If our server can’t keep up with the number of requests its getting, we have two basic options; scale up, add more servers or server resources, or make the program more efficient. A perfectly-optimized program would never run out of server resources. That’s a great ideal, but its hard and processing power is cheap, so we add a few more cores. Scaling up is our default.
Like a lot of developers, I spend a lot of time working on these types of scaling problems.
As I’ve grown my business, I’ve learned the hard way that I have to give up my attachment taking on an unsustainable amount of work. Like a lot of entrepreneurs, I spend a lot of time learning about how to optimize my personal productivity. I think this will help me do more each day, and often that’s true. Like a lot of developers, I spend a lot of time on development automation. I think this will help me write better code, faster. Sometimes that’s true.
There is a limit to these types of optimizations. At some point, you have to add people. If you’ve already optimized and documented the process, then each person you add could make you more efficient. Not twice as efficient, but more efficient.
Scaling up – growing the team and spending more money – is too often presented as the only option.
I probably signed up for Paul Jarvis’ weekly newsletter to learn about email in hopes of learning some trick to increase my revenue so I could scale up my business problem. I became an avid reader and especially connected with this quote from his bio, “business growth isn’t always good, and isn’t always required.” That’s challenging to me, but someone who does a lot — analytics platform, courses, and now a book — and seemed to be doing it by himself, and enjoying life as he did it. That’s attractive to me.
Paul’s new book “Company of One” argues that small is the new big. I’m pretty curious how he can keep things so small, and have a body of work and products that seem so big. He was nice enough to answer some of my questions:
Torque: You do a lot of things. You’re now a published author and you have the weekly mailing list and Fathom Analytics with Danny van Kooten and the MailChimp course. Can you share a productivity tip or two that you use to keep that all going as a solo entrepreneur?
Jarvis: Yes, I have 3 software products, 3 online courses, 2 podcasts, a weekly newsletter which I write a full-length article for, and I write books.
So, this might sound ridiculous, but the best way to be productive is to do one thing at a time. The only way I can get so much done in the 4–6 hours a day I work is by laser focusing on each task and blocking everything else out.
What it looks like is essentially single-tasking.
First, I haven’t had any notifications on any devices for about 5 years now (and life or business hasn’t exploded). No Twitter blips, dings, red circles or top/right dialog boxes on my Mac. No warning if there’s a new email in my inbox. No announcements from any project management or group chat tool. Nothing. The only thing I let interrupt my work is calendar notifications (to remind me of things like interviews and calls) and text messages (no one texts me unless it’s important).
By doing this I can focus completely on the task at hand. So if it’s writing, that’s the only app open on my computer. If it’s design, then that’s the only app open. And sometimes, it’s Twitter or email, and either of those are the only things open. By doing this, I can get through things quickly—because batching similar tasks gets my brain into the flow of that task.
That said, I like variance in my work, so I really like having multiple projects on the go. It keeps things interesting. But, each project only takes up a lot of my time for a short spell. So I may spend a week on Fathom if we have a big feature push, then an hour a week on it for the next 2 months. Or, I may be writing Company of One for 3 months, then not write another book for a few years. There’s a balance I’ve found where I get to do different (and interesting things) that keep my brain engaged, without having to work on them each, at all times.
With every project, I consider not only the time costs to create it, but the maintenance cost to keep them going. So most projects, like podcasts (which are seasonal for me) or courses (each opens for a week in the spring and a week in the fall) or books (one every few years), require a sprint of focused time, then no work for ages.
Is there anything you miss about your work from before you took the minimalist approach to your business?
It’s always been fairly minimal. Even in the beginning (in the 1990s), I was very much about simple designs and simple solutions for the clients I had.
Working for yourself is freedom—if you do it right—so achieving greater freedom in your business by implementing ideas borrowed from minimalism seems like a win-win. (Or maybe it’s just one win since the second win isn’t necessary and therefore purged. Hashtag, minimalismjokes.)
One of the smartest things I’ve done in my business is a question if “more” is actually better. Which is the complete opposite approach taken by startups and corporations?
Such businesses tend to see growth as the chief indicator of success. More customers is a win! Higher revenue is a win! Greater exposure is a win! And sure, they can be, but not always. And definitely not always when blindly obtained.
Sometimes more customers mean much more customer support. Sometimes more revenue comes at the price of higher investments and expenses (netting less profit in spite of more revenue). Sometimes more exposure means more of the wrong people see you and more of the right people for your business are put off because they think your business is actually for someone else.
Excess ? Success (Hi math, I love you!)
Sometimes “enough” is better. For instance, if I make enough money to support my life and save a little, “more” likely only brings more stress, more work, more responsibility. If I already have enough customers that I can personally support, why would I want more if that would mean I had to hire and then manage employees? Remember my note about freedom? Enough means I can optimize for freedom, not blind growth.
We tend to think about growth as a good thing, but also a problem that has to be solved by scaling up. Your book argues that’s not a given. What questions would you recommend to a freelance site builder ask themselves that will help them decide if hiring employees is the right answer for their lifestyle and business or not?
I’m glad you asked because there are definitely some questions to ask yourself. And here’s the thing: regardless of what thought leaders online might tell you, success is so deeply personal. Meaning, it looks like different things for different people.
The point of Company of One is not to become anti-growth, but to simply question it. A company of one questions growth first, and then resists it if there’s a better, smarter way forward.
Before we get into the questions, I just wanted to share a few bits of research from studies about growth, because it’s not always beneficial for business and sometimes it’s downright harmful.
In 2012, the Startup Genome Project conducted a study where they analyzed more than 3,200 startups and found that 74 percent of those businesses failed – not because of competition or bad business plans, but because they scaled up too quickly. Growth, as a primary focus, is not only a bad business strategy but an entirely harmful one. By failing—as defined in the study—these startups had massive layoffs, closed shop completely, or sold off their business for pennies on the dollar. Putting growth over profit was their downfall.
When the Kauffman Foundation and Inc. Magazine did a follow-up study on a list of the 5,000 fastest-growing companies in America five to eight years later, they found that more than two-thirds of them were out of business, had undergone massive layoffs, or had been sold below their market value, confirming the findings of the Startup Genome Project. These companies weren’t able to become self-sustaining because they spent and grew based on where they thought their revenue would hit—or they grew based on venture capital injections of funds, not on actual revenue.
To what we should be asking ourselves if we want to truly question growth? I’d start with these:
- Why do you want more growth? Answer this question three times, because the first answer or two could be just a story you’re telling yourself.
- How much is enough? How will you know when you’ve reached enough? What will change when you reach enough?
- Does this growth just serve your ego or is it beneficial in some way? If yes, in what way specifically?
- How does bigger/more/growth serve or help your existing customers?
- What are the maintenance costs of saying “yes” or starting/building X?
- How does this affect your profit (not just your revenue)?
- How does the affect your happiness?
- How does it affect your responsibilities and how you wanna spend your day? Because growth can mean growing out of a job you actually love to do.
A tagline I saw for your new book that I loved was “small is the new big.” I’m wondering how that applies to products that decide to stay small. How can they feel big enough to pay to the customer without being over-stuffed with features?
My favorite software does just one thing. My favorite writing app is IAWriter which doesn’t even let you change the font, sizing or colors. Overcast is my favorite podcast player because it isn’t stuffed with features I don’t care about.
By focusing on a single way to solve an issue for a specific type of customer, software can get really, really, really good at solving it, since that’s the main focus.
With Fathom, we’ve seen a ton of initial success because we only show a handful of stats to people, instead of Google Analytics 100 pages of reports that each have 100 variations. Our software is simple, minimal, and does just what it needs to do. Some people like that enough to pay for it. That said, it’s not everyone, and that’s a good thing.
Trying to make software that caters to everyone and solves all their problems will leave you with really awful software that’s bloated, slow and hard to use. It’s why products like MS Word or even Photoshop are rapidly losing marketshare to more minimal products like IAWriter and Figma. Heck, even WP Engine doesn’t try to offer hosting to every type of business and server setup imaginable, they focus on WordPress and businesses that have money to spend on a reliable and great solution.
Bigger isn’t better, better is better. When we confuse this we end up with awful products. That’s why the tagline for the book calls “small the new big” – because we’re finally waking up to the idea that huge companies with bloated software aren’t the only successful way forward. And I’m pretty excited about that.