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Business should be an act of friendship

Despite a typo in an email campaign I sent out this week for a client, I’ve had a good week. Seems I’ve been able to move the proverbial ball forward for just about everyone I work with. That’s usually enough to put me in a good mood.

My business is a shell of what it once was years ago. In fact, I don’t even call it “my business” anymore, just “my work.” And what I do has evolved a lot. So much so, that when people ask me what I do for a living I have to think about what to tell them.

Sometimes I say, “I’m a website consultant.” The c-word is one I’ve begrudgingly accepted for lack of any better word. For some people this is writing new material for their site. For others it’s development or design work. For others it’s just suggesting things they could or should be doing.

Sometimes I say, “I’m an author. I’ve just published a book about the Tri-State Tornado.” To which every reply is, “Oh? What’s that?” And then 40 minutes later I stop talking when their brain yeets out the back of their skull.

Sometimes I say, “I’m a teacher.” It’s a role at IU I take seriously, even though it makes up a small amount of my income overall.

I am not a person anyone wants to be taking business advice from. I’m genuinely terrible at business. I forget to invoice people, I sometimes feel like I don’t want to invoice people, and even though it’s in my contracts that I could raise rates a few percent each year to keep up with cost of living expenses, I have almost never done so.

My prior business, which I sold off a few years ago, got to be too unruly for me. It consumed all my time and caused an outsized amount of stress. Most of that stress was borne out of having to support other people’s income. So when a business leader somewhere talks about having to raise money or face layoffs, unless they’re just subhuman, I understand that sense of terror.

I’ve read two books that have heavily influenced my thinking on business. The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber is great. It was the first and only book I ever read (and I’ve read a lot) that explained why a business should be able to operate independent of its owner. That the business should be a self-contained unit, capable of generating income when you’re not actively “producing.”

Company of One by Paul Jarvis takes the opposite approach. Jarvis argues there’s a lot of value in being just plain good at your craft. That if you’re a cabinetmaker, maybe don’t try to build up your business so it employs hundreds of people and try to vertically integrate all your supplies and machinery and operate internationally. Maybe, just maybe, you can be the guy they make Netflix documentaries about, living a quiet life in Oregon or wherever sanding cabinets by hand.

Both methods try to get to the same conclusion: you can work fewer hours after you’ve done the hustle parts early on, increase profit, and generally enjoy your life.

This, of course, does not work for everyone the same. A lot of people don’t want to “kick back” at all, or prefer to wait until retirement, or set a modest goal to retire at, say, 55 or 60 instead of 70. The important thing is all those people know that’s what they want (or reasonably think they know).

It’s taken me something like twenty years at this point to realize I like the Company of One model. I just want to be really good at my craft — whether it’s mentoring and teaching, or writing, or thinking up ideas and hooking up webpages to encourage people to donate to a cause or learn about a new service for the first time.

I’m still bad at business because I still “forget” to invoice people. And I still struggle to have conversations about raising rates. Sometimes I lie awake and think, “Maybe I’m charging them too much. Maybe I should lower it.” Which if you could see the rates I charge some people you’d know that is mathematically absurd in 2024.

Somewhere — and I can’t remember where — I picked up on a line that has stuck with me for years:

Business should be an act of friendship.

Author Name

When I see companies like Adobe downright abusing customers like me, or Apple being so stingy with RAM, or Google seemingly trying to run roughshod over the web, or even modest businesses talking about ways to squeeze customers “for value” or finding ways to “increase engagement” I think, “Do you talk to your friends like that?”

Business can be an act of friendship if you like the people you work with. Some business-bros can argue that’s a terrible idea because profits are what make a business, and that is true. But most of American business history was built on the premise you’d have a “fair” profit. When you start seeing people charging fees that are 2-3x what the thing cost, you have to wonder if they’d treat their mother like that. My guess is probably not.


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About JUSTIN HARTER

Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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