Relentlessly resourceful: beyond startups
December 28, 2020
A couple days ago I finally got being a good startup founder down to two words: relentlessly resourceful.
Till then the best I’d managed was to get the opposite quality down to one: hapless. Most dictionaries say hapless means unlucky. But the dictionaries are not doing a very good job. A team that outplays its opponents but loses because of a bad decision by the referee could be called unlucky, but not hapless. Hapless implies passivity. To be hapless is to be battered by circumstances—to let the world have its way with you, instead of having your way with the world.
But finally I’ve figured out how to express this quality directly. I was writing a talk for investors, and I had to explain what to look for in founders. What would someone who was the opposite of hapless be like? They’d be relentlessly resourceful. Not merely relentless. That’s not enough to make things go your way except in a few mostly uninteresting domains. In any interesting domain, the difficulties will be novel. Which means you can’t simply plow through them, because you don’t know initially how hard they are; you don’t know whether you’re about to plow through a block of foam or granite. So you have to be resourceful. You have to keep trying new things.
He also adds a caveat about being relentlessly resourceful:
That sounds right, but is it simply a description of how to be successful in general? I don’t think so. This isn’t the recipe for success in writing or painting, for example. In that kind of work the recipe is more to be actively curious. Resourceful implies the obstacles are external, which they generally are in startups. But in writing and painting they’re mostly internal; the obstacle is your own obtuseness.
I’ve found that even beyond the world of startups, being relentlessly resourceful has huge benefits, probably because a lot of life’s problems involve external obstacles. What follows is a list of anecdotes that both add to the evidence highlighting the benefits of being relentlessly resourceful, and are hopefully fun to read. I keep this list as a reminder for future situations where my determination to resist haplessness may be lacking.
In my first year in college, I was having trouble getting companies to respond to my online internship applications. Frustrated, I decided one afternoon to take a bus to a particular part of Singapore (Block 71) where a lot of technology startups had offices. My plan was to hang around the offices, hopefully bump into someone working at one of the companies I was interested in, and then ask for an interview. I figured that at worst I’d waste an afternoon, but at best I’d have some interviews. I ended up bumping into the CEO of a company I was interested in, and he made sure I got an interview at his company.
While on a holiday in Turkey, I was eating at a restaraunt with my Turkish friend Bob1. In Turkey, restaurants serve bread at the start of a meal. When we received a bread basket, I asked Bob if we could have some butter. He told me that in his whole life, he had never seen a restaraunt in Turkey serve butter with their bread basket. He told me it probably wasn’t something restaraunts would do. I decided to ask nonetheless. I figured that in the worst case, my bread sans butter wouldn’t taste any worse. Lo and behold, we had butter served to our table. Bob is now a PhD student, and he uses this story to encourage the students in the classes he teaches to always ask questions.
In graduate school, I really wanted to take a class but didn’t have the space to do so because of a maximum credit limit. I emailed asking if I could audit the class, and was refused by the Head of Department owing to a Department policy. I sent a few more emails, where I tried to convey my enthusiasm about the class as much as I could. They eventually decided to make an exception.
Every internship I’ve done (except the one after my first year) can be traced back to a cold email I had sent. In particular, in my 2nd year of college, I must have sent over a 100 cold emails, only to receive < 10 responses. Luckily, I just needed one internship :)
In my final year of college, a company I was really interested in working at set up shop in Singapore. They told all my friends who had attended their events that they weren’t looking for new graduates. I decided to email and ask nonetheless, and I must have had impeccable timing, because I eventually found myself interviewing with and getting an offer from that company.
In college, I wanted to take a graduate level CS class that was closed to undergraduates as it was oversubscribed by graduate students. The CS department adminstrators refused. I sent a bunch of emails and checked in every other day until I found a way in owing to someone dropping the class.
In my last year of high school, a math teacher deducted points on a math test for me and my friend for something we thought did not warrant a deduction. Unable to convince her, we went home and did some research, where we found numerous college level textbooks that reaffirmed our initial belief. We compiled all our evidence into a document and brought it to school the next day. We got our points back.
When I applied and got into Stanford for a masters program, I did not get in with guaranteed funding. I knew however that if one became a teaching assistant or research assistant, they’d have their tuition fee waived, and have a stipend large enough to cover their expenses. I reached out to as many people as I could, both known and unkown, and eventually got in touch with the person whose class I ended up being a teaching assistant for. It was only after an interview with him and him telling me he’d likely be able to give me a TA position that I decided to go to Stanford. 2
In my last few months in Singapore, I had my cell phone stolen. The police found it very quickly, but wanted to hold on to it for a few months (!!) while they used it as evidence to charge the accused in court. Despite my attempts to reason with them, they wouldn’t budge from their standard operating procedure. I decided I wasn’t going to let this stand, and reached out to everyone I knew asking for help. Two of my friends happened to be volunteers for their members of parliament (MP), which allowed them to write letters on their MPs' behalf. I ended up getting my phone back a lot sooner than I was initally told it would take.
On a final note: for every one of these stories there have been countless times where my attempts to get what I wanted have come up short. In those times of frustration, I like to remind myself that it’s a numbers game. If you try to undertake a large number of seemingly impossible/hopeless tasks, most will probably fail, but every once in a while you may find yourself experiencing some miracles.