growth mindset. Because everything’s growth from zero, right? Every business has to grow to get to a point where it’s making enough money that it’s profitable to pay for at least one person’s job.
StartupNation: Do you think the company of one framework can work across all industries? Or are there certain industries where it doesn’t make as much sense?
Paul Jarvis: In the beginning, I thought that this was strictly digital, that this would only work for software companies or digital product companies. But then I decided to talk to businesses that actually create and distribute physical products. The same things that I talked about in the book can definitely apply.
My friends run a business where they manufacture cellphone cases for iPhones, and they don’t have a factory that makes these things. They work with a factory partner that develops them. They have a company that does fulfillment and shipping. They only need to focus on the scales and the brand side of things. They have partnerships with the companies that do all the other aspects of the business.
What you’re seeing now is that there are a lot of companies that are operating in that way, where they take one aspect of making a physical product and then partner with other companies to make all the rest of the supply chain work.
StartupNation: How do you know when to shift from that growth mindset into the company of one mindset?
Paul Jarvis: A lot of business books claim to be the answer or the blueprint for how to do things, whereas my book is more, “This is a personal thing, so here are the questions you need to ask yourself to come to the conclusions for yourself.”
I think we just need to ask ourselves, “How much is enough? How will I know when I’ve reached it?”
And we need to ask ourselves these things from the beginning, not 10 years into business. If we look at those questions, then we start to think about, “Well, what better serves my existing customers?” or “Would having more or growing simply serve my ego?”
With every opportunity comes a cost. We look at other startups that are doing well, and we’re like “Oh, their business is better because it’s bigger.” But at the end of the day, I don’t want to run my business for somebody else, just like I don’t want to run my life for somebody else.
Paul Jarvis’ book, “Company of One: Why Staying Small Is the Next Big Thing for Business” is available now at fine booksellers. Read an excerpt here.