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  • Writer's pictureColin Christensen

Culture eats Sandy for Breakfast

Updated: Oct 19, 2018

The title is a play on one of my favourite quotes, "Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast", often attributed to Peter Drucker

Hurricane Sandy was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record. When it hit the North Eastern United States and eventually Canada, even some of the best prepared businesses were rendered painfully impotent.

I manage my church's website. It is hosted on SquareSpace, which has their data center in lower Manhattan at Peer1. This is a very impressive and very ready-for-anything organisation. They take their ability to keep people's websites and infrastructures running very seriously, even through the worst of disasters.

The fact that Sandy was out of the ordinary really hit home when I received this email from SquareSpace the day after Sandy made landfall in New York:

Dear Customer,
I have some unfortunate news to share. Our primary data center, Peer1, in Lower Manhattan lost power yesterday at about 4:30PM local time. At that time, we smoothly made the transition to generator power and took comfort over the fact that we had enough fuel to last three to four days. (Peer1 stayed online during the last 3 major natural disasters in the area, including a blackout that lasted for days.)
At 8:30PM yesterday, we received reports that the lobby in the data center's building was beginning to take on water. By 10:30PM, as is sadly the case in most of Lower Manhattan, Peer1's basement had experienced serious flooding. At 5AM, we learned our data center's fuel pumps and fuel tanks were completely flooded and unable to deliver any more fuel. At 8AM, they reported that the generators would be able to run for a maximum of four more hours.
Unfortunately, this means that Squarespace will be offline soon (our estimate being at 10:45 AM today). Be assured that while this will impact our availability, there is no chance of data loss or any other permanent effects. We have simply run out of power, backup power, and cannot access our fuel in a flooded basement. Our teams have been working tirelessly on contingency plans. We are working to bring the Squarespace systems back online as soon as possible. As you have probably read, all bridges and tunnels into and out of Manhattan are closed and large portions of the city remain without power. We will do everything in our power to get Squarespace running as soon as possible, and we will remain online for as long as it is safe.
Squarespace support will remain available 24/7 during this downtime. We will post updates to Twitter via @squarespacehelp and urge you to follow us there. Updates will also be posted to
Our hearts go out to the many people who have lost their lives in this terrible tragedy and also to those who continue to suffer through the consequences of this historic storm
Thank you for your understanding,
Anthony Casalena
Founder & CEO

Of course, being after the time listed, I checked my website and was a little surprised to see it still broadcasting. Hmmm, maybe it's a cached copy or something.

Right off the bat I was a little saddened by what people there were going through and was impressed by the quick communication and frankness of Anthony's letter. While he was still dealing with this major disaster pressed upon his family, friends and peers, he was also realizing that his company's trusted infrastructure for their trusting clients was about to become completely useless - AND he decided to let clients know and even apologize in advance. How many businesses took calls from their customers over the next week after the fact and simply said "What do you expect? We had a disaster here! Of course we shut down."?

In this global economy where the rest of us maybe watched what went on with interest, there are some that probably didn't care, and maybe didn't even know. Plus, there are probably businesses that don't operate in the Eastern US that may have been affected as well. Regardless, the communication to your clients needs to be taking their context into mind, not just your own.

Well, today I received this email as a follow up:

Hurricane Sandy Update
A little over a week ago, I sent out one of the most difficult emails that Squarespace has ever delivered to our customers.
Peer1, our data center in downtown Manhattan, was so severely impacted by Hurricane Sandy that it suffered a total loss of power despite multiple levels of redundant systems. At the time, there was no resolution in sight. Our backup fuel reserves and building infrastructure had been destroyed by Sandy's storm surge, which flooded many buildings downtown. As you may be aware, this was a historic and unprecedented storm for the entire tri-state region, bringing about the largest storm-related power outage ever in Con Edison's history.
I am proud to announce that throughout this event, Squarespace customers experienced absolutely no downtime related to the power outage. This is an amazing outcome considering the extraordinary circumstances we faced last week. What remains is an incredible story.
For those of you that haven't been following our updates, employees from Squarespace, Fog Creek, and Peer1 manually carried fuel up 17 flights of stairs for three days to save our generator while an interim fuel supply and pump could be installed. These efforts to provide uninterrupted service for our customers were chronicled by numerous publications including All Things D, BetaBeat, Computerworld, Fast Company, TechCrunch, The New York Times, Pando Daily, and The Verge.
We now have a working pump system delivering fuel to the roof generator, more than enough fuel on site, and a redundant street-level generator connected and tested as of last night. These systems will remain in place for the foreseeable future. Our building has still not been able to connect to Manhattan's power grid, as the building's two sub-basements were submerged in 30 feet of water that took four days to pump out. We will continue to post updates on as we resume normal operations.
Of course, such heroics should not be necessary to keep operations running smoothly. We initiated a plan to build a geographically redundant operation this past summer and expect to have it online in early 2013. This gives us the ability to route around areas affected by natural disasters much more effectively. We take the responsibility of running the hundreds of thousands of sites on Squarespace very seriously. Our homepage states that our scalable, reliable cloud infrastructure eliminates downtime, and our customers all over the world count on us to keep their websites online no matter what. Wanting to keep that promise is what propelled us forward and helped us persevere during this most challenging of times. Thank you all for being Squarespace customers - it is with your continued support that we can continue to fight for great design, amazing products, and exceptional service.
We know that there are many in our area that were impacted far beyond what we experienced - if you can, please take a moment and contribute to hurricane relief efforts. A little
Thank you.

What an incredibly inspiring email.

I was thinking about what type of culture these businesses have. When we get hit with winter storms or crazy weather, or even a little-too-much-fun office party, do your people still show up? What does it take to keep your staff from doing their job well? Do they really have your clients' best interests in mind? I'd say these guys do. I'd have to say they're all in or playing full out or completely engaged (pick your favourite boardroom bingo term).

In stark contrast, I visited our neighbourhood ice cream place one evening, deciding to encourage my wife with her favourite food group (yes, ice cream is a food group, according to her). As I walked into the store, the bell rang clearly as the door hit it signaling to the folks in the back that they had customers. I started looking at the vast choices and, after a short period, started to wonder if the bell didn't do it's job. There was no one coming to help me. I called "hello" and started walking towards the back to get someone's attention.

Then I saw her.

You may not be able to see it in this picture but her boots are up on the desk, keyboard moved, her headphones are in and she's fast asleep. Honestly, I could have taken enough ice cream to last a year and she wouldn't have noticed. I even tapped her a few times (my wife really loves ice cream) and she didn't even budge.

In the pseudo-words of Luke Skywalker - this is NOT the culture you're going for.

As the Drucker quote suggests, culture is far more important than strategy. Both companies discussed had a strategy, probably even very good strategy, and both failed. Culture won out.

Now, I haven't interviewed both parties but there are a few differences between these companies that I can guarantee:

  • the passion for the customer

  • the level of ownership

  • the value of hard work

  • the commitment to excellence

  • how people deal with tiredness

  • how the clients feel after the fact

And how about this one:

  • what stories were told to countless others by their customers

Sometimes we think of culture as an internal program, something to ensure we keep the people we have. We try to merely hold things together rather than strive to make something that has world-class impact. This impact affects the internal team as well as those who interface with the team. Everyone from friends and family to clients and even the world.

A world-class culture takes time to build. It comes from aligned values. Those values come from the right hires, the right message, constant work and almost insane levels of communication. An all too common mistake is that the values are dictated from the top."The board had a meeting and we feel these are the values we're going to enforce - post it everywhere and get that really nice acrylic plaque with our values etched into it for the lobby".

But the values that lead to a great culture have to come from within the teams. They also can't come from a 30 minute lunch-and-learn that only really fills in that boardroom bingo card. A leader has to share genuine value-based stories from personal experience, and when they connect, similar stories will come out of the team members. Leaders must take one on one time with team members and listen to get to the heart of the matter and eventually, through collaborating with the individuals, the teams will start to align, rally around a set of core values that resonate with all, and dramatic transformation will happen.

The benefit of this can certainly lead to inspiring stories like SquareSpace's. Hopefully a force of Sandy's magnitude will never test it! But that being said, you'll really notice that day in and day out the caliber of work will go up, the teams' engagement will go up, office happiness will go up, sickness and absences will go down and you won't be afraid of any unexpected disasters. Your team will rise to the challenge.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a hankering for ice cream.

If you want committed team members like the lot around Peer1, reach out to me.


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