How Minimalism in Business Can Drive Sustainable Growth

Joshua Fields Millburn was 28 when everything changed. Before, he’d had a three-bedroom house stuffed with designer clothes, and a phalanx of luxury cars parked in the driveway. He paid for these things with the six-figure salary he pulled in at his job coordinating hundreds of employees at a telecom company.

On paper, Millburn had it all. But when his mother suddenly died the same month that his marriage ended, he radically rethought his approach to life. “I had everything I ever wanted,” Millburn told TIME. “But it took getting everything I ever wanted to realize that I wasn’t happy.”

It was in the course of dealing with his mother’s possessions — “Three apartments’ worth of stuff crammed into her tiny one-bedroom apartment” — that Millburn came across the work of renowned minimalist Colin Wright, who was traveling the world with just 51 things. Milburn was a quick convert, and it wasn’t long before he’d shed all of the stuff he’d worked so hard to accumulate. He convinced his best friend since childhood, Ryan Nicodemus, to do the same, and together, they branded themselves The Minimalists, spreading the gospel of a pared down lifestyle to anyone interested in hearing it.

And as it turns out, a lot of people are interested: Their podcast The Minimalists, in which a range of notable guests from Pete Buttigieg to Dan Savage talk about “living a meaningful life with less,” has racked up more than 50 million downloads since its creation in 2015, with an average of three million downloads per month.

Clearly, the message has resonated. But clutter — and subsequently, de-cluttering — doesn’t just apply to our physical space. You can also embrace it when it comes to running your business.

Hire wisely

A policy of hiring and firing quickly is a lot like fast fashion: You clutter up your closet with items only intended to last for one season before you toss them out, repeating the cycle again next year. Instead, why not invest in fewer pieces that will stand the test of time?

Okay, it’s not a perfect analogy, because people aren’t clothes. But a lot of startup advice urges entrepreneurs to hire and fire on a routine basis, and that has never worked for me. Hiring people takes up a ton of time and resources, in addition to the havoc that a constantly changing staff wreaks on company culture.

As a bootstrapped founder, I had no choice but to hire slowly and carefully — and I’m so glad I did. By gradually building my JotForm team, I’ve been able to figure out exactly what I want in a new hire, and work to cultivate their skills over time. As a result, we’ve got low staff turnover, with a 95% annual retention rate. Most people stay for years, and our Chief Technology Officer, Ertugrul, has been with us for more nine of our 15 years as a company.

This isn’t to say I haven’t made mistakes — I have. But growing slowly has not only created a stable work environment; it’s allowed me to learn as I go without risking huge amounts of money or traumatizing my team with sudden firings.

Focus on one thing at a time

While it’s not hard to find plenty of entrepreneurs who hop from one big idea to the next, there’s a lot of value on dedicating yourself completely to just one thing. Mark Zuckerburg, for example, founded Facebook while he was a sophomore at Harvard, and he’s stayed with it ever since; for better or worse, he’s now one of the most powerful people on the planet. Then there’s PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who’s known for his “extreme focus” doctrine: As PayPal executive Keith Rabois wrote on Quora,

Peter required that everyone be tasked with exactly one priority. He would refuse to discuss virtually anything else with you except what was currently assigned as your #1 initiative. Even our annual review forms in 2001 required each employee to identify their single most valuable contribution to the company.

Going deep, not broad has served me extremely well in the 15 years since I started JotForm. Rather than chasing all sorts of side projects, we’re obsessed with improving our product, which is online forms. Distraction is everywhere, but we’ve found that to truly excel, you need a narrow field of vision.

Work with what you have

The stereotype of the successful entrepreneur usually looks something like this: A scrappy upstart with a big dream, who, by pulling late nights and ingesting endless gallons of coffee, eventually attracts huge funding rounds and billion-dollar valuations. Those stories are certainly out there — but it’s not the only way.

When I started JotForm, I did it without a dime of outside funding. Doing this allowed me to build at my own pace, without losing sleep over building pitch decks and dazzling VCs. I haven’t had scores of high-profile media appearances, nor have I landed at the top of TechCrunch. But the tradeoff is that I don’t have to worry about distractions, like meeting arbitrary timelines and showing hockey stick growth charts, that take me away from my core focus. Though investors often push for it, premature scaling — massive hiring sprees, state-of-the-art technology, sleek new headquarters — is the primary cause of startup failure.

Instead of worrying about looking successful, bootstrapped founders like me have the freedom to make our own rules, and define for ourselves what success looks like without outside pressure. Any money we spend, we earn ourselves. It may not be glamorous, but bootstrappers can focus on the only metric that really matters: Making our businesses profitable.

Embrace doing nothing

It’s not a coincidence that our coffee mugs and social media feeds are filled with mantras like “Rise and grind” and “Dream big, hustle bigger” — laziness is antithetical to the founder’s mindset. We’re constantly pushing ourselves to do more and wring the most out of every day.

But trying to be productive every hour of the day isn’t just ineffective, it’s also putting you on the fast-track to burnout. Running a business is a marathon, not a sprint, and in order to set ourselves up for long-term success, it’s absolutely essential to take time to find clarity.

For me, this takes many forms. Each week, I give myself one full device-free day, a digital Sabbath that quiets my mind and sometimes even clears space for new ideas to take root. Once a year, I spend a week on my family’s olive farm, which leaves me feeling refreshed, focused and ready to tackle new challenges. Far from being a waste of time, these hard resets are what enable me to stay focused on my business and excited about the road ahead.

AUTHOR
Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com

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