Ash Ali and Hasan Kubba Say the Key to Success Is to Deploy Your Unfair Advantages

Ash Ali and Hasan Kubba.

Ash Ali and Hasan Kubba became serial entrepreneurs, despite backgrounds that didn’t seem promising. Investing in startups together, they came to recognize that too many founders are not aware of their natural advantages and disadvantages, a weakness that contributes to so many failures.

Ash Ali and Hasan Kubba Won a Book of the Year Award For Increasing Entrepreneurs’ Self-Awareness

When we all bring our strengths and weaknesses to our projects, along with our partners, we can increase our chances of success by working harder and smarter.

But few of us think of our achievements as in large part due to our “unfair advantages.” Serial entrepreneurs Ash Ali and Hasan Kubba, authors of “The Unfair Advantage: How You Already Have What It Takes to Succeed,” argue that we would do much better to acknowledge that our success is largely dependent on factors that are easy to take for granted. 

Startups are always a long shot but are more likely to thrive if founders had a supportive upbringing and access to advanced education, live in a pro-business environment, can speak the language of the target market, have a strong personal network, and income or the ability to minimize expenses before relying on a business to become profitable. 

“The media narrative is that success is almost entirely dependent on having innate talent and a good idea, combined with hard work,” Ali told Startup Savant. “In other words, those who get rich deserve it, which is BS. This overlooks many ‘unfair advantages,’ such as coming from a privileged background, having access to money, and living somewhere like Silicon Valley. But everyone has unfair advantages, and they are not something unethical; they’re a competitive upper hand that is unique to you.”

Ali and Hasan had been working and investing together in the United Kingdom for years and gradually realized that most of the founders who pitched them could not make a compelling case in part because they failed to explain the full case for why their startups would gain traction. As they began speaking at conferences about these issues, they were surprised by the enthusiastic reception from those who thought of themselves as underdogs in the startup world.

“We had no ambition to become authors of a bestselling book. We just wanted to share our insights by writing a lean version that could be read in an hour,” Kubba said. “We were about to press the self-publish button on Amazon when a literary agent we had met at a networking event called. We had been passing out a booklet version for feedback, and she was convinced she could get a major publisher to put out a full book if we would give her three months. We were skeptical since we barely had a social media profile, so we didn’t want to waste time pursuing a traditional deal and gave her three weeks.”

Despite the deadline, the agent found three publishers who were interested, and the original edition was published in 2020, winning the award for the UK Business Book of the Year for 2021. St. Martin’s Press published the US edition in June 2022.

Ali Leverages His Advantages

Ali grew up in a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood of Birmingham to Pakistani parents, and he went to a deprived inner city school. His first job was a paper route, and he realized he was better off getting it done quickly by subcontracting half to a friend. A couple of years later, he made good money by selling CDs of encyclopedias to friends and neighbors. 

But he dropped out of school at 17, and while his friends went off to universities, he took a job at Staples and found he had a talent for selling office supplies. Then he and a friend, whose parents owned a shoe store, decided to build a website to sell shoes online. It was 1998, and there were no easy ways to do so and take payments online, so after work, Ali stayed to read the store’s books on coding. He then was able to program a one-time display PC in his parents’ attic, running an extension cord up from the home phone, which meant that anyone calling the house got a busy signal. When shoes started selling, he quit his job.

As the internet boomed and he won some awards, he was courted by London companies and was hired at his first interview for a salary of £30,000 ($34,000) a year. He managed a much older staff, helping them to understand the beginnings of search engine optimization (SEO). Then in March 2000, the bubble burst, Ali was let go, and he moved back home, feeling like a loser.

“Then I had an epiphany,” he recalled. “The reason I got the job wasn’t just that I was good at it and the news coverage of the award nomination. I was lucky to have an in-demand skill just as the Internet was taking off. If my friend’s parents hadn’t owned a shoe store, I would never have started the ecommerce venture, and without a job where I had access to books, I would never have learned how to build websites. But the unfair advantage I built was my expertise, and this allowed me to become a freelance consultant all over England for a while, and I started and sold a laundry service in Dubai.”

Then in 2007, he was approached by the co-founder of a Danish startup who needed a marketing director and had heard Ali was an out-of-box thinker. He would be only the third employee of Just Eat U.K., one of the earliest online food takeaway services. In 2014, it went public with a market value of £1.5 billion ($1.7 billion). 

Kubba Was an Entrepreneurial Late-Bloomer

Kubba was born in Baghdad, and his family moved to London when he was three. The family struggled, and the state school was mediocre, but his affinity for science had his parents hoping he would become a doctor.

But after six months at a university, he knew he did not want to spend his life working long hours with sick patients and dropped out, stunning his family. He had no idea what he really wanted to do but eventually earned a degree in economics, yet he had no interest in becoming a banker. 

“I knew no entrepreneurs and certainly didn’t think of becoming one,” he said. “I was living at home, so I wasn’t under financial pressure, but I came across an ad about starting an online business that wasn’t about getting rich; it was an innovative way to earning passive income by creating genuine value, which would allow me escape the corporate grind. But I was afraid to launch because my perfectionism got the better of me. I decided I needed to learn some sales skills and got a job with a small investment brokerage firm. I was impressed how the brokers created their unfair advantages by learning to build rapport with people they didn’t know and persuade them to invest their hard-earned money. At another job, I learned a consultative sales approach, which was about developing resilience to rejection.”

He was ready to launch his online business and found an “accountability partner” who was building a video marketing agency, keeping them both on track. Kubba landed his first client within a few weeks, learned online how to do SEO, and developed a knack for hiring talent. His passive income was so high that he was able to travel the world for weeks on end. Then one day in 2015, he was in Manila, the Philippines, when he saw some children begging. 

“It hit me how lucky [I] was,” he recalled. “My parents had moved to London in 1991, just before the Iraq economy got even worse from economic sanctions. I had the education, security, advantages of being a native English speaker and holder of a British passport. I had the money to take an online course, the emotional intelligence and persuasion skills to hire people, and connections to get my first clients. And I sat next to Ash at a business dinner.”

They decided to screen startup pitches together and built the Unfair Academy to teach other entrepreneurs about the insights they were developing. 

Turning Advantages Into an Economic Moat

“An Unfair Advantage is a condition, asset, or circumstance that puts you in a favorable business position,” they write. “Your Unfair Advantages can’t easily be copied or bought and are unique to you. 

You can work to develop new unfair advantages for yourself, whether becoming an expert, moving to another city, expanding your network, or, most important, changing your mindset, since you have the most control over that.”

They encourage a “reality-growth mindset,” which has goals that are more achievable goals than the pie-in-the-sky gospel of “you can do anything you believe in” that is often preached to wannabe entrepreneurs. According to a Forbes study, the number one trait of successful entrepreneurs is vision, a combination of imagination and goal-setting. Others are resourcefulness, lifelong learning, and perseverance. 

For any early-stage startup, the Unfair Advantage is its sum of the individual ones of the founders. Always partner with others whose personal advantages balance out yours.

Success largely depends on exploiting these advantages for fast growth in order to get paying customers or investors ASAP (unless you want to pursue a slow-growth small business). These are your shortcut to initial success that breeds further success, “just as an always-busy restaurant will attract more bookings.”

Ali and Kubba created the MILES Framework to help entrepreneurs to discover their unfair advantages, “which are not just about your strengths, despite what you read in business and self-help books.” It stands for Money, Intelligence/Insight, Location/Luck, Education/Expertise, and Status.”We’ve found entrepreneurs rarely carry out a personal audit to become more self-aware,” they said.

It starts with asking, “why are you doing this?” Taking a personality test, such as Myers-Briggs, can be a revelation. They offer their own quiz to help entrepreneurs understand themselves.

Money can mean not simply being rich or having access to easy funding, but social capital (a strong network of friends and allies) and cultural capital (everything that can get you respect, such as knowledge, qualifications, occupation, awards, and hobbies). Creative ways to cut the burn rate (how fast the company’s funds are being used before it turns a profit) can be a substitute. “A good rule of thumb is that you need 6-18 months of runway time before you quit a full-time job to focus on a startup,” they write. Ways to bridge a gap can be to learn marketing and sales and offer an additional product or service or to freelance as a content writer, social media manager, or coder. 

Intelligence and Insight do not mean you need a high IQ as measured by standard tests, which leave out emotional and social intelligence. These can help someone develop street smarts, which are mostly about people skills. Ali notes that he did not do well in school but became a voracious reader of nonfiction books and content and has always been intensely curious. “Business is not an exam, it’s a process, and success is almost always about relationships and adding value to other people,” they write. 

“Insight is being able to see below the surface of things and to understand elements of a situation that others may not.” Kubba’s was to realize that business owners had no idea how to market themselves online. The key to getting insight is to spend more time studying the problem to find gaps in the market and by talking to potential customers. 

Location and Luck could mean moving to somewhere where funding, customers, and the business climate may be more supportive for entrepreneurs for what you are thinking about doing. Luck can be cultivated:

  • Maximize your chance opportunities, such as attending more events, being more outgoing, and helping others.
  • Trust your intuition. “The unconscious mind is surprisingly accurate at noticing patterns and using past experiences to inform present situations.”
  • Expect to be lucky. “Self-fulfilling prophecies are real.”

Education and Expertise can be acquired formally or informally, and “it doesn’t matter much how you get that.” Expertise itself often is more quickly gained from job experience, rather than a broad education, as well as from books and mentors. “The ability to keep a tinkering mindset and be a doer more than an intellectual, has helped both of us build up our expertise.” The main value of getting a degree is not so much the knowledge gained but the “signaling.” Graduating from a top university gives credibility to others who did. This can also provide access to networks. Universities are natural hubs for fostering startups, but they can also be bureaucratic and slow-moving. 

Status is your personal brand — how others see you. Ali once was being interviewed for a job with a major company, but in the middle, the CEO looked at his resume and said, disappointedly, that he had expected someone older. Ali asked for the resume back, crossed out 22, and wrote in 32. “Now do I have the job?” he asked. He was hired. Outer Status can be from having worked for a widely admired company, being a social media influencer, appearing in a popular TV series, giving entertaining interviews, writing wise books, or having an address in a prestigious neighborhood. All the other MILES components can influence Status. “If you look and sound like a young, nerdy hacker guy and you dropped out of Harvard, you have a higher chance of success raising funds. But diversity and inclusion are starting to be recognized as sources of powerful insights that can be missed by typical founders.” 

Inner Status is how you perceive yourself and can be an important way to increase your Outer Status. “You don’t need to be perfect to succeed,” Ali and Kubba point out, recommending James Clear’s “Atomic Habits” and a guide to implementing new habits to change your life incrementally. “We overestimate what we can achieve in a month and underestimate what we can do in a decade.”

As for what type of startup to launch, they say “ideas are overrated, and they do not need to be completely unique and new.” Most startups are a twist on an idea that already exists or implemented in a new market or industry. If you have an Unfair Advantage that is relevant to one, utilize it. 

“It is exponentially more difficult to succeed in your startup as a solo founder, and we strongly discourage you from attempting to do that,” they advise. “The emotional toll of being a solo founder can be enough to drive you crazy and call it quits.” But if you want to go it alone, launch a lifestyle company that does not need to grow fast, such as a clothing boutique, a mobile app, online news channel, or affiliate marketing business that uses drop shipping.

Most importantly, entrepreneurs need to attend to their mental health because the pressures of a startup are enormous. “If [it gets] to be too much, get some help and speak to somebody. Make sure you look after the essentials, like sleep, nutrition, exercise, relationships, and meditation or spirituality.”

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Scott S. Smith

Scott S. Smith has had over 2,000 articles and interviews published in nearly 200 media, including Los Angeles Magazine, American Airlines’ American Way, and Investor’s Business Daily. His interview subjects have included Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Meg Whitman, Reed Hastings, Howard Schultz, Larry Ellison, Kathy Ireland, and Quincy Jones.

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