Paul Jarvis on Making Your Business Better, Not Bigger

For the last two decades, Paul Jarvis has been building his business differently than what most would attempt: he’s focused on small, not big; better, not bigger; and every detail within his courses, books, essays, and newsletter reflects his thoughtfulness and personality. In short, he lives the ethos of owning your content.

He’s not afraid to lose subscribers because they don’t agree with his worldview. He doesn’t self-ascribe himself as an expert or thought leader. His humility and down-to-earth approach to building a thriving creative career is one worth studying and possibly emulating. His latest book, Company of One, hones in on why bigger isn’t always better in business.

Paul shares his generous wisdom in building a beloved newsletter, where his business ideas come from, and how this mindset of keeping things small and intentional enabled him to continuously empower creatives around the world.


Paul, your newsletter, Sunday Dispatches, are personal stories that share your point of view and connect with your readers. How do you overcome the feeling of being too vulnerable or too open in your messages?

For me it comes down to this: I’d rather someone not like who I really am, instead of not like me for someone I’m pretending to be.

I don’t mind sharing my point of view because without it, there’s nothing of substance. I could share mundane ideas with no perspective, but I can’t see how that’d build an audience or draw people to my work. By having a point of view, I’m not sharing not only what I know about a topic, but also my take on it—that just makes for more interesting writing (and reading).

Show me a piece of content that doesn’t bleed a little but keeps you engaged? Being vulnerable is what makes content great instead of boring. A point to note though, is that while I’m completely open about the topics I write about, I’d never overshare or get too personal with my writing on certain subjects. That’s why I only write about topics I know I can fully share and be completely transparent. That way, I’m honouring my writing authentically, leaving no stone unturned for my readers, but also keeping a huge swath of who I am private. I only write about things I’m happy to open up about.

As far as overcoming feelings, I don’t think I have. In some ways, I find it easier to express myself writing in public, but in other ways, I’ve still got the same level of anxiety every time I hit “Send” in my newsletter software.

One thing many people struggle with is how they talk about themselves, i.e., their About page copy. What are some tips on ways to write about yourself thoughtfully and honestly?

I struggle with mine each time I read or rewrite it.

There’s common advice that our about pages aren’t about us, they’re about our audience/customers. Which I think is both wrong and right at the same time. It obviously has to cover who we are and to some extent prove what we know. But it also can’t leave out an aspect of “why would someone else care?”

I’m Canadian, so I (politely) battle talking about myself constantly. But I also know that most about pages are the most visited on any given site, so I try to keep mine full of proof that certain people might want to pay attention, a little sarcastic/silly since that’s who I am, and including links to what other people have said about me (since that’s easier than bragging).

About pages can also vary widely depending on who it’s about and the type of work they do. My business is heavily leaning towards me as the brand or in other words, personality-as-a-brand, so that’s got to shine through on mine. But if was a corporate type or in a different industry or ran a business that was not personality driven, mine would be quite different (and probably not have a silly note about Grey’s Anatomy). Even my bio on my books website is different than the bio on my personal site, because context is important.

I think we just have to be honest and get over our penchant towards not wanting to brag a little. We should be proud to showcase our accomplishments, our features, our clients, etc. We should also make sure that every bit of what’s mentioned bears some relevance to who we want to be reading it. So I don’t need to mention my love of gardening or pet rats on mine, but I will mention who I’ve worked with, my most recent product and some social proof. I may even apologize a little bit (I’m Canadian after all).

I think we just have to be honest and get over our penchant towards not wanting to brag a little. We should be proud to showcase our accomplishments, our features, our clients, etc.

Your latest book, Company of One, makes a strong assertion that thinking smaller is better for your business. That’s something many people would disagree with. How did you arrive at this belief? What inspired it? And how is it influencing your work nowadays?

The inception of my latest business book started the way I assume most business books start: I was out for a dawn session surf with my buddy.

We were talking about life and work and everything else you do while you’re sitting in the line-up waiting for the next rideable wave, and he mentioned something in passing that stuck with me. It was around September, but he said he’d made “enough” for the year and was going to travel for the rest of it. Then he took off on a wave and left me sitting there with my mind blown.

For him, he knew how much money he needed to make to be comfortable and stress-free about finances (he knows a lot on this subject, he’s an accountant), how much needed to make to cover his life costs, and how much he wanted to put into savings. Beyond that, his life wouldn’t be better should he make more, so he didn’t bother. Instead, he opted to enjoy his life outside of work.

The more I thought about this, the more it made sense. Every business was a lifestyle business. Every single career or path we take with our work gives us a specific lifestyle associated with it. If you work at a high-growth startup, you probably have to work a lot of hectic hours. If you work at a corporation, your butt is probably going to have be in a chair at a desk from 9-5, five days a week. If you work for yourself, though, you should get to choose the life your work gives you outside of work. For myself, I’ve always wanted a business that supports my life not a life that supported my business.

This idea of “enough” spoke to that. It spoke to working hard, but also knowing at what point you reached diminishing returns on time spent working and making money. Enough is also a hard line in the sand, whereas “more” is like the horizon. Sure you can run towards it, but you’re never going to reach it. It’s just there, slightly out of reach, but you’ll get sweaty and tired trying to reach it.

The book came from this belief. That we could work towards enough instead of more.

If you work for yourself, though, you should get to choose the life your work gives you outside of work. For myself, I’ve always wanted a business that supports my life not a life that supported my business.

Determining enough is different for everyone too—and I feel like enough is the counterbalance or anti-thesis of unchecked growth which is basically capitalism how traditional capitalism works. Enough is the true north of building a company of one, and the opposite of the current paradigm promoting growth-hacking and quick scaling in startup culture.

Ever since that day surfing with my buddy, I’ve been thinking about this, researching this and talking to others about it. Since I’m a writer, it was fairly straightforward to turn this idea into a book.

My work now is still the same as it’s been for ages: I’m always thinking about how I can do better, instead of how I can achieve more.

I’m always thinking about how I can do better, instead of how I can achieve more.

Your business seems to follow a natural growth—you write stories that you want to tell, readers connect to it, you listen to the pain points, and then develop a solution around it. At what point do you realize that there is a seed for a potential business avenue, and what steps do you take to bring it to life?

I don’t know how to do business any other way.

I don’t know how to come up with a solution without knowing there’s a problem.
I don’t know how to build something without first knowing who wants it.

To me, this feels like how business is supposed to work. You start listening to a group of people, see where you can help, then start helping them. That said, not all helpful things can be turned into profitable businesses or services, and there’s where a bit of guessing is required. But still, at the very start, it has to start with knowing a specific group of folks needs something, and knowing that you have the skills to fill that need.

Business is about serving others, for money. The only way the money bit happens is if one side feels like they can both afford the solution and if they can, that the solution is worth buying at the price it’s at. If you’re thirsty, I can solve that problem with a tasty drink, but if that drink costs one million dollars, I doubt there’d be any takers.

To me, this feels like how business is supposed to work. You start listening to a group of people, see where you can help, then start helping them.

To see if there’s a seed for that help, which others will be willing to pay, I typically start with figuring out if that group of people are used to paying for something similar. For example, if thirsty people are used to paying a buck or two for a can of something to drink, then I know a buck or two is what the market will bear, and if I have a tasty beverage I think can solve that thirst, I better price it similarly. Sure, I could be a little over (premium tasty beverages!) or a little under (no name brand tasty beverages!), but I at least have to be close.

We also have to know the group a little bit to know their price tolerance for a solution. This is why I write a newsletter, so I can be in constant communication with a group of people I like to help and know what they’re buying, thinking, needing help with. If I didn’t do that, I’d be guessing at almost everything. By paying attention to them, I see they spend money on online courses, books and software, so that’s what I make. Since I have experience with those three things, I know that I can make each profitable. Being profitable (or profitable enough) is great because businesses that make money seldom go out of business. And it’s easier to help customers long term if you can keep your lights on. Profitable businesses don’t tend to go out of business.

I firmly believe that business can be summed up as: create something that some other people want to buy from us. To know what “some other people” want, we just have to get to know them, listen for what we can provide solutions for, and then provide those solutions. To make sure they “want to buy from us” we have to price at a point the market will bear and that will provide profit on our end.

It seems more and more people are realizing that housing one’s content or building one’s business on a platform they don’t own isn’t smart. What are some first principles or practical tips you would give to someone who’s committed to building their own little home on the corner of the internet?

We may not directly pay for social media, but we definitely pay for it with the trade-offs we make to use it. As Benjamin Franklin once said (probably), software users who trade privacy for functionality deserve neither.

This is where your own blog and your own newsletter differ entirely and why I think they’re better than social media or any other platform you rent or use which isn’t your own. Companies who provide us with blog software and email marketing software charge us for it or make it open-source for everyone.

As Craig Mod wrote in WIRED in his epic The ‘Future Book’ Is Here, but It’s Not What We Expected:

We simply cannot trust the social networks, or any centralized commercial platform. Email is definitely not ideal, but it is: decentralized, reliable, and not going anywhere—and more and more, those feel like quasi-magical properties.

Mailing list data is owned by the sender and not governed by changing algorithms. No one company controls email. No single company can get between a sender and their recipient (even though Google tries with those damn tabs and their spam policies).

If I didn’t want to use my newsletter software, Mailchimp, anymore (though I doubt that’d ever happen, since Freddie and me are BFFs), I could export my list and import it into any newsletter software provider that exists easily and quickly—I wouldn’t have to start again and I wouldn’t be worried that Mailchimp would start emailing my subscribers without their consent.

Try exporting your “page likers” from Facebook or even your followers on Twitter… oh wait, you can’t do that?! That’s because those platforms own your data and own your social connections, not you. They own the connection you have with the people who connect with you there. There’s no portability and they can absolutely take and use those connections to further their own bottom line. They can also change the way you use their platforms, based on their whims. You want to reach your likers? It’s now $5 or more.

Same goes for blogs that live on servers you pay for. You own that content, it’s yours. No single company controls hosting and servers, and if you want to leave and move hosts at any time, you can pack your data up and leave. Your ownership stays in tact. Same goes for content management systems that power blogs—if you want to switch from one to another, you can typically grab an export of the data (since it’s yours), and migrate to something else.

As someone who’s been freelancing for 20 years, how has your definition of success changed? And how have you personally adapted to it?

I’ve always defined my own success as freedom, plain and simple.

I’m doing well if I have the freedom to make more choices. About who I work with, what I get to build, and the audiences I get to serve. And most importantly, about the lifestyle I get to have outside of work.

I’d never want to make choices that took away that freedom. In 20 years, this has been a constant. It makes decision making easier, even if it’s “a great opportunity”, because I’ll always end up choosing the path that leads to continued freedom.

This is why I’ve never grown my business, because for me personally, being responsible for employees would reduce my freedom. It’s why I haven’t taken any funding for any product in the past, because then I’d be beholden to investors (limiting my freedom). It’s why I believe in the mindset of being a “Company of One” because the books core thesis is that the byproduct of business success shouldn’t be unchecked growth, it should be freedom.

These platforms that we don’t own try to tell us we need them to operate. That the internet needs them to stay afloat. That society itself would crumble without them. But this simply isn’t true.

What’s your definition of owning your content?

To make a silly analogy, I focus on platforms I own, because then it’s my bouncy ball on the playground. If I don’t like the playground, I can take my bouncy ball and go somewhere else (or go home). If I don’t like the people playing on it, I can take my bouncy ball and go home. Whereas if I use and focus my efforts on a platform I don’t own, like social media, well, it’s not my bouncy ball anymore. Those platforms can take their bouncy ball and go home, leaving me (and everyone else on the playground) without a ball to play with.

These platforms that we don’t own try to tell us we need them to operate. That the internet needs them to stay afloat. That society itself would crumble without them. But this simply isn’t true.

Human interaction and connection, and even the internet as a whole, has existed for longer than these owned platforms, and I hope it’ll continue on, unscathed, once they’re gone.


This interview was produced in partnership with WordPress.com CreativeMornings.

Morning people get 20% off their WordPress.com site at wordpress.com/creativemornings.

Interview by Paul Jun. Illustrations by Jeffrey Phillips. ‘Own Your Content’ illustration by Annica Lydenberg.

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