Book of the Week: Company of One

4 Mar|Tom Hodgkinson

In Company of One, entrepreneur Paul Jarvis attacks the “rapid growth” model of Silicon Valley and promotes a different, gentler route to business success, calling for a “slow growth” movement. Tom Hodgkinson meets the author

Tom Hodgkinson: So you don’t go for this idea of raising millions from venture capitalists and burning through cash?

Paul Jarvis: It might look good to others to have a high burn rate, but I am of the mindset that I want to sit at home doing work I greatly enjoy doing. If you’re taking Venture Capital (VC) money, they want to make a return, so you have two crowds to please: you have to make your investors happy and your customers happy. And you cannot focus on rapid growth and profit at the same time. I have no ill will against those types of companies. But for me, I am happy writing and doing a little bit of business.

TH: Our business heroes appear to work ridiculously hard – look at Elon Musk.

PJ: Elon Musk sleeps in his office and never takes a vacation. Each time he has taken a vacation, he says, a rocket has crashed. So he doesn’t do them. Steve Jobs was apparently an asshole. But that’s just one narrative and there are many others.

TH: Would you say that there is any kind of movement afoot? And why is this stuff not written about more in the press?

PJ: I would call it the “No Growth” or “Slow Growth” movement. I am thinking of Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, founders of Basecamp [a software company]. They’ve written books on how work doesn’t have to be crazy. Patagonia and Buffer are other examples of companies that stay small. There’s a book called Small Giants by Bo Burlingham which looks at this world. Even Tim Ferris [author of The 4-Hour Workweek] could be said to be part of this movement. I live in Vancouver, Canada, and when I go to the dentist there are business magazines lying around, but they all seem to agree that growth is the best thing. So I think that people in the world I’m talking about are not interested in traditional media, not fans of mainstream media. It is actually big businesses that fucked everything up. But they might just be a blip on the timelines. Maybe we will go back to durable and profitable small businesses in the future.

TH: What are your views on Silicon Valley and why the Internet went wrong?

PJ: I started out on the Internet in 1993. It was decentralised and for the people – it was us talking to each other. We lost our way, we ended up selling it to big corporations. They gave away their services for free – at the beginning anyway. They probably had noble intentions, and did not think “I am going to harvest data from this.” But that is what happened. I’m against platforms. I feel like any time we exist on someone else’s platform, they can take their support away at any time. You are dependent on them. I mean, I use Twitter for sarcasm, but if Twitter disappeared, it would not make any difference to me.

The founders of Basecamp had never done Facebook advertising and decided to test $200,000 on it. It was a complete waste of money that would have been better spent on developing products for their customers. I’ve never been on Facebook, and my business has never had issues keeping customers. We should never assume that any platform will give us the magic juice that will build traction. We have to do the work; we have to bring our own people. Medium is the same, also Kickstarter – they do not bring people to you.

TH: What about Patreon?

PJ: Well, I could set that up myself in an hour. And if I was crowdfunding, I would put a button on my website. Then I wouldn’t have to give 10 per cent to a platform which brings you no new people anyway. I would also like to know who my customers are. I want to see who the person is, I can see their email address, I want that communication – and I don’t want to pay to use a platform to use that. Silicon Valley are like drug dealers: it starts out free, then you get hooked, then you’re not paying to get high any more, you’re just paying to feel normal.

I’ve never done Google Adwords. It’s a collective delusion. We think that these things are going to work, and maybe they do work for a very small number of people. But you’re just getting a click, which is a vanity metric. It doesn’t mean a sale. I’d rather focus on organic growth with the best quality product, and speak to my audience directly. Replies to my newsletter go to my personal inbox. That feedback helps me as a business owner, and I can build better products.

TH: What about pricing?

PJ: It’s harder to compete at the bottom of the market, because the cheapest thing wins. My online courses, for example, are not as cheap as Udemy. A friend of mine draws cartoons, and he is able to charge a lot of money for them, because he knows they are immensely valuable to the companies that use them.

TH: Who should we look up to, who are the heroes in the slow business world?

PJ: I like Patagonia. They were among the first companies to provide daycare and paternity leave,
and ran an ad campaign which said: “Don’t buy this coat.” They have stayed ethical and stayed profitable through the last two recessions.

TH: Will things get better in the world of slow business?

PJ: I am generally pessimistic, but I see glimpses of hope. I do think that people are looking further than just what things cost and that there is a rise of informed consumers. We want something that lasts, something of quality, and millennials are much more concerned that the things that they are buying are made by people who care.

This interview appears in Idler 65. Buy a copy here

Company of One: Why Staying Small is the Next Big Thing for Business by Paul Jarvis is published by Penguin Business (£14.99).