A Billion Dollars isn’t Cool

“A billion dollars? That’s not cool. You know what’s cool? A million dollars.” –Derek Sivers

Quite some time ago, I read this post by Chris Brogan about attention management. Chris is an author and consultant and has written many great articles on marketing-related topics. But even though I enjoy many of his writings and thoughts, I found myself scratching my head after reading these lines:

“…attention is finite.

With that in mind, it becomes a matter of budgeting and management. How much one-on-one can I invest, because that’s where the real value of social media kicks in. How can I get more information to more people in a one-to-many format, because that’s my only hope at scaling. This is what we have to ask ourselves daily.”

Chris is right of course: Attention is finite. Still, his conclusions puzzle me: Why should we have to ask ourselves daily about how to optimize our time usage? Why should we see every “one-on-one” meeting as an “investment”, and try to get the word out to “more people in a one-to-many format”?

I for one have never been a friend of aggressive proselytizing. Because… who are we? Jesus? Or are we just trying to sell a product? If the latter’s the case, what’s all that hype about scaling? Why not just forget scaling and chill the fuck out for a while?

Business, the “Staying Small” Way

A different approach was taken by entrepreneur Derek Sivers, as outlined in this interview with Michael Ellsberg:

As CDBaby was growing, once you get beyond say 10 or 15 employees, all of the sudden you’re on the radar of business-to-business services that start pitching you all these things you “need.” I.e., “You need to use our business metrics…” etc.

We’d even get people coming by in person, in suits, with clipboards, to say, “Well of course, you need to have an employee review policy.”

And I’d say, “Need? OK, so if I do not do this, will I be thrown in jail?”

And they’d say, “Well, no, no, no, but you really should. . . ”

And I’d say, “OK, we’re done here.” Unless I’m actually going to be thrown in jail for not doing it, then I don’t need it. [Laughing.]

Sivers wasn’t crazy about scaling. He certainly wasn’t against growth, but from what I can tell after reading that interview, he didn’t freak out about it. His company grew faster than he had planned, anyway.

Here’s the (real) billion dollar question: Can’t Chris Brogan live quite nicely with the money he’s making right now? If he can, why does he have to scale?

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to single Chris out. Nor any of the other “growth” bloggers, like Gary Vaynerchuk or whoever. For me it’s fine for them to grow as much as they want to. It can certainly be thrilling to build a larger company.

I just don’t agree with everybody painting the picture as if growth was mandatory. And that’s really about a much bigger issue than just building a marketing company: Ultimately, do we all really need evermore money? Do we really need more growth? Do we really need to scale?

Here’s another quote from Derek:

…I realized, you can just opt out of all of this. As long as you’re able to keep your living costs low—if you can live on $1,000 a month, or better yet, $700 a month—you don’t need to do anything for anyone, you can just do the occasional little odd job, and say no to the rest.

This chimes with me: Personal frugality pays higher dividends than any scaled business could ever do. It’s not about living miserably, but about living smarter: If I ever reach the point where I have to “budget” my quality time, ceaselessly worrying about getting the word out to evermore people, I’d be tempted to simply shift gears and take a walk for a change.

If I was Chris Brogan or Gary Vaynerchuk, the only thing I’d wish to do was to scale down. Degrow. And chill out for a change.

tl;dr

Our society is looking for growth like a crackhead for his next fix. Thankfully, there are better ways to lead a business, even if it might make us just a couple of millions instead of billions.

Comments 5

  1. michael keller April 27, 2012

    Fabian,
    I have kept up with your blog for at over a year now. I have made money, I have built a company with 7 employees, and then I have lost it all. In the losing, I found the freedom to say no. I no longer had to take that job to feed my machine. Today, I no longer want to build a big company. I feel just a wee bit wiser today, and I am able to pursue my other creative interests along with being an architect. Although, I typically agree with a majority of the questions you pose, as well as with your conclusions. I wonder sometimes, if you are being reactionary. All the best!

    • Fabian April 27, 2012

      Hey Michael, thanks for your comment! I wouldn’t describe my thinking as reactionary, as I’m not blindly seeking a “status quo ante”. That said, I do find inspiration in thoughts, philosophies and lifestyles of the past – I just don’t believe they should be reinstated as they were. Modern society has many advantages, but as I see it, it could still be (much) better!

  2. Ben April 28, 2012

    Hey Fabian,

    I felt like I was reading my OWN journal!! I feel like I have expressed these thoughts many times to myself. It´s funny how so many companies are judged to be doing poorly and failing, not because they aren´t profitable or making good products, but because they didn´t hit certain growth projections necessary to please their shareholders in some far off land who could give a rat´s ass about their real business. I mean everyone wants ridiculous rates of return on their investment and huge growth which usually means scaling and standardizing and watering down your product until it appeals to everyone. Actually, I think this whole growth addiction has to do with our current day stock market and VC situation and how it´s become a business, seperate from the real business of delivering products and services to people and filling needs, now it´s about serving your shareholders which have no personal investment in your business and are simply in the game of finding the highest return for their money as soon as possible. The real business now is secondary. The primary business is now this spiralling addiction to growth and returns and quarterly results.

    • Fabian April 30, 2012

      Ben, we’re definitely on the same track here. Focusing primarily on shareholder value won’t mean good things for the “real” business normally, and focusing on 3-month periods can prevent long-term thinking. That’s why I would be wary of investing in many of our huge companies nowadays (“investing” opposed to: “making a quick buck”).

      My question to you and other readers: What should we do about it? I’m by no means a macro economics expert. Heck, I’m not even a macro economics dilettante. Any ideas? (Or maybe should we just ditch the “macro” and focus back on “micro”?)

      • Ben May 1, 2012

        Fabian, constructively putting the spotlight back onto action instead of eloquent complaints! You got me…jaja. It is easier to diagnose the problem then to actually do something about it in a tangible way or simply takes less effort. It doesn´t seem easy, as their tremendous pressure built into the system as it is to survive, to maximize for your own self interest. But I think one part of this is living conciously rather than unconsciously. Going against the stream of unconscious nature and using this gift of consciousness we now have to make better decisions. This is kinda wishy washy stuff and could be labelled as high minded but not practical. But how can we make it practical? By incorporating it in our small decisions and actions each day little by little, keeping ourselves aware (constantly) of the forces that are play and the misinformation that is being circulated and what we truly value in our more lucid moments.

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