I hate the phrase 'small business'. It implies that the work we do is in some way inferior to that undertaken by our larger counterparts. This is not the case. In fact, being small has a vast array of advantages.
But in the quest to build a valuable business, it's easy to start emulating larger firms. We try introducing tools and processes that aren't really needed simply because "that's the way these other guys do it".
I've always believed that simplicity is key to lasting success. In this post I want to discuss some of the methods that I've used to fight off complexity and keep my web development business simple.
Small Can Be Big
Being small isn't a bad thing. Just because you don't employee a large workforce doesn't mean that you lack the ability to effect change in the world. Today more than ever, we are seeing individuals and small teams creating products that impact the lives of millions of people. You no longer need to be running a Fortune 500 company to make a difference. In fact, some of the biggest companies in the world are trying really hard to emulate the simplicity and culture that is characteristic of a small business. On a number of occasions Steve Jobs spoke of how Apple is "organized like a startup", with teams operating completely independent of others so that they can move quickly and avoid unnecessary bureaucracy.
Smaller companies are also more adaptable to change and can outmanoeuvre their larger counterparts when the market shifts. This concept is discussed in depth in Clayton Christensen's, The Innovator's Dilemma
Embrace your smallness and do everything you can to hold onto that simplicity and culture as you grow.
Don't Get Hung up on Tools
The most common complexity trap I've fallen into is introducing unnecessary tools. This is really easy to do, especially when you work in an industry where the rate of innovation is impossibly fast.
Web developers love tools: pieces of software created to make our lives that little bit easier. Many of the tools we use are not essential, but we love and support them in the interest of furthering our craft. However, we do need to draw the line somewhere. It can be easy to introduce unnecessary tools into our workflow simply because they're the 'latest hotness' that everyone is raving about.
Often there's value in adding new tools and altering your workflow, but sometimes you're just adding more complexity. Nobody likes to be outdated, but if you're adding complexity just so you can tell others that you're using the 'new hotness', you have a big problem. If you work in a team you also need to consider how introducing something new will impact your colleagues.
Avoid using something just because it's the cool new thing. Ask yourself whether a tool really provides more value than the one you're using today. If not, say no.
Keep Processes Simple
Another common mistake I've made in the past is to introduce unnecessary processes just because it's how I've seen a bigger business do it. For the most part I work alone, so it's okay to take a more informal approach to how things get done. I don't have a complex sales pipeline, or a fancy piece of software for managing client relationships. As the business grows I may well need to add some of these things, but until it's absolutely essential, I much prefer to just keep things simple.
Sometimes complex processes are forced upon you. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software can be handy, but they often come with complex processes designed for large sales teams. You're not a big business; there's no large sales team; these processes don't apply. Be careful about what tools you choose to use to run your business and consider how they will alter your workflow. There are a whole bunch of tools out there targeted at individuals and small teams. They may not be household names, but they get the job done in the simplest way possible.
In his book Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple's Success
Ken Segall writes about how Steve Jobs would use a 'simple stick' to metaphorically bash ideas, designs, and products until they were reduced to their simplest possible form. It's through this relentless pursuit of simplicity that Apple has reinvented entire industries and conceived products that touch the lives of millions of people.
“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated." - Confucius
Business doesn't have to be complicated. By making careful choices about the tools we use and the processes we follow, we can banish complexity and keep business simple.