Not long after my co-founder and I started our company, we sat down with a friend and fellow startup founder to get some advice. We were considering looking for investment for our first product, but weren’t sure about what steps to take next.
Our friend said something to us that day that I’ve thought a lot about since. He said we needed to decide if we were going to stay small or go big. We had to be willing to chase the dream of being a huge company, he said, if we wanted to go looking for investment. Investors wouldn’t put money into a hobby business, or something we thought could grow a bit. They wanted the chance to get in early on a huge, fast-growing success.
We told our friend we wanted to go big that day, but after a handful of investor meetings and many months of bootstrapping our company, we realized we weren’t really going big at all.
Rather, we were avoiding all the things that lead to huge growth: taking hundreds of investor meetings, travelling to Silicon Valley, hiring employees, entering competitions to win funding and fame.
The truth was, we didn’t really want any of those things. We wanted to be successful, but we didn’t want the type of success that comes with “going big.”
So we redefined our goals. We realized how happy we were running a simple business. We were happy being just the two of us, working from a home office. We were happy not thinking about hiring and paying salaries, and whether we should become a remote company or not. Keeping a simple structure, we didn’t even have to think much about our company culture; when you run a business with just two people, your culture grows organically from your personalities.
From the outside, the structure of our business may look complicated. We’ve just launched Larder, our second paid product, and we have a third, experimental product that we work on when we have time. We run two blogs, host a podcast about running our company, and manage support, business admin, and marketing between the two of us.
But on the inside, our company is simple. It’s two people working together on projects that we’re excited about. It’s many, many hours of discussion about new ideas, big plans, and tiny adjustments.
It’s a business style that suits us, and we don’t regret staying small and simple.
Curious to know if we were alone in our thinking, I looked examples of other entrepreneurs who also aimed for a simpler approach to understand how simplicity has influenced their business. For some, the draw of creating a simple product has helped them find success. For others, designing their business to be simple to run—like ours—has helped them hit their stride.
Simplicity Can Help You Focus on What's Important
Zen Habits is designed around the idea of simplicity. Describing the business, founder Leo Babauta states:
"Zen Habits is about finding simplicity and mindfulness in the daily chaos of our lives. It’s about clearing the clutter so we can focus on what’s important, create something amazing, find happiness."
Working for himself, Babauta earns three times the salary he was making back in 2005, and still has the time to eat healthy, get plenty of exercise, and spend time with his family.
As well as avoiding a raft of pressures that usually arise at the helm of fast-paced, large-scale operations, the freedom of owning a simple business has let Babauta evolve his ideas around productivity. Initially, he was more focused on getting things done, but recently his mentality around productivity has shifted.
“What we do a lot of times is we try to get a lot done, or at least that’s the goal," he says. "And so we’re very busy, we’re very efficient at getting those tasks done, but at the end of the day we don’t always feel like we have a lot to show for all that work we did.”
These days Babauta focuses on doing more of the important work, and less “busy work.” Running Zen Habits gives him the flexibility to design his workday around what matters most to him and his business.
Babauta also draws on simplicity in his personal life. He tries to focus on being present and content, rather than always pushing himself to get more done.
“I think a real key is learning to feel good about yourself, realizing you’re already perfect and start[ing] to become content with just who you are and what you already have.”
Simple Products Are Easier to Manage
The team behind MailTrack inspired me with the simplicity of their product. In an era where we’re accustomed used to dealing with feature creep (the over-complication of a product by adding of extra features), MailTrack’s product became wildly successful largely because of how simple it is.
MailTrack enhances your Gmail account by adding the familiar “double check” to messages. The double check feature is popular in messaging apps; the first check mark shows the message was sent, while the second check mark shows up when the recipient actually reads the message.
With over 400,000 people using the MailTrack Chrome extension, the team is clearly onto something. Founder Nachos González-Barros doesn’t shy away from admitting that the secret to MailTrack’s success is simplicity.
“We thought that we’d have to make MailTrack very complex for people to value us. But, we found that people like us because we’re simple.”
A Simple Mission Can Connect Your Brand to Audiences
Buy Me Once has benefitted from a simple mission: to find and promote products that don’t break.
While big name brands are using planned obsolescence to ensure their products have a limited lifespan, Buy Me Once points users towards products that are made to last. The creators say their mission is to help their audience avoid clutter, and stop wasting money and our planet’s resources on cheap items that break quickly. Their goal is to “change our throwaway culture to a ”keep“ or ”pass on“ culture.”
Founder Tara Button was inspired by the quality of her own casserole dish—knowing it would to last forever, she wondered why the rest of her kitchenware couldn’t be made with the same quality.
“I wanted all these quality products to be in one place,” she says, “so that people interested in creating less waste – and saving money in the long run – could find products that would really last.”
Button says she doesn’t mind if Buy Me Once doesn’t make her a huge income, because she wants it to exist regardless. But she does have future plans
“One of my hopes is for ‘Buy Me Once’ to become a ‘kite mark’ of longevity,” she says, "so manufacturers would be able to say ‘This is a Buy Me Once kettle’ or ‘This is our Buy Me Once furniture range’.
Simplicity Can Help Your Business Stand Out
Button’s approach to shopping reminds me of a website that focuses on software with an air of simplicity: One Thing Well is “a weblog about simple, useful software.”
The site posts links to software that does, as you might have guessed, one thing well. The site focuses on promoting simple software tools that don’t try to be everything to everyone.
Powered by Tumblr, One Thing Well's layout is extremely simple itself, some might say austere. But it works. Users flock to the site in droves, seeking One Thing Well's regular updates on products like Quitter, a Mac app to automatically hide other apps after periods of inactivity, and haxor-news, a command-line browser for Hacker News.
Although there’s very little to One Thing Well’s website, the site's radical simplicity helps it stand out in a crowd of cluttered alternatives.
There’s a lot to love about simplicity. It’s a concept we can all grasp easily, and yet there are boundless ways to apply it.
For entrepreneurs, simplicity can be a way of life, a business style, or even a philosophy that drives a product.
What's clear from these examples is that the beauty of simplicity is enjoyed by first determining how to integrate it into your business, and your life.