Determining the Right Mind-Set - Define

Company Of One: Why Staying Small Is the Next Big Thing for Business - Paul Jarvis 2019

Determining the Right Mind-Set

REGARDLESS OF WHETHER OR NOT your company of one is just you or is part of a larger organization, with greater autonomy comes greater responsibility to do the work expected of you. How you think about work is important to how work gets done.

To succeed as a company of one, you have to have a real underlying purpose. Your why matters as an unseen but ever-present element that drives your business. Your purpose is more than just a pretty-sounding mission statement on your website; it’s how your business acts and represents itself. And it’s what your business sometimes places above even profit.

As more and more consumers are making purchases related to shared value (even over price), companies are responding by aligning their true purpose with how they act at every step along the supply chain, how they market to and pitch potential customers, and even how they support their products and services. Companies of one recognize that economic value and shared purposes don’t have to be mutually exclusive—they can drive sales and also ensure sustainability.

Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, believes that much of his company’s success is due to being a “responsible” company. A shared set of values around environmental stewardship and sustainability guides how they do business, from how they hire and train employees to why they’ve had on-site day care since they started, to why they cofounded the charity 1% for the Planet. This approach may run counter to how a lot of clothing companies operate, but Patagonia’s purpose is to produce less clothing, to make it last longer, and to offset its price socially and environmentally. Because this purpose resonates with Patagonia’s audience, they’re able to charge a higher price for their responsible clothing. Furthermore, the top five companies in 1% for the Planet saw record sales years during the 2008—2009 recession, when most other companies were losing money. In a thriving economy people gladly buy products that align with their values, and in a downturn they spend less and do business with companies they respect and trust. So either way, having a purpose is a win.

Seventh Generation is another business that’s built around purpose—so much so that the purpose is part of their name: they consider the impact every product they create will have on the next seven generations. This purpose has guided them to create plant-based, nontoxic cleaning supplies and to become a B-corporation (B-corps are certified through rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency). This purpose is beneficial in several ways for Seventh Generation: They attract a younger workforce, none of whom probably thought, Hey, I’d like to work for a household goods company when I graduate! They also build traction through word of mouth for a market that most people wouldn’t otherwise talk about. Their purpose is seen through their actions, not just their marketing efforts—they encourage both employees and customers to line-dry clothes, even at the risk of slowing sales of their dryer sheet product. Seventh Generation’s purpose doesn’t just result in customers feeling good about their products—it also generates approximately $250 million in revenue. In 2016, Unilever purchased Seventh Generation, which hopefully will stay true to its purpose.

Your purpose is the lens through which you filter all your business decisions, from the tiny to the monumental. We’re talking about who you work with, what you offer, where you focus your time and energy, and even how you define your audience. Determining the unique purpose that underpins your company of one isn’t always a quick or easy process, and there’s no spreadsheet that can crunch some numbers and spit out the answer. Figuring out your purpose requires actual reflection on both your own desires and the audience you want to serve. After all, doing business boils down to serving others in a mutually beneficial way. Customers give you money, gratitude, and a shared passion, and you address their problems by applying your unique skills and knowledge to what you sell them.

Virgin founder Richard Branson summed up purpose nicely: “Success in business is no longer just about making money or moving up the corporate ladder. More and more, one of the biggest indicators of success is purpose.”

If your business is fully aligned with your purpose, you’ll be more motivated to keep at it, even during the tough moments; your workforce will turn over less, since employees won’t have to leave their values at home when they head to work; and your customers will become and remain loyal. Your purpose will also serve as a litmus test for all your business decisions, enabling you to make smart, prompt, and more confident choices in all areas of your work.

What happens if you build your business without ever thinking about your purpose? What if you’d rather focus exclusively on acquisition and higher profits? Those activities can definitely seem more rewarding. But the more we busy ourselves with work and fail to consider why we’re doing it in the first place, the more likely we are to realize (often far too late) that we’re not enjoying what we’ve worked so hard to build. And if you’re the one building your own company of one, you’re the one who has to rebuild and change it when things don’t work. It’s so much easier to first clarify your purpose, even with just a quick check-in, to make sure it aligns (or still aligns) with where your business is heading.

John Kotter and James Heskett report in their book Corporate Culture and Performance that purpose-based, values-driven companies outperform their counterparts in stock price by a factor of twelve. They have found that, without a purpose, management has a harder time rallying employees to increase productivity and customers have a harder time connecting to the company. Their decade-long research shows that purpose creates positive outcomes far greater than the sum of its parts.

Whether you’re a Fortune 500 CEO or a freelancer, your purpose is what drives you to succeed and defines what success is. It’s not so much what you do as how and why you do it. Your purpose is your values put into action. For example, CVS stopped selling tobacco products because cigarettes—previously worth billions in revenue to the pharmacy chain—didn’t align with its purpose of helping people on their path to better health.

Defining your purpose has more to do with your personal values and ethics than with business plans or marketing strategies. You can’t fake your purpose. Your gut and your customers simply won’t let you. And really, why would you want to? You’ll get so much more enjoyment and satisfaction from running your business in alignment with your purpose. If you don’t feel a deep connection to your purpose, no one else will feel it either.

Not having a purpose runs counter to how a company of one should operate because a lack of purpose will keep you focused on short-term gains over long-term sustainability. By assuming that quarterly growth in profits is the only factor in your success, you risk overlooking the well-being and success of your customer base (which, we learned from the last chapter, happens at your own peril). “Growth and scale at all costs” is a broken, outdated, and unsubstantiated model that disregards what research has told us about the hazards of growth and scale.

Given the success of Patagonia, Seventh Generation, and many other such organizations, it’s clear that purpose isn’t just a fluffy, new-age paradigm for businesses uninterested in profit. A study done by Michael Porter, a Harvard Business School professor, and Mark Kramer, the cofounder of the social-impact firm FSG, found that taking a “shared value” approach to purpose generates positive economic impacts for companies. They can align their business with their values and with what matters to their customers by reconsidering how they produce and sell products and redefining what productivity means for employees (valuing their rest and happiness and discouraging overworking).

A well-integrated, shared purpose lets a company of one set its true direction, leading to easier decision-making, higher retention of team members, and greater connection to customers.


Purpose and passion are quite different.

While purpose is based on a core set of values held by a company or even a business owner and shared with customers, passion is simply a whim based on what we think we enjoy doing. The tired business advice that we should all “follow our passion” implies that we are entitled to getting paid to do work that is always enjoyable.

A well-cited 2003 study of college students at the University of Quebec by Robert Vallerand found that they were more passionate about sports, arts, and music than anything they were studying. Unfortunately, only 3 percent of all jobs can be found in the sports, music, and art industries. And just because you’re passionate about, say, tennis doesn’t mean you can become the next Serena Williams, no matter how hard you try. “Follow your passion” is irresponsible business advice.

Barbara Corcoran, a real estate investor and a “shark” on the popular television show Shark Tank, said that she didn’t follow her passion; instead, she discovered it by accident as she worked her ass off. Her passion came after her hard work—as a result of it—not the other way around. Known for her shrewd pragmatism on the show, Corcoran says that it’s more important to focus on solving problems than on passion. Her problem-solving focus allows her to better evaluate new business ventures that are presented to her on the show.

When you focus on solving problems or on making a difference, passion may follow, because you’re actually involved in the work you’re doing instead of just dreaming that you might be passionate about something. Cal Newport, the best-selling author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, argues that passion is the side effect of mastery. To Newport, following your passion is fundamentally flawed as a career strategy because it fails to describe how most successful people ended up with compelling careers and can lead to chronic job-shifting and angst when your reality falls short of your passionate dream for your career. Newport believes that we need to be craftspeople, focused on getting better and better at how we use our skills, in order to be valuable to our company and its customers. The craftsperson mind-set keeps you focused on what you can offer the world; the passion mind-set focuses instead on what the world can offer you.

Too many people assume that meaningful work or ideas are the result of passion. Research from William MacAskill of Oxford University has shown that engaging work helps you develop passion, not the other way around. This kind of work draws you in, holds your attention, and gives you a sense of flow (being absorbed in the work and losing track of time). Engaging work comprises four key components: clearly defined assignments, tasks you excel at, performance feedback, and work autonomy.

All this being said, countless books, bloggers, and business leaders will continue to tell you that the key ingredient to a happy, meaningful life is to find the courage to follow your passion. This call is alluring, especially when it seems like others have simply packed up their nine-to-five lives, jumped headfirst into their passions, and ended up thriving.

But what I’ve noticed is that there are two key ingredients that most successful businesspeople don’t talk about when they’re giving keynote speeches about how smart they were to make their leap into a more passion-filled work life. The first is that they were skilled at what they did before they took a leap—so skilled that they were doing well enough that if their leap to something new faltered, they’d still be okay. Not to mention that what they leaped to was completely built off the skills they were currently using and that were already in demand. The second missing ingredient in their account of successfully “following their passion” is that they were able to test their leap with a smaller jump before they climbed to the top of the highest platform. Most of these speakers neglect to mention that they didn’t just willy-nilly jump; rather, they did a small jump first to make sure they could land it (that is, they made sure there was enough demand for their offerings) and not drown once they hit the water.

Looking at my own career, I can say that I’ve succeeded in changing the type of work I’ve done over the last twenty years only when those two key ingredients were present.

I started my own business doing web design only after I became an in-demand designer at an agency. I built up the skills as an employee until the clients of that agency wanted to leave with me when I quit. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have even started working for myself. (I did so only because clients called after I quit, wanting to bring their business to wherever I had moved.) In fact, I wasn’t passionate about web design, or even passionate about starting my own business. I found the courage to do it only because I had a small list of companies that wanted to pay me from day one.

When I started selling online courses, the same elements were present. I used the skills I had built for years as a designer to make courses on related subjects. And before I moved entirely into products, I spent a few years transitioning, waiting until I was sure that selling these online products would make me enough money before completely diving in.

On the other hand, when I first tried back in the 1990s to pivot into business consulting without having any related, built-up skills, I had almost no bites from clients. I was young (and naive) and thought that since I had helped design a handful of websites, I understood how all businesses everywhere work. Consulting seemed far more fun than just designing websites, so I found the courage to start promoting that as a service. The problem was that I was only just starting my journey as a designer and hadn’t come close to building up the necessary skills to consult for other businesses.

In short, my business skills weren’t in demand at all back then, and I had never even tested them to see if anyone would pay for them before spending a ton of time updating my website to promote them. Doing well with business consulting didn’t happen until I had years of experience under my belt—both by working with clients and by running my own companies.

The same thing happened when I tried to pivot into something I was passionate about without testing to see whether there was any demand. Years ago, I started not one but two software companies. Yes, I was the designer for them, which was a skill I had built up and created demand for, but I started both companies without first determining whether they’d be financially viable. I worked for months and months with partners to create products that we hadn’t even come close to demonstrating anyone would be willing to pay for. Both companies ultimately—and spectacularly—failed.

I didn’t start out with a passion to be a web designer, a writer, or an online course creator. I didn’t even have the courage to jump headfirst into those jobs. They happened slowly after I honed my related skills to the point where they were in demand. The passion for those jobs followed, but only once I had spent a lot of time doing them and getting better at them. And then I moved fully into them once I could prove (mostly to myself) that they would pay. In contrast, when I tried to be a consultant in my early twenties and when I tried to start two software companies, I failed completely because I hadn’t yet honed the skills required for those endeavors—plus those skills were definitely not in demand and I couldn’t demonstrate that even a single person would pay for them.

Of course, “courage” and “passion” sound better and more romantic than “skills” and “viability tests.” Courage and passion can be great if you want to skydive or take up a hobby like playing the ukulele. But when it’s your livelihood at stake, being courageous and following your passion should take a backseat to using the skills that you can build up and validate with revenue.

This might seem like a downer of a message, but it’s not. Thankfully, you don’t have to waste time trying to figure out what you’re passionate about or hoping that one day you find the courage inside yourself to leap into your passion full-time. Passion and courage are almost impossible to control and can easily leave you feeling bad about yourself. It’s far easier to simply work at getting really good at something in demand, discovering how those skills can be applied to something else, and then testing your idea in a small way to see if it will pay.

Another study on college students, from psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, found that most postgrads expect the work they do in their career to not be just a job but an adventure. The problem is that most of the subjects felt entitled to meaningful and adventurous work, but no obligation to put in the time and effort to master the skill set required. Just as autonomy is achieved through mastery of skills and ownership of an ability to solve problems, so too is passion. Passion doesn’t precede mastery, but follows it.

The feeling among some employees, team members, or even business owners that they are owed something just for showing up is a difficult pill to swallow. Linda Haines, who ran a human resources department at a large international company, says that many people who were raised to feel like they’re always winners, regardless of their relative efforts, merits, or skills, feel entitled to promotions and advances just because they show up to the office. The downside to this feeling of entitlement is that it leads to problems within teams and in dealing with customers, manifesting as resistance to feedback, overestimation of talents and accomplishments, little sense of team loyalty or loyalty to a purpose, and a tendency to blame others, even customers, for mistakes. Entitled business owners and workers have a hard time adapting to challenging situations, which is the opposite of the company-of-one trait of resilience.

Engaging work, not entitled work, can be anything from collecting garbage to serving coffee, to coaching billionaires, to becoming a company of one inside a large organization. That’s it. While no one should ever tell us to not pursue our passions, we can’t feel simply entitled to make money from them. If you’re engaged by your work—for the independence it allows, for the sense of completion when you’re done, for its contribution to making the world a better place—passion is likely to follow. Passion isn’t the catalyst that creates success, but more often what develops after success is achieved. Taking action and doing work, as a first step, create momentum, and this momentum happens when you’re caught up in—and enjoying—the process of your work, not its possible outcomes.

The gist is this: you can pursue any passion you want, but you shouldn’t feel entitled to make money off it. Passion in work comes from first crafting a valuable skill set and mastering your work. This is great news, because it means you no longer have to beat yourself up for not finding your true, hidden passions. Instead, you can simply get to work.


The final part of aligning your mind-set with a company-of-one mentality is learning to handle the onslaught and weight of opportunities and obligations.

Just as growth in revenue and employees should be questioned as to whether or not it will make things better or simply bigger, we must also question the idea that a busier life, with a packed schedule, is a better life.

Opportunities are just obligations wearing an appealing mask. There might be a positive outcome to seizing them, but they always come at a cost—in terms of time, attention, or resources. No matter how hard you try, you can’t scale the amount of time in your day. And since you can’t somehow buy more hours, you need to find ways to use those hours better.

Curiously, up until the 1950s, the word “priority” was almost always singular in use—it wasn’t until later that the misguided belief that multitasking is a good idea took hold, along with “priorities” (plural). We now incorrectly assume that we must have numerous priorities and multitask to get ahead in business, even though working this way can deeply affect (and hurt) our productivity. With a key trait of a company of one being the speed at which things can happen and be accomplished, productivity is required. A Microsoft Research study found that attempting to focus on more than one priority at a time reduces productivity by as much as 40 percent, which is the cognitive equivalent of pulling an all-nighter. Research done by Hewlett-Packard found that the IQs of employees who were interrupted by email, calls, or messaging were reduced by more than ten points—which is twice the impact of smoking marijuana.

Jocelyn Glei, the best-selling author of Unsubscribe, is obsessed with avoiding distraction to do more work that matters. She works for herself now; previously she was the founding editor and director of 99U, so she’s experienced both leading an autonomous team and leading herself. In terms of productivity, she believes that the main difference is motivation and momentum. Working on a high-functioning team, you’re naturally playing off other members to accomplish your piece of a project, and that keeps you wanting to move things forward by focusing on your part. When you are a company of one without a team or employees, you have to generate your own momentum and motivation to get work done. It’s up to you to set your schedule, manage obligations, and avoid distractions.

Companies of one need to become adept at “single-tasking”—doing one thing for an extended period of time without distraction. This capacity helps you focus on the right tasks, do them faster, and do them with less stress. Gloria Mark, a professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, found that for every interruption, it takes an average of twenty-three minutes and fifteen seconds to fully get back to the task. Fewer distractions means speedier work.

Many large organizations have changed how they run fairly recently by adopting the startup ethos of flatter hierarchies, open workspace, multiple projects for every team member, and even asynchronous communication (like Slack). In these workplaces, employees no longer feel like they have one singular task to perform in their jobs, and they have to self-manage many of their responsibilities and their time. Even though these traits are part of being a company of one inside a larger organization, we need to unpack what it means to develop this autonomy and how best to do so.

To manage yourself within a larger team, you have to become adept at articulating your workload to other people. There may be several team members, and even multiple managers, vying for space in your workday. Even when you work for yourself, multiple clients or customers will be simultaneously requiring your attention. If you handle these demands poorly, you’ll become overworked, stressed out, and unable to perform. Handling them well requires constant vigilance and an ability to communicate to others the consequences of taking time away from customers for things like new projects, meetings, conference calls, and reports.

Glei believes that even though there are no perfect answers here, you have to be relentless in protecting your own schedule and workload. If you don’t have full control over your own schedule—if, for instance, someone is telling you what to do in your job—you have to be able to explain what’s currently filling your schedule and what tasks or responsibilities would need to be removed to make space for other demands. You also need to account for each day’s busywork, which can eat up more time than you think. With hundreds of emails and thousands of Slack messages to answer, as well as five different managers to report to, you can be left with very little time to do your core work. So articulating to people requesting your time what you can and cannot do becomes key. A daily meeting can’t fit into a schedule that’s already full. Making yourself available eight hours a day on a chat leaves you no time to do focused, deep work.

Since most of us aren’t even aware of how much time daily job maintenance takes up, Glei suggests doing a productivity audit once or twice a year: for a week or two, record what tasks you’re working on, for how long, and where the big distractions lie. With this record, you can reapportion your time more appropriately or even create a “stop doing” list—such as stay off social media, forgo daily meetings, or be available on a chat for one hour instead of eight.

Jason Fried, a cofounder of Basecamp and author of the best-seller ReWork, says that it’s a manager’s job to protect the team’s time and attention. Many corporate workers end up putting in sixty- to seventy-hour weeks because so much of the standard forty hours is taken up by interruptions. Fried believes that the norm should be every employee having a full eight hours per day of uninterrupted work to themselves. Companies and managers should demand very little of that time, and when they do, they should be required to ask for it, without the expectation of an immediate response unless it’s a major emergency (for example, the servers for the company software going down).

By keeping meetings and interruptions to an absolute minimum, Fried has found that his staff enjoy their work more, can be more thoughtful about it, and spend more of their time solving problems that matter to the company. This leads to less churn and less training of new employees (since it’s rarely needed) and even improves his business’s bottom line by raising profits each year.

Basecamp also doesn’t allow calendar sharing between employees at any level. Shared calendars can easily be abused by those who assume that others have time if there’s nothing on their calendar. In fact, blank time has probably been left on their calendar so they can focus on their work.

As a company of one, it’s easy to mentally beat yourself up for not accomplishing enough during a day. But how often do you take into account how rare it is, between doing your core work and managing your business, to have a full day, every day, to sit and work without interruptions? You may be failing to realize how much of your schedule is taken up with maintenance work or communication.

To combat this, I take several months off from interviews, calls, and meetings each year to create new products or write books without interruption. Being engaged in deep and focused work, because I’ve cut myself off from communication and availability to others, creates efficiency. Also, batching similar tasks allows me to do more work in less time. For example, I don’t communicate with others—no meetings, calls, interviews, or social media—on Mondays and Fridays so I can write (words or code); I do most of my calls on Thursdays. In this way, I don’t feel bad if all I do on a Thursday is meetings and interviews, because that’s my singular focus for that day. I also rarely work for more than an hour on weekends, so I can recharge and enjoy a life outside of work.

Creating the image of busyness may be all the rage in startup and corporate culture, but the busier we are, the less space we have to think and be creative in solving the problems that companies of one need to solve. The Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and the Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir, authors of the book Scarcity, have concluded that we make bad decisions when we are strapped for time, too busy to think, and struggling to manage our obligations. Even if we take only a few hours a week of unplanned time, we can develop a bigger-picture focus or strategies for how our business actually runs.

Prior to the industrial revolution, work took up all waking hours. Everyone was either sleeping, eating, or working. The automaker Henry Ford instituted eight-hour shifts in his factory in 1914. An early advocate for breaking the day into thirds (work, sleep, family), he did so not so much out of unbridled generosity, but because he realized (so the story goes) that his workers needed free time to go out and buy more consumer goods. After many companies followed suit, we ended up with the traditional idea that work should take forty hours a week. The funny thing, though, is that any task will take up the time we give it. So if we give ourselves eight hours to work each day, our work will take eight hours, and if our tasks take less time than that, we usually fill much of the “extra” time with busywork. If we reframe the question of how we spend our time, however, we can start to figure out how long each of our tasks actually takes. Perhaps we need only four hours a day to get our work done.

As a company of one that achieves ownership over your schedule and how long you allow yourself to work, you can be overloaded with the sheer number of tasks you need to do to keep your businesses running. Researcher John Pencavel from Stanford University says that if you start to define your productivity in physical terms, you can see that your ability to focus drastically diminishes after fifty-five hours a week. So adding anything more to your schedule that takes longer will not be productive. The social badge of honor for always being busy and always working has no rewards past bragging rights. It also has no place in the company-of-one mind-set. What you should be bragging about is figuring out how to get your work done quicker and more productively.

Just as company growth should be questioned, so too should a busy schedule. How many opportunities do we really need to say yes to? Often, piling on work to get ahead comes at the price of our health, our relationships, and even our productivity. Perhaps we need to determine what “enough” is for our particular schedule and then ruthlessly stick to and defend that.


· The true purpose of your business and whether it shows up in your actions (not just in your marketing material)

· What you are skilled at that is already in demand and where else that skill could be leveraged

· Where you could test your leap into something in a small way first

· How you could align your day/schedule to be focused on single-tasking