Weatherproof: How Digital Start-Ups Thrived In The Face Of Sandy



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In the long and brutal wake of this week’s storm, you may have missed a rather triumphant, little story. Yes, what’s important right now are those upturned lives and battered communities you’ve either seen on TV or walked through on your own two feet. Yet, when you turn away from all of that for a second — as we all need to just to get by — you can still order new boots online, fiddle with social networks, or, visit us here at Refinery29.

It’s a small thing, but given that so many of your favorite online distractions are based in what we’ve now come to call Manhattan's Dead Zone, it’s actually kind of a big deal. All over New Jersey, New York, and other states, emergency workers have been practicing triage on neighborhoods and people, just trying to keep things going. While their efforts pale in comparison to those real-life heroes, digital companies like Gilt, Gawker, The Huffington Post, and, yes, Refinery29, have also been doing their own version of rescue and recovery after Sandy, and, for many of them, it’s been a remarkable, redefining experience. In a strange way, these young, hungry companies with highly flexible, Internet-born workforces have been the leaders in NYC business the last few days — the first to turn their lights back on. Actually, in our case, they never went off.

For us, the week began with a company-wide notice that our 80-odd New-York-based employees wouldn’t be coming into work on Monday — almost everyone here takes the subways, so it was little surprise that we’d be finishing our winter-coat roundups and beauty tutorials from home. But, when the power died after the 14th Street transformer explosion and Greenpoint flooded, this company, and many others, became another NYC refugee. Not only was there no way for us to get to work, with no electricity at our Cooper Square offices, there was no where for us to go.

But, perhaps (most) surprisingly, we didn’t miss a beat. Spread over dozens of apartments, hotel rooms, coffee shops, and borrowed work spaces, we continued to work, research, write, and post. Designers, used to larger iMacs, squinted at tiny laptop screens and crafted their images without the essential visual assets we keep on our office server. Editorial teams regrouped wherever they could find power — including space kindly lent by the Harrison & Shriftman PR firm (thanks, neighbors!). Sales staff worked out of uptown hotels, and for the first time in five years, the headquarters of Refinery29 returned to the kitchen table of two of our founders, Piera Gelardi and Philippe Von Borries. Granted, it was a different kitchen and a bigger table — but are you starting to see how just being able to do your daily work was an effort in itself?

Despite all that, the last few days have been some of our highest traffic numbers ever — no, really, EVER. In fact, Tuesday, the 30th, was our biggest visitor day in the company’s history. Partly because people like you have been stuck at home with nothing to do...but with something to read and participate in. But, a bigger part of that is because we decided not to tape over the windows and close up shop until ConEd got the power back. In fact, it was never really a question that we would.

To make it clear: We’re not discussing this to brag or to aim the spotlight on ourselves. We’re just one example of what’s been going on all over New York this week. Yes, many people have been working from home, but tech-based start-ups in particular have been excelling at it.

Photos: Courtesy Faces Of NY Tech.
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In the last five years, this city has become the home to many young online-publishing, e-commerce, app-development, and social-networking start-ups, along with a flood of technical professionals who support them. Sandy left many of them scrambling for new real estate, wireless service, and wall outlets, as well. The kind of ingenuity that start-ups rely on daily became ever more essential.

The Gawker network of blogs and The Huffington Post are fine examples. Like so many, their data centers went kaput with the 14th Street transformer explosion. Within hours, they had reconfigured themselves into Tumblrs. Said Jessica Coen, editor-in-chief of Gawker's women's site, Jezebel, "It was a little hectic, especially with so many editorial people not having power or Internet access. But the tech-team members who were working remotely had us set up and running in a matter of hours. Writers and editors adapted quickly, and it was important for the sites to send a message to our readers that we're going to keep publishing, somehow, no matter what...and honestly, Tumblr is kind of fun. The circumstances are horrible...but everyone could stand to shake up their writing routine once in awhile — Tumblr is good for that."

But, it wasn't just that. In a move we've been seeing with many companies all over the city, Gawker "set up two temporary offices for us, one in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn, which has made a huge difference for those of us without heat or power. Frankly, when everything around you is in chaos, signing on to work in the morning is almost a comfort," Coen explained. Like so many, it wasn't just a matter of her company finding her a place to work, but her company supporting the people who work for it when the government had bigger things to tackle.

Danielle Bufalini, editorial market director at Daily Candy, tells a similar tale, explaining how the newsletter hasn't missed a step, despite half of its employees being in the dark. "The editorial team's structure was set up from its inception so you could, if need be, work from anywhere. Things have gotten trickier as we've grown, but for the most part, we haven't had many hiccups. It doesn't hurt though that we have editors living in L.A., Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, etc., who can step in to help. Or, that many of the editors (excluding me — I lost power and water on the Lower East Side!) live in Brooklyn and have been working away without a hitch. Others have headed to coffee shops or our parent company, NBC, which has been able to provide office space (and showers!) at 30 Rock. Everyone has been really understanding and supportive during this crazy week."

"We operate in a handful of different cities," said Randy Goldberg, editorial and creative director of UrbanDaddy, "but our headquarters and heart are obviously in New York. We didn't publish on Tuesday while the city was still figuring out what the hell had just happened, but otherwise, we have been able to pick back up and produce everything remotely. It's been tough, as most of our team is without power, but we have a really tight-knit group that believes in what we do, and this has brought everybody closer together. Our Manhattan-based staffers have been gathering every day in Times Square and making it work."

But, it's not just how they work that's changed at UrbanDaddy. What they're working on has also pivoted toward post-Sandy life. "Since we tend to cover actionable cultural events and openings in the city, we're trying to key in on the lighter side of what people are looking for right now. Yesterday, we put together a list of uptown restaurants and bars that are offshoots of downtown places that people love. Wednesday, we covered a new bike rental service that let's you rent bikes from people in your neighborhood. So, it's not business as usual, and this storm is obviously the first thing on everyone's mind, but we still believe in the service and the stories we provide for our readers and the response to what we've published over the past couple of days on UrbanDaddy and on our Facebook page has been great."
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What has worked for online publishing has also been helping e-commerce sites weather the storm. Within hours of losing power in Manhattan, Tribeca-based jewelry company, Chloe + Isabel, was communicating support and concern over a mass e-mail thread. Front-end engineer Jason Fleetwood-Boldt offered up his apartment to anyone wanting to do some work, charge their phone, or take a shower. Soon, eight people were working out of the 300-square-foot studio, alternating responsibility among the group for cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner and making the requisite latte-runs. "When Sandy hit, we were in the final stretch of coding for a big upcoming launch," said CEO Chantel Waterbury. "We were worried about how much this might set us back — but thanks to the group's willingness to band together, we're still on track! And between the food, productivity and camaraderie, we may never go back to working in an office again!" Unlikely, but encouraging nonetheless.

Neil Capel, CEO of SailThru — a direct-marketing email-based technology company that's essential to many businesses with newsletters (including this one) — had some more, shall we say, exciting experiences. "Despite doing all we could do to prepare for the storm," he said, "we found ourselves not just out of an office — in fact, more than half of our employees still don't have power or Internet — but in a precarious situation with the servers located downtown in one of the hardest-hit areas. We pulled together, creating employee 'basecamps' so we could provide business as usual in conditions anything but. To make sure our systems were up through the worst of it, our engineering team repeatedly hauled buckets of fuel up 19 flights of stairs to power the generators so we could provide services for our clients. I've never been so proud of a team in my life." SailThru wasn't the only company to have the digital version of a "bucket brigade." Hauling gas is the new hauling water, folks.

Neil Blumenthal, cofounder of Warby Parker, has the kind of story we’ve been hearing again and again from our peers, but one connected to the true tragedies of the storm. “We implemented our disaster plan. We were able to ensure everyone on our team was safe and set up two temporary offices in midtown within 24 hours. Two of our staff lost everything. One of our team members is a volunteer firefighter and another is a volunteer EMT; they've been going nonstop helping their communities,” he said. Coworkers are counted, spaces are secured, and even though some suffer incalculable losses, the company finds a way to keep running...and thriving.

Around the web, start-ups are pulling together and refitting in all kinds of ways. Gilt Groupe is relying on their Brooklyn distribution center, which still has power, to house some of the essential functions that their Mantahattan offices cannot while donating 30% of profits to hurricane relief. Brooklyn-based start-ups have reached out to their brothers across the bridge, offering free space on the desks (and sometimes floors) of their powered offices. Even Business Insider, a company that writes about start-ups, commandeered a Brooklyn bar, turning it into a temporary, perhaps too-distracting office.
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Oh, for an industry that thrives on visual communication and memes, you better believe some people are creating online outlets for their out-of-office experiences. Co-created by a former (and still beloved) member of our own team, Yannell Rodriguez, the Faces Of NY Tech has become a catalog of how people are making do in their own kitchens, living rooms, or wherever they could find juice and WiFi. Of course, the best chronicle of what it was like to work in New York tech this week has its own Tumblr.

All of this speaks to one thing — this week has been, excuse the term, a watershed moment in the NYC digital start-up field. Self-built businesses without professionally constructed disaster contingency plans learned how to tread water, almost literally, and restructure themselves in a matter of hours to keep the content, commerce, and services flowing. These companies demonstrated, for all who were looking, the flexibility and agility that allowed them to succeed in the first place through the simple act of keeping the lights on when half the city went dark. In an odd turnaround, these businesses that often live on the brink of bust have been the most capable, the most resilient in this odd, eerie environment.

We’re not just witnessing these young businesses survive — and thrive — in the face of an unexpected natural disaster, we’re seeing them come of age in a way no one could have predicted. Despite venture capital support, start-ups can pop up and disappear overnight. Heck, even their name suggests something that’s not here for the long haul. However, what so many companies have proved this week after nature took away their offices, means of communication, logistical supports, and other essentials is that they can’t just be washed away — they aren’t going anywhere. What they’ve demonstrated is that their greatest assets aren't servers, TED-Talk worthy ideas, or forward-thinking business plans. They are, in fact, old-fashioned ingenuity, ambition, grind-it-out teamwork, people power, and a unified will to succeed — the same things that keep the gears moving at any veteran company.

NYC start-ups, in their own little way, have actually beaten the elements and kept bringing in the money when so much of this city was shut down. It's a minor, business victory in the face of a national disaster that has taken lives, homes, and whole neighborhoods — there are far greater human triumphs we've seen this week in more flooded, embattled areas. But, it's a victory nonetheless — one that you can bet we and many other companies will hold dear. We’re battle tested now.

Photo: Courtesy of Faces Of NY Tech