There’s a topic that no one really talks about in entrepreneurship or online business, and that’s the unfair advantages someone had starting out.
Behind every killer case study, every income report, every “overnight” success, there’s a backstory you don’t always hear.
The truth is, no one ever really starts from scratch. We bring our own history, perspectives, and baggage to the table.
We also have the advantage of learning from everyone who’s gone before us. Like Newton said, we “stand on the shoulders of giants.”
In this post and podcast episode, I’ll share some unfair advantages that undoubtedly helped me, and offer up some you probably have working in your favor as well.
How do you find your unfair advantage? You might not have an immediate answer to that, but one advantage you have is you’re the only “you” out there.
No one else shares your exact experience and outlook.
Here are some common advantages you might have lurking in your back pocket!
Your existing experience and knowledge are unique to you, and probably an unfair advantage you can use in building your business.
I was blessed to get experience in several helpful areas early on, including:
Deep subject matter expertise can be helpful in starting a side hustle, but certainly isn’t required. There are tons of examples of this in the archives, including Chris Schwab’s cleaning business, John Wilker’s pallet-flipping business, and Jessica Larrew’s Amazon reselling business.
On the other hand, if you look at Nikko Mendoza’s 3D printing business, where he’s making digital files for costume armor, it took a certain level of expertise to do that. Or Nate Dodson’s microgreens course. He could teach it because he’d done it himself.
What experience do you bring to the table? What problems or challenges have you overcome in your own life? Could you help others do the same?
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” right? Your existing network, however small, can be a incredibly valuable resource to lean on when starting your business. It’s also something that’s entirely unique to you. No one else has the exact same network.
How this might work is simply telling your connections what you’re up to. You’re not likely to sell to them directly, but by sharing your work, you put yourself in a position to earn referrals. Maybe they can introduce you to someone who could use your help, or to someone who could help you.
We all have a network. It doesn’t have to be huge, it doesn’t have to be famous, it doesn’t have to be this awkward one-sided sales-pitchy relationship. But these are people who already know you, and at least care a little about you, and they’re probably willing to help you out. If it’s a fit. If you ask.
Not everyone is starting on equal ground when it comes to money.
While I didn’t have a huge nest egg (heck I was 22!), I had a little savings from working through school and no debt. I had a job, and a reasonably inexpensive lifestyle. And I had time to build something.
Others approach side hustles with more money than time. This is the Ace Chapman approach — how do I buy cash flow? Or more recently, the Stacy Caprio approach. How can I buy enough cash flow to leave my job?
How lucky are we to be alive right now? In our pockets, we have access to all the world’s information and connect with people in an instant, even if they’re thousands of miles away.
We have tools and apps and markets that never used to exist. Individual sellers can get shelf space on the world’s largest stores. You have the same digital publishing power that major media companies have. Getting online has never been easier or cheaper.
I get to talk to you every week from my kids bedroom closet! How incredible is that?
The gatekeepers are gone.
I see all today’s technology as a major unfair advantage for entrepreneurs now vs. even just 15 or 20 years ago.
The tools may change, but the fundamentals stay the same: a business is just a problem-solving machine. That’s it.
Who do you help? How do you help them? How do you connect with those customers? How do they pay you?
Answer those questions and you’re off the races.
Aside from a few random injuries, I’ve been fortunate to be pretty healthy. I don’t have any chronic issues that prevent me from being physically or mentally able to work.
This is also something I work on almost daily, in terms of the exercise I do and the foods I eat.
My parents raised my brother and I in a good school district. We were encouraged and expected to do well in school.
But more important than any particular topic we covered in school, our childhood education instilled the excitement of learning. It taught us we were capable of the most important skill of all: the skill of learning new skills.
There was lots of opportunity to practice reading, writing, and math–things I still use every day.
I wasn’t learning day trading in 5th grade, but I do think I had a few unfair advantages when it came to learning about money.
The first part of my financial education was being encouraged to earn money. That meant mowing lawns, babysitting, selling candy at summer camp, and even trying to sell baseball cards at the end of the driveway. My only customers were my friends, who were equally broke, so that didn’t work out so well. But those types of micro-entrepreneurial ventures were encouraged.
I remember getting all excited about certain baseball cards the Beckett price guide said was worth $10 or $20, and my dad saying it’s only worth that if I could find a buyer willing to pay that much. I didn’t love hearing that at the time, but a little dose of truth was probably good for me.
In high school, we were expected to work, especially summers. My best gigs were shelving books at the library and cashiering at the Mongolian Grill.
In middle school, dad set me up with a brokerage account, and I think seeded it with around $1000. In the late 90s NASDAQ boom, it soon doubled, which got me excited about the market.
Then it crashed, which made me a little more hesitant about the market. Seeing both the ups and downs was important.
In high school, one of my math teachers took it upon himself to teach us the power of compound interest and dollar cost averaging. We were probably learning about exponents and it was a real-life way to work them in. Over time, he showed us, you could amass a pretty good fortune just socking a way a few hundred dollars a month, especially if you start early.
Where he stopped short was the end-game, or the 4% rule for (early) retirement. I don’t know if that would have been motivating or discouraging to a bunch of high schoolers, but I’m certain if I’d learned about it at 17 and not 30, I would have made a few choices differently in between.
Mom and dad added us to their credit cards when we were just 12 or 13. It was for emergencies only, but we learned that it wasn’t just a magical device. Whatever we bought, we paid them back.
When I turned 18, they suggested I get a credit card of my own to start building my own credit. That actually came in handy when I went to buy my first investment property.
Looking back, I think mom and dad were more well-off than they let on. Or maybe it’s just that they’re empty-nesters now, or the market’s been good to them, but growing up, they were always really intentional with how they spent their money.
They didn’t buy fancy clothes or drive fancy cars. When we traveled, we usually stayed in time share condos, which was cool because we had more space than a hotel room.
For a kid, that meant not always getting what we wanted; the cool new toy or the shoes everyone else was wearing. That was hard, but it was also important because it showed me it was OK to do without that stuff.
Instead they’d take us skiing (on rented gear of course, until we stopped growing), or we’d go hiking or swimming.
They were always savers, and passed that value along through their actions.
I remember one time when we were camping, and pulling out of the campground, dad backed the car into another car that was parked behind him. He was frustrated with his mistake–this being in the days before backup sensors–and the repair was going to cost a few hundred dollars.
Still, he took the attitude that “it’s only money” and “a few days of work” would cover it. That stuck with me. Money isn’t a finite resource like time; you can always make more.
Being born and raised in America is an unfair advantage all by itself. The biggest reason is that the red tape and investment required to start a business is super low relative to some other spots in the world.
And because many companies and marketplaces are based here, the side hustle landscape is easier to access.
Entering adulthood debt-free was a huge unfair advantage. I paid for school with a combination of scholarships, part-time work, and help from mom and dad. There’s no question, had I come out with a mountain of debt the way many graduates do, my willingness to quit my job might have been a little different.
It would have just added to the monthly burden I’d have to cover with the business income. Super grateful for not having to worry about that.
Bryn and I just celebrated 20 years together, and yes if you want to do some math on that, that means we started dating when we were 15 and 16.
In addition to being the ultimate productivity hack (a super romantic joke I know I’ve made before)–just think of all the time and money we saved not trying to find someone else — that level of stability and support is a major unfair advantage a lot of people don’t have. I’m really lucky in that sense.
She’s always been thoughtful and encouraging of my various entrepreneurial ventures. I remember a particularly low point where my shoe business wasn’t working; the site was having technical challenges, the ads were getting more expensive, whatever it was, and I actually dug up my old resume file on my computer. It was a major disappointment, the prospect of having to go back and get a real job again. After I’d tasted freedom for a few years, it was a tough pill to swallow.
But Bryn said, “Don’t do that. You’ll figure this out.” And she was right. It just needed a little more time–time we could afford because we were living below our means and had a savings cushion.
This one could go either way–as an advantage or a disadvantage–because I feel like I’ve definitely become more focused and effective with my work time since becoming a parent.
But early on, being childless meant lower overhead in both time and expenses. Any move I made was inherently less risky then because I didn’t have any other mouths to feed.
When Tim Ferriss talks about fear setting (great exercise), life’s a lot less scary when you only have to worry about yourself!
Now kids can be a major motivating factor to build a more flexible schedule to spend more time with them, but I’m just happy I started when I did, long before they were even a thought. Obviously I love my boys and can’t imagine life without them, but they do give me a completely new level of respect for all the side hustling parents out there.
What if my original side hustle failed? What if all that effort was wasted?
Well, I would have just kept working my job and tried something new. It was low risk. Like Richard Branson said, “business opportunities are like buses. There’s always another one coming.”
Even after I quit, my worst-case scenario if everything fell apart wasn’t life-threatening.
It might seem counter-intuitive that having a job was an unfair advantage, but hear me out. In my case, my steady paycheck gave me money to invest in developing my side hustle.
My limited after-work hours made me more focused and productive during that time.
The job also was on the road a lot, and on the other side of the country from most of my family and friends. That isolation probably helped in the early days of building my side hustle because it meant I had more free time.
One factor that made it easier to walk away from that job was the fact that I wasn’t amazing at it. I didn’t love it and wasn’t that great at it, and definitely didn’t see myself climbing the corporate ladder. So when the shoe business got to the point where it was paying my bills, that was an exciting moment–the entire day job salary was gravy.
Naturally, the more you make at your day job, the harder it is to walk away. Golden handcuffs, I think it’s called.
Thankfully my only real corporate job was an entry level position that paid around $50k a year. A bigger salary would’ve been harder to leave, and I know that’s something a lot of side hustlers face.
I hesitated to include this one, but I’m sure omitting it would have been an oversight.
I can’t quantify what unique advantage this has afforded me–though I’m sure there have been studies done–but suffice to say I recognize not everyone is in the same starting position.
What unfair advantages do you have working for you today? My guess is you have several of the same ones on my list, and if not, potentially a host of others you can use.
Remember, you’re never really starting from scratch!
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