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Creating an Online Platform for Refugees Using Lean Startup

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What do you do if you want to reach a new user group, whose complex needs you want to learn about quickly? At Agile Business Day 2019, Stephanie Gasche shared her experience using lean startup methods to create an online platform, without financial support, for the integration of refugees and asylum seekers.

Gasche started the integration platform "I am Refugee" early 2017, when she realised that there is no single contact point for a refugee or asylum seeker to receive a holistic, non-political view on integration in Austria:

Every person wishing to live in Austria and to be an active member of society – no matter whether asylum seeker, refugee, expat or immigrant - should be handed the digital services of Was Wie Warum in Österreich (formerly I am Refugee) at the first opportunity in order to better prepare for life in this country. Thanks to all the information found on the website, app and social media, every person should be empowered to have the same chances for personal success in the long-run as someone who has been born in Austria and is thus automatically part of the system.

From 2012 to 2015, Gasche worked as a management consultant in the field of Agile, helping Scrum teams, management and organisations transition towards Agility. She mentioned that lean startup makes the most sense in a complex environment, as its main aspects are customer orientation, fast feedback, continuous learning and improvement, visualisation, small deliverables, pull-principle and interdisciplinary team spirit. Seeing as the integration of refugees and asylum seekers is a highly complex field, this was the only possible approach for "I am Refugee", she said.

Using Lean Start-Up methods, i.e. the feedback cycle Build-Measure-Learn, was ideal for making quick progress to see how the market responded to it, said Gasche. She mentioned two main differences from the "I am Refugee" initiative compared to for-profit organisations: the user group of refugees in the digital realm was completely new, and there was no funding.

There were no learnings yet anywhere around the world. After all, there is not just "the refugee". These are all kinds of humans from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures, with different yet similar needs, said Gasche.

As to the lack of funding, the topic of integration has been a real issue in Austria. Gasche said that "we had to act fast and could not wait to write a business case and present it to a government funding agency and discuss and amend… to then maybe receive the money to start the project a year later." They had to act quickly, get quick feedback on whether they had hit on a real need, and then build from that. Agile and lean methods were ideal, said Gasche.

A main difference in applying agile for a nonprofit compared to using agile in business organizations is the separation of customers from users. Gasche explained:

If we separate our main stakeholders into customers who pay the bills and users who actually use our digital services, we have to be aware that in the nonprofit sector, the interests of the two are often not the same. Thus, if you look at lean startup and the feedback cycle and how one should pivot when finding out new information about one’s market and users - we would have had to pivot a long time ago.

Why? Because the government, city council and also private foundations’ funding – which is what a lot of the nonprofit sector is dependent on – all funded different kinds of integration projects. They supported initiatives that would help refugees find work. Or an apartment. Or German classes. These are all very valuable projects and initiatives, however, there were enough great initiatives out there already.

The real problem was that refugees and asylum seekers did not hear about these initiatives, simply for the lack of there not being a single source of integration that would bridge offers with requests. This is the gap that we filled with Was Wie Warum in Österreich – I am Refugee. And since we were unwilling to pivot due to seeing and feeling the need, we did not receive any of the funding.

As the initiative is completely based on volunteer work, the three elements for intrinsic motivation that Dan Pink identified - purpose, autonomy and mastery – are even more true, said Gasche. She mentioned that her friends helped quite a bit for short iterations. However, people who volunteered because they believed in the purpose felt like they could try out something new and learn from it (i.e. Facebook advertising); these strangers became friends and stayed on board, said Gasche.

InfoQ interviewed Stephanie Gasche after her talk at Agile Business Day 2019 about the "Was Wie Warum in Österreich - I am Refugee" initiative.

InfoQ: How did you find out what the main problems were that the website had to provide solutions for?

Stephanie Gasche: Early 2016, I decided to change my job in order to support the Austrian government in the integration of the many refugees and asylum seekers who had arrived in Austria. Thus, I became the first integration trainer teaching governmental value and orientation courses in Austria. Due to working with refugees every single day, I realised where the real problems lay and what needs the Austrian public as well as government were not addressing: we needed one central point for integration that would get rid of the many misunderstandings and misinformation provided, i.e. in Facebook groups. Since refugees were spread all over Austria – some more remote than others – a digital service would make most sense.

InfoQ: What does "I am Refugee" provide?

Gasche: The platform gives its users the opportunity to learn what the 9 steps towards integration are, why it makes sense to take them and how one can take these steps. It thus enables persons new to Austria to take charge of their own integration process, instead of being pushed to do an integration step that does not make sense to them.

In order to cover as many persons within the diverse user group of "refugees", we use visualisation, short how-to tutorial videos and have translated all texts from German into English, Arabic and Dari Farsi. In 2018, we decided to change the name to "Was Wie Warum in Österreich", as we came to realise that the topic of integration may not only be relevant to refugees.

InfoQ: How have you applied lean startup and agile principles and practices?

Gasche: In addition to the Agile mindset of empowerment and the importance of user centricity that the platform is based on, we also use agile methods to organise ourselves as a team. We use Trello to gather, visualise and prioritise the deliverables, as well as show the progress of the work. From here, team members pull the tasks according to their availability and interest. We used to do one-month iterations with Planning meeting, Review and Retrospectives. However, now we have adapted to regular co-workings, communication via WhatsApp and Show & Tells.

InfoQ: What benefits did you get and what have you learned from using lean startup?

Gasche: So, so much. Apart from having learned a lot about my country Austria, behind-the-scene-politics, the funding world behind startups, and now having a very good overview of integration projects and initiatives happening in Austria, I have learned to work with a truly intercultural team having different intentions, as well as the value of focus in a multidisciplinary team.

I can say that whenever we focused on one goal (i.e. getting funding; getting translations ready etc.), we always hit our target by the committed time, because we pushed and supported each other. This was also when the job was the most fun! Especially when working as a distributed team.

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