A “company of one” is simply a business of any size that questions growth.
"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction."
- E.F. Schumacher
A company of one resists and questions some forms of traditional growth, not on principle, but because growth isn’t always the most beneficial or financially viable move.
It can be a small business owner or a small group of founders or a literal one-person company.
I’ve personally seen the most success in my life when I’ve figured out solutions to problems without having to do what traditional large businesses do to solve problems—hire more people, throw more money at the problem, or build complex infrastructures to support the extra employees. Basically, I’m not interested in addressing problems by throwing “more” at them. Solving with “more” means more complexity, more costs, more responsibilities, and typically more expenses.
More is generally the easiest answer, but not the smartest.
I’ve found both delight and financial benefits in working out solutions to problems without growing in order to solve them. Instead, myself and many others enjoy handling problems with the resources currently available (after all, creativity does seem to thrive on constraints). Although it can require a little more ingenuity to work with that’s available (like MacGyver!), solving problems this way can set a business up for long-term stability, since less is needed to keep it afloat.
In October 2016, I wrote a blog post saying I wasn’t interested in exponentially growing any company I own or build. I felt like the single red fish in a school of blue ones. But then an interesting thing happened: replies started to pour in. People doing all sorts of exciting things in business, from selling fair-trade caramels to working at the biggest tech companies to manufacturing clothing, emailed me that they felt the same way—they had resisted traditional growth and had benefited from it!
As I started to develop my own ideas around this concept of staying small and questioning growth, I continued to discover more and more research, stories, and examples of others doing the same. I found that there’s a silent movement to approach business in this way that isn’t just for cash-strapped tech startups or people who make just enough to scrape by. This company of one movement includes individuals and businesses making six and seven figures and becoming happier than most businesspeople should be with the work they do.
Growth, especially blind growth, isn’t the best solution to any problem a business might face.
And going further, growing your business might actually be the worst decision you could make for the longevity of your business.
So a company of one is not anti-growth, or anti-revenue, and it’s not just a one-person business either (although it certainly can be). It’s also not just working with a tech-focused or startup mind-set, although leaning on technology, automation, and the connectedness of the internet definitely makes it easier to be a company of one. A company of one questions growth first, and then resists it if there’s a better, smarter way forward.
Here are a few ways you can work as a company of one:
- 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 content, a research assistant to help gather research for your educational products, or 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 an online 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. [Editor's note: Microsoft Bookings is also available to Office 365 Business Premium users.]
- 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 a company of one 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 company or business, 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.
What if the real key to richer and more fulfilling work could be to not create and scale something into a massive corporation, but rather, to work for yourself, determine your own hours, and become a (highly profitable) and sustainable company of one?