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Quick Summary: “Company of One” by Paul Jarvis is a practical experience-based manual which aims to turn conventional business wisdom on its head by offering an alternative path to success (as well as a redefinition of that word)—one that will help you build your company around your life, and not the other way around.
Who Should Read “Company of One”? And Why?
Contrary to what you might deduce from the title, this is not a book about freelancers, nor is it a book about successful small businesses that want to find ways to grow. (If you want that, consult books such as Good to Great).
Counterintuitively, Company of One is about businesses that want to stop growing, and people who want to build their work lives around their personal lives—and not the other way around.
If you don’t want to be big, but sustainable, if you don’t want to build a multi-billion industry but work a limited number of hours and spend more time with your friends and family—well, then, Paul Jarvis’ book is the one of the best ones you can find on the market.
Company of One Summary
Apparently, it is not only Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s followers or the New-Age Minimalists who believe sincerely that “less is more.” Counter-intuitively, this is more and more becoming the ethos of many modern businessmen as well!
In Company of One, Paul Jarvis explains why this shouldn’t surprise nobody—and gives pointers on how you should hop on the “enough is enough” bandwagon as soon as possible!
Defining a Company of One
Put in the simplest terms possible, a company of one is a business that questions growth.
“A company of one,” explains further Jarvis, “resists and questions some forms of traditional growth, not on principle, but because growth isn’t always the most beneficial or financially viable move.”
However, make no mistake: a company of one doesn’t mean a small company per se.
Although a company of one can be a small business owner or a small group of founders, it can also be a set of principles which big business should adopt if they “want to keep their brightest minds in their employ.”
And that is because these “company of one principles” mean self-sufficiency and more autonomy—and that is precisely what most employees, executive leaders, board members, and corporate leaders want today.
“Technically,” concludes Jarvis, “everyone should be a company of one,” because being a company of one means having a mindset to build a business around your life, and not the other way around.
Companies of one, according to Jarvis, share four typical traits:
• Resilience: As Nassim Nicholas Taleb taught us, resilient companies—and since they are companies of one, read: resilient people— are down-to-earth (they accept the reality of things and are not preys to wishful thinking), are able to adapt, and all this because they have a sense of purpose.
• Autonomy and Control: Being a company of one puts you in control—you are the one who makes the deadlines, and the one who accepts/rejects offers. This gives you more autonomy and control over your own life.
• Speed: Companies of one work faster because “they have less of the corporate mass that often gets in the way.”
• Simplicity: Larger companies are more complex; for companies of one, simplicity is mandatory.
Companies of One vs. Small Businesses vs. Freelancing
As one of our school teachers used to say: even better than defining something of its own accord is defining it in relation to a few similar things; that way, you’ll understand it better by seeing what it is not.
And companies of one are neither small business nor a fancy for freelancer.
The difference between a company of one and a small business—as you’re about to see—is fairly simple: small business like to grow, and companies of one don’t.
Unlike small businesses that stay small merely because they are unable to grow, companies of one are able to grow but stay small by their own choice.
If given an opportunity to grow, a small business would accept it, no questions asked; a real company of one would decline it—because it thinks of growth in much the same manner it thinks of decline.
For small businesses, the definition of success is a variation of the motto “bigger is better;” for companies of one, success means “sustaining a self-defined level of income” and nothing more.
That being said, both small business and companies of one invest money to produce something which should return them more money in the future. And that is the big difference between companies of one and freelancers.
For freelancers, the equation “time is money” is quite literal: they earn money only while they work. The moment they stop working, the money stops coming their way.
Companies of one earn money off of their products, which means that they have a passive income as well.
In short, a freelancer designs a t-shirt and sells the design to her client (one-time transaction). A company of one designs a t-shirt—and sells that designed t-shirt to multiple clients for years to come (passive income).
Staying Small as an End Goal
We know that all this still seems as some anti-capitalistic, utopian pipedream. But it is happening as you read this summary—and to prove it, we will go over one of the many examples Jarvis lists in his book.
Psychotactics is a company which provides psychology-related consultancy services to business, and which is run by a certain Sean D’Souza.
Now, D’Souza doesn’t want to grow his company.
He decided some time ago that $500,000 a year of profit was all he wanted to earn and that his business shouldn’t exceed it. And that’s precisely how much Psychotactics earns (through training workshops and its website).
Counterintuitively to everything you know about business, Sean is only interested in reaching his target limit, never exceeding it.
Because he thinks of his business as a corollary to his life and not the other way around.
Put simply, he started with sketching out the optimal life he wanted to lead (“complete with taking a three-month vacation each year with his wife and spending hours walking, cooking, and teaching and tutoring his two young nieces each day”), and then built his company around this goal.
And when he reached it, he realized something the Bushmen realized a long time ago (and something which most business owners never do): enough is enough.
In other words, if you want to earn more money, you’ve got to brace yourself for more problems: more profits mean more customers which means more employees which means more bureaucracy, etc. etc.
This, of course, means more work time for you, and that defeats the whole purpose of starting a company. After all, what’s the point of earning millions if have no time to spend it on the things you like?
Turn this on its head—and you have a company of one.
Quitting Your Job Is Not the First Step
At this point, you might think the title of this section is some sort of a joke: how would you ever build a successful company of one if you stay stuck in your corporate à-la-Office job?
Well, the truth is, of course, you won’t. However, quitting your job should only come after you’ve developed something to work with.
Take, for example, Tom Fishburne, the very first guy Paul Jarvis mentions in Company of One.
He had a great career by all standards, managing to climb the corporate ladder to become the vice president of marketing at a large consumer foods company.
However, he didn’t really like his job: his passion had always been drawing cartoons. In fact, he was kind of successful at this even at Harvard, but since he was part of the SITCOM demographic (Single Income Two Children Oppressive Mortgage), he figured he needed something more stable and took a job in the corporate world.
His friends, fortunately, still liked his cartoons, and since drawing them was Tom’s passion, he didn’t stop sharing them long after taking the job.
These friends of Tom told some friends of theirs, and they told some of their friends. Eventually, Tom got his first client. When he managed to line up a few of them, in 2010, he quit his job as the VP.
“This turned out to be Tom’s best career move,” writes Jarvis, “both emotionally and, surprisingly, financially.”
So, that’s the first lesson: quit your job only after you’ve already built something to start from.
As Susy Moore noted, a side hustle can change your life.
So, ask yourself, with her: what if it does work out?
Passion Is Not Enough—You Need an Audience as Well
To stay with Susie Moore, there’s a catch to the idea of turning your passion into cash. And you might be able to figure it out yourself just by reading the following two paragraphs.
In 2003, as summed up in his article “On the Psychology of Passion: In Search of What Makes People’s Lives Most Worth Living,” Robert Vallerand did a wide-ranging study of college students at the University of Quebec. His goal–to find out their passions.
What he discovered was pretty staggering: most of the students were most passionate about one of these three things: arts, music, and sports.
Did you realize the catch?
If not, consider this as well: only 3 percent of all jobs can be found in the sports, music, and art industries!
In other words, no matter how passionate you are about these things, chances are you’re never going to become the next Serena Williams, Beyoncé or Toni Morrison, for the very same reason that a whole class can’t become the next President of the United States.
Simply put, there are too few jobs for too many passionate people.
“Follow your passion,” concludes Jarvis, “is irresponsible business advice.”
What is a responsible one is this: if you want to build a company of one, follow that passion that produces commodities which other people are willing to pay for.
And that sometimes means making compromises.
For example, if you are passionate about drawing, and you believe you’re good at it, then why not follow Paul Jarvis’ path and try a career in web design?
Drawing is not marketable, but web design is. As a web designer, you can find a job straight away, and easily become an intrapreneur before powering up and evolving into a company of one.
Keywords: Audience, Niche, Retention
As you can realize by now, building a successful company of one is almost always all about being as practical as you can.
Remember: the goal is to build the life you’ve always dreamed about, and not the company you won’t stop working for.
That’s why, investing large sums upfront is not a good idea—start as an intrapreneur, develop your side gig while you earn money from someplace else, and focus on finding a way to make more money as quickly as possible by yourself.
That, of course, starts with finding your audience.
However, since you’re not aiming high—and don’t want to build a big million-dollar company—you’re freer to find precisely the right people to be your customers.
Think about it this way.
Starbucks started off as a coffee company for one specific type of audience: cool, young people. As the money started pouring in, the company realized that it could scale faster by adding CDs, sandwiches, and fancier drinks to its menu.
The rapid expansion diluted the Starbucks brand, and before you could say “one coffee to go” please, 900 Starbucks stores off they went.
Starbucks learned the hard way that bigger isn’t always better, and that retaining customers is always much smarter than looking for new ones; because, then, there’s a chance that you might lose the existing ones.
Now, you’re building a company of one: you have the luxury of focusing on smaller and more specific target audience.
This brings more trust and more loyalty, and eventually, it means more chance for turning your brand into a kind of community marker.
And that’s great because if your existing customers bring you enough money, then retaining them is enough to keep you going.
What more could you want?
Key Lessons from “Company of One”
1. A Company of One Is a Business That Questions Growth
2. Evolve Your Side Gig into a Company of One (Works If You’re a Freelancer as Well)
3. Be Passionate—But Practical as Well
A Company of One Is a Business That Questions Growth
In business, growth is, more or less, a by-product of success. However, a company of one doesn’t care much about how things are supposed to work. Or, better, yet—it isn’t interested in following these conventional rules.
“A company of one is simply a business that questions growth,” writes Paul Jarvis, and goes on to explain that, contrary to traditional knowledge, “growth isn’t always the most beneficial or financially viable move.”
How, you might ask.
Well, it’s simple really: when you’re satisfied with where you’re at (not only with work but also with free time, autonomy, self-sufficiency), just stop there.
More money brings more problems—and you don’t need them. After all, why did you start your company: to earn money, or to live better?
They are not the same.
Evolve Your Side Gig into a Company of One (Works If You’re a Freelancer as Well)
If you’re starting a company of one, don’t quit your job to do so.
Instead, start a side gig while you’re working—something you’re passionate about, something you’re good at, something that will keep your mind off your exhaustive 9-to-5 job.
In time, start using this side gig to earn money. And when you find a few customers—then quit and focus on building a company of one from there.
Be Passionate—But Practical as Well
Even though you might deduce it from our key lesson #2, and even though it’s something you’ll hear every so often nowadays, “follow your passion” is irresponsible business advice.
Because not every passion can help you earn money.
If you are like most people and prefer the arts and/or some of the sports over other things, then think again before starting a company of one in one of these spheres: only 3% of all jobs can be found there.
So, be practical: you might never become a professional painter, but a web designer is a good enough compromise, isn’t it?
Especially if it inevitably results in just enough money to buy you just enough time to pursue your hobby in the future.
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Company of One QuotesWhat is growth meant to achieve? If Oxford University is so successful, then why isn’t there a branch in Washington, D.C.? If a symphony is successful with 120 musicians, why not even more so with 600? (Via Ricardo Semler) Click To Tweet 'To grow bigger' is not much of an effective business strategy at all. (Via Ricardo Semler) Click To Tweet A company of one... is 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 Click To Tweet The 'company of one' model can be laid out in a similar fashion: 'start small, define growth, and keep learning.' Click To Tweet The company-of-one movement is constantly growing (bad joke, I couldn’t help myself). Click To Tweet
In a world governed by the philosophy of “more and more” (just like the book hiding behind the previous link), Company of One is nothing short of a refreshment.
Even more: it is one of the manuals you desperately need at the moment if you want to reclaim your life.
“Jarvis makes a compelling case for making your business better instead of bigger,” writes Cal Newport. “A must-read for any entrepreneur who prioritizes a rich life over riches.”