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  • Marnie Suss

why a startup mindset is essential in times of crisis

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

I have worked for hundreds of startups, including a few big ones each year. None of them made any money, but we sure did hustle to ship our services quickly to people. We regularly built new things that have never been done before.

Okay, so the startups I worked for aren’t exactly the startups you’re thinking. These startups were often urgent priorities requiring us to build from everything from scratch with timelines that would give most people whiplash.

In the summer of 2020, I was charged with leading the design and execution of delivering - and installing - 74,000 air conditioners in low income senior homes.

The goal was simple, the operation was not. This had never been done before at this speed or scale. There was no process, no infrastructure, no guidance, no initial funding, and NO air conditioners. We had nothing.

It was a Saturday afternoon when this op landed with me. And by the end of the week, we needed to have our first A/C installed. I recruited a trusted colleague to be my counterpart. I asked for her to partner with me because she’s positive, calm, detailed, hardworking. In other words, she has grit.

I knew, given the chance, she would propel herself to level-up into a leadership role. Not many people have that combination of qualities, but they are essential in these environments. Despite her apprehension, she said ‘yes’, and we were off and running.

We set the first stakeholder meeting for Monday morning with more than 40 people, including commissioners and senior leadership. We had less than 24-hours to craft the roadmap for how we would get this A/C “business” off the ground.

As we prepared for the Monday meeting, I knew many people were like me. Burnt-the-F-out. It was 2020 in New York City, and we were just coming down from the tragic peak of being the first epicenter in the country for Covid-19. Given that, I knew I had one shot Monday morning to convince the team this effort was not only possible, but could be successful if we worked together.

By the end of Sunday night, we had an organizational structure, a roadmap of work streams, budget requirements, and key leadership assignments. After our planning sprint, we were left with one big question facing many new businesses:

Who wants this product and how do we find them?

Specifically, how do we find and convince 74,000 skeptical New Yorker seniors that they should accept a free air conditioner? Easy, right? (Spoiler, it was not).

What can we learn from a startup mindset in times of crisis?

1. Recruit leaders who will embrace the madness.

Experience is great, but flexibility, grit, and willingness to be uncomfortable is essential to adapt to the new and unknown.

2. Prepare yourself and your team to hustle.

In the first meeting with the team, I got real with them fast - I didn’t have the answers and it was not going to be easy. The only promise I made, was that it would be frustrating, fast paced, and that we were about to help a lot of people. And we'd do it together.

3. Planning sprints break down ambiguity.

The Sunday we spent organizing and laying out the fundamentals was the best investment of time, but was not the last. It set us up for success, but we continuously refreshed our approach to adapt to the circumstances.

4. Be tough, but human.

To launch this program, there we sacrificed our time, attention, and energy. As the leader or founder, we ask a lot of our teams. And we give a lot too. Push when it counts, you'll get better results.

Finally, did we install 74,000 air conditioners? Yes, yes we did.



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