What is a Company of One?

One of the relentless pursuits of so many businesses is growth. The freelancer wants to have a small agency. The agency wants to be big enough to get huge clients. The huge agency looks toward government contracts and multiple locations in the “vibrant” cities. What many of these businesses fail to realize is that growth may not be the best thing for their business and this is where Paul Jarvis steps in with Company of One.

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. 1

Jarvis is himself a company of one. It’s really just him and some systems that automate sales. This book is his brain dump on what it takes to be a company of one. What it takes to question growth and build a business that matches with your values.

Jarvis breaks his book up into three parts. First is “Begin” which lays the groundwork for what it means to be a company of one. The second section is titled “Define” and walks readers through defining what it takes to be a company of one. In the final section Jarvis walks us through what it takes to “Maintain” a company of one for the long term.

Before we look a little deeper at these parts, let’s look at the definition given for a company of one. It’s a very simple definition according to Jarvis:

A company of one is simply a business that questions growth. 2

Begin

According to Jarvis there are four typical traits of a company of one.

  1. Resilience
  2. Autonomy and Control
  3. Speed
  4. Simplicity

To achieve resilience Jarvis has a few suggestions. First, accept whatever is happening, regroup and start again. This echoes Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle is the Way who also wants us to look at the rock in our way, step to the side and then keep going.

When it comes to autonomy Jarvis reminds us that it takes more than just proficiency in your core skill.

But bear this in mind: achieving control over a company of one requires more than just using the core skill you are hired for. It also requires proficiency at sales, marketing, project management, and client retention. 3

If you want to run a good company, it’s time to start learning about all these things that weren’t on your resume before.

Jarvis looks at speed as a constraint, the same way I look at time. It’s not just about getting faster, it’s about working better within the constraints you have4. Focus on the important things that bring value to you and to your clients.

Finally, simplicity:

Typically, as companies gain success or traction, they grow by taking on additional complexities. These complexities can often detract from a businesses original primary focus, resulting in more costs and the investment of more time and money. 5

You don’t need to look at branching out into every little new thing that comes out. If you like writing and can generate sales from it, don’t worry about TikTok.

Begin, also gives us solid reasoning to question our quest for growth.

Ego is the final reason most companies want to grow. It’s also the trickiest, because it’s harder to overcome. As a society, we give people more clout and respect if they own a large company, so building one is a desirable goal. 6

Make sure that if you’re aiming for growth, it’s because you can’t serve the purpose you desire without that growth. If there is any other reason you’re looking at growth for your business, it’s likely not a good one according to Jarvis.

Define

The second part of Company of One is here to help readers figure out what it means to be a business that isn’t in the rat race for growth like everyone else. one of the first points that Jarvis makes is that you need a purpose beyond money that can be seen in every action you take with your business7.

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. 8

For me this brought up some questions about my own business. Is it still aligned with my purpose or not? I don’t have an answer yet, but I have some more questions to ask myself about it.

Jarvis also speaks to passion in your business, specifically saying that passion is a side-effect of mastery9. In this he echoes Cal Newport from So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

Passion and courage are oldest 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 ind demand, discovering how these skills can be applied to something else, and then testing your idea in a small way to see if it will pay. 10

He also speaks to the faulty assumption that just because you’re working on your passion you should be able to make a living off of it.

...you can pursue any passion you want, but you shouldn’t feel entitled to make money off it. 11

This section finishes out by addressing four other areas. First, you need to let your personality show through your business if you want to stand out from the crowd. Forget hiding behind being a “professional” business and all that crap12.

Second, focus on the one customer you have already. Serve theme and make sure that they’ll keep coming back. Prompt responses and hitting your time schedules is table stakes, though unfortunately so many people forget this that it’s amazing news when customers are served well.

Being prompt, answering questions, and treating customers with respect shouldn’t be rewarded — such service should be expected. 13

Third, build scalable systems for your business. Any freelancer, no matter how they bill, is trading time for money. If you want to be a company of one, you need to be able to earn while you’re not putting effort in. Use your constraint of time from the beginning of the book, and make sure you’re not stuck in all day meetings with no agendas1415.

Finally, teach everything you know. Don’t hold any secrets back, and people will love you for it.

To stand out and build an audience as a company of one, you have to out-teach and outshare the competition, not out scale them. 16

Many people hold parts of what they know back in the unfounded fear that they need to so that they have something to sell17. Jarvis says that you need to share your best stuff, and people will still purchase from you because they want more of the best from you.

Maintain

As Jarvis heads into the final section of his book, we start to get a bit of repeat. The first chapter is about using trust and scale to build good customers. He goes back over a bunch of the stuff he just covered about marketing as he talks about sharing what you know, and treating your customers well. One new thing he addresses is the distain that many creatives have for marketing.

Unfortunately, a lot of people, especially creative people, look upon marketing in a negative way.
The truth is, they really shouldn’t. Marketing is simply building a sense of trust and empathy with a specific group of people by consistently communicating with them.18

After he talks about trust and marketing, he starts to break truly new ground again as he talks about MVPr, and how to iterate on your ideas. MVPr is the Minimum Viable Profit that you need to make an idea sustainable19. You need to cut expenses and live frugally to make this happen because every moment you spend testing an idea and not hitting MVPr is a minute you’re burning money which makes it more likely that you’re going to fail20.

Every minute you spend as a company of one in the ongoing development of a new product is a munitions you aren’t seeing how well it solves a problem, and even worse you aren’t making money from it or building toward your MVPr. 21

Jarvis recommends that if you’re doing an online course, offer consulting first to refine the idea. If you can’t get anyone to purchase the coaching, why would you think that they’re interested in the course? I’ve taken this approach with my coaching and online course22.

Before Jarvis finishes off the book with his own story of building a Company of One, he talks about the value that relationships have for a business owner. You’re not in this alone, so don’t let yourself be alone.

Especially if you’re working for yourself, the tendency can be to believe and then act like your company of one is in this struggle all alone and that your business needs to just be you, with no outside interaction or involvement. 23

Yes, you do run your company with a single employee, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need help. When I launch a book I reach out to friends to help me promote it. When I’m stuck on an idea, I talk to colleagues about it and get fresh perspective on whatever has me stuck.

Should You Read Company of One by Paul Jarvis?

There’s only one rule for being a company of one: stay attentive to those opportunities that require growth and question them before taking them. Tha’t it — one rule. 24

Outside of the final chapter where Jarvis tells his story and sets out a plan for building your business, I found Company of One an enjoyable read. This last chapter felt a bit rushed with only advice like “hire an accountant” and no real talk on how to find one, or how to setup your business finances for day to day running25.

The rest of the book was a good look at what it means to drop the quest for growth and aim for a business that is sustainable. Jarvis brings into question whether growth is good, and will growth actually let you have more freedom or will it cost you your freedom and at the same time mean less profit because of increased expenses.

If you’re thinking about growing your business, read this and check your assumptions before blindly heading for growth.

Purchase Company of One on Amazon


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  15. In this Jarvis strongly echoes It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work ↩︎

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  25. I recommend Profit First without reservations. It transformed my business ↩︎