Paul Jarvis

Four rules for business

I have four business rules for my business.

  1. Be useful
  2. Give freely
  3. Stay simple
  4. Keep track

These aren’t platitudes or a mission statement or a business plan. I don’t care about any of that.

While I love business and love running my own business even more, I hate the way that business is “supposed to work”.

So I made my own rules.

My rules are specific enough to give actionable direction, but loose enough to adapt to the fact that everything changes all the time. They’re also easy to remember (try as I might, I can’t memorize a 32-page rule book or even a 288-page book about simple business rules (I really did try and read it, and while the subject matter is great, it’s almost hilariously ironic how un-simple this book is).

Luckily, as I’ve seen two major, non-sequential focuses in my career — first web design, then products — the business rules have continued to apply. The beauty of them is that they aren’t prescriptive, meaning they don’t remove thinking from my business (I don’t think anything can do that until the robot overlords take over).

These business rules are simply tools for deciding. People don’t spend much time deciding to focus on decision making (sorry, that was a bad joke), but decision making is one of the most important things in a business. For every second you haven’t decided, you aren’t taking action. If you are stuck on a problem that requires you to pick yes or no, or do or don’t do, then you aren’t moving forward until you decide. So being able to quickly make the best decision for your business is critical. (Note that I didn’t say the “right” decision, you never know that until later).

Onto the business rules.

Business rule one / Be useful

At the core of who I am and what I do is a need to help others solve problems. And it’s not entirely altruistic either. Being useful makes me feel good. Being useful pays money, when I solve important problems for people.

Being useful means using my brain in creative ways to solve problems. Typically, first for myself, then for others.

That’s the first test of any product idea I have: how useful would this be? Not to everyone, not to most people, but just to the small group of people it’s for. Would it change their life? Their business? Their mental or financial situation? If it’s a “hell yes” then it passes the first business rule and I can quickly move on.

Business rule two / Give freely

I spend more time on free things than I do on paid offerings. My weekly newsletter, my weekly podcast, hours answering emails — I love that stuff. I love that even if someone never buys a single thing from me for whatever reason (can’t afford it, doesn’t want it, thinks I’m an asshat, etc) I can still give them something.

With every paid product I create, I come up with a free portion of it. Something that can be had without a monetary transaction. It can take the form of a workshop video, a free email series, or even part of the actual product that doesn’t require a credit card.

First, I like to do this because it’s the best way I know to build a relationship with the sort of folks I’d like to pay attention to what I do. Second, I don’t want to take or make money from someone that’s not going to find what I create useful. So I give them a taste first. If they don’t like it, then no harm, no foul, money wasn’t exchanged. If they like it, then maybe they’ll buy it and I’ll make money.

Business rule three / Stay simple

I’m not smart enough to have a complicated business. The more moving parts there are, the more stressed out I get, and the more time I spend looking at fuzzy rat photos on Instagram instead of working (shut up, it’s my happy place).

I run a company of one because it’s the simplest approach for me. I’m not responsible for other people (nor their pay cheques). I don’t have to manage anyone. If I want to pivot completely, I totally can.

For every product I think up, I make sure it’s simple. Both in terms of what’s required to build it and then what’s required to launch and operate it. I’ve killed off products because they became too complex. I beta test the shit out of my products to make sure they’re simple before launching them publicly.

Simple products mean that they’re easy to support (since I do support and don’t have a team of customer service rep’s standing by). Simple products mean they’re easy to build quickly — because if they took me years to build, that’s years I wouldn’t be making money from them. Simple products mean they’re easy to understand — if I can’t explain to you (someone who’d buy it) why you need it and what it does in a sentence or two, then I’ve failed.

Business rule four / Keep track

This is the least sexy rule (if business rules are sexy?). In business, you have to keep track of everything. Seriously, everything. Off the top of my head, here are a few of the main items that must be tracked:

  1. All money in, all money out. I don’t want the government knocking on my door asking for my books from 5 years ago, and me being like, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. I also like to know if someone owes me money. So anything I buy, anything I sell, anything that’s owed in either direction, I keep note of. Not in a complicated way (accounting software makes my head spin) but in a simple spreadsheet.
  2. Marketing efforts. If you don’t track how well everything you do to get the word out about what you’ve created, how the hell will you know what’s working or not?
  3. Learning. I consider this keeping track of my industry, community (most people call it “competition”), and new subject matter and tools I’m interested in learning. I spend hours a day learning because that’s how important I think it is.

Lots of time we get in the weeds with work and focus entirely on doing business and not keeping track of our business. That might be good short-term (since doing business = money!) but long-term it’s hard to adjust and learn what’s working or not working if you’re not keeping track.

That’s it – those are the business rules

My whole business strategy summed up in eight words made into four business rules.

As long as I’m following them, I know I’m on track. They don’t guarantee wins, but they definitely guarantee that I’m making the best decisions for myself and my work.

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