“If this company needs business growth beyond the three of us, I’m out.”
That was one of the first things I said to the cofounders of a new business venture when we started the company.
Not because I’m afraid of success, but because “success” to me means being able to get what needs done, done without having to hire a team. If I have to hire someone for support or sales or as a virtual assistant, or anything else, then, for me, it’s not only a failure but also not the type of company I want to have.
For most startups, not growing past 3 founders would be considered an epic fail. For me though, the by-product of business success is freedom, not always growth.
My own relationship with business growth
I like being small and scrappy (which is good, since I’m only 5’9, ha). I don’t care about scaling. When I was solely a web designer, I felt the same way. I could have grown (based on the amount of work I was offered) and hired other designers, account managers, programmers, etc — but then I’d have been responsible for them. I’d have to deal with everything that comes with having employees.
I felt the same way when I started making solo products like courses, books and WordPress themes. If they grew beyond what I could handle by myself, then they couldn’t be chalked up as “wins” for me. In fact, when WordPress themes started to become more work than I could handle, I killed them off.
I think we’ve all been ingrained with this idea of what success should look like: working a minimum number of hours, hiring minions to do our work for us and making all of the monies passively. I see people quit unpleasant nine-to-fives in order to become their own boss, but then they don’t change a damn thing about how they work. They often think that they need to model their routine after the way business has been done in the past or according to what some ‘thought leader’ on the internet told them about their own ‘successful’ business model.
Are you a better doer or delegator?
It’s not that growing a company or hiring employees is evil or bad or wrong either. It’s awesome and a great place to be in. For some people. But I know this about myself: I’m better at working than delegating work. And I don’t want to learn how to be better at the latter either.
I work for myself because I can build my business around my life. This means that, since my purpose for my work has never been about infinite growth, I don’t have to bother caring about it. Instead, I can focus on maximizing the work I do in a way that works for me. I can work at a pace that suits my sanity, and not at a pace that supports overhead, expenses or salaries.
Sure, it’d probably be easier in some ways to offload some of the work on my plate, since I currently take care of product development, sales, marketing, support, design, programming, photography, video creating/editing and more. But I do those things because I’m happy to do those things. While every task isn’t amazingly creative and challenging, even the boring stuff I really don’t mind. Because the bigger picture is that I like where my business is at. I can easily create, run and maintain things by myself.
Business growth isn't anti-hiring
To be clear, I do sometimes hire other freelancers, on a gig-by-gig basis. That way there’s no HR red-tape, there’s no responsibility and I only hire folks I don’t have to “manage”. I agree to their project terms, let them do their work and then our business relationship is done unless we work together again. I also sometimes work with others as partners. But again, in those scenarios, I don’t need to manage or be responsible for them. We just work together, equally.
In one of my first real “jobs” I was in charge of a creative team (as a Creative Director at an agency). I hated this job because I’m not built to manage others, especially not other creative folks. Some people are born leaders or managers, but I’m definitely not one of those people.
If it’s your company, you get to call the shots. And, if it’s your company, and you’re not happy with where things are at, it might be your own fault.
Is business growth important to you?
You get to define what’s important. Maybe growth and hiring a team to divvy up the work is important to you. But then again, maybe it’s not. And if it’s not, then maybe growth at all costs in all directions isn’t the best thing for you either. Either way, if it's your business, you can stop doing shit you don't like (whatever that might be).
I could work harder at getting more subscribers or more course sales or making what I do more palatable for more people. But then I’d have to scale how everything runs, and that wouldn’t be good for me. I’d rather show up for the small group of folks I enjoy interacting with and make enough money. If I took the typical capitalism route, I'd be moving towards a goal I didn't align with.
Building a company of one
It’s fun to see what I can do with a company of one. To see how far things can go or how far is too far. Creativity thrives on constraints and this constraint is well-suited to my personality.
I also enjoy that if people buy something from me, they’re buying it from me. I created it, I maintain it, I support it. So, I’d rather make less money and have a business I can run by myself. I’d rather have less subscribers, but know who most of them are by name. I’d rather have less customers, but know I can easily support them through what they’ve purchased from me.
For you, this might also be true. Your goal might not be to create a massive company with lots of employees. Or even with a handful of employees. So if you’re gearing up the work you do so it’s only manageable if that happens, it may be time to re-think things. Because it’s possible to stay small or singular and still do well. But you have to define what your own success is, because it’s probably not what others tell you it can be.
For me? I don’t actually care about growth.
Growth without growth
If you don’t want to have employees, assistants, scale up or grow a company that’s bigger than you – you can still grow a company organically. It’s just a different kind of growth. Which got me to thinking, if growth via scale isn’t an option for whatever valid reason we’ve got, how else can growth happen?
Here’s a list of the ways I think organic growth can happen without growth:
- Working for yourself doesn’t necessarily mean you have to work alone. Even if you aren’t interested in scaling your business, there are still great reasons to hire freelancers for specific projects. For example: an editor to help with your book, a research assistant to help gather content for your course, a programmer to code your website.
- Project partnerships are another great way to scale your reach and skillset without growing your business, since it’s just partnering up for one specific project with an end goal in mind. Think: co-creating a course that combines what you both do and pitched to both your audiences, or creating a small software company with partners.
- You can grow revenue without doing more work or working for longer hours if you get efficient with systems and processes. The more you create a standard process for doing repetitive tasks, the faster you can get them done. Or, if you can, automate them completely. For example: creating a series of onboarding emails for new buyers or using a scheduler app like Calendly or Acuity to book meetings/calls in significantly less steps.
- Say “no” to most opportunities. No matter how efficient you get, there is only so much time in the day. You’ve got to be vigilant about your priorities, because everything can’t be a priority. Opportunities, however seemingly great, come at a cost of time, attention and energy. Very rarely does a business succeed because you said “yes” to a single thing. You can safely turn down a speaking gig or summit invitation because you need to focus on your work.
- Heads down, work mode is your best friend. Read Cal Newport’s Deep Work. In order to create or do the specific work you do, you’ve got to tune out everything else for long stretches of time. That means turning off social media notifications or not working with your email program open. I recommend that you do your best to have at least a day or two a week without calls, meetings or interruptions.
- You can define your own measure of success, since your company is just you. Maybe that means more time in your garden or hiking. Or longer vacations with your family. It may have little to do with revenue or quarterly earnings reports. You can also decide what “enough” is. For example: if you know you only need a certain amount of revenue to cover your costs and savings for a year, once you hit that, you can take very long breaks from your work (and come back refreshed/energized).
- Repurpose as much as you can. Being one person means the more you can reuse things, the faster you can get work done. For instance, you could turn a blog post you wrote into several pull-quotes for social media, then syndicate the same content across the web (guest posts or Medium), then turn that content into a podcast episode, then use that content and go deeper with it as a chapter in a book. Same content, used many times.
- Create products that relate to each other and appeal to the same audience. It’s far easier to sell something new to to someone who’s already bought something from you (if they loved it). The more you can continue to hit the same audience, the more trust you’ll have built with them and the easier it’ll be to sell them something new. That said, if you’re starting from scratch, start with services, not products.
- Related to the last bullet: don’t give up on products too early. Relaunch everything you create multiple times, because there’s always probably a) people who don’t know about it, b) people who know about it but didn’t buy it yet and c) people who are just waiting for it launch again with a new discount, promotion, bonus or some other form of urgency.
These are just a few of the ideas off the top of my head to grow your business without growing your business.
The good thing, if it’s your work, you get to call the shots and figure out what actually matters to you. It may not be what matters to other businesses or business owners.
Think about it: large corporations haven’t always existed. Outside of the industrial revolution, and the last 100 years or so, companies were tiny and many were even multi-generational.
Business was run as small and lean as possible, was mostly durable beyond a single lifetime, and sometimes even served customers across generations as well. It’s only in the last short while that economies of scale have happened, yet we assume that they’re the norm and that they’re the only path forward for business.
Large companies started to come into existence only because a unique and temporary set of conditions happened: a post-war workforce needed jobs (after WWI), industrialization and manufacturing moved from made-to-order and handcrafted to mass produced, and there was a surplus of natural resources (oil, gas, trees, etc) available.
Scale, at that point, was a competitive advantage, because people became obsessed with cheaper consumer goods becoming readily available, like cars, radios, phones and fridges. In order to handle the demand, large companies were required to extract the required resources, manufacture them into consumer goods, and then fulfill and ship orders.
It’s debatable whether or not the industrial age is over, in favour of the information or imagination age, but either way it’s in its death throes currently. And the reason isn’t because we no longer need mass produced goods (we completely do), it’s more that the way consumer goods are produced has changed.
We used to have to own a factory and hire workers to create the goods we wanted to sell. These days, anyone with enough capital can “rent” factories to produce on-demand goods. We can similarly rent server space to host websites, use cheap and existing ecommerce software, or work with order fulfillment companies to package and ship the goods we sell, as we sell them. Nevertheless scale is required to make full use of benefits of volume because almost everything can be done on-demand.
I remember in the mid to late 90s, in order to sell something online it required a ton of custom programming, a very special merchant account, time to process and approve the account creation, that came with reams of paperwork and needed a specific bank account. Now we can pay a few bucks a month, connect a bank account in a click and start selling on any number of ecommerce platforms in minutes.
But what does this mean for smaller companies? Well, by having on-demand access to scale as required and then the ability to scale back down if demand peters off, it means we can focus on the specific part of the business we want to do.
For example, Dan Provost and Tom Gerhardt run a successful physical product business called StudioNeat, selling very stylish and high quality goods like pens, smartphone tripod mounts, and notebooks to 1,000s of customers a year. And, they can do it as a two-person business, from a garage behind Tom’s backyard. By employing post-industrial methods that make use of on-demand methods instead of scale, they can focus on developing new and interesting products. They then offload production, order fulfillment and everything else to on-demand partners.
Even for myself, if I want to self-publish a book, I don’t have to hire a full-time staff to edit, design, bind and ship my books anymore. I can hire freelancers for each project to edit and design the book, who’ll do a great job, and I only have to pay for the work they do (not their full-time salaries). I can then upload my book to Amazon’s CreateSpace, where the book is printed on demand as each order is placed by a consumer. It’s printed at the closest location (to save on shipping), and I don’t have to have a factory nor do I have to have 1,000s of printed books waiting in inventory (that would have had to be paid for up front). The books print and ship when they’re ordered. So my focus can be on writing books… I don’t have to be in the book editing, book printing, or book shipping business.
Businesses no longer have to scale to succeed. Sure, there was a century where the ideal engine for business was growth and scale. It just doesn’t make sense any longer. Instead, our businesses can grow to a point and size that makes sense, and then we can shift our focus to optimizing for enough.
MIT Sloan School of Management released a study, The End of Scale, showing that companies are staying smaller and “unscaling”, as the main way to gain traction and market dominance. Unscaling meaning that companies can do better with less by providing custom products and solutions, building on demand, and offering heavy customizations.
By staying small and lean – by renting or using scale on demand, by outsourcing tasks and parts of the supply chain we don’t want to focus on – companies can adapt and pivot as needed without leaving a huge trail of workforce or equipment that no longer serves its purpose in its wake.
For example, Helix Mattresses builds each mattress to custom specifications from each customer via a form on their website, and then manufactures the mattress in their much smaller than average factory located in the US, shipped in a small box and for a price that’s under $1,000.
The MIT Sloan School of Management study provides more examples:
Stripe is an unscaled financial services company based in San Francisco that is challenging the big banks. Airbnb, also based in San Francisco, is an unscaled hotel company that is taking customers away from the big chain hotels. Warby Parker is a New York City-based unscaled eyewear company that is threatening the big eyewear brands.
Unscale is at the crux of what it means to be a company of one—to question whether or not growth/scale is required to succeed (since most of the time, it’s not). Large companies and corporate leaders would do well to adopt this mental model for unscaling and become more like companies of one who work towards efficiency with less, instead of exponentially chasing more.
Today there are more small businesses than large businesses, even though huge corporations make up the majority of press coverage and even the majority of “business yearning” (as in, “I want to be the next Steve Jobs/Mary Barra/Elon Musk”). Big businesses may get the majority of fame, but US Census stats from 2014 identified 28 million businesses in the United States and 22 million of them had no employees. So 78% of businesses in the US are companies of one, literally. With the rise of cheap technology solutions, on-demand manufacturing and fulfillment and AI/robotics, these smaller businesses are going to continue to thrive.
It’s time to start challenging the old (and even current) mental models of business, as the time of monolithic companies could be coming to an end. The new age of business could take from millennia of small and durable businesses, and add to them by factoring in new technologies and on-demand production and fulfillment availability. A new set of conditions now exist, and the peak of the industrial age has past. Unscaling, or working towards enough makes it now easier to start, easier to profit and easier to thrive long term. Unscaled companies of one are the future of business.
Hi, I'm Paul Jarvis. I write a weekly newsletter called the Sunday Dispatches where I share articles about working and living online with 35k subscribers: