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A guide to running a minimalist business

Minimalism isn’t just for people who want to live out of a backpack or cram their life into a tiny house.

The ideas of being minimal can also easily apply to business – and I should know because I’ve been using them for nearly twenty years.

Minimalism is a mindset rather than a blind purge. If something is useful or pleasurable, you keep it. If it’s not, then you consider scrapping it.

Personally, I see running a minimalist business as more of a pursuit of enjoyment with revenue attached (because, hey, what’s not to love about hedonism and making money at the same time?!) If you only keep what is useful or what makes you happy in your business then what you’re left with you should leave you better off—in terms of revenue AND quality of life. Removing what doesn’t serve your business or make you happy just seems like a good idea (even if you think minimalism is bonkers). Through this removal, minimalism creates certain freedoms:

  1. Freedom from excess financial worry (you’re spending less, so you can make less and be more profitable).
  2. Freedom from the stress of “busy” (you’re only doing what is useful or makes you happy).
  3. Freedom from the fear of loss (you’re living below your means, so you can weather greater storms and hardships).
  4. Freedom from weighty responsibility (the bigger your business gets, the more work it requires, and it may not be work you enjoy).

Working for yourself is freedom—if you do it right—so achieving greater freedom in your business by implementing ideas borrowed from minimalism seems like a win-win. (Or maybe it’s just one win since the second win isn’t necessary and therefore purged. #minimalismjokes)

 

1.

One of the smartest things I’ve done in my business is question if “more” is actually better. Which is the complete opposite approach taken by startups and corporations.

Such businesses tend to see growth as the chief indicator of success. More customers is a win! Higher revenue is a win! Greater exposure is a win! And sure, they can be, but not always. And definitely not always when blindly obtained.

Sometimes more customers mean much more customer support. Sometimes more revenue comes at the price of higher investments and expenses (netting less profit in spite of more revenue). Sometimes more exposure means more of the wrong people see you and more of the right people for your business are put off because they think your business is actually for someone else.

More ≠ Better (Hi math, I love you!)

Sometimes “enough” is better. For instance, if I make enough money to support my life and save a little, “more” likely only brings more stress, more work, more responsibility. If I already have enough customers that I can personally support, why would I want more if that would mean I had to hire and then manage employees? Remember my note about freedom? Enough means I can optimize for freedom, not blind growth.

 

2.

Running a lean business that’s focused on creating value for yourself and your customers requires you to be relentless about the opportunities you say yes to – or you’ll be stretched too thin. You’ll end up like a circus act that sees how many plates you can spin at the same time, hoping they don’t all come crashing down.

You also have to be willing to experiment. A few years ago I decided to see if I could go 6 months without buying anything but food and gas (I did it too). Another time I tried living without furniture (this failed, mostly because my back hurt without a comfy couch). Experimenting to see what you actually value and testing your assumptions can lead to breakthroughs in life and in work. Maybe you can say no to every opportunity but the one you truly want to focus on. Maybe your business would do better with one product instead of 3. Maybe you can generate more profit by spending less on marketing, software, computers or fax machines (just kidding, who buys fax machines?)

You won’t find out unless you experiment. Sure, your experiments could go wrong and your business could be left with a bit of a sore back, but some might go right and you’ll be left with more money for less work.

 

3.

Minimalists, like MacGyver, work with the tools they’ve got. They don’t spend a ton of time or money on acquiring or building new tools. So if all your business has is a ball of twine, a stick of gum, and a paperclip, you figure out a way to make those things work (and save the world or something, I can’t remember the premise of the show).

Using the tools available for the job means that you rely more on your own ingenuity than anything else. Which is good, since tools can sometimes take the place of critical thinking. For example, a programmer isn’t a great programmer because she uses the latest frameworks. She’s a great programmer because she understands how to use code to accomplish tasks. She could change computers or frameworks and still be a great coder.

Spending time focused on finding the best newsletter software or design program or CRM nets diminishing returns, since most work pretty much the same as the rest. And it definitely nets diminishing returns when we start to think that each tool we use has to be custom-created just for us.

Minimalist businesses aren’t great businesses because of the tools, they’re great businesses because their owners know how to use the tools they’ve got. The best tool for your work is the one you’re using right now, to make your art. If it’s not working, find another. Tools don’t matter. Building skill matters more.

 

4.

Those running minimalist businesses are experts at getting straight to the point. Quickly. Especially when it comes to making money.

The typical way to run a business is that you start by getting an investment (from the bank, from a rich relative, from a VC) then work hard and in secret for a long time to create a perfect product.

This way of working has a lot of drawbacks though. It requires one to make a ton of assumptions about the market, positioning and customers and then wait until a lot of money is spent before launching.

Whereas taking the opposite approach can work just as well, if not more effectively. I launch without any investment (other than a tiny bit of my own time) so I don’t have to make as many assumptions. I launch by boiling my business idea down to the smallest idea possible, then launching quickly. For example, Creative Class (my first course) started out as an idea for 30 lessons, which would have taken me 4–6 months to create at least. I also wanted to develop course software to run it (another 4–6 months). I resisted the urge and started with 7 lessons and existing software, launching in a month instead of a year. That meant I could see what worked and what didn’t with an actual audience, and then adjust, iterate and improve.

By starting small, and moving quickly, you can adapt to the market. Whereas starting big, and moving slowly means you’re running on guesses and throwing a lot of time and work at something that may or may not work out in the end.

 

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As I said, minimalism is a mindset, not a blind purge. So running a minimalist business doesn’t mean staying small for the sake of being small. It means staying small when it makes sense to be small and only growing in areas where growth provides value to you and your customers. Growth isn’t inherently evil, but it comes at a price. And running a minimalist business is more about creating freedom than profits. Sometimes the price makes sense to pay, and sometimes you’re better off sticking with what you’ve got.
PS: This piece covers most of the main topics in my upcoming book, Company of One. Basically, blind growth in all areas isn’t always the best idea.

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