The Unfair Advantage: Book Overview

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Unfair Advantage" by Ash Ali and Hasan Kubba. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why do some startups skyrocket to success and others fail? Better ideas? More money? Good timing?

The Unfair Advantage (book by entrepreneurs Ash Ali and Hasan Kubba) explains that founders of successful startups exploit their unfair advantages, the qualities or conditions that give them an edge over competitors. There are many types of unfair advantages, and everyone has at least one, according to the authors. To achieve startup success, you just need to find and use your unfair advantages to fuel business growth.

Keep reading for an overview of the book and see what you can apply to your own business ventures.

The Unfair Advantage

Drawing on over 20 years of experience building startups and coaching entrepreneurs, Ali and Kubba describe the steps you must take to achieve startup success—from identifying your unfair advantages, to choosing a viable business idea, to building a winning team. By following their advice—and applying your unfair advantages at every turn—the authors claim you’ll be able to achieve your entrepreneurial dreams. We’ll cover three main elements of Ali and Kubba’s advice in The Unfair Advantage book:

  1. The mindset you must adopt to achieve startup success
  2. How to identify your unfair advantages
  3. Essential steps to build a successful startup

The Mindset You Must Adopt to Achieve Startup Success

According to the authors, your mindset determines your level of motivation and your ability to set ambitious but realistic goals. If you lack the right mindset, any action you take is less likely to succeed.

To fulfill one key aspect of the successful mindset Ali and Kubba describe, you must simultaneously believe that hard work pays off and acknowledge that luck can be the difference between success and failure.

However, if you believe that luck is the only determining factor in success, you may become resigned, thinking that nothing you do ultimately matters, so why bother trying? To avoid this pitfall, Ali and Kubba say, you should aggressively pursue your goals with the resources you currently have to increase your chances of success—while knowing that some factors are out of your control. This determined yet realistic mindset will help you stay motivated to keep pursuing your dream, even when you encounter setbacks.

The second essential element of a successful mindset involves knowing your purpose. As Ali and Kubba explain, the entrepreneurial journey is treacherous and filled with unknowns. If you don’t have a clear and compelling purpose for starting your business, you won’t be motivated to stay the course. Therefore, think carefully about why you’ve chosen to take this route.

Categories of Unfair Advantages

As Ali and Kubba assert, when you leverage your unfair advantages, you’ll be able to build momentum faster and achieve profitability earlier as you grow your business. We’ll review five main categories of unfair advantages: valuable assets, knowledge and education, location and timing, interpersonal skills, and prestige and social connections.

Unfair Advantage #1: Valuable Assets

According to Ali and Kubba, valuable assets include money and anything that you can exchange for money, such as property, investments, or jewelry. If you have enough money to finance the initial launch of your startup and the first several months of operations—without having to struggle to pay for housing, food, and other life essentials—it’s a huge unfair advantage. Also, having sufficient money can give you peace of mind that you won’t be destitute if things don’t go exactly as planned, which can empower you to take more aggressive actions that hopefully translate into growth.

Unfair Advantage #2: Knowledge and Education 

Knowledge and education include formal or informal learning as well as insights you gain from life experiences. As Ali and Kubba explain, if you have a solid foundation of knowledge, you’re more likely to be aware of complex variables that can impact your startup’s growth. This allows you to make better decisions to increase your chances of success.

Unfair Advantage #3: Location and Timing

According to Ali and Kubba, startup success often depends on location and timing: being in the best position or place at the optimal moment. Location includes your city, neighborhood, business site, and online presence. If you live in an area with a lot of talented workers, eager investors, quality internet connection, and reliable transportation, you can potentially tap into those resources to facilitate business growth. Also, if your business is in a safe, easily accessible, and highly visible area, you’ll find it easier to attract customers. Further, your business prospects improve significantly if you have a clear, user-friendly website that appears frequently in organic search results.

Unfair Advantage #4: Interpersonal Skills

Interpersonal skills are your ability to relate to—and persuade—potential customers, employees, and investors. As Ali and Kubba assert, excellent interpersonal skills give you a huge advantage, as startup success hinges on your ability to win over and influence others.

Ali and Kubba say that everyone has unique strengths and weaknesses when it comes to relating to others. The key is to accentuate your strengths and accommodate for your weaknesses. For example, if you’re more introverted, you might need to make a purposeful effort to put yourself in situations where you’ll meet new people. Alternatively, you can partner with someone who’s naturally extroverted.

Unfair Advantage #5: Prestige and Social Connections

Lastly, prestige and social connections interact to provide another unfair advantage. Prestige refers to the value others attribute to you and your expertise. As Ali and Kubba explain, when others hold you in high regard, they’ll be more likely to trust you, which is essential as you work to gain traction in your startup.

Your social connections encompass both personal and professional relationships. The people you know and interact with routinely can influence your level of motivation and your access to opportunities.

Essential Steps to Build a Successful Startup

In the final section, we’ll cover the advice Ali and Kubba give to further increase your likelihood of achieving startup success, which includes three main topics: choosing the right type of startup, identifying a viable business idea, and building a winning team.

Choose the Right Type of Startup

According to Ali and Kubba, there are two main types of startups. Let’s review the features and goals of each and explore how to choose the right type based on your unfair advantages.

Niche Startups

First, niche startups (what the authors call “lifestyle startups”) are local small businesses that provide founders with a sustainable income. Some have physical locations while others are online. Niche startups generally provide services or products that target a relatively small customer base and are thus hard to scale. Examples include a specialty tea shop, a virtual dance academy, an auto repair shop, and a mobile dog washing business. 

Niche startups are almost always self-funded and have limited appeal for external investors. Why? As Ali and Kubba explain, the aim in niche startups is to turn a profit quickly, not dominate a whole industry as investors aim to do when they put their money behind a startup.

Rapid-Scale Startups

Second, rapid-scale startups (what the authors call “hyper-growth startups”) almost always distribute a technology-based product or service. The focus is outpacing competitors to quickly capture as big a portion of the market as possible. As Ali and Kubba explain, costs are often very steep initially, then taper off when (and if) the business gains traction. Why? Once digital products are created, they can usually be mass produced with moderate expense.

Rapid-scale startups require generous funding from outside investors given their incredibly high upfront costs as well as the priority placed on accelerated growth, according to Ali and Kubba. Rapid-scale startups often remain unprofitable for a long stretch of time.

How to Know Which Type of Startup Is Right for You

When deciding which type of startup you want to pursue, Ali and Kubba say to reflect on your purpose, the type of lifestyle you want, and the strength of your unfair advantages.

If it’s important for you to have a humane schedule, a greater chance of achieving profitability, and freedom from the pressure and demands of outside investors, a niche startup is likely a good fit. Also, if your unfair advantages are rather weak, you should consider opting for a niche startup.

However, if you’re a risk taker and you love the “grind,” a rapid-scale startup might be an option—but only if your unfair advantages are incredibly strong. You need access to valuable assets, sophisticated technical knowledge, a desirable location, excellent interpersonal skills, and high prestige so you’re able to fund your efforts, develop an innovative product, attract customers, woo investors, and sustain their trust.

Identifying a Viable Business Idea

Once you’ve chosen the type of startup you want to launch, you should carefully consider which business idea to pursue. Ali and Kubba say your idea doesn’t need to be revolutionary; you just need to execute it well and use your unfair advantages to get an edge. You can build a successful business simply by improving upon an existing product or service. And, remember, sometimes success comes down to getting the timing right. Capitalizing on a growing trend often facilitates success even when your business idea isn’t notably original.

To come up with a good business idea, Ali and Kubba recommend thinking creatively about how you can solve a problem in a unique way that somehow adds value to people’s lives.

Once you have a business idea, Ali and Kubba say you must ensure that it fits two essential criteria: 1) enough people want and will pay for your proposed service or product, and 2) your unfair advantages match up well with your idea.

Building a Winning Team

Finally, after you know which idea you’re going to pursue, Ali and Kubba say it’s important to recruit business partners who can contribute valuable skills and insights to your startup. While it’s possible to succeed on your own, the authors advise against it. Why? The demands of launching a startup are intense, and business partners can ease the emotional burden and share the workload. Also, business partners can provide unfair advantages that you lack, making your road to success much smoother. For example, maybe you have a brilliant idea for a new restaurant and you’re exceptional at marketing, but you’re a terrible cook. In that case, you’ll likely need to find a partner with cooking expertise.

How many partners do you need? According to Ali and Kubba, two or three is usually ideal. They say you need to fill three roles: an innovator, a promoter, and a specialist, and one person can fill more than a single role.

When you’re ready to recruit business partners, choose with extreme care, as this is one of the most critical decisions you’ll make. As Ali and Kubba caution, conflict between business partners is one of the primary sources of startup failure. Therefore, trust is essential, and it doesn’t happen overnight.

The Unfair Advantage: Book Overview

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Ash Ali and Hasan Kubba's "The Unfair Advantage" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full The Unfair Advantage summary :

  • The guidebook you need if you're planning to start a business
  • How to find and use your unfair advantages (everybody has some)
  • The steps you must take to achieve startup success

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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