Company of One: A book review by Bob Morris

Company of One: Why Staying Small Is the Next Big Thing for Business
Paul Jarvis
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (January 2019)

How and why to “start small, define growth, and keep learning”

According to Paul Jarvis, “blind growth is the main cause of business problems. It can leave you with an unmaintainable number of employees, unsustainable costs, and more work than hours in the day. It can force you to lay off employees, sell your company at a less than optimal price, or, even worse, close up shop completely.”

He recommends staying small, not as a temporary tactic but rather, “it can be an end goal or a smart long-term strategy. The point of being a company of one is to become better in ways that don’t incur the typical setbacks of growth. You can [and should] scale up revenue, enjoyment, raving fans, focus, autonomy, and experiences with while resisting the urge to blindly scale up employee payroll, expenses, and stress levels. This approach builds both a profit buffer for your company to weather markets and a personal buffer to thrive even in times of hardship.” Growth is not progress unless measured in terms of increasing profitable sales, market share, client share, and cap value.

Jarvis provides an abundance of information, insights, and counsel that can help almost any business leader to establish a company of one, a department of one, even an entire enterprise of one. He organizes his thirteen chapters within three Parts as he explains how to begin that process, how to define its terms and conditions, and how to strengthen the process. I suggest you view his concept as leaders at LEGO did (i.e. one brick at a time), at Ritz-Carlton did (one guest at a time), and at Union Square Hospitality Group (“one dining experience at a time”).It is no coincidence that companies annually ranked among the most highly admired and best to work for are also annually ranked among those most profitable.

In Art of War, Sun Tzu insists that every battle is won or lost before it is fought. The same is true of efforts to eliminate waste. Whatever its size and nature, every organization can win that battle if those involved embrace the Company of One mindset. On the list of avoidable waste, be sure to include the loss of talent, passive engagement (“mailing it in”) as well as active disengagement (subversion) among the workforce, and customers who don’t feel appreciated.

Consider, also, the concept of downsizing. It really should be viewed as [begin italics] rightsizing [end italics] because, as Jarvis stresses throughout his narrative, prudent growth can be scaled to success whereas blind growth inevitably scales to failure. Keep this in mind when responding to the “Begin to Think About” checklist at the conclusion of each chapter. In this context, I strongly recommend highlighting key passages while reading the book. Also, keep a lined notebook near at hand in which to record comments, questions, page references, etc.

Jarvis fully understands the need of all organizations to develop effective leadership at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. He also realizes that companies of one require a different kind of leader than the prototypical vision of someone who is charismatic, with a dominant, type-A personality who “commands attention simply by being the loudest and most vocal person in a room.” In Chapter 3, he explains what’s required to lead in a Company of One.

These are among the passages that caught my eye in Parts I and II, “Begin” and “Define”:

o The Rise of Companies of One (Pages 7-10)
o Resilience (10-14)
o Simplicity (20-23)
o The Downsides of Excessive Growth as an End Goal (30-34)
o Upper Bounds [to Goals and Target] 40-42

o Autonomy Isn’t a Magic Bullet (49-51)
o A Varied Set of Skills (51-54)
o Debugging the Myth of Indefatigable Leadership (56-59)
o If Scale Isn’t the Goal, What Is? 64-68)
o Growing Within an Existing Organization (70-73)

o When Passion Is a Problem  (81-87)
o The Attention Economy (96-99)
o Neutrality Can Be Costly (99-104)
o The Second Wave (108-111)
o Successful Customers Build Successful Businesses (114-117)

o Your Word Is a Contract (120-122)
o Creation As a Scalable System  (127-129)
o Connection As a Scalable System (129-131)
o Ideas Alone  Are Worthless (139-140)
o Teaching Builds Authority (143-146)

Long ago, Albert Einstein urged, “Make everything as simple as possible but no simpler.” Keep that in mind as you work your way through some of Jarvis’ concluding thoughts: “There’s [begin italics] one rule [end italics] for being a company of one: stay attentive to those opportunities that require growth and question them before taking them. That’s it — one rule. The rest is entirely up to you. But if you ever stop questioning the need for growth, you run the risk that the beast of growth will devour you and your business whole.”

In this context, I recall a scene in one of Ernest Hemingway’s novels, The Sun Also Rises, when American expatriates share memories of their former lives in “the states.” One of them tells the others that his company went bankrupt. How did it happen? “Slowly and then suddenly.” That’s usually the pace of blind growth. Consequences of ill-advised decisions may take several months (or even years) to reveal themselves and by then it is usually too late to recover. Yes, the beast of growth has an insatiable appetite but is in no hurry.

Jarvis can help almost anyone to develop and then apply the “company of one” concept at work and elsewhere. Socrates called attention to those who live unexamined lives; Henry David Thoreau referred to those who live lives “of quiet desperation.” Paul Jarvis  is committed to helping those who are hostage to cluttered lives, who confuse growth with progress, who find themselves in a deep hole and keep digging. Ultimately, the value of his efforts will be determined by the impact they have. His insights are brilliant and potentially invaluable. Bravo!


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