February 23, 2024

start the future: launching a cooperative

baby sea turtles swim in a tank of water
photo caption: a tank full of baby sea turtles swimming happily in the water at a conservation station in Sri Lanka. okay, i can’t say for sure that they’re happy. but i would be! fun fact: a tank full of sea turtles is called a collective. that’s not true.

I wrote start the future to think about what it might be like to found an organization that serves a public good. I explored a few different structures that are common to organizations like these. The series made me realize a few critical points about starting my own organization. First, I won’t join the mass of institutional hierarchies that serve the public by existing separate from it. Second, I don’t want to limit the work I do to a single organization. Third, I know a lot of fantastic people who might want to take part in building a better future! Together, we can create a framework that avoids many of the paradigms we have felt our whole lives. We don’t have to spend our careers letting others scatter our voices through the gauze of well-meaning white supremacy. We can instead create a collective that concentrates our power like a magnifying glass.

I want to start imagining what a consulting collective might look like. I’m going to explore deeper what it would be like to launch a workers cooperative in Washington state.

This is a post in a series about starting a cooperative. I’m doing the research, but I’m not a lawyer. Here are some new goals.

my organizational goals

These are some of the signposts I would share with my co-creators.

  • We would start a worker-owned cooperative, also known as a professional services cooperative
  • We would consult for people and organizations in the united states
  • We would practice community-centered, explicitly antiracist services

getting started

The University of Wisconsin has a directory of cooperatives in the united states. They also include a list of state statutes that govern co-ops in each state.

who is already doing this work?

The tools and resources are fantastic, and I’ll soon get into the many guides I found. But who can we look up to? Who could be a model for what our work could look like? There are a decent number of consulting cooperatives I found in my search. Like a means-testing program with too much demand, I created arbitrary rules to narrow it down.

what makes a good role model?

  • Be a cooperative (duh). That means they must be worker-owned with a one-vote-per-share model. No LCAs!
  • No bosses or all bosses. They must operate without a top-down hierarchy.
  • Not a PWI (duh). They should have majority Black or BIPOC ownership.
  • Antiracism is everything. Equity should not be a separate “service.” It should be a part of everything they do.
  • [non-profit funder voice]: But is it sustainable? I like the US Federation of Worker Cooperative’s criteria for membership. “The enterprise is operational, generating revenue, and providing paid work for at least two workers for a minimum of one year.”

Radiate Consulting

This is a cooperative collective with branches in different cities. They started in an incubator funded by the Democracy at Work Institute. The DWI has connections to cooperatives and resources all over.

Derute Consulting

This group is in Milwaukee, Michigan. They formed out of a different co-op with a more expansive vision. They wrote a fantastic black paper about their leadership model as a system of nodes.

Nina Collective

This cooperative focuses on capacity building, coaching, and assessment. They are in Madison, Wisconsin. They summarize their approach like so: deconstruct, decolonize, collaborate, co-create. I couldn’t agree more!

There are many more cooperatives that I could have included here. A handful of co-ops that came up in my search disbanded some time after someone wrote about them. A cooperative is still a small business: many of those fail too. It’s not easy to counter capitalism in general and co-ops can’t raise money like a business can.

who offers instructions?

We don’t have to do everything ourselves. The resources I found generally reduce to two categories: guides and workshops.

Guides—these are more or less step-by-step instructions for what you’ll need to start your own co-op.

Electric Embers has a guide for starting a freelancer tech cooperative. Many of their recommendations would also apply to a consulting co-op.

Tesa Collective offers a comprehensive study guide for starting a cooperative. I also pre-ordered their game, Co-opoly! I’ll definitely be voluntelling, no… volunasking, no… asking my friends to play with me.

The Democracy at Work Institute has a whole resource library that’s worth perusing. I liked the In Good Company worker co-op toolbox by the Northcountry Cooperative Foundation.

Workshops—organizations around the country incubate new cooperatives. Small teams can apply to join a class that meets weekly. Some provide a startup fund for groups that complete the program. Others offer limited time with a consultant who can give advice.

The US Federation of Worker Cooperatives has a monthly startup webinar in English and Spanish.

The Northwest Cooperative Development Center offers a multi-week workshop for teams of up to 10. The cost is $25 per person to attend.

Start.coop runs a program called The Accelerator. Their 16-week course includes training, coaching, platform support, and funds. Their goal is to support organizations with a social impact that can scale their work.

Striking out on one’s own is hard. Starting a company is even harder. I don’t think starting a cooperative is that much harder, but it’s different. It’s also possible to start a regular business like a co-op. I am compelled to try building something I can be proud of. I also know I can’t do it alone. I hope the form this series takes will help light the way.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space