I’ve worked for myself, by myself, for the last 20 years. While my business could have grown larger on several occasions, I chose to not let that happen.
Most days I’m working from home, which is deep in a temperate rainforest, on an island off the west coast of Canada. It’s far enough from a metropolitan core to make owning land affordable, but close enough to civilization to make internet speeds fast, and get organic groceries delivered weekly.
Despite the geographic surroundings being markedly different than most digitally self-employed folks, my work days are fairly typical. I answer emails, spend time writing, and even do a few meetings (virtually, of course).
I typically rise with the sun and haven’t ever owned an alarm clock. While my coffee brews, I stand at a window and watch wild rabbits frolic, hummingbirds buzz, or the occasional crafty raccoon attempt to ruin my garden.
The 'commute' is a few second saunter up a cedar staircase to a small bedroom that’s been turned into my home office.
It’s bare but functional (a common theme in my life and work), with a desk, a chair, a few paintings done by talented friends, and a couch. Unlike Elon Musk, who has a couch in his office to sleep on because he works 80+ hours a week and cannot afford the time to travel home at night, I use mine to nap or read. My desk is always completely clear of papers, stuff, or anything save a drink to sip on. I don’t even leave my phone on it, as it’s too distracting. The room has a single but far-too-small window, placed oddly high up the wall, but I can see a small grouping of large cedars through it from my desk.
It wasn’t always this idyllic life in the woods for me—a Thoreau-esque fare, except with wifi and a keyboard. I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto, and lived in the downtown core of Vancouver, in a glass cube in the sky. My current life feels better suited though, at least for me and the way I like to work, as it gives me the space my creativity and work needs to breathe.
This is the reason I’ve chosen not to scale my business, I enjoy the freedom that comes with space. While it’s had its times of doing decently, I’ve never accepted that business success has but one outcome: growth. Edward Abbey said it best in 1978: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
Running a company of one, like mine, 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 business like this is more about creating freedom than simply growing in all areas at all times. Sometimes the price of growth makes sense to pay, and sometimes you’re better off sticking with what you’ve got.
I like being a company of one, as it affords me the most amount of freedom possible.
I’m free from financial worry, as it doesn’t take much revenue to be profitable and expenses are quite low. I’m free from the stresses of always being busy or having to hustle constantly, because I know what enough is and don’t have to push myself beyond it. I’m free from the weight of typical “business growth” responsibility—I don’t have to manage others, I don’t have to answer to a board of directors or investors, and I don’t have to be on the hook for high office rent.
My work day typically ends mid-afternoon. I tend to have enough work done by then to feel accomplished and that progress has been made. From there, I tend to shut the computer down and close the office bedroom door behind me, literally and symbolically leaving work behind me until the next day. By finishing up at this time, it gives me time to enjoy some of the day’s light. I enjoy time in the garden, on a bike in the woods, or on a walk around the neighbourhood, before returning home for supper (which hopefully includes something from the garden if the raccoon didn’t get to it first).
I’m fairly sure at this point I’m completely unemployable in any other fashion than how I currently work. An office or a meeting room at a large company would feel as alien as driving a Tesla on Mars.
Some are motivated by others or by teams of people, all working together towards a common goal. That’s why some are best suited for work at larger companies with offices. But for me and others who do similar, we’re more motivated by some intrinsic force. Neither is better than the other, it’s just good to know which suits you best.
The life and lifestyle I have now isn’t because it photographs well on Instagram (I don’t even have an account). It’s because I’ve spent a great deal of time considering what I like and don’t like. This line moves slightly as time progresses, but never too quickly. When we work for ourselves it can be easy to get caught up in doing the work and forget that we work for ourselves because we can also determine how we work.
I’ve always wanted a business that supports my life, and not a life that solely supports and exists to serve my business. This is why I work for myself, from home, as a company of one: I not only have the freedom to choose what I work on, but I also have the freedom to choose how the work is done.
Company of One by Paul Jarvis is out now.
Sign up to the Penguin Connect newsletter