Book Review: Company of One by Paul Jarvis

Slow growth, and a relentless focus on helping your customers succeed, is a sustainable way to build and run company of one.

A photo of an iPad mini atop an orange notebook, with reading glasses off to the left, all on a wood tabletop.

The Intro

Today, we’re looking at a book that feels like it was written just for what I’m trying to do with 2C³. Company of One by Paul Jarvis is a refreshing take on the concept of business growth and success. It challenges the traditional notion that bigger is always better, advocating instead for a philosophy of 'better before bigger'. It’s particularly relevant for solopreneurs and individuals running a side business, as it lays out a blueprint for building a sustainable business without succumbing to the pressures of relentless expansion.

I like to break book reviews like this down into four sections — a summary of key points discussed, any criticisms I might have about the book, any concepts I’m applying (or plan to apply), and a conclusion. Let’s get started!

The Download

Let’s dive deeper into what makes this book a compelling read for solopreneurs and side business owners.

  1. Sustainability Over Growth: Jarvis presents a powerful argument against the conventional wisdom that equates success with scaling up. For solopreneurs and side business owners, this perspective is liberating. It means focusing on creating a stable, profitable business that serves your life goals without the pressure to expand beyond your means or desires. This approach encourages entrepreneurs to define their own metrics of success, such as freedom, flexibility, and fulfillment, rather than just revenue and employee counts.
  2. Autonomy and Independence: One of the most appealing aspects of Jarvis's philosophy is the emphasis on autonomy. In a world where entrepreneurs are often advised to delegate and build teams, "Company of One" suggests that there's also strength in staying small and nimble. This is particularly resonant for those who cherish direct control over their work and decision-making processes. Jarvis encourages finding ways to streamline operations and leverage tools and technology to manage workload efficiently, thus maintaining independence.
  3. Efficiency and Innovation: The book drives home the idea that being small doesn't mean being less impactful. Jarvis advocates for leveraging efficiency and innovation to compete with larger entities. This includes adopting automation, focusing on high-value activities, and continuously looking for ways to improve products and services. For the target audience, this means that even with limited resources, they can carve out a niche by being more agile and responsive to market changes than bigger competitors.

If I could sum up the book in a single sentence: First define what’s enough —what Jarvis calls your Minimum Viable Profit— and then focus relentlessly on helping your customers, leveraging automation and technology as much as possible, to run your company as lean as possible.

Society has ingrained in us a very particular idea of what success in business looks like. You work as many hours as possible, and when your business starts to do well, you scale everything up in every direction.

Frankly, I love this. I strongly believe that small businesses are the economic lifeblood of our communities, and that entrepreneurs that chase profit and growth at all costs are a destructive force on those same communities.

It’s okay to be satisfied with enough.

The Skepticism

While I like a lot of what the book was sharing, it did feel a bit like it would take examples from much larger companies —like Netflix and Patagonia— to make the case for certain ideas. It also felt like certain references just didn’t follow through with enough of a proper case study to really support a larger idea; quite a few paragraphs felt like a name drop followed by some concept, and linking the two was an exercise left up to the reader.

I also liked the idea about a “company of one within a larger organization” but felt this particular line of discussion was given short shrift in the book. For those of us hoping to develop more impact at our day jobs, there was some helpful information, but then there were also suggestions like this:

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.

I mean… that’d be nice, but it’s also pretty unrealistic to skip daily meetings and stay off Slack in most modern workplaces.

But honestly, that’s about it as far as criticism. I found there was a fair bit of practical advice in the book, and for someone who’s very new to starting and running a microbusiness, it covered a lot of very important concepts, like marketing and customer success.

This article is sponsored by Per, a free iPhone app by Dropped Bits.

Per for iPhone

Per is the easiest, fastest way to compare price while you shop. It makes shopping decisions easy with its built-in unit converter and calculator, quickly showing you how much you’re getting for your money.

Get Per on the App Store

The Application

There are a bunch of useful concepts here that I’m going to be applying in my own microbusiness, Dropped Bits. The first is defining my Minimum Viable Profit, which feels easy enough to figure out. I’m building out a little spreadsheet to help me think about pricing my next app in relation to my costs — I’ll share more about this in a future article.

The second concept is to get really serious about marketing — that is, doing the market research work, discussing ideas at length with potential customers, and getting more serious about data-driven decisions when it comes to product development and community building.

Product-market fit surveys, A/B tests, email campaigns, content marketing — these are all things I’m investigating and working on as I ramp up to build my next product. I’ve never really done much of this before, and I’m eager to share what I learn here.

The Takeaway

Okay, so, this is the second book on entrepreneurship we’re talking about here, so I think it’s helpful to look at Company of One in comparison to the last book I reviewed here, The E-Myth Revisited.

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. Whereas most normal corporate workers can be hyperfocused on a single skill, companies of one, even within a larger business, need to be generalists who are good at several things—often all at once.

Recall the three personas Gerber describes —the Entrepreneur, the Manager, and the Technician— and the need to balance their power over the work you do.

Even a company without employees still requires constraints. In serving clients with very specific deliverable requirements as well as customers who need your product to perform in a precise way, the more you can lean on processes, systems, and reusable building blocks (from code to marketing language to visuals) in your leadership, the better and faster you’ll be with your work and the less you’ll require in terms of hours worked or people hired, even as you gain more in terms of revenue, finished processes, and paid customers.

This sounds a lot like the Systems Thinking in Gerber’s Franchise Prototype Model, doesn’t it?

Gerber's book is a classic that breaks down the myths surrounding starting your own business and emphasizes the importance of systems, processes, and the entrepreneurial mindset. It's particularly well-suited for individuals who dream of starting a business but find themselves caught up in the day-to-day operations.

On the other hand, Company of One is more about maintaining a minimalist approach to business growth and focusing on what truly matters to the entrepreneur on a personal level. While Gerber pushes for systemization and delegation to prepare for growth, Jarvis advocates for a lean operation that prioritizes personal satisfaction and sustainability.

Ultimately, Company of One feels like a must-read for solopreneurs and side business owners looking for a sustainable approach to business. Its insights on growth, efficiency, and independence are invaluable, albeit with a few limitations. When compared with The E-Myth Revisited, it offers a complementary perspective, focusing more on the individual's needs rather than the mechanics of business operations. Reading both books together provides a pretty well-rounded view of how to approach and sustain a successful microbusiness, so I recommend you check them out!

Subscribe to Two Common Cents Club

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson