Business Made Simple: Book Overview (Donald Miller)

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Business Made Simple" by Donald Miller. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Want an overview of the Business Made Simple book? What are Donald Miller’s key takeaways and advice?

In Business Made Simple, author Donald Miller argues that you should see yourself not as a mere employee, but as an investment by your organization. In his book, Miller explains the steps you can take to become a valuable asset for your company, and in turn, advance your career.

Keep reading for an overview of the Business Made Simple book by Donald Miller.

The Business Made Simple Book

If you’ve ever asked yourself why you aren’t making as much progress in your business career as you’d like, Donald Miller says he knows the answer: You’re not adding enough value to your company. Businesses always have the bottom line in mind, and they’re much more likely to notice and promote people who quantifiably bring more money into the company than people who simply do exactly what’s in the job description and nothing more. In the Business Made Simple book, Miller proposes 11 steps to become a good investment for your company, from developing value-adding personal traits to learning how to effectively execute a plan.

Your Goal in Business: To Be a Good Investment for Your Company

According to the Business Made Simple book, to succeed in business, you must add value to the company. This means being able to make money for a company, writes Miller. If you can do this, you’re far more likely to rise within an organization or find success starting your own business, because the only thing leaders and investors care about is your ability to generate value. 

(Shortform note: Making a company money may be easy for executives in marketing or sales, whose work directly influences revenue, but what if you’re only entry-level or work in administration? Based on the examples Miller uses in the book, it seems as though his advice does apply more to high-level employees working in fields like sales and marketing. However, he’d likely also argue that anyone can find ways to be a good investment: An admin could find a way to save money on office supplies, for example, or retain customers through exceptional customer service.)

For instance, if you’re in marketing and devise a campaign that reaches thousands of new prospects and earns the company more money, you’re far more likely to be noticed and promoted than a colleague who simply does what the job description requires and nothing more. 

Develop Value-Adding Character Traits

The first step to becoming a good investment is strength of character, writes Miller. A strong, value-driven character consists of some of these traits:

Trait 1: You See Yourself as an Economic Asset. Successful professionals view themselves as entities that can provide value to a company (rather than merely as employees). Learn how to quantify and explain what value you add—for instance, how many sales you made last year and what revenue those brought in. Additionally, try to earn back for the company at least five times your salary: This nets the company a modest profit. 

Trait 2: You’re an Active Agent in Your Life. If you see yourself as a victim and make excuses for why you’re not performing your best, you’ll never succeed or become a good investment for your company, asserts Miller. What’s more, by actively pursuing new goals, you learn and grow. 

Trait 3: You React to Problems Calmly. You’ll accomplish more and earn the respect of your peers if you can respond to problems with greater equanimity than the situation might truly merit. Problems suck up mental energy, so being able to solve them gracefully saves you and others energy. 

Trait 4: You Gladly Accept Feedback. Feedback helps you excel, even if it may be difficult to face at first. Consider actively and regularly seeking out feedback from mentors and friends. 

Trait 5: You Manage Conflict Productively. You understand that to advance, you’ll need to confront and navigate conflict. In the Business Made Simple book, Miller recommends dealing with conflict in four steps: 

  1. Accept conflict as part of moving forward. 
  2. Avoid intense negative emotions, as these exacerbate the conflict. 
  3. Show respect for the person you’re in conflict with to prevent their defenses from being raised. 
  4. Aim for resolution, not for being right.

Enhance Productivity by Focusing Only on Critical Tasks

The third step toward becoming a good company investment is to manage your time to get the most value out of every hour. According to the Business Made Simple book, the best way to do this is to prioritize the tasks that give you the highest return on your investment of energy. Then, delegate or eliminate the other tasks. 

Miller says you can best prioritize by creating two task lists: one that contains the three most important things to get done today and another one that contains all other, less important tasks. Then, get the three key tasks done first (or at least a piece of each key task, if they’re big). 

(Shortform note: If Miller’s advice to create two task lists to aid prioritization isn’t detailed enough for your needs, you might follow some of David Allen’s advice in Getting Things Done. You could sub-organize your non-critical task list into tasks you’re waiting for additional input on, tasks you want to do at some point, and tasks you’ll need to address in the future. You could also sub-organize important tasks into task types—like personal tasks, delegated tasks, and so on. This might further help you determine which tasks give you the highest return on your time investment.)

Become an Expert Strategist by Visualizing Your Business as an Airplane

In Business Made Simple, the book describes that to become the most value-adding employee you can be, you must next learn how to strategize. He defines strategizing as the act of balancing divisions and priorities to maximize company success. The best way to do this is to see your business as an airplane that consists of five distinct parts or divisions: a body (your overhead), wings (your products and services), a right engine (marketing), a left engine (sales), and fuel (capital and cash flow). 

Critically, to fly and stay airborne, you must ensure all parts are in the right proportion to each other and support each other. Otherwise, the plane may be too heavy (too much overhead), there might not be enough fuel (not enough capital), or your wings might not be strong enough (your products aren’t popular). 

For example, if you want to hire more people and increase the weight of the plane’s body, your engines of marketing and sales must be powerful enough to keep the new weight aloft. You might thus launch a new campaign and increase your sales team’s monthly targets. 

Specifically, to stay aloft, Miller recommends keeping overhead low, ensuring your products are both profitable and in demand, creating a marketing test website that lets you refine your messaging and gauge interest, building a sales funnel, and carefully monitoring cash flow. 

Other Interpretations of the Business-Plane Analogy

Miller isn’t the only person to use a plane as an analogy for business. However, others present the analogy differently, and include aspects of business that Miller doesn’t account for in his metaphor. For example: 

The Pilot Is the Leader. Some compare the airplane pilot to its leader. Pilots must possess experience and skill to maneuver the plane safely, in the same way that a CEO must have business acumen to successfully lead a new company. 

The Crew Are the Employees. Miller sees the salaries you pay employees merely as part of overhead. In other words, for him, employees are just a cost. But others view your team as actively contributing to your business success. Because of this, you must invest in training them and keeping them happy. 

The Fuselage Is the Culture. Miller sees the fuselage (the body of a plane) as the overhead that must be supported, but others perceive the fuselage as the culture that keeps the organization together. For this reason, you must carefully create a culture that can gel your organization. 

The Passengers Are the Customers. In your company, your employees are responsible for ensuring the comfort of customers, in the same way a flight crew ensures the comfort of passengers.

This interpretation of the plane analogy illustrates how a business works in general, while Miller focuses on how to balance the parts of the plane to ensure your plane can stay airborne (in other words, to ensure the company brings in enough revenue to support itself). For this reason, Miller doesn’t take into account culture, customers, or leadership, which don’t, at least directly, have anything to do with strategic revenue maximization.

Execute Well Using a Plan

The final step of becoming a value-adding employee is being able to execute a project or idea. The Business Made Simple book breaks successful execution of a new project into three steps:

  1. Have a launch meeting to discuss a project. Decide what the successful execution of the product will look like, who’s involved, what you’ll need to execute it (people and resources), and what the timeline will be. 
  2. Check in with the team weekly. This should be brief and only ensure everyone knows what their next step is. 
  3. Keep track of your progress. Do this publicly and measure input metrics—the efforts going into producing an output—rather than output metrics (which you can’t positively impact because the output’s already been produced). This will encourage your team to push themselves. 
Launch Projects Effectively by Limiting Inefficiencies

When launching a new project, it’s easy to become bogged down in communication and minor, unimportant tasks that draw your attention away from the final aim of the project. In A World Without Email, Cal Newport proposes ways to manage your communication and check-ins so that they don’t interfere with your progress. 

To track your progress effectively, Newport recommends using task boards: physical or digital boards with columns that represent stages of a project and cards that represent tasks. You can move tasks between stages and even relabel the stages to accommodate a new type of project. Newport even advises bringing this board to your regular team meeting. This way, everyone can see what others’ progress is and can better visualize what their next step is. 

Finally, Newport recommends devising an effective process for scheduling irregular meetings, like a launch meeting. Scheduling such large meetings can be time-consuming and is a task better handled by an administrator or scheduling service than by the person leading the project. 
Business Made Simple: Book Overview (Donald Miller)

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Donald Miller's "Business Made Simple" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Business Made Simple summary:

  • Why you aren’t making as much progress in your career as you’d like
  • Why you should see yourself as an investment of your organization
  • 11 steps to add value to yourself as an employee

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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