I just finished reading Cumulative Advantage: How to Build Momentum for Your Ideas, Business and Life Against All Odds by Mark Schaefer, on the recommendation of our curmudgeonly misanthropic founder Naomi, who refers to Schaefer as “the only marketer I actually like”.

Cumulative Advantage by Mark SchaeferSo, I read it. And I liked it so much that I decided to write up a book review.

Personally, I think that the majority of IttyBiz readers will get a lot out of the framework for building momentum (even from scratch) that Schaefer lays out in this short and value-packed book. It's already making me re-write my business plan for this year, so that's as good as an endorsement as any, I suppose.

[Disclosure: I've got no skin in this game. I bought the book of my own volition, and I don't get anything as a result of writing this review. My entire existing relationship with Mark Schaefer is me tweeting him saying “I'm writing a book review on Cumulative Advantage”, and him replying “Awesome.” So, like, we go waaaaaay back.

Also? Follow me on Twitter, I'll follow you back.]

Ok, so let's get into what this book is about. (We're losing daylight, humans.)

The Concept of Cumulative Advantage

If you've read Outliers by Malcom Gladwell, you'll have been introduced to the results of cumulative advantage, though not by name. It's the phenomenon that happens when a person has a small early advantage over others in their field, and that advantage compounds over time.

Much of the time this advantage happens early in life, as it did with Bill Gates (who had access to computers years before most other people did, and that advantage allowed him to rise to the top when latecomers struggled to catch up). The same is seen with people who come from musical families, or sports families, and so on.

But what if you weren't born into that kind of privilege? Can you still gain the power of cumulative advantage later in life? Or in a new career?

Schaefer says yes.

What you'll find in Cumulative Advantage is a framework of building your own momentum by applying the core building blocks of Schaefer's process to your own “initial advantage”, once you identify what it is. (He details 6 ways to identify your initial advantage in Chapter 3.)

I was impressed by this framework, because it lays out a process that I've witnessed over the last decade or so in IttyBiz customers and clients as they've gone from “people you've never heard of” to industry household names, best-selling authors, and in some cases, the 800-pound gorilla in the room.

But I was glad to see that Schaefer doesn't position the book as a path to riches, but a path to succeeding – period – when the odds are against you.

He says in the introduction, “I can’t promise you superstardom—and you probably don’t need superstardom—but I’ll show you how to build relentless momentum for your idea, your business, and your career even when the odds are stacked against you.”

That's the gist of what's gets covered in Cumulative Advantage.


Here's what it was like reading it.

Practicality Rating for Cumulative Advantage

5 out of 5 cats
Practicality: 5 out of 5 cats

I was pleased to see Schaefer doesn't candy-coat the facts. He acknowledges that the world is not a fair one – the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer – and that the deck is always stacked against you. From the introduction: “This book will demonstrate how the world is stacked against us in big ways and small and provide new ideas to help us rise above these barricades.”

This book respects the fact that people need an advantage to succeed. It's not a utopian meritocracy. In fact, he draws the analogy between himself and Tim Ferris and details why Tim shot into the “Oprah Orbit”, and he did not.

Schaefer takes a highly practical approach to how to build cumulative advantage when you're not coming from a place of privilege, and the advice he gives is applicable to everyone I can think of, and can be used to build a game plan for anyone willing to follow the framework.

In other words, Cumulative Advantage won't leave you in the dreaded “draw the rest of the fucking owl” scenario:

Draw the rest...
Or in other words, “Step 1: Be Tim Ferriss”.

Instead, there's enough detail to follow for all the steps of the framework (below) that you can actually start working it today.

  1. Identify an initial advantage
  2. Discover a seam of timely opportunity
  3. Create significant awareness for our project through a “sonic boom” of promotion
  4. Gain access to a higher orbit by reaching out and reaching up to powerful allies
  5. Build the momentum through constancy of purpose and executing on a plan

I've personally been able to put together the beginnings of my action plan, so I give it full marks for practicality.

Value-Per-Page Rating for Cumulative Advantage

5 out of 5 cats
Value-Per-Page: 5 out of 5 cats

Thankfully, this book has no fluff, so it scores 100% on the value-per-page rating. I never found myself skimming through to get to the good bits, or thinking, “Ok, we get it already – stop repeating your catchy concept buzzword in italics!” (Fascinate, I'm looking at you.)

And mercifully, the traditional self-indulgent backstory that I see in too many business books is absent. Schaefer's personal story is woven into the book and improves the narrative of Cumulative Advantage rather than detracting from it.

Plus, Schaefer makes good use of stories and nested loops to illustrate examples of real people validating this framework that kept me interested the whole way through. Like with Outliers, I felt immersed, watching a story arc unfold. Too few business book writers understand the value of story and nested loops for communicating concepts and keeping attention.

Personality Rating for Cumulative Advantage

5 out of 5 cats
Personality: 5 out of 5 cats

Schaefer has a warm kind of self-deprecation that belies his experience – he's been in the game a long time, and has already earned his money through an established business. So there's none of the “bro” posturing that you might expect when someone's trying to make a name for themselves. (Schaefer has 9 other books besides Cumulative Advantage behind him already.)

I get the impression that Schaefer writes books just because he thinks it's fun. And that sense of play comes through. There's a light humor, an easygoing casualness that takes the pressure off of the core concepts, which, admittedly, require a significant amount of sustained work. (However, no more work than the concerted effort it would take for any business to succeed.)

Insight Rating for Cumulative Advantage

5 out of 5 cats
Insight: 5 out of 5 cats

I particularly like this book for the insights on WHY things work, not just how things work. I came away from reading Cumulative Advantage with a sense that I learned more about the underlying framework of momentum, almost like the days when my math tutor explained things to me until I finally “got it”.

One of the challenges with being an avid reader is that you don't get surprised as much as you'd like to. So many authors load up their books with stories and research that have been public knowledge for so long that they're not lighting up the brain. But I found plenty of spark here.

Of particular note was chapter 9 (Constancy of Purpose). Schaefer offers up 8 key “choices that build momentum” that surprised me – some because I hadn't considered it before, others because I realized I was underestimating their importance. Well played.

Cats Rating for Cumulative Advantage

1 out of 5 cats
Cat references: 1 out of 5 cats

Sadly, Cumulative Advantage contains zero stories or case studies about cats, which breaks my heart, but I had it coming. I know it's me. My expectations are not reasonable. Experts do not sit down to write business books making sure to keep the cat-obsessed consumer in mind. (But there are MILLIONS OF US!!!!!)

Ahem. *composes self*

There is, however, a reference to “cat-like entrepreneurial speed” on page 67 of the Kindle Edition that did bring a sigh of relief when I read it. (I hate giving zero-cat reviews, so thanks for the solid, Mark.)

Favorite quotes

“For fun (really), I sent out a questionnaire to 25 of my most successful and powerful friends with a simple question: “Did your success come from a plan or strategy, or did it come from a random event?” Every single person told me the initial spark for their career success was ignited by a random event.”

“Product timing is about doing your best to be relevant to the true needs of a market, not what you wish the market would be.”

“To achieve momentum, an idea must be simple and focused on one customer problem.”

“The greatest value of mentoring that builds momentum is access. Access to opportunities. Access to insight. Access to people and scarce resources that can build momentum and lead to personal growth.”

“You don’t need to be famous or number one on Google to have amazing success. All you require is the determination and grit to drive the steady progress of your own momentum.”

The Wrap-Up

I was going to write a summary, but instead I've decided to write a short letter to the author of Cumulative Advantage.

Dear Mark,

Your book does a service to the industry. Naomi's fond of talking about how hard it can be to mirror the success of some of the breakout superstars – I've heard her say, “Step 1: Be Tim Ferriss”, more times than I can count.

Thanks for laying out a way to break out and achieve meaningful momentum without having to be Tim Ferriss first.

I think everyone who wants to beat the odds should give this book a read.


PS – Next book, can we have some more cats?

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