Economists recognize the phenomenon of increasing returns. Knowledge markets such as those for software, operating systems and platforms, tend to tilt in favor of a product or service or brand that gets ahead, even to the point of lock-in. There is a growing body of theory — often under the heading of complexity theory, and supported by computational simulation — underpinning the concept of increasing returns.
Mark Schaefer is an expert at bringing economic theories of this kind into vibrant contemporary life. He coined the term Cumulative Advantage and wants all entrepreneurs to know how to harness it.
First of all, it’s not new. It’s in the Bible: For whoever has will be given more. Sociologist Robert K. Merton therefore called it The Matthew Effect.
How can entrepreneurs and their firms take advantage of increasing returns to achieve cumulative advantage? Consistent with the processual approach to value of Austrian economics, Mark has a five-step process.
Key Takeaways & Actionable Insights
Identify an initial advantage.
How do entrepreneurs identify a small initial advantage that sets momentum in motion? There are unlimited sources within complex economic systems. Mark tells us to look for collisions of events, ideas, people and circumstances from which entrepreneurs can derive their unique advantage. He calls them “click moments”. They are happy, random, emergent phenomena. He gives the example of Bill Bowerman’s experiment with latex in a waffle iron to create a new type of running shoe — the click moment for Nike.
Importantly, these random outcomes are spurred by action — acting on curiosity, and pursuing an energetic quest to establish how ideas and imagination can be exploited to solve customers’ problems.
Discover a seam of timely opportunity.
Mark rejects the concepts of strategy and planning. Business success can’t result from 50-page documents and elaborate spreadsheets. Momentum is a consequence of action. Entrepreneurs replace strategy with their own subjectively defined opportunity to exploit speed, time and space. A seam is a fracture in the status quo through which the entrepreneur sprints. Relentless searching for an open seam is the core activity of entrepreneurship. Seams are always opening as a result of the continuing, ongoing change of business and the economy, best understood through the dynamic lens provided by Austrian economics. Often the timing of the opening is the key factor in the success of an entrepreneurial initiative. Timing cannot be predicted, and so continuous experimentation is the best approach, to create the maximum possibility for “click moments”.
Create significant awareness through a “sonic boom” of social proof.
Once a business has entered a seam, it’s the occasion to search for amplification. Mark Schaefer proposes the leverage available through influence and influencers, those who can provide social proof to a broader audience that a new entrepreneurial offering is sufficiently worthy to command widespread demand. The customer is the marketer in this construct of social proof — which is a development, of course, of the Austrian theory of consumer sovereignty. People believe each other more than they believe advertising, promotion or PR.
Gain access to a higher orbit by reaching out and up to powerful partners and allies.
Once awareness and social proof of the entrepreneurial offering begin to build, the next process step is to seek partners and allies who can provide access to higher-level resources: powerful connections, better channels, financial capital, value-multiplying alliances. Network theory applies: denser and more active connections through bigger and more strategic network nodes can result in accelerated business expansion.
Maybe it’s distribution in Walmart or Target, or endorsement by a celebrity athlete, or presence on a FinTech trading platform, or access to new resources. Reaching up is an exercise in finding partners to expand an entrepreneur’s market potential.
Build momentum through constancy of purpose.
Ultimately, says Mark, the killer app is constancy of purpose. Discipline, resilience, purpose and persistence accompany entrepreneurs on the path to achievement. There’s flexibility and adaptiveness and agility of course, and these can bring changes in direction, but the goal and the purpose always retain their primary role in the narrative of success.