I stopped at one of my favorite spots early one morning recently before my first client meeting. That happened to be the Chick-Fil-A in Brookfield, CT. You might know the owner-operator, Devon Scanlon, from our Small Business As Usual podcast 19-1 or her participation in our Women’s Business Success conference.
What I noticed on the wall that I hadn’t seen in previous visits was a framed whiteboard with inscriptions from 26 of her employees. Devon later told me the idea was just an inspiration they came up with locally last November to recognize the season of being thankful. They loved the result so much they decided to post it in the dining room.
If you study the messages, you find some touching expressions of the staff member’s appreciation of working on a great team, finding a second family, making friends and memories and being able to work toward greatness. Some talked about being thankful for vital life lessons, or the chance to better themselves and work toward owning a business. Others mentioned a vibrant atmosphere, great attitudes and an awesome environment.
Reading these genuine messages, I was even more impressed than I already had been with Devon’s operation (and the chain in general, which I have previously mentioned in these articles). But I saw something else, an implicit challenge awaiting any small business owner who dares to find out – What would the employees of your business say if given the chance?
Would they pour out similar sentiments? Would the invitation be greeted with polite silence and ignored?
There are probably other ways to test the engagement and cohesiveness of an organization. And to be clear, although great leadership is required to build a great culture, the expressions didn’t mention the boss. Co-workers can certainly be devoted to each other while hating the boss. But I don’t think that’s the case in Brookfield.
In surfing with my internet news reader app recently, I ran across a documentary about wingsuits. Apparently cutting out television a few years ago had deprived me of much knowledge of this insane activity that makes hang gliding and skydiving appear to be the sport of chickens. (Wingsuits give you the simulated anatomy of a flying squirrel so you can jump off a cliff and then either fall to your demise, or preferably glide until you land with a parachute in the last instant.)
I couldn’t resist mentally seeing a comparison to the approach some entrepreneurs take to starting their businesses.
The world of small business already suffers from the confusion and delusion created by the glamorizing of tech startup unicorns or Shark Tank inventors that makes gathering and spending other people’s money seem so easy.
But there is another approach that’s been around much longer and is coincidentally called “taking a leap.” The idea is that you stake your life savings on the brilliance of your idea, your bullheaded determination and intestinal fortitude. You quit a stable fulltime job and put all of your time and energy into your business concept. Some entrepreneurs seem to forget to even put on the wingsuit. Splat.
Alternatively, there are other paths to business ownership which are much more comparable to the kiddie carousel that parents ride with their gleeful toddlers. It’s not nearly as exciting of a way in, but there are some distinct advantages when it comes to risk management.
Step one: Don’t quit your job. Suffer a while longer, perhaps years, and (Step two) perform the feat called capital accumulation. You save up enough money to invest in a venture, while maintaining your other obligations.
Step three: Look for a pretty sure thing. Not every productive business need be a society-changing, heretofore unimagined innovation. The world will not be offended if you choose to buy an existing business or copy another proven idea. Something that you can manage part-time while you keep earning a steady paycheck is best. Yes, this dampens the rush of terrifying excitement, but your odds of success improve immensely. An established, well-vetted franchise system that matches your capabilities and resources is a great choice.
Step four: Only quit that full time job when working in your own business offers you relatively more financial security for a reasonably predictable time into the future. And only then should you consider using your additionally accumulated capital to tinker with new business concepts and ideas to spin off into other ventures.
An alternate route in this kind of journey involves employing a prudent amount of debt capital. A lender will demand a credible business plan which in most cases serves to keep crazy flying machines grounded.
All of these conservative prescriptions may sound like they’re for cowards without the courage to challenge the Fates. But to me it’s more like the choice between the high roller in the casino, or being the house, which enjoys the boring but dependable profitability of a couple of percentage points of advantage over the long run.
Business is often depicted as a struggle, a battle, a war. It's an apt description, if only because so many business owners spend their energy flailing against insurmountable forces that they can never reverse or defeat. But it doesn't make the outcomes for business ownership hopeless or even inordinately difficult.
How many business owners do you know who focusing on beating their customers instead of improving their offering? Or when failures occur, they look for who to blame instead of seeking root causes for future prevention? Were you taught that business is about prioritizing increasing sales or delivering more value? And in a world where your enterprise is just a cork in the ocean, are you fighting against the flow or moving with the market?
The narratives surrounding business owners encourage the idea of fighting to their last breath or drop of blood to achieve results instead of simply doing what they know to be required and being detached from the outcome. Are you reacting to the demands of your market or creating them? And do you put your thinking into developing strategy or instead developing the guiding vision?
Company of One by Paul Jarvis is a contrarian's message against the popular business mantra of growth at all cost. This growth message is ingrained in business but rarely questioned. We watch stock prices of public companies as if it is the national sport. But should we worship growth? Is growth always in the best interest of employees and the company?
Growth can be a curse when the focus moves from satisfying customers to arbitrary financial numbers that often reward wrong behaviors as opposed to continuously improving products and the customer experience. Jarvis asks, “What if you worked instead toward growing smaller, smarter, more efficient, and more resilient?”
Jarvis seeks to “build better, not bigger, businesses.” In the book, he says, “Staying small doesn’t have to be a stepping-stone to something else or the result of a business failure—rather, it can be an end goal or a smart long-term strategy.”
Company of One is a powerful message for a one-person business and a philosophy employees can use working for larger corporations. This book is an instant classic for any person making a living as a business or selling their skills in the marketplace.
Jarvis toiled for twenty years as a one-person business. Over the years, he worked with Warner Music, Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, and was featured in USA Today, Fast Company, and WIRED. His online courses have helped over 13,500 students.
Jarvis earned his master’s the hard way, not as a freelancer exchanging time for money, but as a business satisfying customers one at a time. Operating a business is not easy, and doing anything well for a longtime commands respect.
Along his journey, Jarvis learned much about creating a sustainable business. And now he has something to share with you in his magnum opus: Company of One. Jarvis takes on questions about growth from his unique perspective.