Simplicity at its best

For centuries, one of the most commonly offered pieces of advice has probably been some form of the adage, less is more.

Under pressure, we’re reminded that simplicity is the key to happiness. In business, we hear countless adaptations of keep it simple, stupid. As an editor, I’ shorten sentences with William Faulkner’s words, you must kill your little darlings, in mind.

Today, more than ever, we’re constantly reminded to simplify our lives. From home-cooked meals to one-stop shopping to PDAs that do practically everything, the message is clear: simplicity improves the quality of life.

Common sense might lead you to believe that this philosophy could easily and obviously be transferred to the world of business, because what holds true in life often holds true in business.

This month, I interviewed two business owners who, by very different paths, found success by keeping things simple. One owns a photo lab that has become one of the largest in the nation by sticking to the services the founder began providing 30 years ago; the other owns a pared-down version of a defunct Internet company.

What struck me about these companies was that their simple business models are exceptions in the marketplace. The owner of the photo lab recalls being tagged “slow to respond” several years ago when his competitors were investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in the first wave of digital equipment. It’s safe to say their equipment is nearly worthless now.

The subject of my article instead chose to make a slow transition into the digital arena, buying a few pieces of equipment just recently and training his staff of artists on the new software instead of hiring computer experts.

Today, as his industry consolidates from 6,000 labs to a predicted 600, he’s positioned to be one of the survivors.

The other business owner found out the hard way that being all things to all people is not the best recipe for success. His business failed, and now he’s starting over with a small, focused staff, offering just one part of the menu of services his last company provided.

Ironically, the company he owns today mirrors the company he started many years ago as a fledgling entrepreneur. This time, he says, he’ll stick to the areas he thrives in, and avoid the temptation of growing beyond his expertise.

Simplicity is defined as freedom from intricacy or complexity. It doesn’t sound like a complicated formula, yet examples like these are still hard to come by. Connie Swenson ([email protected]) is editor of SBN Magazine.