Friday, May 29, 2020

Out of the Crisis #6,

Like many people, one of the things I've become aware of since the pandemic began is the lack of coordination and organization for people who are looking for ways to help. Out of the Crisis #6 is my conversation with someone who not only saw that deficit but did something about it--literally almost overnight.

Radu Spineau is a serial entrepreneur. He's also one of the people building, a clearinghouse for matching volunteers with all kinds of COVID relief and COVID-related projects. I personally have used it to recruit hundreds of people since the pandemic began. To date the site has more than 700 projects listed and 14,200 volunteers looking for ways to help.

It's no surprise that matching volunteers with opportunities isn't something that Radu had experience with. One of the defining features of the work people have stepped up to do in the last few months is just how much of it involves skills they actually don't have. Radu, who is an optimist at heart, has seen how little that matters when people want to do good. To his way of thinking, this "is a great opportunity for a lot of people to do something that they could actually be very good at and learn a lot of things, because you learn the most things in complete chaos." And that includes him.

You can listen to our conversation on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, or wherever you like to download.


A complete transcript of my conversation with Radu is also below.

Highlights from the show

  • Radu on his background and what he was doing before (2:53)
  • Radu on being a builder and his experiences with YCombinator (4:04)
  • Radu's quarantine life and his parents quarantine life in Romania. (5:45)
  • When he realized the pandemic was significant. (7:06)
  • Where Radu's optimism comes from (8:56)
  • Launching 8:58 
  • The origin story 11:30
  • Using Discord to get set up (13:30) 
  • 1,000 people signed up to volunteer in the first few days (14:02)
  • On launching in a few days and then iterating (15:36)
  • On the high caliber of volunteers (17:10)
  • The MVP. (18:06)
  • The tech that powers the site. (19:22)
  • What helpwithcovid does and how it matches volunteers with COVID-19-related projects. (20:09)
  • How Radu knew the site had hit product-market fit (22:07)
  • Radu talks about the three times he's hit product-market fit with startups (23:09)
  • Radu on making the first cinemagraph-making app in the app store. (24:44) 
  • The numbers on helpwithcovid's projects, volunteers, and matches. (26:34)
  • The specialization and high quality of volunteers and projects. (27:06)
  • Helpwithcovid's DNA. (27:55)
  • Projects that currently need help. (29:15)
  • Skills in demand, including design, software engineers, and people to vet volunteers and projects. (32:23)
  • The wide range of people stepping up to do whatever is needed. (33:58)
  • Opportunities for doing/learning something new in chaotic moments. (37:31)
  • Starting up (38:20)
  • The digital divide in education and learning about new problems that need to be solved. (39:54)
  • The strangeness of being told to wait for help to come, then realizing you are the help. (42:28)
  • The importance of saying "I just want to help" without worrying about being qualified. (44:07)
  • Radu's biggest surprises. (47:45)
  • On letting go of ego in relief efforts. (50:30)
  • Thoughts on forming a new economy post-pandemic. (52:06)
  • On the need for entrepreneurs moving forward. (52:47)
  • Keeping health care workers front of mind. (53:44)
  • Projects to make the post-crisis world better (55:37)
  • How do we get out of the crisis? (58:53)
  • Thanks for volunteers (1:02:11)


Show-related resources

Transcript of Out of the Crisis #6,

Eric Ries: My name is Eric Ries. This is Out of the Crisis. One of the themes that has come up for me again and again is the importance of coordinating an organization. Now more than ever, we have to step up as a community, as citizens, and as people to support each other. In the early days of the pandemic, there was a severe lack of this coordination and organization. Even at the micro level, people with skills and resources to help really didn't know how to communicate and organize in a consistent way, and I think this fed our collective feeling of helplessness, and it wasn't long after that at least I started to feel like a member of a community of people, all working on the same problem.

So, how did that come about? How did it happen? Who brought us together? One of the organizations is called It helps match volunteers with projects that need volunteers, and they've placed thousands and thousands of volunteers. I personally have used it to recruit hundreds. It's been incredibly helpful in the projects that I'm working on, and we'll include links in the show notes. This is one of a million stories of ordinary people stepping up and making a difference. While many of us were feeling despair, Radu Spineanu saw an opportunity to help.

He was in dialogue with two pretty important Silicon Valley power players who suggested that there needed to be a way to match volunteers with projects, and he had a fully-functioning site to do that up and running two days later. Two days after that, it had placed its first 1,000 volunteers. In some ways, Radu's story is typical of Silicon Valley. He was an immigrant from Romania, a software engineer, came to the Bay Area, did Y Combinator, started a company, sold it, made connections, and became part of this ecosystem.

So, when the crisis hit, he was already primed to approach it as a founder, as a maker, as a builder, but that doesn't explain the whole story, because many of us could have done what Radu Spineanu did, and yet he's the one that actually did it, and that's another thing I think is so important about a crisis. None of us really know what we'll be like when we're called to service in an emergency. You can never really guess or imagine. You just have to do it, and it is on each of us to ask ourselves, "What can I make? What can I build? How can I help right now?" Here's the story of

Radu Spineanu: Hi. My name is Radu Spineanu. I work on Help With COVID, which is a clearinghouse that matches volunteers with projects that are working on the current crisis.

Eric Ries: What were you doing before Help With COVID?

Radu Spineanu: Before Help With COVID, I had started a startup. I'm a YC alum. That went through YC, and we sold that company about a year-and-a-half ago, and then I left The Acquirer in late January, and then I've been just not doing anything. I've moved back to the Bay Area.

Eric Ries: Back to the Bay Area from where?

Radu Spineanu: From LA.

Eric Ries: You're originally from Romania, right?

Radu Spineanu: Yes, a long, long time ago, about 10, 15 years ago. Yeah.

Eric Ries: How did you come to be in the Bay Area?

Radu Spineanu: I actually started a company in Romania. I started the biggest affiliate network in Romania, and I realized that, one, I really like building companies, and two, that if you want to make a difference, you just have to be here, have to be in the Bay Area because you have access to the most amazing people in the world that are not only incredibly smart, but have this big-picture vision and optimism of what you can build, and also, you have some amazing groups of people that are just willing to find two random Romanians from Romania and give them millions of dollars to start a company, which I think it's pretty unique.

Eric Ries: You talk about yourself as a builder. What does that mean to you? I mean, I'm the same way, but why do you like building things so much?

Radu Spineanu: I feel like it's just the feeling of making something out of nothing, that you see a problem, and you get a picture in your head of how to solve it, and you just turn it into reality, and that's, one, a magical feeling, but then once you see people actually use it, and sort of like the magic product-market fit, which is amazing, if you've had product-market fit, you feel it immediately, and that's the second magical feeling, and it's quite addictive.

Eric Ries: What was it like going through YCombinator? You were there in the previous era when Paul Grant was still leading it. Is that right?

Radu Spineanu: Yes. We were the last PG batch, and YC just changes your life completely. Before YC, you are just a random person, and you can email people, and it's always harder. It's like people are not answering your emails. They're like, "Oh, cool. Is this person serious? Is this person going to survive in the Bay Area for the long term?" because so many people just come and leave, and once you go through YC, you're not a random, and maybe it's not a nice way of saying it, but you're not a random person anymore. You're like-

Eric Ries: Yeah. It's like a modern-day credentialing system.

Radu Spineanu: Exactly, and you're still the same person before and after, but basically, it opens so many doors, and I know for sure that Y Combinator changed my life completely.

Eric Ries: These are dark times. How are you doing? How are you holding up? How's your family? What's your quarantine setup like?

Radu Spineanu: My quarantine setup is I moved back to the Bay Area, and I'm in a tiny one-bedroom apartment right now.

Eric Ries: Oh, man.

Radu Spineanu: I'm pretty good. I always worry about other people, especially with a lot of the stuff that's happening, and my parents are actually all back in Romania. I've forgotten my family's back in Romania. My dad is older. He's 80. He has all the underlying conditions, and I'm definitely worried, but I'm happy because I was on Twitter early on. I kind of was able to email them and call them. I tell them, "Stay indoors. Don't get out of the house." You know?

Eric Ries: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Radu Spineanu: So, I think they're going to be okay.

Eric Ries: Do you have a sense of how the pandemic response is going in Romania?

Radu Spineanu: I mean, they went full-on where they basically are not allowed to get out of the house unless you download an app where you tell the police why you want to get out of the house.

Eric Ries: Oh, my.

Radu Spineanu: If you are over 65, you're only allowed out of the house one hour per day. That's it. It's super extreme. It's hyper-extreme, and kudos to them. They did it very early, but that's good because the medical system in Romania is just a complete mess.

Eric Ries: Was there a moment for you when you realized the pandemic is real?

Radu Spineanu: I feel that yes. I think the moment for me when it was very real is I was on Twitter, and I was kind of ignoring it because there were a lot of things happening and my life in January, but I remember I had a friend visiting from Asia, and I really, really love that person, but I was worried that, okay, this person is literally coming from China right now, and am I worried about meeting him? Did he take all the necessary precautions and stuff like that? It sort of created this instinctual feeling of, oh, maybe this is not okay. Maybe this is going to get out. I know that, maybe, again, it's not something that's very nice to say, but I feel like that's when I started actually thinking about it for the first time in a more serious way. How about you?

Eric Ries: It wasn't a moment for me. I had this growing sinking feeling that something bad was happening over the course of, really, January, February, into March, and I kept taking emergency preparedness steps that felt extreme on Monday, and then by Wednesday, I wished I'd done more, and by Friday I felt like I was hopelessly behind. So, it's like this process of trying to catch up with reality, try to understand it, try to figure it out, and not be consumed with regret and despair, especially as I realized that there were going to be severe national differences in how people responded. There was kind of a moment when we had that optimism that there would be a global coming together, a science-driven, consensus-driven political response all over the globe, and when that didn't happen, then I really had some dark days.

Radu Spineanu: That makes a lot of sense. I'm still optimistic about everything. I've gone back and forth, but now I'm back to being optimistic.

Eric Ries: Well, what do you think that optimism is born out of?

Radu Spineanu: I think that optimism is born out of... For instance, just Help With COVID, when we launched it, we literally built it in two days, and we put it up, and we had no idea if anybody's going to use it. But initially, it was started because Dustin Moskovitz and Sam Altman were getting so many emails about people wanting to help and projects looking for help. So, Sam added me to it because I previously did stuff with Sam, like YC's Request for Startups, and he knew I was sort of in this phase in the middle of things, and people stepped up immediately. We got an immediate response.

In the first day, the response was absolutely amazing, and talking about that feeling of product-market fit, it's like you could tell that there was a need where projects were already starting up, and people wanted to help. From the very beginning, I was actually super optimistic because on this side, on the Help With COVID stuff, I saw so many people offering to help. That's how it started. Now, there's a lot of things happening in the background, and even the news from yesterday with Gilead, and I was talking to some people today and just... I think it's going to be okay.

Eric Ries: So, I remember very distinctly when Help With COVID launched. I was right in the middle of starting up my first of what has been several pop-up organizations to deal with the crisis, and must have heard about it from Sam Altman, and I went on there, and I had posted my first project, I think. I don't know. There weren't very many projects posted yet, so I was relatively early, and I was just stunned with how many amazing volunteers started pouring in just that first day. It was both the quantity of it was overwhelming, but the quality of people who were really interested in helping out was really amazing. So, first of all, thank you for building it. It's been an incredibly useful resource for me and the projects that I've been affiliated with. Tell us about kind of how the idea came to you. Tell us about how you built it, and tell us what those early couple days of grappling with product-market fit was like.

Radu Spineanu: Definitely. So, it wasn't my idea. It was this email exchange between Sam and Dustin, and I remember-

Eric Ries: You're talking about Dustin Moskovitz, the Asana co-founder, Facebook co-founder.

Radu Spineanu: Exactly, Dustin Moskovitz and Sam-

Eric Ries: Yeah, and Sam Altman, who our listeners will remember from a previous episode, former president of Y Combinator.

Radu Spineanu: Exactly. So, I remember it was a Sunday, and it was like 4:00 p.m., and I was grocery shopping, and I was with my girlfriend, and I was picking out oranges, and I got this email from Sam. It was like, "Hey, I think this is a cool idea. Are you in, or are you interested in building this?" I immediately replied yes, and then I tried to convince my girlfriend to cut grocery shopping short so I could go home and build it, which didn't work very well, but I got home in an hour, and basically, I was talking to Sam and asking what's his vision for this, and he gave me some things that were important to him, and then just basically, I built the first version by... We launched Tuesday morning. So, it went incredibly fast. The whole idea was like, okay, this is a crisis. We need to move fast.

In the beginning, if you remember, you didn't know how long this was going to last. It was this feeling of maybe it was too much optimism. They were like, "Oh, maybe just two to three weeks, and it's going to be okay." So, we launched it by Tuesday. We did it on Tuesday. Immediately, started getting a lot of projects, and the first thing we did is we... I realized that, hey, because Help With COVID was on the website, and we were eating our own dog food, I realized we had a problem. 100 people applied, and we were like, to be volunteers, "I have no idea how to manage all these people, and it's too many people." So, immediately started a Discord, and I started a Discord... I picked Discord over Slack just because I had used Slack. The company I was at was a full-on Slack company, and I got burned out with Slack, and I wanted... Discord seemed like a fun thing to try out, and-

Eric Ries: Yeah, it's mostly used for gaming and kind of mass coordination more than kind of official work projects.

Radu Spineanu: Exactly. So, we created a Discord, which actually, I think, ended up being perfect.

Eric Ries: Yeah, it's a really good fit for this use case.

Radu Spineanu: Exactly, and 1,000 people signed up immediately in the first three to four days. So, going to that, right now, because Help With COVID is run by a core team of volunteers who are actually amazing, and basically, they self-selected themselves. It's like people who are on Discord and who are involved in the project now just pay attention to who's the most involved and who wants to help the most, and you just give them more responsibility.

Eric Ries: It's an amazing thing to watch. We'll put a link to the Discord in the show notes for those who want to come see how this organization is done. It's pretty amazing. But I want to go back to those first two days. So, you got the idea from Sam and Dustin, and boy, what a Silicon Valley story. Not that long ago, you were an immigrant coming to the U.S. for the first time. Now these billionaires are emailing you ideas to work on. So, Sunday night, you have the idea. You launched it Tuesday.

So, that has been a recurring theme of these conversations, is how fast in a crisis you need to get these minimum viable products out the door. So, there must have been a moment when somebody said to you, "Maybe we should take another day or two, make it a little bit more perfect." I just think about how much worse the world would be now if you'd taken a whole week to build that first version, and those 1,000 people who wound up signing up on Thursday, they would've had to go do something else. So, talk about the pressure you felt to go fast. Just mechanically, how did you get it done in two days?

Radu Spineanu: Well, I'm a startup founder, and my problem is I launch things... I've done this the whole time, where I launch things before they are ready, even with my previous startup. There were a bunch of features which were not ready yet, and we just fix them as people are using them. There was no pressure because Sam trusted me because we worked together previously, and my first email to Sam, and when Sam and Dustin were asking me, "What's important?" It's like, "What do you think is important?" I said that we have to launch it by Tuesday, and I actually wanted to launch it Monday night, so I failed. Actually, I launched on Tuesday.

Eric Ries: Let this be a lesson to a lot of startup founders out there.

Radu Spineanu: Yeah. But it was quite easy to build. It's not a complicated technical project. It's just, you have to get the first experience so it's not clunky, so we can focus on people seeing the projects, seeing that people volunteer, seeing other amazing people have applied and they want to help, and right now, the first version, obviously, I was very disappointed with, but luckily, now there's a bunch of amazing people that are working to make it better. But I do remember one of the first... It was, I think, Tuesday or Wednesday when I was looking through the volunteer list, and I saw Dave Morin volunteer publicly

Eric Ries: Wow. That's the founder of Path, for those that don't know him.

Radu Spineanu: Yes, and I'm a big fan of Dave Morin. At some point a long time ago, he emailed us at Two Tap and said, "I love what you guys are doing," but I've never had a conversation with him. But he applied to this thing as well, and I was like, oh, that's so amazing. I cannot believe Dave Morin applied.

Eric Ries: I mean, I even have had moments like that when I look at the people who have applied through Help With COVID. It's been pretty shocking, like I said, the caliber of folks who are able and willing to help. I remember what impressed me about the site, even though it was launched quickly, it was really polished. I thought you did a great job of... Some people think minimum viable product means have 100 features and have them be half good, so it's kind of like a bunch of crap. It didn't do very much, but what it did, it did very well. It was very responsive.

The website was super snappy, and I remember the signup process was really fast, no extraneous fields, no extra nonsense, no check boxes and user license agreement. It was just very fast to go from signing up to posting a project, and the responsiveness of the site actually felt really good. So, it was a great MVP not just because it was done quickly, but because you were really selective about what features to include and what could be skipped, and I was really impressed. It gave me a lot of confidence to use it, and maybe want to post more projects there.

Radu Spineanu: Thank you. I mean, that means a lot. We just basically... What we did is we focused on... We didn't care about the underlying technology. We just cared about what is easiest to get out the door and to move as fast as possible because it's not... Like you said, it is polished, but it doesn't have to have the beautiful animation from the first...

Eric Ries: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. It's polished, but not fancy, if that... That's maybe a way of talking about it.

Radu Spineanu: Exactly.

Eric Ries: It has that kind of like almost a Craigslist vibe to it where it's lo-fi, but it works very well.

Radu Spineanu: That's intentional.

Eric Ries: Yeah. Well, tell us what the tech stack is under the hood, just for those that want to know.

Radu Spineanu: Of course. So, it's very simple. It's actually just Rails and a CSS framework called Tailwind UI, and what's great about it is I don't have to... Everybody knows Rails. People have done Rails. Sorry. I don't mean to say everybody knows Rails. When I say that, it's like, Rails is very easy to get into, and Tailwind UI is just an amazing... It's an amazing UI interface to get started. So, I could purely focus on just the core features and not worry about a bunch of design stuff or Rail stuff. Yep. That's the whole stack.

Eric Ries: So, tell us what Help With COVID is. What does it actually do?

Radu Spineanu: Help With COVID is a clearinghouse that matches volunteers that want to help with the current crisis and projects that are making an impact.

Eric Ries: How does it work?

Radu Spineanu: If you have an idea to start projects, or even if you're an established project and are looking for specific help, you would go to You create a project inside our interface where you add a bunch of very helpful information, like what the project does, who's working on it, how far along are you, what specific help are you looking for, and then volunteers that have applied to help out basically volunteer to help you. You will get an email, you will get a Discord channel, and then it's up to you to be able to create, to take these volunteers and integrate them into your own project and give them guidance on how to help you.

We also have this volunteer directory where you can find very specific help. So, for instance, if you're looking for help with, let's say, Flutter, for instance, we had the World Health Organization building, they're not on the website, but Harper has been helping them, and he basically was looking for Flutter developers, so we were just basically... We told him to go and search the volunteer database, and he found... I think we even gave him a bunch of numbers of people. So, yeah, that's the second component. So, to recap, you post a project, you get volunteers that want to help you. If you're looking for specific help, you can also search the volunteer database.

Eric Ries: So, it's kind of like a two-sided marketplace, almost, volunteers searching for projects, projects searching for volunteers.

Radu Spineanu: Exactly.

Eric Ries: You said you felt like it had product-market fit. How do you know?

Radu Spineanu: The first day, the second day, first, the growth. The most important thing when you look at any project, you look at the growth, and the metrics change over time. The first metrics were number of projects created. The second metrics is number of volunteers, and then, obviously, it's volunteers applying to projects. All those numbers have been growing. But I feel like, leaving aside numbers, oftentimes you see product market fit when you look at the content that's being created, the people, the interactions between people, and it's very hard... I mean, how do you explain product- market fit in a way to people that have never seen product market fit? It's really hard to explain.

Eric Ries: I know. It's such a funny thing. It's something you absolutely know it when you see it, and yet that's not very helpful if you've never seen it.

Radu Spineanu: Yeah.

Eric Ries: So, what does it feel like? Walk us through what it's like.

Radu Spineanu: Oh, my god. It's the most addictive feeling in the world, for me, at least. When you see people literally build something, and because all of us have built stuff that nobody used, and it's part of the learning process, and it hurts a lot, and you keep on trying to... Like Sisyphus that pushed the boulder up the mountain, and you release this amazing feature, and still, nobody comes back, so you got to push it. When you have product market fit, it's just like a wind that pushes you forward where people just come, and they love it. I remember a long, long time ago I made this... So, I had three moments where I created product market fit.

The first one was the company in Romania, where this was an affiliate network, and we launched it, and it was such a big need in the market that after we signed the first one, so the first three stores... The affiliate network was like an ad network for e-commerce. The first three stores signed up, and it took us a month-and-a-half to sign up, and then we got like 20 signups in the next week or something like that, and people were loving that. I was like, this is the most amazing thing. The second time was I had failed... The first time I applied to YC, I got rejected. My initial co-founder then left, and I was going through some really dark times during Christmas. So, it was, I remember, December. I was in Eastern Europe. It was really cold. I created... Do you know cinemagraphs?

Eric Ries: Yeah. I remember that.

Radu Spineanu: So, I created the first cinemagraph-making app in the App Store, and I created this... A cinemagraph is a static photo in which something moves. So, I was really sad, and on Hacker News I saw cinemagraphs, and I got to say, I was like, this behavior of you create a video, you select the static frame, and you just poke a hole in the frame and you play the video underneath, and then you turn that into a gif or gif, not to get political, sorry, it was so weird because I just...I got like 40 users. I had just failed before. It was between... I don't remember when. I think it was between Christmas and New Year's.

I get a phone call, and it was Apple, and it was this guy at Apple, and he was like, "Hey. Here, we..." This was like 10 years ago. "We really love what you are making." I'm like, "Sorry, what?" I was like, "What?" "We do love what you are making, and we were wondering if you can add a flag feature inside of the app, because we want to feature it." I was like, "Yes, sir. I'll build it right now." It was basically like... I built it for like 40, so they featured it, and I think it got like 100,000 downloads in the week when they featured it. The process to create animated gifs was so hard, so intensive, so I actually had to learn AWS and everything was burning at the same time. So, that was an amazing feeling too. I think, weirdly, our YC company, we were at that thing were we never actually got proper market fit, which is sad, but this third time, right now it's like Help With COVID.

Eric Ries: Tell us some of your metrics. You want to share some vanity metrics, just show off for a second?

Radu Spineanu: Yes.

Eric Ries: You've totally earned it.

Radu Spineanu: Thank you. So, what we're most proud of is the number of projects. We are right now at 600 projects and 11,000 volunteers, and these projects did not exist... Help With COVID did not exist a month ago. So, 600 projects, 11,000 volunteers, and 10,000 people applied to volunteer with a project, so 10,000 matches.

Eric Ries: It's like an army of volunteers.

Radu Spineanu: Yeah. What is interesting is Help With COVID's niche, it's very specialized people. So, there is some amazing projects up there. For instance, on Reddit and so many others, so Facebook groups, a lot of people have offered to help, and everybody's helping with so many things. For instance, a very legit project is going and helping and delivering things to people who can't go out. A lot of these people are in things organized in Facebook groups, and that's actually amazing. On Help With COVID, if you look through the people that have applied here, they're really specialized, like technical people and/or startup people or product people, amazing designers, and a lot of Silicon Valley people.

This is one thing that I've learned right now, in the past year, especially the company that acquired us, is how much of the product that you create is going to be the DNA of the founders, meaning... So, this company where they acquired us had amazing product people and amazing ops people, based on the DNA, but some areas were not as strong because there was nobody to basically go to the founders from other areas and say, "Oh, this is bullshit," because everybody was afraid of the boss. So, because everybody was afraid of the boss or the founders, then there was this hesitance to actually say what's happening.

So, here with Help With COVID, the DNA is, for the most part, people that are building technology companies are people that have been heart sciences. It's, I don't want to say all in the Bay Area, because it's not only the Bay Area, but it is highly influenced with the Bay Area ecosystem, with Sam, Dustin, and you, and so many amazing people that have applied. So, the DNA of Help With COVID is highly ambitious, specialized people that want to make a difference and have the confidence to know that they can make a difference, if that makes sense.

Eric Ries: So, if someone wants to volunteer for a project, what are some projects that could use help right now?

Radu Spineanu: One project that I felt was interesting was Volunteer Safe. It's a project that helps with all the Facebook groups and Reddit groups that are, for very local Facebook and Reddit groups who are making a local impact, for instance, elderly grocery delivery or medicine delivery, and the problem is when sign up to help out in all of these groups, and someone does the matching, you actually have no idea if those people are okay, if those people are trustworthy. So, what they do is they want to do background checks based on Google Sheets, as low-tech as possible. You connect a Google Sheet to your platform, they do background checks, and they say, "Okay, this guy can actually go and deliver food to an elderly's home, and they won't rob them." Obviously, again, I'm not saying people do that. I'm saying if there's one person out of a million that does this, it's still a bad experience, horrible experience.

Another project is Apollo, and Apollo, what it does is they route physicians to where they are most needed. So, some projects are under capacity, and some hospitals are under capacity, and some hospitals are just overrun with problems. What they do is they're trying to build this technology where they route physicians based on where they can make the most impact, and they're trying to build this... It's not actually just a job board, which doesn't do anything, but it's also not the agency that takes 15% of your salary. It's just this thing in the middle that uses just technology and perhaps machine learning to find the best fit for physicians.

Other projects were the classic project, N95, which are trying to solve the mask problem, and they're not the only one. Operation Masks is another one as well. I know you are trying to do an impact on that as well. It's still a pretty serious problem that hasn't been solved yet. So, any of those projects require a lot of help because it's a lot of... A lot of them is just calling suppliers, vetting partners. That kind of requires a lot of technology.

Then there's obviously the medical projects. The medical projects that are being posted on Help With COVID are kind of harder to judge because, one, we have an amazing scientific advisor called Dr. Ambika Bumb, who had a panel which just works for the state department, and is just absolutely smart. But we might not be the right fit because what a lot of those medical products, that's why they need especially health sciences, because they need a lot of funding. They need labs. They need guidance to go through the FDA process. We try to help them, but we might not be the right fit for them.

Eric Ries: What kind of volunteer skills are more in demand, what you've seen so far?

Radu Spineanu: What we've seen is... So, there's, first of all, design. It feels like everybody needs some kind of design help. It's been a lot of requests for design help, software engineering, because just of the nature of what we've been building. You'd be surprised how much there's been a request for just people talking on the phone, meaning that can be volunteer vetting, that can be partner vetting, that could be just answering the phone for someone who wants to talk to someone, just people who are able to talk on the phone. There's a huge demand. I would put these under call center, volunteer vetting, partner vetting, stuff like that.

Eric Ries: I've been amazed working with these projects how many opportunities they are for ordinary people who are just willing to do whatever it takes to get stuff done. They don't necessarily have a specialized skillset, like engineering or design, how much value they can add to projects, all of whom need help with project management, answering the phones, crafting emails, dealing with social media, and I've been encouraging the people I know who are kind of on the sidelines to get involved, and one of the barriers I see is people have this idea that, well, I don't have a special skill, or I'm not a special person. Who would really need me? Can you talk a little bit about just the range of kinds of people that you've seen be effective across these projects?

Radu Spineanu: That's a very good question. So, on our end, like you said, it's people that want to step up, and it's simple as that. Anybody who wants to step up right now is going to make a large impact. To give you an example with our core team, the first core team member we had was this amazing person, she just joined us on... She joined me on this part in the beginning, and she's a designer during her full-time day job, but then she started doing these amazing, basically, operations of managing the Discord, grouping projects, giving me feedback and advice, doing the website. I felt like she was more like a COO than... So, the day job is design, though. She comes in, and she actually helps me just run the project and bring order into the chaos. It was just amazing.

Then you have people like Kinj, and Kinj's job is to go through all the projects, especially take care of the most projects that seem to be taking off, and he joins all the Discord of all the projects, and he just talked to everybody. He's an engineer as well. So, then during the day he's an engineer, but he's doing something completely different where he is just basically the person... It's like he's more of a... Imagine an account manager or the customer success person, where they make sure everybody has everything they need, and it's critical, and that's something that... This idea of hand-holding is at some point, especially right now, where the peak enthusiasm has been reached, and now it's a lot about going through the grind of matching the right projects, the right volunteers, and this is incredibly important, where someone has to have a big picture of everything that's happening.

So, one of the good reasons of actually joining a startup is you can make such a larger impact, meaning you have the option of being a salesperson at a big, large enterprise company, or you can take the risk to join a completely unproven startup, but perhaps you can be the head of sales or you can be the first salesperson. What happens is oftentimes you have to choose. There is this thing between risk and responsibility, but if you're willing to take more risk, you will get a lot more responsibility. Some people just don't want that, and that's perfectly okay. Some people want to put work-life balance, and they're very focused on safety, and that's perfectly okay. I want to make that clear.

But then there are some people who are just like, "One, I just want to make a large impact right now," but other people are just, "Okay, I don't care about... I mean, I care about having imposter syndrome, but I'm still going to go for it anyways, and I'm going to do my best. Most of those people can actually succeed. This idea of that we cannot do anything, it's just in our heads. I'm pretty sure Tinay joined just because she was looking to help, but then it turns out she's a designer, but actually, she's a great operations person. I am pretty sure she can run a company without any kind of problems.

So, this is a great opportunity for a lot of people to do something that they could actually be very good at and learn a lot of things, because you learn the most things in complete chaos. If you have a project that's taking off, even if it's not taking off, this idea of getting out of your comfort zone and taking on responsibility will teach you so much. So, the big picture is if you want to help, there's so many projects out there that are looking for help, and just go and help them, and if you are going to go inside of those projects, it's probably going to be a complete mess. All the projects right now are a complete mess, and that's okay.

Eric Ries: I mean, none of us are qualified to be doing what we're doing. I think that's kind of the nature of the crisis. You know?

Radu Spineanu: Yeah. How are your things internally?

Eric Ries: Yeah. I mean, it's always chaos, and there are different levels of maturity. Your point about product market fit, when we did, that started... That was just me and a founder, an education founder who I really admire, and we were trying to get other companies, other education companies kind of onboard to do it together with us so that there wouldn't be like 5,000 different competing education resources for parents who were struggling. It was very similar to what you described. It took us about... I think we did a weekend, so three or four days between having the idea for the first time and having it live. We had maybe 10 or 12 company partners for the first version of it, and we did a... We had a Twilio hotline. We'll put a link to Twilio Flex, which is this awesome technology that makes it really easy to build your own call center, in the show description.

So, we had that going. We had volunteers who could kind of answer the phone if parents called in and needed help. We had homeschooling families who were experienced with having to school at home kind of standing by to help families who never had done that before. The first few weeks especially were very, very chaotic. Now I think there's like 190 volunteers, so it's quite a production now, and they've had several spinoff sites, and there's a huge fund raiser going to launch Monday. I don't think I'm revealing anything that's not supposed to be public yet, but there will be a big fund raiser on Monday to buy technology for parents who don't have it.

Eric Ries: So, there's a huge digital divide, inequality story in education. I mean, there always has been in this country, but especially with this crisis, you have tons of schools that have moved to online education, and something like 20% of families don't have a computer at home, and they're being told by the school district, "Well, just go to the library," and the libraries are closed. So, it's kind of totally incoherent. So, we'll be raising funds to get laptops to families. What's interesting about that strategy of having the hotline, having these partners is... I really recommend this to other projects too.

By having a place that people can call, even if your website doesn't have the answer that they need, it's kind of what you did with Discord. It creates an opportunity for you to discover new problems that you didn't even know were going to be part of it. So, when people started calling in, we were not at all thinking about IT support as a need for parents in the early days of the project. We were very focused on educational resources. But there's a lot of parents who couldn't figure out how to use Zoom. I remember we had one parent who called in, and were like, "I'm trying to use Zoom. I called Zoom, but they haven't called me back."

Radu Spineanu: Wow.

Eric Ries: Yeah. Oh, boy. Zoom's a little busy right now. I don't think they're going to be able to get back to you. You're going to need to step it up now. So, we had people do IT support, and through that we discovered parents who couldn't find computers, and I was right naïve. I thought, oh, there'll be tons of nonprofits, I'm sure, leaping into the gap to get laptops for people, and we talked to tons of educational foundations who that's what they work on, and they'd be like, "Yep, we're on it. We have a program. We're raising money." We're like, "I know, but I have this one family in Gainesville, Florida right now who needs a laptop. Can you help us get them a laptop?"

That's been another interesting disconnect in this crisis. Many of the official foundations and institutions that are supposed to be solving these problems, they are simultaneously saying that they're on it and they're taking care of it, and then just going so slow that they're not actually helping. I've been a little bit shocked. Obviously, this is even more prevalent on the PPE side, but I've been told in every project I've been involved in, I've been told by multiple experts to stand down and wait for the calvary to come, wait for the official thing to be ready. Normally, that's what I would do. I hate duplication. I'm absolutely not in favor of amateurs doing work that should be done by experts. But in the crisis, it has seemed like certain areas, there's just these gaps where our institutions are not able, for whatever reason, to act quickly enough, and that has required ordinary people to step into those gaps, and it's been a little bit strange.

Radu Spineanu: It definitely has been incredibly strange, and I'm sure on the mask side, from what I've read, it's the strangest of all the things.

Eric Ries: It has been a very surreal experience, but if people are listening, I think by the time this episode comes out, we'll have new stuff up at, and we'll put a link in the show description. Hopefully, we'll give people some hope that help is on the way, but it's been quite the experience trying to find help. The thing I want to ask you about, and the thing I found so striking is we're all horrified by the news, the idea of nurses using ponchos instead of proper gowns to protect themselves, or having to treat COVID patients without masks, kids without laptops. We have people who can't get groceries, and on, and on, and on.

So, when we hear about those problems, and obviously the virus itself, when we hear about those problems we have this tendency to say, "Well, I'm not a scientist, so what can I do about it? I can't work on a vaccine," or, "I don't know anything about a supply chain. I can't help with that." We think of all the reasons why we can't help, and yet Help With COVID has been this really interesting example where people with software skills that seem at first blush very removed from the problems we were facing were able to come in and act as a force multiplier. So, talk about what you've seen here, how it's felt for you, the kind of unexpected connections between the skills people have and the needs we as a society have, and how that matchmaking can make a big difference.

Radu Spineanu: Definitely. The most important thing is, like you said, it doesn't matter if during the day you are a doctor, or during the day you're a lawyer. What happens is when you join a lot of these projects, they probably are just a ragtag group of people that are trying to make a difference. Oftentimes, it starts with either an idea or a team, and they're trying to turn this into reality. Not everybody's stepping up, but the people who do step up and who are willing to get out of their comfort zone and just go and apply and say, "I can help with this," and sometimes you just have to say, "I just want to help." This is just an example. Oftentimes, people have different skills that can be applied in different areas. So, if you are listening to this and you're wondering, well, I'm just a gamer. What do I... This is just an example, right?

Eric Ries: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Radu Spineanu: I'm just a gamer. I don't know what to do. It's like, I don't know. If you're a gamer and you play video games, you actually might be very good at organizing. You play online video games.

Eric Ries: My kingdom for someone who could organize a 40-person World of Warcraft raid right now.

Radu Spineanu: Exactly. Here's the thing. There's a lot of projects that have visionary people. There are a lot of people that have amazing software engineers, maybe they're just very bad at organizing. So, you can make an impact, and it actually could be very fun because if you're a gamer, you figure out gaming, the difference between Overwatch or Valiant, or whatever the new game is, pretty much, it's the same. But if you want to learn the supplier mask business, that's actually a super interesting game as well, and you can treat it as a game. So, just can make connections in kind of ways.

Eric Ries: I'll put in one plug. If there's anyone listening right now who is convinced that their skills will not translate, if you can answer a phone and talk to a human being in a nice way, and you have no other skills but that, we will 100% put you to work at PPE Coalition. You don't have to call China. You don't have to talk to suppliers. All you have to do is get people's information who call in to the hotline, write down what they tell you, and then we have an entire database of responses that experts will help you put together to send them. So, you don't have to be the expert. You don't have to know anything at all. If you can talk on the phone and don't have severe social anxiety disorder, then you're 100% qualified, and we desperately need people who can answer the phone, so please look us up, PPE Coalition, on, and click the I want to volunteer button, and we'll get you plugged in.

Of course, I'm just plugging my own project because I know it well, but there must be hundreds of examples of things like that where if you know how to tweet, you could be somebody's social media manager, and don't tell me you're not qualified because you don't know that. I was talking to somebody the other day who said, "I can't help with that project because I need to partner with someone who knows strategic communications," and I'm like, "You mean writing an email?" and he's like, "No, strategic communications." I said, "You mean writing an email?" and he's like, "Oh, I guess I mean writing an email."

The world has changed all of a sudden, and there is no time for the kind of corporate BS and delays and politics we used to put up with. Now is the time we got to take matters into our own hands. I coached him through how to write the email himself, and it wasn't as good as if he'd gotten an expert in strategic communications to help him with it, but on the other hand, it got done that day, and it mattered that day. So, it was a success because a better email a week later would've been too late, and that's the situation we find ourselves in.

Radu Spineanu: That's awesome.

Eric Ries: What's surprised you the most? What were you expecting maybe that didn't happen?

Radu Spineanu: Everything. Okay. So, my first surprise, my first feeling is when it actually went into quarantine. So, I'll take you through all my surprises. The first thing is when it actually went to quarantine. Actually seeing the U.S. go into quarantine was something that I didn't think I was going to see in my lifetime.

Eric Ries: Yeah.

Radu Spineanu: So, that was my first surprise. My second surprise was... I know that this was... I should've seen this. This was very silly of me, but I didn't think it was going to last longer than three weeks. I had this feeling right when we went into quarantine where we're going to find this drug, we're going to just start manufacturing like crazy, and we'll be out. So, here we are six weeks later. My third surprise was... I mean, obviously, I have to say it's definitely the financial markets, everything that's happening in the financial markets right now. I'm completely confused about everything.

The fourth surprise is this idea of some approaches that are being pushed right now that probably are not going to work, stuff like contact tracing, which I'm very bearish on, and people pushing drugs that might not work or have serious side effects. So, all this idea of people pushing solutions just to feel better, which might not work, instead of actually thinking about approaches that might work. On the positive side, on the good surprises, it's like everything around Help With COVID is a surprise. I don't believe neither myself, neither Sam, neither Dustin thought that we were going to have 10,000 volunteers and 600 projects. I mean, I'm pretty sure none of us thought that.

I know this is going to be repetitive, but just all the volunteers and everybody applying to help and stepping up, but also the project owners and the fact that everybody's willing to help is just absolutely amazing. When we did the carbon Request for Startups for YC, that's when I had the first feeling of you can actually get people to, especially smart people, to help on the real problem as long as you don't involve your ego. I feel like that's the most important thing, is whenever people try to do good, whenever people try to do anything, they involve their ego, and the secret of doing projects that are around serious crises, whether it's humanitarian or climate change, COVID, whatever it is, you really have to let your ego go, meaning Help With COVID is not my project.

Help With COVID came out of a discussion between Sam and Dustin, and now it's run by the core team of volunteers. They are doing most of the work. When we did the climate change, you had four to five people, six, seven people who just spent a lot of time thinking about the problem and [inaudible 00:50:56] ideas and people writing design, and they deserve all the credit. So, I feel that I'm very optimistic on the world, and we're definitely going to get out of here stronger.

On the short term, let's be honest, it looks a bit bleak, and we might have to stay indoors for a lot longer than we think we will, but we're going to get out of it. We're going to get out of it, and the only thing we have to make sure is that we... Right now, the focus is technology and science, but I feel that what we're going to find out in the next couple of months is that we're going to have to stay indoors for a lot longer, and that's going to affect the economy in very, very hard ways. I think YC, what they did right now, it's like what they're focusing on is all these people who are tragically unemployed, will not have the same job again. So, kind of some stuff I'm thinking about, but this is very early on.

I haven't done anything yet. It's very early on. It's like, how do you actually... If this really does last longer, I don't know. It's like, how do you actually employ... How do you help these people who are unemployed find jobs or find opportunity? They cannot all be Instacart drivers or Uber drivers. There's just not enough demand for that people. So, how can you create a new economy around people working from home? Just stuff like that, I feel that I'm optimistic, but we're going to have to solve a lot of problems very soon.

Eric Ries: I hope a lot of those people, we will give them the support they need to become entrepreneurs themselves.

Radu Spineanu: Yes.

Eric Ries: That's going to clearly have to be part of the solution.

Radu Spineanu: I agree, 100%. You think about stuff like Lambda School. Lambda School, I know there's good PR and bad PR, but Lambda School might be the future of education. Right now, you have a lot of universities who are asking for money and switching to online, and people are realizing now, why am I paying so much money for wasting so much time? Then you have Lambda School, which was from the first online, and I'm actually a huge fan. So, we want more Lambda Schools, maybe, maybe other stuff like more online education. I think with the whole training and education, we're just going to enter a whole new chapter where this might be a new huge industry.

Eric Ries: Who do you think are the real heroes of this crisis?

Radu Spineanu: The doctors, for sure. There's no doubt, right? I mean, the people, the area that die the most are the doctors. If you look at any statistics in any country, I feel like if you look at the biggest, the most vulnerable areas are not doctors, the medical, the health people, and if you look at them, first of all, they're going in knowing that they're putting their life at risk. They are getting paid nothing. Maybe some of them are being fired. When they go home, their neighbors look at them like, oh, is this person infected or is it not infected? We're not giving them the equipment they need. They're understaffed, and they're seeing people die left and right. It's insane.

It's very easy for us to be disconnected from that because, oh, we're at home, but I feel like if you're a news organization or stuff, you should actually show people what these doctors, what these health... Not doctors. Doctors, nurses, everybody, what they're going through, because it's just like war. If war is this thing that's just, oh, we're just fighting down the population, and we're doing good and whatever, dismisses the horrors that are happening there. Right now, I feel like we're all desensitized. We're like, oh, the number of death grouped by whatever, whatever, but if there was an actual news where people would actually see what these people are going through, you would change public perception, and I feel like they should be a lot more respected.

Eric Ries: What steps do you think we could take now that will make the post-crisis world better?

Radu Spineanu: It depends. My question is... The problem is I have... It's very hard to say what's going to happen. So, you have the drug. I'm not going to try to pronounce it, the Gilead drug. There's a lot of controversy if it works or not. I was just on a call with someone before that works in New York, and they were like, "Well, we basically did an analysis, and we're highly optimistic about it. All the studies that have failed failed because they were giving it too late, and if you give this pill in the first three to four days, it's always going to work. If you give it-"

Eric Ries: We're talking about chloroquine, right?

Radu Spineanu: No, no, the Remdesivir.

Eric Ries: Oh, Remdesivir. Yeah, yeah.

Radu Spineanu: So, apparently, what works is... The problem with it, you have to take it in the first three to four days. If you take it after, it's not going to work because it just limits the spread in the beginning. The reason what's happening, everybody's so optimistic, is because apparently it does work if it's in the first three to four days. If that happens, there's a circumstance in which people are going to feel more comfortable getting out of the house, but the problem is, the best-case scenario, they can make like 10 million, 20 million pills this year. It's a very complicated process. So, we'll still be indoors for a very, very long time, according to some analysis.

For the medical equipment, I believe Ryan Petersen from Flexport has an amazing blog post, and when we were researching for 1 Billion Masks, we arrived at the same conclusion he is. The supply problem has been resolved for the most part. Feel free to correct me. The problem is leadership, where there is this mistrust between the factories and the people who are buying them, and we need someone to actually put up the hundred-million dollars, buy masks, ship them to the U.S., and then sell them at cost. Otherwise, nothing's going to get done, and usually this always should be in some sort of way the government, but that's not happening.

So, on the PPE side, what we need is leadership, and it's someone... This can be a private person. This could be Bloomberg, Eric Smith, other, where they need someone to go and say, "We need these funds, and I'm going to run this, and I'm going to be the face of it, and I'm going to take a risk." On the other side, on the side of what the person listening can do, is think about how... If there is this situation which we're going to have to stay indoors for another six to 18 months, but even if that doesn't happen, considering a lot of people who are fired or let go are not going to be employed again, it's like, how can we build a world where they're going to be able to work, and how is this economy going to change, how is the world going to change so that we can actually have these people learn a skill that is productive and that can earn them money, and build a new digital economy, so to say?

Eric Ries: Where do you think we go from here? How do we get out of the crisis?

Radu Spineanu: Okay. So, my feeling is one of these drugs are going to turn out it actually works. Well, there's going to be one of the best-case scenarios where there's going to be a slight opening up the economy. We're not going to go to bars or concerts or to work any time soon, but people are going to be able to get out of the house, go grocery shopping using masks and stuff like that. We're going to have a pretty unreal experience for the next six to 18 months, and then we'll have a vaccine, and we'll go back to normal. But I feel that I'm very optimistic, especially about the news around the new drugs, and I think that we're going to hear a lot more good news, hopefully soon, about that.

Afterward, it's just about making sure that... A lot of the stuff is out of our hands, especially with the government and stuff, but I don't know. So, thinking about this, I'm optimistic. By this summer or this fall, we'll have enough medicine for the frontline workers and for more of the people that are most at risk, and we will have a new economy that is derived based on digital and technology. There's so many problems that need to be solved, and to be honest, I think that a lot of very rich, influential people will step up, and unfortunately, will provide the help that governments are not able to provide, because obviously, I would love the governments to provide that help, but I don't feel like it's going to happen. What do you think is going to happen?

Eric Ries: No one can predict the future, and I think we are being tested like never before, and if people come together and say, "This is not the world we want to live in. We want to acknowledge the mistakes that we've made in the past, and we want to build a new normal together," I think we have the raw materials that we need. We have the science aptitude if we're willing to listen to the scientists, if we're willing to support basic research and make the long-term investments that are needed. We have the remains of the institutions our grandparents built for us in another time of crisis, and if we do the work, we can recover them and make them future-proof for the 21st century.

As you say, we have this digital technology that we could build a new, more equitable, broadly-shared prosperity economy on top of. So, are we going to do it? I think that's really the question. I got to say, of everything that has helped keep me going during this time, the spirit of the volunteers and the kind of civic engagement of just ordinary people who have thrown themselves into this problem, and especially through Help With COVID and with your help, has been really powerful. So, I wanted to say thank you for making that possible, for helping out, and for being a source of inspiration in these dark times.

Radu Spineanu: It means a lot. Thank you, but all the credits go to all the volunteers in all the projects, and to people like you, and to the listeners, you can make a difference too. Just go on the website, and it doesn't have to be with Help With COVID. It can be any website. Just go find something you're passionate about, and try to help out.

Eric Ries: This has been Out of the Crisis. I'm Eric Ries. Out of the Crisis is produced by Ben Ehrlich, edited by Jacob Tender. Music composed and performed by Colby Martin. Hosting is by Breaker. For more information on COVID-19 and ways you can help, visit If you have feedback or you're working on a project related to the pandemic, please reach out to me on Twitter. I'm @ericries. Let's solve this together.
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