Introducing A Company of One
At first, I felt alone in my assumption that more isn’t always better. But then, during the writing of this book, I found that there is an amassing army of others who feel very much the same, and whose business decisions are backed up with growing research and studies. It turns out that some of the most successful brand-name companies and individuals are companies of one at heart.
Living in Tofino gave me the opportunity to take up a daily ritual of going for a morning surf. One day I was out in the lineup (the place just in front of the breaking waves where surfers wait to catch rides) with my accountant friend. We were sitting out there, waiting for the next decent wave, and he turned to me and said, “I’m stoked! I’ve just about made enough to take the rest of the year off to go rock climbing.” It was August. Puzzled by what he said, I missed the next few waves that rolled by. Once he paddled back to the lineup, where I still was, he explained that he had calculated what he needed to make in profit in order to cover his cost of living and put a decent amount of money into investments. He had figured out the amount of wealth he needed to be comfortable and didn’t feel the need to accumulate more.
Past that, he didn’t need any more money—so he’d stop working when he hit his “enough” amount and travel for the rest of the year. He didn’t want to grow his accounting business into a bigger company with employees and offices in every city. If he did, his “enough” number would also grow, from having to manage more employees and a bigger business. He wouldn’t be able to spend as much time rock climbing (or surfing). His focus in his business was being better, not growing bigger. I quickly began to realize that I had adopted a similar mind-set: I knew what I needed to make to cover my business and my life, so I could decide to slow down when I reached “enough” as well.
It’s assumed that hard work and smart thinking always result in business growth. But the opposite is often true: not all growth is beneficial, and some growth can actually reduce your resilience and your autonomy. Just as I learned new skills in self-sufficiency that were far outside my realm of knowledge, companies of one can do the same. Indeed, they’ll need to in order to stand out and thrive.
In truth, embracing growth appears to be the easier route more often than not, since it’s easier to throw “more” at any problem that might pop up. Want more customers? Hire more employees. Need more revenue? Spend more. Fielding more support requests? Build a bigger support team. But scaling up might not be the best or smartest solution to the basic problem. As a means to generating higher profits, what if you acquired more customers simply by creating more efficiency, so you didn’t have to hire more people? What if you generated more revenue by finding a way to spend less (again, for higher profits)? What if you responded to the growth in support requests by finding a better way to teach your customers how to use what you sell, so they didn’t have to ask questions as often? What if you didn’t have to work more hours to finish a project but just more efficiently, so you could then enjoy more of your life away from work?
Growth, in the typical business sense, isn’t always a smart strategy if it’s followed blindly. Much of the research reported in this book will strongly suggest that blind growth is the main cause of business problems. It can leave you with an unmaintainable number of employees, unsustainable costs, and more work than hours in a day. It can force you to lay off employees, sell your company at a less than optimal price, or, even worse, close up shop completely.
What if you worked instead toward growing smaller, smarter, more efficient, and more resilient?
Staying small doesn’t have to be a stepping-stone to something else, or the result of a business failure—rather, it can be an end goal or a smart long-term strategy. The point of being a company of one is to become better in ways that don’t incur the typical setbacks of growth. You can scale up revenue, enjoyment, raving fans, focus, autonomy, and experiences while resisting the urge to blindly scale up employee payroll, expenses, and stress levels. This approach builds both a profit buffer for your company to weather markets and a personal buffer to help you thrive even in times of hardship.
The “company of one” approach doesn’t apply only to a single-person business—it’s a model for using the power of you to be more self-reliant and more responsible for your own career path. Although a company of one can certainly be a small or single-person business, it’s unlike most small businesses, whose end game is usually expansion or growth to hit peak profitability. A company of one questions growth and stays small on purpose.
A company of one isn’t simply a practicing freelancer either. While freelancing is a perfect first step to becoming a company of one, freelancers are different because they exchange time for money. Whether they’re getting paid by the hour or by deliverables, if they’re not working, they’re not getting paid. All of a freelancer’s relationships are one-to-one, meaning that each time paid work occurs, a freelancer has to do something and use his or her time.
In contrast, a company of one is more in line with the traditional definition of an entrepreneur. If you’re utilizing systems, automations, and processes to build a long-term business, you’re not trading time for money, but instead operating and profiting outside of the time you spend working and beyond your one-to-one relationships. For example, whether you’re creating physical products, selling software, or teaching online courses, customers and users can purchase and consume these products and services without your company of one putting in time for each transaction. While developing products can be time-consuming and iterative, the number of customers can be almost infinite for a company of one, and profit then happens outside of time spent. Where a company of one is concerned, as we’ll see in coming chapters, scaling customers and even profit doesn’t always require scaling employees or resources exponentially.
A company of one is a collective mind-set and model that can be used by anyone, from a small business owner to a corporate leader, to take ownership and responsibility for what they do to become a valuable asset in any marketplace—in terms of both mental practices and business applications. It’s 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—no cable-cutting or moving to the woods on an island required.
Just as Michael Pollan’s food ideology is summarized in three simple rules—“eat food, not too much, mostly plants”—the “company of one” model can be laid out in a similar fashion: “start small, define growth, and keep learning.”