“We Call it ‘Getting S*%# Done” – an Interview with Recovers.org Founder Caitria O’Neill

Last week I spoke with Caitria O’Neill, CEO of Recovers.org, a company that provides community-powered software for disaster preparedness and recovery. Caitria stumbled into Lean Startup methods by accident. Her story sheds light on the power of the principles, especially Minimum Viable Product, and how “startup” lingo may be holding us back from embracing the ideas behind the principles.

Caitria O'Neill, CEO of Recovers.org
Caitria O’Neill, CEO of Recovers.org

You wrote once, “We don’t call it ‘social innovation’ or ‘civic activism.’ We call it ‘getting shit done’, and we do it every day.”   What did you mean by that?   What does Recovers.org do exactly?

I wrote that when I was extremely frustrated. I attended a White House Forum on Civic Participation where they got together all the heads of huge foundations. They talked about how to get more people to do things with civic activism, civic participation – all things I’ve never heard folks say about themselves. We’ve created ourselves our own little vocabulary that no one we’re trying to serve uses. As a sector, we’ve gotten so disconnected from everyday language.

At Recovers.org, we make community organizing resources for disaster recovery. In essence, we build case management systems. For example, something very simple like: I have a need. Or, I want to give. And the local community controls all of our tools. They know themselves better than we know them, so we simply give them tools to put their community back together.

Have you always been involved in social enterprise?  How did you come to your work at Recovers.org?

I would not call myself someone who was involved in social enterprise. I studied Soviet Russia in college. I graduated from college in late May of 2011 and I moved all of my boxes home on June 1st. Then there was a tornado in Western Massachusetts – it was freakish. All of a sudden, I saw a huge gap in organizing capacity in our community. The sky opened, and everyone wanted to volunteer or donate something or somehow get involved with the recovery, but we did not have the capacity on day one as a community to handle that.

There are a lot of large organizations that do very specific things after disasters – very specific, necessary things – but none of those things involve collecting the clothing that people are dropping off at the different churches or creating your own system for volunteer management that you have the capacity to manage. They were experts in disaster work, and they all came, but we were experts in our own town. And we weren’t given access to those systems. So our response was, we’re going to build our own.

We were using Facebook, google documents, and anything we used in our normal lives and trying to apply it to the problem. That was our very first Minimum Viable Product “MVP” – even though I never would have called it that at the time – it was what we needed to do in order to get things that we needed – for example, I need a plumber to get down to Bethany Street, and I know how to do that through systems I use everyday.

We started thinking about the tools we would need for this to go smoother. We started reaching out to other communities recovering from disaster and asked them what they did. And it was always the same – they used tools that they used in regular life and they applied them to the problems they were facing, but there were places where every single community dropped the ball in different places. That’s when we started building Recovers.org.

How do you design your tools?

The first time, we started by looking at what we needed it to do. We kept trying things. And then figuring out what worked and what didn’t by going to disasters. We would fly into a disaster area and say, “We have tools for you to use.” And we weren’t necessarily ready for them to use those tools, but it pulled [the design] out of us. You’d have somebody saying, “This bot doesn’t make sense.” And then we’d say, “You’re right!” It’s really accelerated, terrifying user testing.

Forney, Texas. Photo by Dave Perry
Forney, Texas. Photo by Dave Perry

Tell me about one time when you were trying to get someone to use your software and it went horribly wrong.  What happened?

Our first launch of our software. We went to Forney, Texas, after they were hit by an EF3 tornado. Forney was pretty badly affected and did not have any help coming out of Twitter or Facebook. When we got there, it kind of worked.

We explained that we are still building [the software] and people were okay with that. They were okay with the fact that it didn’t quite work. They told community members that they’re learning with us together. We weren’t going into a cave and developing for a million years. We were going out and talking to people who were eventually going to use our system.

You’ve mentioned before that there is a huge trust issue with MVP’s.  You go into someone else’s community and hand them something that isn’t “finished” yet, which requires a lot of trust.  How do you build trust in the communities in which you work?

First, we try to keep our name out of it and do our best to have the community take ownership of the system. We’re seeing that happen in a few of our towns and it’s great because we’re no longer a factor, we’re just the tools behind it.

For us, there are two parts to gaining trust. One part is acknowledging that something bad has happened in their community and that they should be cautious. There are people who are going to try and take advantage of them, and we try to equip them for that. We don’t say, “You should trust me and don’t trust anyone else.” We say instead, “Here are some ways to look at the gift horse and see if it’s something you want to use.”

The other side of it is explaining why I’m there. For me, it’s straightforward – I was in your spot and I know how hard it is, and I want to help you with it. For people from my team, they say, I’ve seen how bad this can be in a lot of different areas and you’re doing a good job and we can help you with that. Storytelling is important to us.

Have you read the Lean Startup?  What did you think?

Yes. I think that the principles are good ones, but I think it requires certain fanaticism or acceptance of a cult to start calling it what it’s called in the Lean Startup book. I remember my first encounter with an MVP was: I have these needs, and this is the thing I can build right now to see if it fits those needs. It wasn’t, “Minimum Viable Product”. It all comes back to the vocabulary thing. In the for-profit world they understand it, but foundations don’t speak that language yet. I don’t know if translation is needed, but you have to adopt the principles in a way that fits into your world. They don’t go in quite as easily as we’re hoping. There’s a huge focus on profitability – which is necessary, don’t get me wrong – but not our focus as a sector.

Language aside, what’s one thing you think the nonprofit sector could gain from learning about Lean Startup principles?

Creation done right is a learning process. If you’ve got a 5-year detailed plan of where you’re going and how you’re getting there, you’re probably heading in the wrong direction. Demonstrate value now, ask for money later. If you can eke out a 6 month pilot living on Twix bars and prove your concept, get testimonials, photos, video and documentation of how incredibly fantastic your mission and service/product are – you’re more likely to make money. If you do the legwork required to demonstrate value now, you’re also more likely to spend that money wisely.

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