This is the essential quality of a good startup founder according to Paul Graham, cofounder of Y Combinator. When asked by Forbes what he looks for in founders, four out of the five elements relate to resourcefulness. He’s written two essays (Relentlessly Resourceful & A Word to the Resourceful) dedicated to the concept.
And yet people don’t seem to really understand what being resourceful means. The top comment on HN from his most recent post posed this question:
Yes, there are certain skills that make it easier to find information on your own. But this is also a function of the problem domain and how well you know it. If you give me a credit card and a problem statement, chances are that I can come up with a working webapp that solves the problem.
But if you give me the name of a VC and tell me to go raise money – where do I start? How do I approach him? What will burn bridges and what won’t? (emphasis added)
Some great HNers jumped in to answer that question, but I thought I’d take a crack a laying out, in full, what I believe being resourceful looks like and how someone can act with more relentless resourcefulness.
I started a Substack!
New issues go out every Saturday
Let’s start by talking about the two types of resourcefulness: internal and external.
Internal resourcefulness is really just creativity. It’s figuring out how to fit a cube into a cylinder on Apollo 13 or resolving that nasty bug in your code. You might benefit from the advice or perspective of others, but the resources you need to solve the problem are generally within your grasp (or inside your brain).
External resourcefulness is when you need resources that are outside your control. Things like seed capital for your startup, a liquor license for your bar, a distribution channel for your new product. You will likely need to interact with other people / entities to GET the resources you need to address your problem.
This post focuses more on that external resourcefulness because I think in someways it’s more open ended and confusing and academically/technically intelligent people often struggle to be externally resourceful.
Before we begin, I think there are fundamental underlying conditions needed before someone can really be relentlessly resourceful.
Willingness to Endure Discomfort
I originally wanted to call this guts or courage but it’s much more than this. It’s being willing to talk to people you feel you have no business saying, ask for more than you feel wise and do work you might not like or feel competent in. If you can’t or are unwilling to endure rejection, embarrassment, uncertainty, fear or failure, just close the window now because it’s not happening.
You don’t need to be a world-class public speaker or best-selling author to be resourceful, but you need to have some threshold ability to communicate ideas clearly and persuasively to relevant audiences. This is definitely a skill you can develop – start a blog, join toastmasters, study copywriting, learn how to sell. If people struggle to understand you or are never convinced to do something you suggest, it’s going to be really rough going.
Researchers at UPenn have found that grit (perseverance and passion for long-term goals) is a better predictor for success over IQ or conscientiousness. What you should draw from this is that you should have long term goals you are really really determined to achieve. Because you will face a lot of setbacks during the journey – so don’t start unless you have the bullheaded tenacity to finish.
Alright, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way… here are the 3 things you do to be relentlessly resourceful.
Step 1: Learn enough to get clue
Step 2: Actually take action
Step 3: Repeat until you succeed
That’s it! Now go make it happen. Godspeed.
Damn, you’re still here? What, that wasn’t clear enough? Fine, let’s break it down.
Step 1 – Learn enough to get a clue
Ok, so you have a challenge in front of you. Whether it is getting published as an author, starting a restaurant or destroying all the horcruxes hidden by He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, you start by getting a lay of the land.
Lucky for us, there is an incredible treasure trove of information on the Internet (barring the passage of SOPA and PIPA) that we can dive through.
- Need to get startup capital from a venture capitalist? Mark Suster, a 2x entrepreneur turned VC will tell you how, for free!
- Want to skip the line by bribing the Matire’d? Jonas Luster, a cook and cooking author will tell you how, for free!
- Want to grow your blog audience? Tyler Terooven, a lifestyle blogger who came “out of nowhere” will tell you how, (not free but I bought the guide and it’s worth every penny. This is not an affiliate link).
Now, this is just the starting point. This online research is often enough to get you on the right path. But sometimes you’ve got problems that are more thorny, nuanced and specific. That’s when you have to learn from people.
Unless you live under a rock, there is probably someone in your extended network who has done whatever it is you are trying to do (or something similar). Get in touch with them and ask them for 10 minutes of your time.
Don’t believe me? I dare you to post on Facebook, Twitter and in an email to 10 good friends:
I really need your help with something! I’m looking to get in touch with someone who knows a lot about XX (or has done XX or something similar) for an really important project/goal/thing I’m working on.
If you know someone who fits that profile (or know someone who might know) I would really appreciate if you could connect us. All help will be rewarded with cookies made by yours truly.
Thanks so much!
Do that, wait a few days and write back if you don’t at least get SOMETHING. I will send YOU cookies made by me if you draw a total blank.
Ok, fine, so you grew up in Siberia and literally only know 10 people. I bet you still are aware of someone “famous” who has done what you want to do – but they aren’t in your network.
No problem. Let’s go ask them for advice.
How to get “big league people” to give you advice.
I’ll summarize the suggestions of the many smart people who have written great articles on this topic – find their contact info, send them a short, carefully worded email with an insightful question (preferably with a warm intro) and push for a quick phone call or coffee meeting. Then make the most of it.
For more on this topic check out:
- Ramit Sethi – How to use Natural Networking to connect with anyone — including the exact email scripts
- Jared Tame – Hacking the system – how to land meetings with anyone you want
- Tim Ferriss – (there is a post out there where Tim explains how he gets interviews/projects done with all these world experts but I can’t find it right now – using my resourcefulness to ask you, the reader, in case you know what I’m talking about)
From these meetings you will start to get the nuanced, insider knowledge you need to get at whatever resource you want. It might take some time and work to learn what you need to know – but information is almost NEVER the limiting factor in being resourceful.
But what do I mean by “enough to get a clue”? The idea here is that you need to get some perspective. If you truly know nothing about a topic, you need to dive in enough until you understand at least a little bit about what’s going on. Once you “have a clue”, you want to move to Step 2, where you start to really make progress.
It’s important not to get stuck in the learning phase. You can “study” forever and never accomplish anything. In fact, many people do just that – they “study” fitness, or dating techniques or personal finance forever and don’t actually do anything. That, my friend, is death. Don’t get stuck.
Summary of Step 1: Learn enough to get a clue:
There is a wealth of information about any given topic available to you in online resources like Google and Quora, via your extended personal/professional network or through cold-emailing very successful people and picking their brains. Once you’ve gotten some perspective, you need to quickly move to the next step and avoid getting stuck in the “forever learning” loop.
Step 2 – Actually take action
Alright, this is the most important step.
You gotta do a bunch of stuff. No way around it.
- If your goal is to raise funds for your startup, the first step might be to put together a deck, find a meetup with real investors attending and ACTUALLY go talk to one of them about your business.
- If your goal is to throw a smashing dinner party but you can’t cook, the first step might be to find a basic recipe online, buy the ingredients from the store and ACTUALLY follow the instructions to make a dish.
- If your goal is to get a girlfriend, the first step might be to throw on some nice clothes, walk over to a bar or lounge and ACTUALLY have a conversation with a girl
- If your goal is to get published as an novelist, the first step might be to map out an outline of the story and ACTUALLY write the first chapter
A rule of thumb is – if you aren’t feeling uncomfortable, then you haven’t gone far enough yet.
Resourceful people take action. It’s not that they don’t think, plan, study, strategize or prepare. They do all those things too. But what separates people who really “make things happen” and analysts is action.
Think about your favorite hero. Ender Wiggin. Harry Potter. Lisbeth Salandar. Bruce Wayne. The reason why we love these characters is because they face up to enormous odds and they win through their resourcefulness and courage. They don’t cower in the face of a challenge, they take action and make things happen.
Because I know what you’re thinking, I’ve prepared a handy FAQ:
- Q: How do I know what to do?
- A: You did step one right? So you have a clue! What makes sense? What action seems like a reasonable way to get closer to your final step? Chances are you know exactly what the next step is, so the real issue is “Why aren’t you doing what you know you should?”
- Q: Taking action is scary! Wouldn’t it be better to learn more until this problem gets less scary?
- A: It’s always going to be scary. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Learning indefinitely will not solve your problems.
- Q: But what if I get rejected/make a mistake/fail? That’ll ruin everything and then my life will be over!
- A: Unless you are learning how to pack your own parachute before sky diving, I promise you will almost certainly NOT die if you mess up. You will be mildly embarrassed, maybe set back a few bucks or some period of time, and that’s pretty much it. Most people will forget about your mishap almost immediately after it happens. People just don’t care that much about you.
- Q: I’m doing lots of stuff but still not making progress. I’m making spreadsheets, organizing data into a wiki, mapping out the competitors, having conversations over beers with my friends…
- A: You’re doing fake work. This is why I said you should feel uncomfortable with the actions you’re taking. Making charts is easy and safe. You’ve got to be out on the line of fire. If you can’t fail then it doesn’t count as action
Summary of Step 2: Actually Take Action
The most important part of being resourceful is taking action. You want to get to the point of discomfort – that’s how you’ll know you’re really doing something instead of doing fake work. Push through your fear of failure and rejection and take massive, prolific action toward your goals.
Step 3: Repeat Until You Succeed
So you did some real stuff. Some of it worked, much of it didn’t. Now what?
Time to learn again. What lessons can you draw from your experience to inform your next try? What can you do differently? Do better?
Ok, now go do that. How did it go? Any surprises? What new angle can you try? What worked that you can double down on? How can you avoid making that mistake next time. Ok, now try again.
Are you noticing the pattern?
The magic of the doing-learning loop is that momentum builds upon itself. The first time you ski you fall a ton. But as you start to figure out what’s going on, you fall less and less until you’re flying down the mountain. But it’s through DOING that you figure out what NOT to do next time.
This is a virtuous cycle that keeps repeating.
So if the first five investors turn you down, tweak your pitch and try again. If that doesn’t work, maybe you need to get more traction. Maybe you need to get a warm intro. Maybe you need to use AngelList. Maybe you need to go through YC. May you need to get on Techcrunch. Maybe you need to do some consulting and bootstrap. Maybe you need do a Kickstarter.
Keep trying stuff, tweaking, asking questions, getting advice/ideas, experimenting and pushing forward you find something that works. Then build on that and add fuel to the fire. Don’t take no for an answer, ever.
A Note on Initiative:
Notice that none of these steps involve “waiting for other people to help you”. Being relentlessly resourceful means that while you leverage the help and support provided by others, you do not make them a crutch. If someone doesn’t come through for you or lets you down, you find a way to achieve your goal without them.
At the end of the day, YOU have to take the initiative and responsibility for making things happen. No one else.
Paul Graham described being a good running back as a great metaphor for relentlessly resourceful founders because “a good running back is not merely determined, but flexible as well. They want to get downfield, but they adapt their plans on the fly.”
This is not actually a video of a running back, but I gotta rep my home team Stanford and this phenomenal play by quarterback Andrew Luck. It starts off with him getting the snap and preparing to run his play, but then he sees the blitz, realizes he won’t be able to execute the original play and starts moving forward. He dodges numerous players, absorbs a big hit and keeps going, turning a potentially bad situation (blitz) into a good one (58 yard gain).
That is a physical representation of relentless resourcefulness. Get a clue, take action, repeat.
Summary of Step 3: Repeat Until You Succeed
After you take action, reflect on what happened. Extract lessons, build on what worked, address mistakes and try again. Continue to cycle through learning about your challenge and taking action and like a good running back (or quarterback) keep moving the ball downfield until you score a touchdown.
The tough truth is, if you were truly relentlessly resourceful, you wouldn’t need to read this post, except to remind yourself of what you need to do. There’s no magic formula or silver bullet. It’s more of a mindset than anything else – and sometimes that can be the hardest thing to adopt.
I hope this post helped you understand what being relentlessly resourceful looks like. I try to live this way as much as possible. I know I get lazy and complain and act hapless sometimes. But then I slap myself in the face and get back in the game.
Living with the mindset that any challenge is surmountable given enough time and effort is a very empowering feeling. And it’s one that I hope you get a chance to experience.
The good news is that no great person knew what they were doing on day one. Everyone – Richard Branson, Michael Jordan, Warren Buffet, Mark Zuckerberg, Malcom Gladwell – they all had to figure it out along the way. They achieved what they did because they kept experimenting, learning, trying and pushing forward. They were relentlessly resourceful.
Now that you’ve read this post, you’ve got everything you need to make things happen. Which is a great thing. But it’s also bad because if you choose to keep being hapless and passive – you really have no excuses.
Just to add even more to this already long post, I figured I’d link you to some great stories of relentless resourcefulness. Sometimes what you need is a story to help you understand.
- Vinicius Vacanti – The Long Grind Before You Become an Overnight Success
- Susan Lacke – From Couch Potato to Ironman – in 20 Months (really good!)
- Joe Gebbia (via Venturebeat) – How Airbnb failed its way through “the trough of sorrow” to a $1B valuation
Finally, if you feel like I missed something, or you’d like to share your own story of relentless resourcefulness, please do in the comments!
There is a great discussion on this post at Hacker News.