Storms Reveal Things That Calm Seas Don’t

By Lauren Cascio

There are many challenges to be overcome during the first year of running a business. Many of these are self-inflicted, such as burning out due to overwork, leaving hiring to the last minute, or running in circles because you don’t have the right organizational tools in place. But others are totally out of your control.

Just one year into starting our Puerto Rican-based company, we were hit by Hurricane Maria, a category 4 storm which devastated the island, killing at least 64 people and leaving millions without electricity, clean water, and in many cases homes to call their own. More than eight months later, life has returned to some semblance of normality at least in the capital city of San Juan, but the mental and physical scars the storm has left on the island’s communities, infrastructure, and economy will take much longer to heal.

In the weeks after the disaster, there was an exodus of Puerto Ricans seeking refuge in the US. However, despite the challenging conditions, our team made a collective decision to hold our ground, and work together to make it out the other side. In retrospect, it was our company culture that allowed us to be resilient and continue operating through the storm.

Here’s five key lessons learned during this crisis, which helped build morale and loyalty within the company:

1. Put the well-being of your team first

In the direct aftermath of Maria, many parts of the island, especially rural areas, were totally decimated. The hurricane had flattened power grids, ruptured water supplies, and destroyed energy conductors, meaning there was no phone reception anywhere for the first five days, sporadic internet for months, and as late as April 2018, 11 percent of the residents of the island were still without power.

As the business mantra goes, “You are only as strong as the team around you,” and during a crisis, ensuring the personal well-being of your team must take priority.

As such, while our team was determined to continue working, as a leader it was important to be understanding about the harsh realities of employees’ lives at home and their needs to support themselves and their families. While we were relying on our team to keep our company afloat, we did not want our co-workers to have to make a choice between taking care of their families and meeting a deadline.

For example, our VP of engineering has a family with two small children, and for weeks after the disaster had to make ends meet with no clean water supply, and fill his own water tank by hand. We understood that he would need to leave the office early, and work from home on various days during the week. Despite VP of engineering being an essential ‘hands on’ role, which our whole team depended on, we understood that family comes first, and supported him as much as possible.

If the leaders don’t focus on the wellbeing of their team members, you can’t expect them to give their all. Instead, our startup faced the situation with compassion, and gave our employees the flexibility they needed.

2. Trust your team to do their jobs to the best of their abilities

While compassion and flexibility are important, there reaches a stage when you need your team come together. For the first week or so, our company worked out of my apartment, and some even slept there. Then we arranged generators, and were finally able to get hotspots running in our office. Team members car-pooled due to gas shortages. Everyone knew what their job was, and got on with it.

However, while first my apartment and then the office became our central hubs, when our team went home they were generally off the grid. Our developers would code locally at home without internet, and then come to the office every couple of days to upload their work and touch base.

This only worked due to the strong company culture we had in place before the hurricane hit. I often wouldn’t be able to contact team members for days at a time, but this worked due to careful delegation by team leaders, and because we trusted that everyone was getting on with their work to the best of their abilities.

As a team we have never tied our employees to the office, and this autonomy allowed everyone to rise to the task when disaster struck. The fact that we have always trusted our employees to do the best job possible meant that when disaster struck, our teams came together to support the company in its time of need.

3. Maintain client trust at all costs

When a crisis hits, you can expect clients to be understanding for a short period of time. But there reaches a point at which lack of activity on your part will inevitably affect client confidence.

Considering the communication problems post-Maria, we were fortunate to have a couple of team members on mainland US at the time the storm hit. In the days preceding Maria, we were in the middle of closing a big client, so on the night before the storm our co-founder forwarded all the client communication to US based team-members from her laundry room, knowing there would be no communication or electricity for a few days as the winds got stronger. We were able to close the deal, and continue the client conversation seamlessly. If anything, the knowledge that we were continuing despite the hardships only endeared the client to our service more.

We also made a point of contacting our Puerto Rican clients individually in the aftermath of the disaster to ensure them their data was safe, and enquire about their wellbeing. Considering the lack of communication, this often meant jumping in the car and braving the conditions, but it was worth it.

Disasters happen all the time in business. Keeping a cool head, and maintaining an air of control and a steady flow of communication is key. Our clients had no idea that we were running a business out of my apartment, but they did know they could rely on us.

4. Convince employees their jobs are secure to keep morale up

As mentioned, our ability to continue working was entirely based on our team’s ongoing dedication and cooperation. They had our backs, which meant that we needed to show them we had theirs, too.

However, the storm had devastating effects on small businesses like ours. While larger organizations like Roche pharmaceutical were back in operation in just six days—which would have been a huge relief to it’s 600 plus employees—official estimates suggest as many as 75 percent of SMBs closed temporarily after the storm, many of which will never be able to re-open. This naturally creates a lot of worry for employees.

We brought our team together and assured them we had the reserves to maintain a steady flow of payments. Even though we knew everyone wasn’t working their normal hours, and our Puerto Rican clients were not able to pay us as banks were shut, we continued to pay as normal.

Employees had enough stresses in other elements of their lives without having to worry about not getting a paycheck at the end of the month.

5. Get involved locally to see how you can help

In the days following the storm our co-founder jumped in the car and visited clients and other local business leaders to touch base, let them know we had a business continuity plan in place, and were willing to help in any way possible. The local tech community has played a huge role in recovery in Puerto Rico, and this is because lots of us went out of our ways to help others.

Local VC firm Guayacan launched a new fund for Puerto Rican businesses looking to redevelop. Tangiers Capital used its network to raise money to assist local communities. Parallel 18 set up an accelerator called Pre18 solely for local startups to help with recovery. And Colmena 66 launched a new tool, Shop & Hire Puerto Rico, to help local businesses sell products in the US.

And a lot of local startups actually took time away from their normal business to help local communities. For example, Brands Of Puerto Rico created a local food delivery program, EntregaMeds began delivering essential medical supplies to hard to reach areas, and local techies began to tackle communication issues from the ground up.

This energy to help others was important to our team, too. While we maintained a skeleton team on our core business, our team also helped clients and other members of our local community in any way possible, with our co-founder even delivering food and supplies to local families. We didn’t do this to impress clients, we did this because going the extra mile is part of our company culture. The fact that allowing your employees time to dedicate to side projects—especially those linked to social responsibility—is proven to improve morale is just an added bonus.

Hurricane Maria was one of biggest bumps we have encountered when founding a business, but it helped us put all the smaller bumps we have encountered since into perspective. In the eight months that have passed, life has returned to some sort of normality, but the experience of surviving Maria as a group, and as a business, is something which will be etched into our company culture, and story forever. We can only hope that the strength of our team and our culture, will not be tested in such a dramatic fashion ever again! But at least now we know that whatever comes up, if we stick together, we can face it.

Lauren Cascio is co-founder and COO of Abartys Health, a health insurance tech company based in Puerto Rico

Hurricane stock photo by lavizzara/Shutterstock