Why resourcefulness is the most important skill for entrepreneurs
And how like any skill, it can be learned
“If I were running a startup, this would be the phrase I'd tape to the mirror. "Make something people want" is the destination, but "Be relentlessly resourceful" is how you get there.”
– Paul Graham, Relentlessly Resourceful
Resourcefulness is defined as “having the ability to find quick and clever ways to overcome difficulties.” It’s the single most important skill for anyone building an entrepreneurial career.
Being resourceful enables you to move faster with everything you do, which has compounding returns over the course of a career. The nature of an entrepreneurial career is that you’re building new things – whether it be building a startup, working on a side project, or even building things within a big company. Anytime you’re building something new, there are inevitably a minefield of obstacles and blockers you’ll encounter – both big and small. Highly resourceful people are able to overcome inertia and quickly overcome the many obstacles in their path, helping them maintain momentum, whereas less resourceful people may get hung up on an obstacle and stagnate.
A resourceful person is able to produce the same results as a less resourceful person in the fraction of the time. This may sound like a big deal when thinking about a single venture (e.g. a more resourceful founder may be able to bring their product to market 2x as fast as a competing founder who is less resourceful). But it’s even more important when you zoom out and think about compounding returns over the course of a multi-decade career. Assume Entrepreneur #1 has an entrepreneurial ROI of 20% annually, and Entrepreneur #2, who’s more resourceful, is able to generate those same returns in half the time. Over 20 years, Entrepreneur #2’s output will be 38x the output of Entrepreneur #1.
A few years ago I was having a conversation with an investor from a top tier Seed VC firm. He said one of the biggest things they look at when evaluating early stage founders is “how much has the founder accomplished, in how little time, with how few resources.” This was the best historical indicator of a founder’s resourcefulness, which they believed was the best indicator of how quickly the founder could grow the startup in the future.
Being resourceful helps you to quickly adapt to whatever is needed to continue making forward progress. Whenever building anything new, entrepreneurs need to adapt and wear many hats. Depending on the day of the week, entrepreneurs (even if inside of a big company) need to switch between being a recruiter, a product manager, a compliance officer, a CFO, a seller, and everything in between. No one can be an expert in all of these things. Resourceful people are able to adapt and learn just enough about the new hat they need to wear to maintain momentum. Many entrepreneurs think of themselves as generalists. But being a generalist alone isn’t enough. A generalist who isn’t resourceful is just mediocre at everything. A generalist who is incredibly resourceful will be pretty good at whatever is required. A resourceful generalist can shape-shift into whatever they need to be to overcome a challenge and maintain momentum.
Being confident in (and enjoying exercising) your resourcefulness enables you to think big. To quote one of Amazon’s leadership principles, “Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Big ideas inevitably have seemingly insurmountable obstacles, whereas ideas with a clear path from A to B are going to be small. If you don’t have confidence in your own resourcefulness, then you’ll subconsciously (or consciously) bias towards small ideas with clear paths from A to B, and small thinking results in small results. On the other hand, those who are confident in their own resourcefulness will be undeterred by potential obstacles. They’ll know that obstacles will inevitably show up and they’ll greet them like an old friend, excited to exercise their resourcefulness to vanquish them.
A less resourceful person may think, “what about X?” when thinking about an idea, and may ruminate on the obstacle, leading them to stagnate or question the viability of an idea. A person confident in their resourcefulness, will think, “what about X”? when thinking about an idea, and immediately think to themselves, “we’ll figure it out.” Confidence in resourcefulness leads to the second part of that Amazon leadership principle: “…create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results.”
So resourcefulness is important. But what does it look like to be good at being resourceful, and how can it be developed as a skill?
There are three buckets of resourcefulness skills: (1) Builder resourcefulness, (2) Access resourcefulness, and (3) Knowledge resourcefulness.
Builder resourcefulness: All entrepreneurs are builders. They create things out of thin air with their bare hands (usually on a keyboard). When creating a product, you often need to stretch the bounds of your own skills to create it. Builder resourcefulness is the ability to stretch beyond your own prior experience and expertise, using existing tools and resources to build something quickly. Builder resourcefulness can be observed in how non-technical founders approach building early versions of their products. A non-technical founder with poor builder resourcefulness will look for someone else (usually someone more technical) to help them build their product. On the other hand, a non-technical founder with strong builder resourcefulness may spend a lot of time on Product Hunt, scouring for no-code tools to build early versions of their product, removing the dependency of needing someone with technical expertise. People with high builder resourcefulness limit dependencies on others. They’re able to build minimally viable versions of what they need by themselves, drastically accelerating the speed at which they operate. This is not just applicable to non-technical founders – technologists can have poor builder resourcefulness, too. I’ve worked with engineers who like to build software a certain way and may take months to ship a product, and I’ve worked with engineers who are able to leverage APIs and existing libraries to ship the same product with the same quality in a third of the time.
Access resourcefulness: in any entrepreneurial endeavor, you need access to the right people. Whether it be talking to a domain expert who can reveal your blindspots with a go-to-market strategy, getting introduced to an ideal investor, finding a warm introduction to a decision-maker for a flagship customer, or finding talent to join your team, entrepreneurs need to be able to quickly access the right people at the right time. While having a strong network of course makes everything easier, entrepreneurs don’t need to have large, strong networks in order to succeed. If you have strong access resourcefulness, you can access the right people at the right time even if you have a somewhat small network. People with strong access resourcefulness write incredible cold emails, know how to make thoughtful asks, can frame requests in ways that are mutually beneficial, and lead with empathy when making asks of others. (Note: I wrote about this in my post Using Intellectual honesty to maximize the value you get from your asks). They may not have a massive network, but they have a well-maintained group of people in their corner who will make introductions on their behalf. Entrepreneurs with strong access resourcefulness have confidence that they can access whoever they need to when the time comes.
Knowledge resourcefulness: There will always be infinitely more things we don’t know compared to the things we do know. Entrepreneurs need to be good at acquiring the knowledge they need – when they need it – in order to overcome current obstacles or obstacles that might be around the corner. One way to oversimplify knowledge resourcefulness is being “good at googling things” and “good at asking questions.” This is more of a skill than it seems on the surface. Being able to quickly find authoritative answers to important questions in the vast abundance of “how to“ content on the internet is hard. People with strong knowledge resourcefulness may get good at finding people to learn from, figuring who is an authoritative voice on a domain, and understanding someone’s underlying incentives to evaluate the objectivity of their views. They ask good questions which help them not only get answers to the things that they know they don’t know, but learn the things they don’t know they don’t know. This helps them not only overcome the immediate obstacles, but see around corners. Knowledge resourcefulness helps entrepreneurs adapt to whatever obstacles may come their way.
Paul Graham said that being relentlessly resourceful is the way you get to the destination of building something that people love. It follows that the way you get to the destination of having a successful, multi-decade entrepreneurial career is the same answer – being resourceful.