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Four rules for a minimalist business

opinion  Paul Jarvis · Mar 20, 2017

This post was originally published on my now-defunct personal site. It’s been republished here on Fathom as the ideas found within it have informed and inspired our approach to business, privacy and philosophy.

Minimalism isn’t just for people who want to live out of a backpack or cram their life into a tiny house. So what is a minimalist business, and why should we have one?

The ideas of being minimal can also easily apply to business – and I should know because I’ve been using them for nearly twenty years.

Minimalism is a mindset rather than a blind purge. If something is useful or pleasurable, you keep it. If it’s not, then you consider scrapping it.

Personally, I see running a minimalist business as more of a pursuit of enjoyment with revenue attached (because, hey, what’s not to love about hedonism and making money at the same time?!) If you only keep what is useful or what makes you happy in your business then what you’re left with you should leave you better off—in terms of revenue AND quality of life. Removing what doesn’t serve your business or make you happy just seems like a good idea (even if you think minimalism is bonkers). Through this removal, minimalism creates certain freedoms:

  1. Freedom from excess financial worry (you’re spending less, so you can make less and be more profitable).
  2. Freedom from the stress of “busy” (you’re only doing what is useful or makes you happy).
  3. Freedom from the fear of loss (you’re living below your means, so you can weather greater storms and hardships).
  4. Freedom from weighty responsibility (the bigger your business gets, the more work it requires, and it may not be work you enjoy).

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. #minimalismjokes) Is more actually better?

One of the smartest things I’ve done in my business is 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.

More ≠ Better (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.

Are you willing to experiment?

Running a lean business that’s focused on creating value for yourself and your customers requires you to be relentless about the opportunities you say yes to – or you’ll be stretched too thin. You’ll end up like a circus act that sees how many plates you can spin at the same time, hoping they don’t all come crashing down.

You also have to be willing to experiment. A few years ago I decided to see if I could go 6 months without buying anything but food and gas (I did it too). Another time I tried living without furniture (this failed, mostly because my back hurt without a comfy couch). Experimenting to see what you actually value and testing your assumptions can lead to breakthroughs in life and in work. Maybe you can say no to every opportunity but the one you truly want to focus on. Maybe your business would do better with one product instead of 3. Maybe you can generate more profit by spending less on marketing, software, computers or fax machines (just kidding, who buys fax machines?)

You won’t find out unless you experiment. Sure, your experiments could go wrong and your business could be left with a bit of a sore back, but some might go right and you’ll be left with more money for less work.

Can you work with what you’ve got?

Minimalists, like MacGyver, work with the tools they’ve got. They don’t spend a ton of time or money on acquiring or building new tools. So if all your business has is a ball of twine, a stick of gum, and a paperclip, you figure out a way to make those things work (and save the world or something, I can’t remember the premise of the show).

Using the tools available for the job means that you rely more on your own ingenuity than anything else. Which is good, since tools can sometimes take the place of critical thinking. For example, a programmer isn’t a great programmer because she uses the latest frameworks. She’s a great programmer because she understands how to use code to accomplish tasks. She could change computers or frameworks and still be a great coder.

Spending time focused on finding the best newsletter software or design program or CRM nets diminishing returns, since most work pretty much the same as the rest. And it definitely nets diminishing returns when we start to think that each tool we use has to be custom-created just for us.

Minimalist businesses aren’t great businesses because of the tools, they’re great businesses because their owners know how to use the tools they’ve got. The best tool for your work is the one you’re using right now, to make your art. If it’s not working, find another. Tools don’t matter. Building skill matters more.

How quickly can you move?

Those running minimalist businesses are experts at getting straight to the point. Quickly. Especially when it comes to making money.

The typical way to run a business is that you start by getting an investment (from the bank, from a rich relative, from a VC) then work hard and in secret for a long time to create a perfect product.

This way of working has a lot of drawbacks though. It requires one to make a ton of assumptions about the market, positioning and customers and then wait until a lot of money is spent before launching.

Whereas taking the opposite approach can work just as well, if not more effectively. I launch without any investment (other than a tiny bit of my own time) so I don’t have to make as many assumptions. I launch by boiling my business idea down to the smallest idea possible, then launching quickly. For example, Creative Class (my first course) started out as an idea for 30 lessons, which would have taken me 4–6 months to create at least. I also wanted to develop course software to run it (another 4–6 months). I resisted the urge and started with 7 lessons and existing software, launching in a month instead of a year. That meant I could see what worked and what didn’t with an actual audience, and then adjust, iterate and improve.

By starting small, and moving quickly, you can adapt to the market. Whereas starting big, and moving slowly means you’re running on guesses and throwing a lot of time and work at something that may or may not work out in the end.

The rules for having a minimalist business

  1. Be useful
  2. Give freely
  3. Stay simple
  4. Keep track

These aren’t platitudes or a mission statement or a business plan. I don’t care about any of that.

While I love business and love running my own business even more, I hate the way that business is “supposed to work”.

So I made my own rules for a minimalist business.

These rules are specific enough to give actionable direction, but loose enough to adapt to the fact that everything changes all the time. They’re also easy to remember (try as I might, I can’t memorize a 32-page rule book or even a 288-page book about simple business rules (I really did try and read it, and while the subject matter is great, it’s almost hilariously ironic how un-simple this book is).

Luckily, as I’ve seen two major, non-sequential focuses in my career — first web design, then products — the business rules have continued to apply. The beauty of them is that they aren’t prescriptive, meaning they don’t remove thinking from my business (I don’t think anything can do that until the robot overlords take over).

These business rules are simply tools for deciding. People don’t spend much time deciding to focus on decision making (sorry, that was a bad joke), but decision making is one of the most important things in a business. For every second you haven’t decided, you aren’t taking action. If you are stuck on a problem that requires you to pick yes or no, or do or don’t do, then you aren’t moving forward until you decide. So being able to quickly make the best decision for your business is critical. (Note that I didn’t say the “right” decision, you never know that until later).

Onto the business rules.

Business rule one / Be useful

At the core of who I am and what I do is a need to help others solve problems. And it’s not entirely altruistic either. Being useful makes me feel good. Being useful pays money, when I solve important problems for people.

Being useful means using my brain in creative ways to solve problems. Typically, first for myself, then for others.

That’s the first test of any product idea I have: how useful would this be? Not to everyone, not to most people, but just to the small group of people it’s for. Would it change their life? Their business? Their mental or financial situation? If it’s a “hell yes” then it passes the first business rule and I can quickly move on.

Business rule two / Give freely

I spend more time on free things than I do on paid offerings. My weekly newsletter, my weekly podcast, hours answering emails — I love that stuff. I love that even if someone never buys a single thing from me for whatever reason (can’t afford it, doesn’t want it, thinks I’m an asshat, etc) I can still give them something.

With every paid product I create, I come up with a free portion of it. Something that can be had without a monetary transaction. It can take the form of a workshop video, a free email series, or even part of the actual product that doesn’t require a credit card.

First, I like to do this because it’s the best way I know to build a relationship with the sort of folks I’d like to pay attention to what I do. Second, I don’t want to take or make money from someone that’s not going to find what I create useful. So I give them a taste first. If they don’t like it, then no harm, no foul, money wasn’t exchanged. If they like it, then maybe they’ll buy it and I’ll make money.

Business rule three / Stay simple

I’m not smart enough to have a complicated business. The more moving parts there are, the more stressed out I get, and the more time I spend looking at fuzzy rat photos on Instagram instead of working (shut up, it’s my happy place).

I run a company of one because it’s the simplest approach for me. I’m not responsible for other people (nor their pay cheques). I don’t have to manage anyone. If I want to pivot completely, I totally can.

For every product I think up, I make sure it’s simple. Both in terms of what’s required to build it and then what’s required to launch and operate it. I’ve killed off products because they became too complex. I beta test the heck out of my products to make sure they’re simple before launching them publicly.

Simple products mean that they’re easy to support (since I do support and don’t have a team of customer service rep’s standing by). Simple products mean they’re easy to build quickly — because if they took me years to build, that’s years I wouldn’t be making money from them. Simple products mean they’re easy to understand — if I can’t explain to you (someone who’d buy it) why you need it and what it does in a sentence or two, then I’ve failed.

Business rule four / Keep track

This is the least sexy rule (if business rules are sexy?). In business, you have to keep track of everything. Seriously, everything. Off the top of my head, here are a few of the main items that must be tracked:

All money in, all money out. I don’t want the government knocking on my door asking for my books from 5 years ago, and me being like, ¯_(ツ)_/¯. I also like to know if someone owes me money. So anything I buy, anything I sell, anything that’s owed in either direction, I keep note of. Not in a complicated way (accounting software makes my head spin) but in a simple spreadsheet. Marketing efforts. If you don’t track how well everything you do to get the word out about what you’ve created, how the hell will you know what’s working or not? Learning. I consider this keeping track of my industry, community (most people call it “competition”), and new subject matter and tools I’m interested in learning. I spend hours a day learning because that’s how important I think it is.

Lots of time we get in the weeds with work and focus entirely on doing business and not keeping track of our business. That might be good short-term (since doing business = money!) but long-term it’s hard to adjust and learn what’s working or not working if you’re not keeping track.

That’s it - those are the minimalist business rules

My whole minimalist business strategy summed up in eight words made into four business rules.

As long as I’m following them, I know I’m on track. They don’t guarantee wins, but they definitely guarantee that I’m making the best decisions for myself and my work.

As I said, minimalism is a mindset, not a blind purge. So running a minimalist business doesn’t mean staying small for the sake of being small. It means staying small when it makes sense to be small and only growing in areas where growth provides value to you and your customers. Growth isn’t inherently evil, but it comes at a price. And running a minimalist business is more about creating freedom than profits. Sometimes the price makes sense to pay, and sometimes you’re better off sticking with what you’ve got.

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Paul Jarvis

Paul Jarvis, author + designer

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