What’s Your Unfair Advantage?

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What makes one business succeed, while others around it fail?

There is no one thing. But a simple question asked by famed investor, Chris Sacca, to then new founder, Alex Blumberg, in an early episode of the Startup podcast reveals a critical, yet often overlooked trait.

I want to invest in companies that have an unfair advantage. What’s your unfair advantage?

In Sacca’s mind, without that, it’s a nonstarter. For Blumberg, his answer was, well, him. Alex’s unfair advantage was the years of experience producing radio for some of the biggest shows on air. He knew how to grab attention, tell a story that was impossible to stop listening to and build a show around it. That made him a rare commodity with a rare skill-set in radio and an even rarer capability in the newly emerging landscape of podcasting.

That was certainly a huge differentiator and a giant asset in the company’s quest to succeed. But, that, alone, wasn’t the entirety of his unfair advantage. There was something else.

One of the shows he’d helped produce for years was public radio and cultural juggernaut, This American Life. He’d developed not only a longstanding professional relationship with the show’s founder, Ira Glass, but also a close friendship. That gave him the ability to do something nobody else could. He launched what would become Gimlet Media‘s first show, Startup, as a special segment on This American Life. This effectively let him borrow This American Life’s massive audience to give Startup endorsed exposure to a giant listenership out of the gate.

That one relationship catapulted Startup immediately to the top of the charts, opening with incredible numbers. Along with Alex and his team’s ability to produce a fantastic show and an iTunes podcast ranking algorithm that kept the show in a top spot giving it tremendous ongoing exposure to new listeners, the audience exploded. This then gave Gimlet the ability to leverage Startup’s audience to launch new shows under the company’s moniker.

Hello unfair advantage.

Question is, what about you?

When thinking about launching or growing a venture, building a private practice or breathing new life into an existing endeavor, we’re often asked to define how we can deliver a desired result in a way that is different than anyone else.

It’s an important question. But, Sacca’s call to identify your unfair advantage takes this a step further. It’s not just about what makes you different, or better. It is about what, if anything, makes you capable of delivering on a deeply desired experience, outcome or result in a way that nobody else can? On a level that yields an advantage so great that it just might feel unfair to others?

Is this mandatory for success on a scale that would make you happy? Maybe, maybe not. For exponential growth and mega-scale, it is likely a must. For more incremental growth, which can still generate a wonderful living and very real impact, it will help greatly, but may not rise to the level of a mandate. Either way, it’s something to think about as so many of us contemplate the year to come and what we’re building or looking to breathe new life into.

So, what is YOUR unfair advantage? If you don’t have one and your vision for growth includes mass-scale, what might you do to find or create one?

By the way, your unfair advantage might just be…you. Question is, if that is true, how do you build around it in a way that honors the potential limitations in your own personal bandwidth, while also creating something that does what you want it to do in the world?

Important questions to explore. Love to know your thoughts in the comments below.


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9 responses

9 responses to “What’s Your Unfair Advantage?”

  1. Jonathan, like you, I am a former lawyer who has spent the last 20 years running my own tech startups. No big wins yet but I’m still in the game. My latest project is MondoPlayer the first service designed to help social media professionals quickly find and share high quality video on their social media feeds from sites all over the web. Over 70% of videos are not on YouTube so people miss lots of great stuff. Our tool lets people take their social media to the next level by sharing more high quality third party video. We have recently launched after 5 years of development and we have no idea how it will all turn out. A scary place to be. What makes me different? I face my fears everyday. I put in excruciatingly long hours not knowing how it will all turn out. I remain optimistic and enthusiastic. I survive. I learn how to think outside the box because resources are limited. Everyday I live my life to the fullest. If I go down, I will go down swinging. What keeps me going? The customers who love our service and use it every day. I heard this episode of Startup shortly after the show launched and I loved it. The business world is a rough place, nobody cares how nice you are or how hard you work. It’s about the value you offer. Chris Sacca did a wonderful job of putting Alex through his paces and Alex in his trademark, bumbling style, portrayed how difficult it is to be judged instantly, to have your previous work acknowledged and dismissed and to be given only minutes to explain a nuanced concept. He did not figure out his unfair advantage in that episode. It took him a while. So everybody out there whose struggling, take heart. It takes time but half the battle is showing up so keep on plugging. Love your show Jonathan. I take you with me on my early morning runs on the seawall in Vancouver, Canada. Thanks for many happy runs.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Great add – for many of us (most of us), figuring it out is a process.

      • Thanks Jonathan. Yes it is a long, slow and often painful experience. But it makes you stronger and wiser so its worth it. Would not live my life any differently. The ability to forge your own path and use your creativity is a gift that should not be wasted.

  2. Jessica M. Frey says:

    My unfair advantage… that’s an interesting question. I’m in the process of launching a holistic pelvic care practice, and like Alex, the answer would be me.
    1. Unflappable – I was lucky enough to grow up with a nurse for a Mom and she raised me in a way that I always understood my body and how it would develop and change in an age appropriate way. Talking about sex, periods and puberty were common in my household. I grew up without a lot of the hangups found in our society over anything “down there” as so euphemistically gets said.

    I like joking that in my new job, I get to talk about all of the taboo subjects – sex, pee, poop, periods, pregnancy, postpartum care, and menopause. There’s nothing a client can ask me about that will make me uncomfortable. I want them to ask that burning question or talk about that symptom or concern they’ve never told anyone else. Sadly, I all too frequently hear that exact phrase “I’ve never told anyone this [insert description of symptom]”. Hell, on my intake form I ask “How’s your sex life.”

    2. Systems Thinker – I spent 8 years working in the corporate world as a project manager. For a living, I used to build systems, organize other people’s chaos and convince everyone to play nicely together. The business concepts that seem to make a lot of folks in the healing space uncomfortable used to be my bread and butter – budgets, backend automation, sales, pitching clients, speaking events and presentations.

    The ability to think in systems and connections also makes me a good diagnostician. It boosts those intuitive leaps for what might be causing symptoms. I’ve danced since I was 3 and have a high kinesthetic IQ. One of my favorite diagnostic tricks is to watch a client walk, reproduce the same movement patterns in my body and use that as a means of figuring out where to start. Of sorting through what is a symptom and what is causal.

    The ability to see the whole, as well as the interconnected parts also makes me good at teaching. I’ve had a lot of success over the years breaking down complex subjects into teachable soundbites. Especially when teaching something in my zone of genius (ex. kinesthetic movement) to people with different types of IQ. I once taught a physics professor the waltz using physics. Directions like “feel the music or movement” made absolutely no sense to his brain, but breaking down the pattern sequence of music as a pattern recognition exercise did. Or, explaining how centrifugal force creates much of the movement of the waltz.

    I guess we’ll see in the next year if I’m really as much of an unfair advantage as I think I am.

  3. Adam Wallace says:

    Great article Jonathan. I have always argued that what makes my books and presentations different, that what my unfair advantage is, is me and how I connect with kids. It’s great to now sit back and think, ‘Huh. That isn’t always enough. What else do I have as an advantage?’
    Thanks heaps, and I love the podcast too, btw!

  4. Nela Dunato says:

    I’m still trying to figure this out as well, but here’s what I have so far: the balance of the perceived opposites on several levels:

    – I’m an artist, very inspired and prolific, but I’m also very methodical and organized. I can come up with the craziest sh*t, and also systematize and explain esoteric concepts to others.

    – I’m dedicated to personal growth, and find that this component plays a key role in business.
    While my background is in graphic design and I help people by creating their brands and websites, I prefer to delve below the surface and talk about how our fears of rejection and being seen prevent us from crafting a brand that is “the one” for us and be more human in our work and marketing.
    I still don’t offer facilitated healing processes around this issue, but I’m thinking about this since I have the training and credentials… What do you guys think of it?

  5. Joel a Scott says:

    HI Johnathan,

    While I can’t help but believe my unfair advantage is me, reflecting on it says otherwise.

    I used to believe that to succeed in life all a person needs is a never-give-up attitude couple with a strong desire to succeed. While it is true you do need these, these alone won’t get you to where you want to be.

    An unfair advantage, as you have pointed out, is not what you do but who you know. Networking is the key to success. Massive growth based on individual network rarely happens. Now, I’m not saying it doesn’t happen but it rarely happens.

    Point in case.

    For the last number of years I have close a number of real estate deals that I have benefitted from in a big way. During this time, I thought that I was a big shot who could get by solely on what/who I knew. I was wrong.

    As 2016 rolled through, I found that the deals ran dry. Because of this, I was forced to put away my pride and to seek other ways. In the middle part of 2016, I began to explore partnerships and at this point, my business exploded. What I didn’t know I was missing was the network of others.

    This is an unfair advantage and it isn’t one that only I possess. Everyone has the opportunity to create this unfair advantage for themselves, but so few do.


    Joel a Scott

  6. Alpa Pandya says:

    You know that I never thought of it this way? But now that you mentioned, seems easier to find personal unfair advantages. Good thing I also worked on the radio. That gave me a tremendous unfair advantage for my speaking events.

  7. SM says:

    My unfair advantage are my life experiences, especially my childhood experiences due to the fact that a lot of them were….unfair.

    With the passing of time and gaining awareness I have turned (for the most part) my sense of shame, embarrassment, isolation, difference, and crippling fear, into an opportunity to connect with others below the surface of what they project.

    What was once unfair has now allowed me to understand that life just isn’t fair, no matter what, and that hat we humans want the most is for this aspect of our experiences to be recognized and validated regardless of who we are and what we have accomplished.

    This is an unfair advantage that I am able to tap into and establish connections with those I come into contact with.

    I have chosen to use this to assist others in improving their physical conditioning, appearance, strength, and movement on the whole through personal training. My unfair advantage is giving the word personal a whole new meaning when I train my clients so they can recognize and embrace the personal in themselves.

    I have only just begun my business venture on my own so time will tell how it will develop.