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The first thought I recall having about the world of work, when I was elementary age, is why all the people who work at a company aren't the owners? Childish naïveté, one might think, that to my young mind it just made sense that employees should have a stake in the business.
But I came back around to that thinking when, years later, I turned my business into a worker cooperative.
The original Polycot Consulting was a small partnership that eventually split into two companies, Polycot Labs and Polycot Associates. I ran Polycot Associates as a sole proprietorship with a set of preferred contractors. I’d worked variously for a state bureaucracy, a large and growing public company, and a smaller but growth-focused private company. None of those contexts seemed to leverage the full human potential of the workforce.
I thought it made sense for the contractors I was working with to become partners. Part of my concern was with business risk: in web development, clients occasionally fail to pay their bills. I could share that risk with the contractors, and in exchange share profits with them.
But Benjamin Bradley, who had been part of a cooperative, Gaia Host Collective, suggested that we follow the cooperative model. We could build a democratic workplace. This resonated with the whole team. We worked with consultants to transform the business into a very successful co-op, experimenting along the way with governance models like Holocracy, but ultimately finding our own way. A decade later, Polycot Associates is still thriving as a cooperative business.
We’re a web development cooperative, owned and managed by its members, working together for their collective benefit. There are quite a few tech co-ops operating today - you can find a list at https://github.com/hng/tech-coops. If you're a freelance developer and don't want to join a conventional agency, joining a co-op can be a powerful alternative.
A co-op can include members with various skills and expertise, so you're not having to be a one person show. It can be difficult to handle sales and project management and web development, as well as business processes like invoicing. You might not want to deal directly with clients, sales, business processes, etc. In a co-op, as in a traditional business, those tasks can be covered by others. At the same time, you have an ownership stake, and visibility into how (and how effectively) the business is run - you're not just an employee.
Some benefits of joining a web development co-op:
- The potential to be part of a culture of collaborative learning.
- The ability to take on larger projects than you might want to handle alone.
- Shared risk and mutual support during lean times.
- Better efficiency from shared resources and a larger workforce.
- Potentially better negotiating power for services, tools and equipment.
- Collective contribution to marketing efforts.
- Clients may be more trusting of a larger organization with diverse skillsets.
- Profit-sharing - benefiting from the work of the larger cooperative by participating in profit distributions.
- Sense of community vs freelancer isolation.
- Better opportunities to learn through training, workshops, and continued education that might be more challenging for solo freelancers to access.
- Collective decision-making: having a say in the direction and policies of the organization.
- Sustainability: cooperatives can provide a more sustainable business model, making it easier to weather economic fluctuations.
- Shared workload can potentially be a factor in better work-life balance.
If you’re interested in starting your own worker co-op, the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives offers guidance: https://www.usworker.coop/clinic/startups/