Hustlers and Hackers — A tribute to Relentless Resourcefulness*

*phrase borrowed from Paul Graham’s essay.

There are times when it may be attractive and perhaps even profitable to under-promise and over-deliver. While this can appear clever, the very act of under-promising can keep your offer from standing out from the crowd.

On the other hand, what could be the result of over-promising and over-delivering? What sort of individual or organisation has the gumption to set that as a mission?

One could look to past examples where this very attitude has delivered people to their greatness. Bill Gates is one such individual who had the nerve to promise more than he was able to deliver in that moment. Retreat was certainly an option, but through persistence, perseverance and extreme dedication he worked tirelessly to succeed in delivering the promises he made.

Here is how it all started. After reading the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics which announced the Altair 8800, Paul Allen and Bill decided to contact Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS), the creators of the new microcomputer. Bill and Paul decided that Bill would do the talking, and Bill informed MITS that he was working on a BASIC interpreter for the platform. They were not. In reality, Gates and Allen did not have an Altair and had not written code for it; they merely wanted to gauge MITS’s interest. MITS president Ed Roberts agreed to meet them for a demo, and over the course of a few weeks they developed an Altair emulator that ran on a minicomputer, and then the BASIC interpreter. The demonstration, held at MITS’s offices in Albuquerque, was a success and resulted in a deal with MITS to distribute the interpreter as Altair BASIC. MITS hired Paul, and Bill took a leave of absence from Harvard to work with Paul at MITS, dubbing their partnership “Micro-soft” in November 1975. Within a year, the hyphen was dropped, and on November 26, 1976, the tradename “Microsoft” was registered with the USPTO.

Let’s consider this. Bill had made assurances that were plainly untrue. To make reality catch up with his big promises, Bill and Paul slept sparingly in the weeks preceding the demo. This shows a confidence, ambition, and relentlessness that formed the hallmarks of his entrepreneurial career.

They key question to ask yourself at this juncture is: what would I have done? Would I have called MITS and shown initiative? Would I have retreated hastily when asked to do a demo? Would I have over promised, and then avoided delivering? Would I have kept momentum, relentlessly, overcoming obstacle after obstacle, failure after failure?

Bill Gates repeated this not long later when IBM contacted him to ask if he had an operating system for their (then new) PC. Bill didn’t and didn’t say that plainly to IBM. Instead he struck a deal and then figured out how to make it happen. He found another programmer who had developed a general purpose OS (DOS) and acquired all the rights to it.

At the time, software was an unseen commodity which was typically bundled with hardware. Bill Gates recognized a monumental opportunity. Physical computers were the ideas and property of others, but without software to operate them they had little practical value. He could see the world begin to embrace the potential power of computers and made it his life’s goal to provide the operating systems to that made them useful. Alongside a multitude of historic innovators Gates made his mark upon the world as an aggressive adventurer who worked tirelessly to deliver new and promising ideas.

Importantly, his commitment to his vision (which though obvious now, was made obvious by Bill’s relentless creation of the future he visualized) made him do whatever it took to make the vision a reality. He often leapt and grew wings on the way down. He often fired before he was ready and taken aim. He often committed to deliver what he did not have, but knew he would make it happen. He hacked his way into history through sheer willful grit and resourcefulness.

It is this commitment to delivery that set Bill Gates and others like him apart from the multitude of people with ideas. Everyone at some time or another has an idea they believe can solve some perceived need or solve problems that many people may not even realize exist. The unique characteristic of many who have prospered from their ideas has long been a stubborn work ethic to see a proposal through to fruition. Many others spend a great deal of time and energy weighing the pros and cons of their ideas. Most dreams die at this stage when the perceived reality of time, money and effort required to take a project from the drawing board to delivery seems too high a cost. Certainly there are some things we take for granted that were stumbled on completely by accident, but many other commonplace items are the result of devotion and hard work. Here are ten examples of pioneers that have brought their ideas from imagination into reality:

1. Thomas Edison: Edison’s list of inventions is impressive, but who hasn’t heard the story of his 10,000 failures that eventually became the light bulb?

2. Henry Ford: Started five businesses that failed before he struck his mark on history with Ford Motor Company.

3. Benjamin Franklin: He wasn’t only a strategically thinking politician. Mr. Franklin was an innovator and contributed to many household items we take for granted such as bifocal glasses, the stove, and a unique flexible catheter.

4. Soichiro Honda: Having been turned down for a job as an engineer at Toyota, Soichiro began building scooters and eventually founded the Honda Motor Company. All this amidst the ravages of one of the worst wars in history.

5. Grace Hopper: Without Grace’s hard work in developing the computer we may still be writing on paper tablets.

6. Jerome Lemelson: What do you mean you’ve never heard of Mr. Lemelson? His innovative spirit and tireless work ethic resulted in such items as cordless phones, fax machines, video cameras and many other consumer electronics.

7. J. K. Rowling: Writing a good novel is nothing short of hard work. Writing a world-class best-seller only comes through a tenacious desire to the writing craft. When her life hit rock bottom, she settled down to bring to life the only thing she truly wanted to see in the world.

8. Harland David (Colonel) Sanders: His chicken recipe was turned down more than 1,000 times before being accepted. He was well over 65 when he started.

9. Steven Spielberg: Turned down from a local theater school three times and eventually dropping out from another school, Spielberg has been one of the world’s greatest movie makers.

10. Nikola Tesla: Although not the founder of today’s popular electric car company, Nikola’s failures and successes with electricity contributed to ground-breaking advances in modern technology. His imagination and ability was so great that he was a severe threat to the Edison empire.

It is often argued that only the most intelligent people can make the biggest impact on the world, but this is a myth that absolves us from the duty to try. It is an excuse. In fact, many of those on the list above as well as countless others never received a formal college degree before delivering their new ideas to the world. Life’s locomotive may routinely pull into “Failure Junction” but becomes the destination only when you get off there. Perhaps the one rallying cry that could be shared by the vast majority of successful people is to “never quit.”

Or as Winston Churchill told school students when asked the secret of his success — “I can sum it up in 7 words. Never give up. Never, never give up.”

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