Creating Cumulative Advantage


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Exclusive Interview for CustomerThink with Mark Schaefer

Mark W SchaeferCumulative Advantage as a concept builds unstoppable momentum for your ideas and your business — even when the odds seem stacked against you. The book shows how initial advantages, seams of opportunity, sonic booms, and the lift from mentors can impact your world in powerful and permanent ways. It’s designed to be a practical source of inspiration for the entrepreneur, business leader, and every person with a dream that’s ready to take flight. The Cumulative Advantage concept focuses on:

  • How the initial advantage that drives momentum comes from everyday ideas.
  • The inside secrets of creating vast awareness for your projects.
  • How to nurture powerful connections that lead to break-through opportunities.
  • Why momentum is driven by the speed, time, and space of a “seam.”
  • How the “certainty of business uncertainty” can be used to your advantage.

I had the opportunity recently to interview Mark Schaefer, a globally-acclaimed author, keynote speaker, and marketing consultant. He is a faculty member of Rutgers University and one of the top business bloggers and podcasters in the world. Mark is the executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, Chief Executive Officer of B Squared Media and on the advisory board of several startups. He has been a contributor to Harvard Business Review and Entrepreneur magazine.

His latest book is Cumulative Advantage: How to Build Momentum for Your Ideas, Business and Life Against All Odds.

Below is the text of the interview:

1. Is success random?

Yes and no.

Momentum in life begins with some initial advantage. That is almost always random and unearned. It could be inherited wealth, a special, early educational opportunity, or being in the right place at the right time. Even being born into a free country and living in a stable household with two parents can be an advantage.

Frans Johansson wrote an entire book about this phenomenon called “The Click Moment.” I can point to a random conversation with my boss in 1992 that led to this book!

However, just having an idea or an advantage is not enough. You must pursue the idea and apply it to something changing in the world to create an opportunity. Randomness is likely to get the ball rolling, but hard work and smarts still make a difference when it comes to success.

2. Why is creating a cumulative advantage important?

There are many reasons to understand the patterns of momentum but for me, it’s the fact that it’s just so hard to stand out today. Even if you’re doing your best work, you can be buried because the level of competition and content out there is so great. How can a person or a business be heard? How can they be found?

For the past 10 years, most of my career has been devoted to this idea of becoming the signal instead of the noise. It’s never been harder for a business to be seen and heard and I think understanding how we can apply momentum to our lives is a big idea to help solve this problem.

3. Can anyone create cumulative advantage for their business or ideas?

This is going to sound weird, but honestly, no. This haunted me as I wrote the book. I realized that every business book and every self-help book is inherently elitist. The author assumes a person has the money to buy the book, the time to read it, and the resources to act on it.

But there is a big part of society that is being pulled under by Cumulative Disadvantage. It’s a cosmically complex topic that I address, in part, at the end of the book. I wanted to write a book that could help everyone, I don’t think anybody can, really.

But let’s put it this way — if you have the resources to buy the book and read it, then yes, you can probably build momentum!

4. What kinds of initial advantages might the average person have?

It can be anything really that leads to some momentum in later life. I already mentioned this idea about just living in a safe home as an advantage. Children adopted out of poverty had a substantial gain in IQ just from being in a safe environment.

Research has shown that early reading skills can lead to an advantage in education. Early athletic coaching can lead to longer and more profitable professional careers (just ask Tiger Woods or Serena Williams!). It can be a special ability, a personality trait, or even a stroke of luck along the way.

5. We are all surfing the crest of a wave that started long ago. Advantage builds on advantage. Why is curiosity so important?

I once had the opportunity to meet Walter Isaacson, the biographer of Steve Jobs, Leonardo DeVinci and Benjamin Franklin. I asked him what made a genius. He said endless curiosity and an ability to see patterns.

The world id filled with millions of ideas. An idea is worth nothing without the pursuit of curiosity, That is the beginning of momentum.

Cumulative Advantage6. How does one find a worthy seam?

In the book I explore a new way to look at strategy. Strategy today is the ability to apply your idea or initial advantage to a fracture in the status quo — some shift in the world. It could be a new technology, a change in taste, or a demographic shift. It could even be a pandemic.

Wherever there is change, there is a seam. If you matter in that seam, you’re in business,

7. Why is understanding the concept of Ikigai a key to personal success?

Ikigai is an ancient Japanese concept centered on finding the right balance in your life. Momentum isn’t sustainable for the long-term without that balance.

This is the problem with the current “hustle” culture. So many people are flaming out because their work-life is so out of whack. Ikigai is different for everyone. In an example in the book, I walked away from a potentially lucrative long-term opportunity because I would have hated it. Just wasn’t part of my life plan.

8. What is the role of timing in success?

I guess the short answer is, timing is everything!

This is the one factor that is largely out of our control. For example, 20 years ago I led a project to put wine in cans. It flopped. Nobody wanted it. but today, about 10 percent of the entire market in cans because of the changing tastes of a younger generation that wants a small, unbreakable quick-chilling package. My idea was worthy, but the timing was off in this case.

The only thing we can do to push things in our favor is to examine the worthiness of the idea on several levels to give us the best chance to succeed.

9. What role does social proof play in the way we make decisions?

I explore this in a really fun part of the book called The Sonic Boom.

When we don’t know the truth, we may follow clues in our environment to make the best decision. For example, if you don’t know how to exit a stadium after an event, you may just follow the flow of the crowd, trusting that they know what they’re doing! That’s social proof.

A problem is that businesses often assume consumers make a decision in a vacuum. This is rarely the case, especially for expensive items. We consult our friends. We read reviews. We may listen to people we regard as influential for that subject or product.

These external signs of a product’s desirability and success is probably much more important to building momentum than our own marketing.

10. Is mentorship an outdated concept?

Having somebody open new opportunities for you might be the fastest and most effective way to build momentum. But we need to throw out the old definition of a mentor being a teacher in a long-term relationship with the student.

In my book I challenge people to reimagine what mentorship could, and should, be! Mentors open new doors, make introductions, create opportunities. That’s what really contributes to momentum. So we need to re-consider who can be the right mentor and how we approach them.

11. How long does it take for an initial advantage to accumulate into something meaningful?

I really don’t think there is any sort of template or rule of thumb.

Who could have imagined that being a journalism major many decades ago could be an advantage for me in a content-driven marketing world we have today? I guess you could say that was an advantage that was dormant for a long time! And yet, that is undeniably a benefit I have that has helped propel an amazing career. I have other examples where I was able to apply my advantages to a seam and create profitable momentum in a matter of days.

As I said… Timing is everything!


Thank you for the great conversation Mark! I hope everyone has enjoyed this peek into the mind of the man behind the inspiring new title Cumulative Advantage!

Image credits: (Mark W Schaefer)


  1. Great interview. I bought the book and loved it. Lots of great stories to help make the concepts come to life. The idea of the Cumulative Advantage or Momentum is important for anyone in business, especially marketing to understand and implement.

  2. As always, you avail breakthrough discussions on CX topics. Thanks for your interview with Mark Schafer. Eager to dive into “Cumulative Advantage.


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