Paul Graham wrote a short blog post back in 2009 describing the characteristics of a good startup founder. His two-word description was “relentlessly resourceful”. I came across this great post again this morning after listening to Harry Stebbings and the 20 Minute VC interview with Geoff Ralston, President of Y Combinator. Ralston noted that he wants to invest in “resourceful and determined” founders, “people who can build”, founders who he believes are going to be able to “create things.” These descriptions of great founder characteristics sound simple, almost silicon valley cliche’, but they stuck with me this morning as Kiya and I took our hike and I thought about today’s haiku.
Spring in the mountains is endlessly inspiring. Growth is all around us. It’s not just the new growth that comes with spring that is inspiring though. It is the relentlessly resourceful growth. Trees grow through cracks in the jagged rocks, grass pushes through layer upon layer of fallen decaying aspen leaves, and the flowers of the mountains bloom in exceptional and brilliant ways to compete for attention. My wife inspired me to capture photos of the spring, and the close encounters, like the one above, have been eye-opening. So much complexity grows beneath our feet. There is elegant and beautiful complexity that grows through the spring rains and the mountain storms. There is relentless and resourceful growth in the mountains and it is simply amazing.
Graham notes in his post that there are probably other fields where “relentlessly resourceful” might be a recipe for success. I could not agree more. I believe that Client Experience teams (aka Customer Success) benefit as much, if not more, than any other function from individuals who demonstrate relentless resourcefulness. Serving customers in today’s enterprise software market is incredibly challenging. There is so much technology chasing our customer’s attention. I read recently that the average knowledge worker uses 36 cloud services in their day-to-day work. Thirty-six! And it’s not just the technology that complicates how we serve our customers. Our customer’s lives are increasingly complex as today’s dynamic organizations change, restructure, and evolve. Breaking through to our customers is a challenge but that is only the beginning. Today’s enterprise customers live with and are often obsessed with consumer-grade technology and experiences. Their expectations for enterprise technology are no different. Serving them and delivering the outcomes they need requires everyone in CX to become relentlessly resourceful.
How do we become relentlessly resourceful? As startup investors, founders and leaders how do we encourage and develop this critical characteristic in others? Here are three ideas.
Christopher Lochhead wrote a great piece this morning on authenticity. I have long admired Lochhead’s own authenticity in designing legendary businesses and brands and his Legends and Losers podcast is a must listen for anyone interested in building something truly unique. As Lochhead notes, “People don’t want to be sold on an idea — they want to learn from a real person through a natural conversation.” To be relentlessly resourceful we need to encourage, and not just encourage but actively draw out, the authenticity in ourselves and others. Authenticity is an exceptionally powerful resource that too often sits on the shelf. Individuals are encouraged, either directly or through implied norms, to look and act like others. Almost by definition, relentlessly resourceful individuals will leverage all of their strengths, including their own unique voice, style, and ideas, to break through and drive outcomes for customers.
Give it Room
Another silicon valley cliche’ is the idea of “failing fast”. Benedict Evans had a great post some years ago “In Praise of Failure” that did an excellent job of articulating the value in creating room to fail. As Evans explained, “You need to ask not whether this idea will fail, let alone whether it could fail, but rather, ‘what would it be if it worked?’ You need, in a sense, to ‘suspend disbelief’ - to put aside your normal human risk-aversion and skepticism, accept the probability that it could go to zero, and ask if this could 'put a dent in the world', and if so, how big.” Despite the article’s unfortunate title, and how many have misinterpreted this well-worn sound byte, building relentless resourcefulness is not about celebrating failure but allowing room for it. It is about accepting that in order to win big you need to play big and try new things and yes, sometimes those big ideas will fail. To be relentlessly resourceful and develop that characteristic in others we need to create room for them to fail. Practically that might mean giving a manager room to make a hiring decision that you don’t completely agree with, giving them the space to test a new methodology that you don’t completely buy into, or focusing on stretch assignments for well placed passive employees on the team. Relentlessly resourceful is not about casting seeds into the wind and telling your team it is okay if they fail but giving your team the opportunity to plant, nurture and grow in unconventional places and ways.
Many people have achieved great things without being challenged along the way. That doesn’t sound quite right, does it? Challenge is essential to achieving great things. Pushing one another enables us to run faster. Ben Horowitz wrote in The Hard Thing About Hard Things, “Most business relationships either become too tense to tolerate or not tense enough to be productive after a while. Either people challenge each other to the point where they don’t like each other or they become complacent about each other’s feedback and no longer benefit from the relationship.” Horowitz noted about his relationship with Marc Andreessen, “Even after eighteen years, he upsets me almost every day by finding something wrong in my thinking, and I do the same for him. It works.” To help our teams develop the relentlessly resourceful characteristics that will help fuel our business success, and their ultimate career success, they need the challenge. I am not suggesting, which might surprise some people that I have worked with, that everyone should be a hard ass all of the time. But I am suggesting that winning the leadership popularity contest is not a recipe for driving or delivering exceptional results. To develop ourselves and others we need to push and push hard. We need to challenge one another and sometimes that will be uncomfortable. Doing so provides the friction needed for growth and can help to create the environment for relentless resourcefulness.
There is a lot we can learn about driving startup success from a simple hike in the mountains. The flowers beneath our feet grow and flourish when they excel in their ability to attract the pollinators. They do this through unique and innovative designs. In our startup journey, success is often realized through our individuality and authenticity. Mountain flowers grow when there is room. When there isn’t, either growth doesn’t happen or, like the trees pushing through cracks in the stone, they make room. Similarly, for our teams, we need to make room to grow. It won’t always work out but we need to take our best shot. Finally, like spring growth in the mountains, we have to push, often hard, to find the sunlight. The fallen aspen leaves, the decay of prior seasons, can bury the flowers if they don’t push hard enough to find the light. The strong survive. In our startup lives, we need the challenge, we need to push and be pushed in order to thrive. Life is relentlessly resourceful. With work, we and our teams can be as well.
About David Verhaag
David has spent his career building and scaling teams at some of the leading HR technology companies. He was most recently the Chief Customer Officer at Degreed, the lifelong learning platform. Prior to Degreed, he held leadership positions at Kahuna, HireVue, and SuccessFactors. David lives in Park City, Utah.