I’ve been meaning to write about Mike Michalowicz for a while now. Last October, in a comment to an article about generalization vs. specialization, I sided with specialists and promised reader Rya that I’d soon be discussing GIANT PUMPKINS! Why? Because at the time, I was reading Mike’s newest book, “The Pumpkin Plan.”

However, life is full of detours, so I am finally writing about it months later… except that I won’t be writing about giant pumpkins just yet, because while reading the pumpkin book, I came to learn about Mike’s first book — “The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur” (or TPE, for short).

Many of Mike’s core concepts from “The Pumpkin Plan” were, in fact, developed in his TPE era. As you might recall, I like complexities, chronologies and connections, so I was happy to search for the source of it all. And while reading the first book, I fell in love with the TPE approach, so much so, that I’m applying it to relaunch my business this year.

Since publication in 2008, Mike has moved on from his TPE days. But I am writing about it for three reasons:

1) I love the book.

2) There isn’t a review of the book on GRS, which gives me the perfect excuse to expound about it.

3) Mike’s website offers several TPE documents as downloadable resources.

So I promise I’ll discuss “The Pumpkin Plan” in a future installment, but for now it’s time to find out what TPE is all about.

TPE is not for the squeamish

WARNING: If you disapprove of bathroom humor and occasional f-bombs, are averse to the mere mention of bodily functions and think business books should be formal and filled with technical jargon, this book is definitely not for you. This article remains “safe,” but the actual book’s vocabulary and metaphors might displease you. You’ve been warned.

On the other hand, if you have a soft spot for adolescent humor, can visualize nature as a giant composter, and have no problem with the occasional Rabelaisian image, you might get a kick out of this text. I do, and I did. It was a bit much for me on occasion (my imagination is too vivid for my own good), but I enjoyed the laughs and the great ideas. While not every idea here is new, the way things have been wrapped, organized and given direction here make for a compelling and inspiring book.

TPE is fundamentally a quest for self-knowledge

The TPE system insists that you build a business around yourself — not around the latest fashion, not about the next big thing, not about what the venture capitalists want, but about you, your dreams, your abilities and your values. It doesn’t ask you to compromise and sell out, it doesn’t ask you to do what everyone else is doing, it doesn’t ask you to wait until a later date, it doesn’t ask you to get into debt, it doesn’t ask you to do things just for the money. None of that!

Yes, let’s get this out of the way: TPE is built around the idea of “following your passion,” which is, in part, why the subject was so present in my mind when I wrote about it in my last post. If you’re going to be a business owner you have to be truly passionate about it. It isn’t something you do 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, with a break for lunch; it’s something you have to live and breathe and dream about (like Jiro and his sushi).

Besides, all the calculations and spreadsheets in the world cannot guarantee your entrepreneurial success, so faith and conviction are a must. As Auden wrote in one of my favorite poems, “Look if you like, but you will have to leap.” So, yes, OK, you’ll require “passion.” I’ve said it. Oh, that dreaded word! And yes, you might need to keep a side job until things pan out. (Mike tells us the inventor of the Clif bar did.)

In any case, TPE requires that you do a thorough examination of your dreams, your values and your inner resources, so that your business is compatible with your life, and running it doesn’t destroy you in the process. This is essential and foremost to Mike’s business philosophy. You don’t want to reach the end of your life and realize you blew it.

TPE is about using what you have to get what you need

The central metaphor of the book is “what to do when you only have three sheets of toilet paper” (hence the title). Without going into graphic detail, let’s just say it’s all about how to make do with whatever you have at hand in order to meet the urgent demands of your situation.

Mike is an extremely frugal guy and believes in bootstrapping a business without outside money. GRS readers will feel right at home with his advice for cheap or free resources, which pepper the whole book. Today, while running a successful operation, Mike uses salvaged office furniture, drives a used car and preaches that same frugality to the people he advises. In the pilot episode of his web series “Bailout!”, he got a spa owner couple to get rid of their leased Mercedes and drive a free ice cream truck (seriously!).

Here’s another little anecdote to illustrate the frugality of the guy: Mike’s blog features a picture of him working from a shelter after Superstorm Sandy. I’m not surprised — Mike treats his cash like blood and, while his New Jersey home was without power, all he needed to work was a free table and an Internet connection.

TPE is not about Fantasyland

Yes, TPE requires dreams, passion and a vision of integrity, but it is not an exercise in staring at the moon with a belfry full of bats. It requires decisions, concrete action, metrics, money management and all that nuts-and-bolts stuff.

Last time I wrote in defense of passion, I mentioned that you need reason on your side. Mike can jump very quickly from “dreams” and “life missions” into sizing your market, managing your cash, finding (or avoiding) financing, successful marketing, networking and other practical subjects.

His methodology requires you to drill your five-year prosperity destiny (“the dream”) all the way down to a concrete quarterly plan and daily business metrics, which you’re required to track furiously. Your codified immutable laws, which are a reflection of your core values, become the guide for your business practices and simplify your decision-making. (In “Switch” parlance, they help you “direct the rider.”)

The above are the eponymous “three sheets” that help you run your business. But in reality there are a few more details to work out, such as figuring out your “life mission” (a prerequisite for everything else) and sizing up an appropriate niche for your market. I also consider the daily metrics “instrument gauge panel” a document in itself.

Mike is against the conventional business plans that require you to outline every step of the way from launch to success. He asks you, instead, to plan for the short term only (quarterly plan), and that you tack like a sailboat in navigating towards your ultimate goal, course-correcting as you go.  This methodology is somewhat compatible with GTD, where your focus is only on your final goal and on your next step towards that goal, and you don’t have to outline every step in between.

TPE is not everything for everyone

Mike makes a distinction between a freelancer and an entrepreneur: freelancers work on their craft; entrepreneurs work on systems that can be replicated to grow their business. He goes further into that in “The Pumpkin Plan.”

My wife and I are, by conscious choice, much like freelancers. We are artists who love our craft. We want nothing to do with managing people, franchising, opening branch offices or that sort of thing; Mike is more focused on the “business replication” angle. Still, we can use most of his ideas for our own purpose.

We wanted a full roll of toilet paper, but found only this book. Now we’re using it to the best of our abilities.

Ha! We’re Toilet Paper Artists!