One Year Later: OurGoods

Above, an Audio Postcard about the starting conditions for the project. 

When we spoke last year, OurGoods co-founders Jen Abrams and Caroline Woolard expressed a vision for OurGoods that went beyond creating a user-friendly site. “We hope that OurGoods will encourage more artists to stay in NYC and make their work despite the odds of the sad economy and limited venues,” they told me.

Since receiving the Rockefeller NYC Cultural Innovation Fund award last year, OurGoods is well on its way to achieving that vision.  In the past year, the site has undergone a redesign, expanded the community partnerships, and welcomed many new users. While they have worked to build the site and its user base, Abrams and Woolard have also had to navigate the challenges of working in the space between the web development and creative communities.

The Innovation

OurGoods is a barter network for artists and creatives. A grassroots effort anchored by a website, OurGoods is an alternative economy that works to break through barriers between disciplines to help get projects done and build a richer environment for culture in New York City.  Woolard and Abrams, along with the other three co-founders, have crafted a platform that allows creative people to search for skills, spaces and objects that they need to complete an independent project. On the OurGoods site, users begin a barter conversation and complete the exchange offline.

Progress to Date

In the past year, OurGoods has strengthened both the usability of the site and the sustainability of their project.

Whereas in the past, they relied on instincts and desires to guide site improvements.  Now, they are more data driven.  For example, to learn more about how users were interacting with the site, they surveyed 40 members and non-members and interviewed 24 members.  A major site upgrade was released that responded to many of the points raised in the responses, including a redesigned home page, non-member site browsing, redesigned profile pages, a new member orientation process, and an expanded resource center.

Through outreach and more than 20 new organizational partners, they have grown the number of users by twenty percent per month.  They have found live events to be particularly effective in helping potential users understand the site. Also, Abrams explained, the site has a clear appeal, “We are doing something innovative and clearly aligned with the changing world and offering solutions that are new and are working.”

Key Learning

Over the past year, OurGoods has learned two key lessons to support the achievement of their long-term goals:

  • A sustainable organization needs sustainable practices and people: Because the Rockefeller grant allowed them to pay themselves, Abrams explained, “Now we have a regular meetings, we have clarified roles and tasks, built support through a regular volunteer base, and are personally responsible to the organization.”  They work harder, get more done, and are better able to meet deadlines.  They are also able to think strategically for the future and are considering options to offer employees health insurance. According to Abrams, support from the Rockefeller CIF grant has helped ground OurGoods. “We are no longer seeing if this idea will stick.  It has stuck and we have found ourselves a job.”
  • Use funding to leverage further funding: “The Rockefellar CIF grant has enabled other people to believe in what we are doing,” Woolard and Abrams explained. They found that the support from Rockefeller enabled them to interest other funders and partners in OurGoods.

Biggest Challenge

As they have grown, OurGoods has grappled with how to value the contributions of the five co-founders, who each bring differing skill sets. Although Woolard and Abrams have the most responsibility and spend the greatest amount of time on the project, they’ve wrestling with the reality that their skills as project managers and organizers are traditionally valued less in terms of per-hour compensation than the skills of coders and programmers, on whom they rely for the site to function. However, as a site based on acknowledging many measures of value, Abrams explained that they have worked to create their own models to negotiate power differences, which has led to deep conversations and greater understanding among the OurGoods team about their collective goals.

In addition, a full evaluation of the site’s impact has proved challenging. OurGoods is working on developing a method to document the final end impact of the site and collect information about how many barters come to completion, which barters work, which fail, and why.

Next Steps

OurGoods will be developing circles for trading within specific networks, such as alumni groups, and continuing to expand the site’s partners and users. They are also still searching for a new web development partner.   As they explained, “We are in the ongoing position of finding people who are aligned with what we are doing and willing to work on the site for reasons beyond money.”

Overall, OurGoods demonstrates that with investment and community buy-in innovative ideas can have concrete effects on the lives of working artists. Ultimately, Abrams and Woolard hope that projects like OurGoods can remake the economy of New York City so that it can “Think of itself as a place where alternative values can thrive. Curiosity, risk, community, expressions of beauty, and speaking truth are valuable, enriching, and more the identity of New York City than just a financial capital.”

Interview conducted by Karina Mangu-Ward.  Post written by Eleanor Whitney with Karina Mangu-Ward.  

Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. Currently, she is the Program Officer for External Affairs and Fiscal Sponsorship at the New York Foundation for the Arts. Karina Mangu-Ward is the Director of Innovation at EmcArts.