When I first got my hands on the book, I thought it’d be written exclusively for freelancers and solopreneur side hustlers. But as I progressed through the chapters, I started thinking that it’s really about running a sustainable company at 1x instead of chasing the mythical 10x.
What follows are my summary and notes for Company of One.
(P.S. There’s also a companion course and online community that goes along with the book. You can find it at ofone.co. I haven’t completed the course material, so I’m not commenting on any of that here.)
Company of One: A summary
I took a ton of notes while reading. From those, I found we kept coming back to these five overarching themes:
Start small. You’ll need to hit the right combination of in-demand skills, value (what you do), and a clear purpose (why you do it). That may take some time with experimentation and iteration. Transitioning into starting your own business? Don’t quit your day job. Proceed thoughtfully. Get some wins under your belt before going all-in.
Prioritize profitability and efficiency. Minimize your overhead and be profitable as soon as you can. Don’t take on more obligations than necessary. Your time is finite. Protect it against unnecessary commitments and distractions. Create systems and processes to operate efficiently and predictably.
Set yourself apart by sharing knowledge. Your competitive advantage is a combination of your personality, your purpose, and your experiences. Demonstrate your expertise while showcasing what makes you different. Build credibility, then sell your products/services against that.
Grow through customer retention and loyalty. It costs 5x more to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing customer. Keep your customers coming back by providing quality products/services wrapped in an amazing customer experience. Turn your happiest customers into your source of new business through referrals.
Don’t forget the fundamentals. Income, expenses, accounting, legal, payroll, health insurance — these are all important aspects of any business. [If you love the work you do, but dread dealing with this stuff, seriously think twice before taking the plunge.]
Paul returns to each of these themes throughout the book, more than once, and each time in a slightly different context.
Now for the full notes:
My notes from Company of One
Prioritize control, speed, independence, resilience, simplicity, and stability.
Focus on improvement over growth. Find the comfortable benchmark and stay there. Reach the target that lets you lead the life you want.
Take care of your existing customers. Customers that care enough to promote you will help you bring in new customers.
Small touches — acts of appreciation — will be remembered. The value of those small touches are disproportionately greater than their cost.
Become better, not bigger. Be profitable and competitive. That doesn’t mean you need to be a billion-dollar startup.
Growth too quickly can take you down. Putting growth over profit leads to downfall. Chasing investors means giving up part of your freedom — their goals probably won’t align with yours.
Growth can dilute the value that comes with scarcity. Too much, too fast = you lose the focus that’s core to your business.
Start small, achieve profitability. If you’re already profitable, growth becomes a choice.
Chasing your competitors puts a focus on catching up instead of bettering your own offering. Nail your own offer then slowly grow your customer relationships. Charge more as demand increases, versus trying to scale your production.
Define your systems and processes. These are the building blocks that allow you to work efficiently. They’re the parameters you work within.
Set ranges and benchmarks for your goals.
Build your t-shaped skills. Be a generalist with a deep set of skills in one area and complementary skills in related areas. According to Paul: Psychology for decision making, understanding how people think. Communication for clarity and effectiveness. Resilience for ability to bounce back. Focus to assess and say no to opportunities that don’t serve you. Decisiveness to make quick, small decisions.
You need self awareness. Know your limits and pressure points. Avoid the workaholism. Have your outlet — a person or therapist, someone to open up with and to. + Be grateful to those who help you achieve your goals.
Investors are the biggest reason a company wants to grow. They want to see significant return, a multiplier on what they invest, and that leads to excessive growth. But adding a new customer costs 5x as much as retaining a customer. Churn — losing customers — can spiral if you lose customers faster than you acquire them. Fix churn by fixing retention.
Your ego can make growth feel like a desirable goal. Stop and think about the overhead and impact of growth. Growth adds complexity, stress, and stains relationships. Overcome your ego by focusing on the why. Why did you start your business? Keep your integrity and personality at the heart of what you do.
Focus on profitability, not growth. Success comes from quality, retention, customer happiness, and metrics other than raw growth.
Think small. Start with a reduced scale. Don’t think too big too soon. Start cheap and fast, and keep your overhead to a minimum. What’s the smallest version of your idea? How can you make it happen quickly?
Starting small gives you an opportunity to play with ideas. Workshop it. Learn what works. Run small tests. Iterate. Observe and help your early customers succeed. “Customer success is the cornerstone of a profitable company.”
Start without automation. Automation comes after you know what to automate, and you have a clear need for it. Be personal early on. Email and tell everyone you know about what you’re doing.
Growth doesn’t lead — it follows. Measure your growth by profitability, and use small wins to propel you. Let profit and customer success determine how and when to scale.
You can embrace these philosophies within a larger organization. What impact can you make? What’s your scope of influence? Take ownership of your career. Commit to deliverables you’re accountable for. More wins = more influence. More influence = you don’t need to transition away from the work you actually want to do.
You need an underlying purpose. It’s how you act and represent yourself. It’s what you place above profit. Your purpose is seen through your actions. It’s the filter through which you see/make all business decisions.
Purpose is an indicator of success. Align with your business as a motivator. Use it as a Litmus test. Does your work align with your purpose? Rally around it.
Be purpose-based and value-driven. Find a problem to solve. Don’t lead with passion alone. Meaningful work leads to passion. Engaging work comes from clearly defined assignments; tasks you excel at; performance feedback; and work autonomy.
Want to take the leap and start your own business? Build the in-demand skills you need. Slowly transition. Test first — are you able to make the money you need to sustain yourself? You need the wins, evidence, and credibility before going all-in.
Passion follows mastery. You can pursue any passion you want, but passionate work comes after success.
“Opportunities are just obligations wearing an appealing mask.”
Costs = Time, attention, resources. You can’t scale the amount of time in a day. You need to use the hours you have.
Productivity = Motivation + momentum. Do a single thing at a time without distraction. Do the right tasks, faster, with less stress.
Own your schedule. Own how long you work, and on what. How do you stack your day to go deep on certain things? The busier we are, the less time we have to stop and think and do deep work.
Attention is the most important currency anyone can give a business. Buyers have more power than sellers in our economy.
Leverage your personality. The authentic “you”. It can be your greatest competitive advantage. Skills and expertise can be copied. Your personality is uniquely you.
Avoid the trap of being a commodity. Don’t be “just another”. Be fascinating. Trigger an emotional response. Build an emotional connection.
Take a stand. Don’t be neutral. Find those who will rally and stand by your cause. Put the reason out there — your “why”.
“Proudly exclude people. You can’t please everyone.” Try to appeal to everyone and you won’t appeal to anyone. Polarization strategies = placation (changing the haters’ minds); prodding (antagonize the haters); and amplification (leaning into a characteristic).
What’s your story? Who’s your villain? Memorable stories are rooted in the hero vs. antagonist narrative.
Sell your way of thinking. Let your audience vet itself. Let the people who don’t support you go elsewhere.
Go out of your way to be helpful. Add the personal touch. Take ownership. Help your customers succeed.
Prioritize customer service. Dissatisfaction is a silent killer. Customers usually don’t complain. They just don’t come back.
Bad experiences are amplified on social media. The public turns into a mob and they pile on.
Renewals matter more than new customer acquisition. Great service + profit = sustainability.
Deliver a service that doesn’t scale. Provide a better, higher-touch experience. “Relationships, when the company is smaller, can be built with regular and loyal customers.”
Exceed expectations. We are in the people-serving business. It’s our advantage. Treat each customer like they’re your only customer.
Buying experiences are based on how customers feel they are treated.
Emotion + Ease + Exceptional Experience is more important than features.
Customer service is an investment, not an expense. New business comes from word-of-mouth.
Referrals build trust by proxy. You don’t get referrals by just meeting the standard expectations of service.
Help your customers be profitable (if B2B) and they’ll never leave you.
Turn your happy customers into your unpaid sales/marketing team.
Have empathy. Understand your customers and their needs to serve them effectively. “The more you understand your customers, the more you can feel with them, and the better you can serve them.”
Empathy drives profit. The more you understand = the better you can tailor your services = the more you can support = the more you learn from your customers.
Pay attention to support details. Notice the patterns and trends. Collect and analyze the feedback.
“Customer happiness is the new marketing.” Out-support your competitors. Dig below the surface of problems to find the underlying cause. Address that.
Successful customers make successful business. It’s a mutual relationship.
Success starts with a great onboarding (new customer) experience.
Prioritize customer loyalty. “Focusing on customer success is a mentality and a way of doing business that encompasses all aspects of a business.”
Have a plan for dealing with mistakes when they happen. Be transparent. Be open about relevant highs and lows. Own the mistakes. Let them know how you’re addressing it.
Acknowledge fault. Show empathy, and a desire to fix it. Turn complaints into an opportunity to improve.
“We have to pay attention to our customers in the places where they’re spending their time.”
Do what you say you’ll do. Customers will be grateful. Make promises and keep them. Make fewer and better commitments. Track your commitments. Have processes to meet those commitments.
Growth may be required if it aligns with your overall purpose. “Look to simple and scalable systems to facilitate growth — not more employees or resources.”
Run efficiently. Minimize overhead and maintenance costs. Grow based on realized profit, not based on potential profit.
Creation as a scalable system: Source product from places that align with your purpose (brand) and scale up/down as needed. It puts limited overhead on you.
Connection at scale: One-to-many systems, like email marketing. Set it up, iterate, and maintain. Automate where you can while protecting the relationship. Is it adding value, or is it blocking interaction? Applying segmentation + personalization is key here.
Ideas for email marketing: Scheduled (newsletter); autoresponder/triggered (onboarding); system/transactional (receipts); promotional (commercial); informational (communications).
Use technology to automate the operational tasks and be more efficient.
Collaboration at scale: Working solo doesn’t mean working alone. Collaboration tools can be distracting. They’re useful for real-time conversation. Otherwise they’re a flurry of notifications. Too much collaboration at scale = less productivity. Scale down!
Build an audience by sharing everything you know. See yourself as the teacher. Out-teach and out-share your competition. It builds credibility, creates trust, and earns you a following that’s ready to buy from you.
You need to demonstrate your expertise. Consistent teaching builds authority. “You’re showing someone else how to do something.” Consistently give your audience useful, relevant, and timely knowledge through your mailing list, speaking events, website, etc…
We look to leaders for answers. We learn from them. “If you’re part of their audience, you’ll probably buy from them.” Trust leads to trials and sales. Consideration is built on trust. Trust comes from helping and teaching.
Understand the needs of your audience. Use that to inform your product and service development.
Demonstrate the benefit of what you’re selling. “Give them the information they need.” Let them come to their own decision.
Most of what you’ll teach isn’t confidential. Be transparent, share, teach, build credibility. Sell against that.
Ensure customers get the most out of what you sell. “Show them how to be successful with it.” This builds loyalty and long-term customer relationships. “Customer education is one of the most important parts of the sales cycle.” Help them make the right decision. Show them how to succeed with what you’ve sold.
“Execution is the only valid currency in business.” Ideas alone are worthless. Your execution determines your success. (Sharing your ideas, though, helps you build a following, build a movement around your core values, and the thinking that your product stands for.)
“Products worth sharing are the best source of referrals […] service-based businesses can really capitalize on word-of-mouth by following up.” Talk to clients after a project is over, after a couple weeks. Get a testimonial/success story out of it. Ask for a referral, if it went well. Make this a routine. Turn it into a sustainable strategy.
Segmented email automation can do follow-ups at scale. Order a product > send feedback email a week later > send an ask for referral/review if it’s well-rated.
Focus on existing and loyal customers as brand advocates. This creates more trust than an affiliate program.
“Marketing is building a sense of trust and empathy with a specific group of people, and consistently communicating with them. […] Marketing is the sum total of everything your company does that a potential or actual customer sees or interacts with.”
Focus on a specific niche instead of a massive market. It’s easier to build authority in a smaller group.
Vanity metrics don’t reflect relationships. They don’t measure true engagement or trust. “100 passionate fans is exponentially more effective than 100,000 unengaged followers.”
Trust happens first. Commerce follows.
The tighter/more targeted your audience, the more you can build trust with that audience. Know the niche and cater your products/services to them.
“Trust doesn’t require a big budget.” Prioritize customer happiness. Incentivize customers to spread the word, and spend less money on promotion.
“Education is a better and cheaper way to build your customer base.” Become a source of inspiration, give customers what they need to make an informed decision.
Personal touches create a luxury brand experience. They build trust. That trust has to be “baked in” with everything you do.
“Maintain a business worthy of customer trust.” Quality over speed. Compassion over profit. Honesty over tricks.
Consideration content develops your reputation as a credible authority. Teach. Be helpful. Share knowledge. Take what exists, blend it, and adopt it for your audience.
Work to become profitable as quickly as possible. Take small steps. Scale follows.
Figure out how to make money while you’re small. Grow based on demand. Don’t scale too quickly. Iterate.
Minimum Viable Profit = Reach profitability quickly. You don’t have investor dollars to burn. A profitable small-scale product/service release is a great learning experience. “The first version doesn’t need to be huge. Solve one problem well.”
Make a profit from the beginning, then figure out everything else. Low expenses = profit happens sooner.
In-the-weeds considerations of a small business: Money (revenue plus expenses); legal systems (protection + advice); accounting (financial services + guidance); salary (paying yourself); savings (to buffer against uncertainties); health coverage (sorry America); lifestyle (the kind of life you want to live).
Company of One isn’t an instruction manual or a framework for building a business. It feels more like a compilation of journal entries about establishing and combining your clear purpose, competitive value, and sustainable business practices.
“Company of One” is a 3D puzzle being pulled apart in each chapter.
The Company of One label doesn’t feel like a perfect fit in every scenario. There’s a disclaimer early on in the book that it’s not just for solopreneurs, but you can tell that’s the audience Paul has in mind.
Likewise, the advice is more shades of grey than black and white. It’s promoting responsible growth, not eschewing growth entirely, and I think that’s an important distinction.
If you’ve skimmed my notes above and the takeaways resonate with you: Grab the book. If you’re on the fence, check out Paul’s website and subscribe to his weekly newsletter. You won’t be disappointed.
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