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Occupy Sandy: One of the Best Startups I've Ever Seen Occupy Sandy: One of the Best Startups I've Ever Seen
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Occupy Sandy: One of the Best Startups I've Ever Seen

by Adrian Sanders

November 22, 2012

I arrived at St. Jacobi church, the Occupy Sandy headquarters a few blocks down from our place in Brooklyn, with a strong sense of skepticism.

Occupy isn't something I ever really got on board with. I saw the Zuccotti park thing as a cheap throwback to my parents' generation. I was pretty damned jaded about the whole thing.

My opinion changed in a hot minute when I entered St. Jacobi's church. Things were happening. Donations of all kinds were coming through the door and being sorted. A dispatch crew was lining up volunteer cars to ship food and supplies to affected areas. The sense of urgency and focus was very real.

After volunteering at Occupy Sandy for five days, I realized that the vibe and work ethos was eerily familiar to me. Where had I felt this same sense of free flowing productivity and collaboration? And then it hit me: For a hyper-socialist organization, Occupy Sandy is run a hell of a lot like a tech startup.

It's not about who's in charge, it's about making shit happen.

At our startup, Backspaces, there are only three of us. And while our skill sets dovetail nicely, no one person is in charge. We just share a common goal of making Backspaces great. This means conversations are inherently horizontal and goal-oriented. At St. Jacobi, people were able to show up and get to work almost immediately wherever they were needed.

"Looking for something to do?" a volunteer asked. "We need about 400 PB&Js ready for Red Hook in about an hour."

Meanwhile, a U-Haul from Maryland had arrived, packed to the brim with supplies. "We need a conga line to get these boxes in the church," another volunteer shouted. A dozen people instantly formed and began unloading the truck. The formality of management just isn't necessary at this level when the goals are so clear and everyone is on the same page.

Identify what's important right now, because that's all that matters.

There are only so many hours in the day, but there seem to be an infinite number of things to be done. The damage from Sandy has been unbelievable, and so, at St. Jacobi, there are constantly new urgent issues and tasks popping up left and right. Leadership (not management) has to help parse all this and act on what is most important right now. One thing Occupy did very quickly was get their Facebook and Twitter accounts set up, creating a strong broadcasting tool for those looking for information, like myself. At St. Jacobi, there were often times where people were made to hang out before being sent off to the Rockaways or Staten Island. On the surface, this seemed like wasting time, but in reality, they were able to effectively route the right type of supplies to the right places by making sure their information was correct.

People working together is the only way things happen.

Very early on, I learned that in startups, the only way to progress is to work together effectively. The volunteer effort reveals just how true that is. Tens of thousands of people have responded to the Sandy Relief effort offering their time, money, and suplies. In the best case, everyone wants everyone else to succeed. In the case of Occupy Sandy, it's an obvious reality that the end results are more important than who's right or who's wrong. People are happy to step in and contribute. Occupy Sandy has done a great job of instilling that peer network mentality: We are all in this together; everyone is helping everyone.

The big picture is what defines success.

It will be a long time before we totally recover from Sandy. Some families will never fully recover. That's a reality that is difficult to stomach, especially when you've been volunteering. There were a few times out there that I personally got frustrated and felt that my contribution wasn't big enough. But, just like working on a startup, the real work that creates progress is always going to feel like a grind. Every day, the head organizers at Occupy Sandy are counting up supplies at St. Jacobi, gather information about needs in the affected areas, and rounding up cars to deliver the goods.

There's a long long way to go. We've started to see more volunteer stories on Backspaces, in part I think because people need to share their experience with friends and family, but also because it's important to reflect on what you've helped accomplished. It's very easy to get stuck in the minutiae of any task or project and forget what you're doing it for, or why it's important. Occupy Sandy has helped create a culture of urgency, care, and passion to help combat Sandy. They've done it with very little resources of their own, a non-traditional infrastructure, and a relentless zeal for helping people. That's a recipe for success most startups would do well to imitate.

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