Book notes
Company of One

Company of One by Paul Jarvis

Read in January 2019

"All you need is to be a decent human being with a valued skill set and a willingness to share what you know with people who’ll listen."

The book starts with Paul's moving story from Vancouver to Tofino, a small town:

Yet we soon learned that living in the woods on an island does something funny—it forces you to go deep within your own thoughts. There’s not a whole lot else you can do, especially if you don’t have a television or even Netflix. And at first, exploring your own thoughts is one of the scariest things in the world. (A study at the University of Virginia by Timothy Wilson found that people would rather get electric shocks than simply be alone with their thoughts.) But then again, if you sit with your thoughts for a while, they can reveal some mind-set-changing ideas.

In other words, by scaling down every aspect of my life, I realized this was how I had successfully built my business all along.

A company of one isn’t simply a practicing freelancer either. While freelancing is a perfect first step to becoming a company of one, freelancers are different because they exchange time for money. Whether they’re getting paid by the hour or by deliverables, if they’re not working, they’re not getting paid. All of a freelancer’s relationships are one-to-one, meaning that each time paid work occurs, a freelancer has to do something and use his or her time.

If you’re utilizing systems, automations, and processes to build a long-term business, you’re not trading time for money, but instead operating and profiting outside of the time you spend working and beyond your one-to-one relationships.

Just as Michael Pollan’s food ideology is summarized in three simple rules—“eat food, not too much, mostly plants”—the “company of one” model can be laid out in a similar fashion: “start small, define growth, and keep learning.”

Chapter 1: Defining Company of One

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

I’ve personally see the most success in my life when I’ve figured out solutions to problems without having to do what traditional 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. Instead, I and many others enjoy handling problems with the resources currently available. Although it can require a little more ingenuity, solving problems this way can set a business up for long-term stability, since less is needed to keep it afloat.

If you’re a company of one, your mind-set is to build your business around your life, not the other way around.

Four typical traits of all companies of one


  • Story of Daniele LaPorte (hired a CEO who decreased the role of her in her own company)
  • The first trait that resilient people have is an acceptance of reality.
  • The second characteristic of resilient people is a sense of purpose—being motivated by a sense of meaning rather than by just money.
  • The last trait of resilient people in a company of one is the ability to adapt when things change—because they invariably do.

Autonomy and Control

  • Being a company of one lets you control your own life and your job.
  • Kaitlin Maud, a freelance digital strategist thinks that a sense of autonomy looks different on everyone. She herself has created a work life that rewards her for getting her work done quickly. In a typical company, regardless of how quickly you work, you’re still required to be there for a set number of hours a day; in other words, there’s no reward for productivity or efficiency. Kaitlin has also found that she’s able to get work done with more focus from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM, so she doesn’t schedule meetings or calls during that window of time.
  • 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.


  • Companies of one question their systems, processes, and structure to become more efficient and to achieve more with the same number of employees and fewer hours of work.


  • Start without automation or infrastructure or overhead. Start by helping one customer. Then another. This puts your focus on helping people immediately with what you’ve got available to you right now. Work on things like sales funnels and automation when it no longer makes sense to personalize your interactions with your customers in surprising and delightful ways.

Chapter 2: Staying Small as an End Goal

Whether your audience is ten people, a hundred people, or even a thousand people, if you’re not doing right by them, right now, nothing you do regarding growth or marketing will make a lick of difference. Make sure you’re listening to, communicating with, and helping the people who are already paying attention to you.

Part of Sean’s customer retention strategy involves sending his customers a box of chocolates, with a handwritten note and sometimes a small cartoon he draws himself. The package costs him approximately $20, which includes shipping from New Zealand (where he lives currently), but it’s the one thing his customers talk about. They’ll buy a $2,000 training program from him and talk about the chocolate. He’ll give a speech at an event, and people will talk about the chocolate. His customers love these small touches, and the attention his business gives them, because his company of one focuses solely on serving his existing customers, not on infinite growth.

When you hire employees, you’re responsible for them. You’re their source of income that goes toward paying their mortgages, feeding their families, and even sending their children to college. That’s a heavy responsibility.

Chapter 3: What’s Required to Lead

Introverted Leaders: a quieter, calmer leader is more likely to listen carefully, stay very focused, and not be afraid to work for long stretches of time without interruption. And they are able to lead a team of people who can do the same.

Companies of one are sometimes quiet people who are internally motivated to make a difference in the world without shouting.

Historian Henry Adams stated that power is a tumor that ends up killing its victims’ sympathies.

Chapter 4: Growing a Company That Doesn’t Grow

Churn is what happens when existing customers decide they don’t want to be customers anymore. So the revenue they generated needs to be replaced with revenue from new customers. If your churn is higher than your user acquisition rate, then you’re in a downward spiral.

We often think that we need to have everything in place—all the systems, all the automations, all the processes—to be ready to launch a digital product. We want everything all polished and perfect before we hit “publish.” But most of the time this doesn’t happen. Most of the time, in fact, waiting until everything is totally perfect can only hurt or delay your launch.

Chapter 5: Determining the Right Mind-Set

When you focus on solving problems or on making a difference, passion may follow, because you’re actually involved in the work you’re doing instead of just dreaming that you might be passionate about something.

Chapter 6: Personality Matters

The best marketing is never just about selling a product or service, but about taking a stand—showing an audience why they should believe in what you’re marketing enough to want it at any cost, simply because they agree with what you’re doing.

Guy Kawasaki believes, we should create products that make specifically identified groups of people very happy and ignore everyone else.

Chapter 7: The One Customer

You don’t get referrals by just meeting the standard expectations of customer service—people rarely find it worth mentioning to others that a company did just enough to help them but nothing more. You have to do much more than that to evangelize customers if you want them to talk about your company favorably. A great example is a now-infamous story from the tech world about a customer service call to RackSpace, an enterprise-level cloud hosting provider. The call center rep heard someone in the background of a support call mention that he was hungry and wonder about ordering something. She quietly put the customer on hold, ordered a pizza to be delivered to the address she had on file, and went back to assisting the customer with his problem. Twenty minutes later, still on the phone with the customer, she heard a knock in the background and told him to go answer the door, saying, “It’s your pizza.” The pleasant unexpected experience led to not only a very happy (and full) customer but also a story that would be shared thousands of times online. This is the kind of customer service that builds reciprocity: your customer gets something unexpected and then feels the need to help your business, not only by remaining loyal but also by telling others.

If you find that support requests are primarily on a certain topic, maybe you could do a better job of teaching users about that topic. And if a handful of requests on a certain topic continue to come up again and again, perhaps that topic can be the basis of your next user-led innovation initiative.

You have to own your mistakes—even those caused by someone else—by taking personal responsibility for them before someone else blames you for them. The first step is apologizing like a real, empathetic human, not a corporate PR-sounding robot.

Acknowledgment of fault is powerful. It shows empathy, a willingness to own the problem, and a desire to then fix it. And as the studies cited here all found, apologizing effectively can cost dramatically less than a lawsuit or a refund.

Chapter 8: Scalable Systems

Real-time collaboration can be very useful when a whole team is required to brainstorm or solve a problem together, but it can also be completely distracting if it’s expected most of the time.

Chapter 9: Teach Everything You Know

Lawyer Brian: freely sharing information with them on a weekly basis proved fruitful: because he was writing educational content, people trusted his expertise and then wanted to hire, not just any lawyer, but the person who was sharing the information they needed.

Ideas alone are worthless, execution is the only valid currency in business.

It’s not enough to just tell people you’re an authority—you’ve got to demonstrate your actual expertise by sharing what you know and teaching others. Creating a relationship with an audience that sees you as a teacher sets you up to be perceived as the domain expert on the subject matter.

Chapter 10: Properly Utilizing Trust and Scale

Trust by Proxy: According to Nielsen, 92 percent of consumers trust recommendations from family or friends over any other form of advertising.

If you ask for a testimonial as soon as a project is finished, the client has rarely had enough time to collect any results-based data. By creating a schedule for following up with contented clients, you can turn referrals into a real strategy instead of simply refreshing your inbox and hoping each day that one will come in.

Chapter 11: Launching and Iterating in Tiny Steps

Minimum Viable Profit

If you’re overvaluing your plan because it’s your plan (known as the “endowment effect”), then you should probably quit.

Chapter 12: The Hidden Value of Relationships

If you’re focusing on growth, growth is what will happen . But if you focus instead on relationships that turn into long - term customers and sales , that’s what will happen instead .

Chapter 13: Starting a Company of One—My Story

All you need is to be a decent human being with a valued skill set and a willingness to share what you know with people who’ll listen.


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