Loomio
Fri 7 Aug 2020

Coop-structuring platform?

NB
Nathan Ballentine Public Seen by 72

As an aspiring coopreneur with a solid rooting in both how to bootstrap small business and how to facilitate team/group process, I visited Mondragon in 2015. Since then, I’ve visited another 20 coops. I’ve read probably 2000 pages of lit, been to "the conferences," and am generally a poster-child for being "informed" about coops; however, being in the Deep South, without a coop legal ecosystem, I still haven’t made a coop start.

Is it for lack of a biz idea? No. Lack of co-founders? No. Lack of customers? No. Lack of funding? Not particularly. We lack coop structuring support. (& no, I don’t want another pamplet). There’s a biz idea in here to serve aspiring coopreneurs with a coop-structuring platform coop, and y’all have the expertise & network to make it fly. Who (is already or) could make it happen?

For more details, see the below thread on Twitter when I called on Equal Exchange package their structuring as a drag-and-drop model.

https://twitter.com/Maninoveralls/status/1226012377646280704?s=20

G

Graham Sat 8 Aug 2020

Hi Nathan. Many thanks for this. I've read the Twitter thread and checked out Wefunder (a US-focussed equity crowdfunding platform). Where I'm not clear is what you mean by "structuring". Are we taking about a Wefunder-style platform that is for cooperatives, or is this something else altogether?

If the former, we are looking at the options for something along these lines. Initially at least, that would be centred around a UK jurisdiction, but the underlying MVP tech platform that I have in mind would most likely be applicable in many other legal contexts.

I think it's fair to say that Platform 6 itself is keen to build international links, with a broad aspiration to be a useful resource for people who are developing, building, running and supporting cooperatives wherever they may be.

NB

Nathan Ballentine Sun 9 Aug 2020

The idea in a nutshell is https://stripe.com/atlas for coops: Turnkey platform for launching coops. A WeFunder aspect would be interesting as an add-on feature. But the core value prop would be what you can't get anywhere else: coop (legal) structuring support to help you incorporate formally in your locality (or where the coop-verse deems has the best legal frameworks, like how corporate entrepreneurs in the US all incorporate in Deleware). To make it quick and easy, the coop-Atlas-isk platform could have:


a)free online classes about various coop models (consumer, worker, producer, platform) and legal filing options (corporate, llc, coop) based on filing location

b)An interactive app interface/"facilitator" for teams to use in their meetings to discuss & decide & input their structuring decisions

c)a native legal filing function where folks could "click to register" their coop company

And then, maybe it should include additional features like: web-store hosting, coop-business incubation support, bank account set-up, integrated crowd funding that meshed with coop reality (non-voting equity or simple community bonds/loans), and things like that. Seems like a partnership with Open Collective would be a no-brainer, but all these last items are "nice-to-haves" not "have to haves."

The essential pieces is the "structuring"/"filing" aspect because here in the US Deep South, in order for me to meet with a coop-knowledgeable lawyer, I have to drive 300-500 miles, and then we'll have to recreate the wheel. Why? Because there's no "Atlas for Coops."

MSC

In the UK, Co-operatives UK (and others) offer a comprehensive registration function for co-operatives and despite what is likely the most complicated registration landscape in the world (I need to deliver a full day's training to cover UK legal forms properly), I don't consider it a barrier to co-op formation here. Similarly lack of finance and startup support are also often cited as reasons there aren't more co-op startups.

In my experience there a a variety of things going on:

  1. There is a lack of knowledge around the "co-op option" amongst the general population, professional business support workers and even those looking to set up co-operatives.

  2. The dominant business culture is antithetical to co-operation but co-operatives can compete well in markets where costs aren't externalised - many businesses only succeed by unsustainably degrading the environment for example.

  3. Starting any business is hard work.

  4. Single person co-operatives are very hard work - you need to rapidly recruit the critical mass of founder members of your co-operative rather than burn yourself out creating the perfect empty co-op to which you then need to recruit.

  5. Funders and co-operative and social enterprise support organisations are focussed on replication, which has advantages - successful co-ops can support replicants which can create secondary co-ops; you don't need to reinvent the wheel (Mondragon for example); but also disadvantages - cookie cutter co-ops lack innovation and can circumvent member engagement in startup.

  6. Some co-op startup advice is generic, cutting across jurisdictions, whereas other advice often has to be bespoke to a geography, sector or community of interest.

In summary I'd say that there is a need for tools and templates to make things easier, my experience of such things is that they are not a silver bullet and often cause other issues.

G

Graham Sun 9 Aug 2020

OK. I know of a few tools a bit like this. But of course this type of thing is very much driven by the legal framework of any given jurisdiction.

https://www.uk.coop/developing-co-ops/select-structure-tool

and a thread here that talks about this, with some links:

https://community.coops.tech/t/templating-the-co-op-start-up-process/716/28

Legal structures are of course important, but not critical IMHO - at least not during the early stages of starting a new cooperative. What is critical are the people and the core idea that will underpin the business. I certainly wouldn't let the lack of local legal/governance expertise stop you from creating a co-op business.

The availability of and access to advice, guidance and technical support for things like legal structures is clearly important if we want to see more co-operative start-ups and a healthy co-operative economy. I don't know what the picture looks like in the US in this regard - it seems that some places are relatively well-served whilst others are not. It's a similar picture here in the UK, and one of the reasons why Platform 6 came into being, because we could see that the number of people and organisations doing co-operative development work was falling, as was the amount of resource available to do the work.

Locally accessible development support is important, but it need not be a show-stopper. Platform 6 was created in part to try to make co-operative development expertise and advice more readily available online, through tools like this Loomio group, for example. We're still very much in the foothills, and working out our best route, but right now my thinking on this covers a number of things:

  • We can and do use online tools to support each other, and we're just at an early stage of the evolution of these tools.

  • We should use digital platform know-how to bring together the people, innovation and resources that can create vibrant and visible engines for the development of the cooperative economy (we are very good at hiding and being fragmented).

  • The above doesn't negate the need for localised place-based co-op development work. It complements it and makes it easier to establish localised points of contact, backed by the digital network.

NB

Nathan Ballentine Wed 16 Dec 2020

Thanks @Cath M in Leeds (Cornerstone Housing/Radical Routes/Platform6) . I appreciate the resources. I knew of some of these, and others were new to me.

What I'm realizing is that there is a gap in the coop-support offerings. I think it may most make sense to describe the missing component in the landscape through analogy. I work in urban farming/gardening. There are lots of workshops on beginning gardening. There are online resource repositories and forums about how to grow awesome vegetables. There are even books and seminars about how to launch urban farming businesses - lots of them, in fact. However, there is are no all-inclusive platforms to launch an urban gardening business (tool checklists, SOPs, startup incorporation portal, etc all in one). But, if you want to start an online business drop-shipping sunglasses made in China, there are platforms (Atlas by Stripe, Oberlo by Shopify) to do so... today. No workshop needed, no random resource booklets to comb through. Funding access is even native to the platforms themselves. But not so for urban gardening.

The same gap presents itself in the coop world. Though many in this forum would dwarf my knowledge, I am somewhat of a "coop expert," and I have collaborators that would be co-founders of coop network of agriculturalists across the Deep South. But we continue to not pull the trigger. It's not for lack of knowledge or even knowing how/where to dig for resources. It's for lack of a smooth, curated process.

Now, I'm just speaking out-loud here because life doesn't currently provide me the life-space to make this happen, but what I envision (in case any coopreneurs out there wanna seize the opportunity) is a web-based coop-development platform/portal. Once aspect could be a coop structure decision tree/conversation guide for teams to a)watch short videos describing the various types (consumer, worker, multi-stakeholder, producer, etc) and b)a series of questions & multiple choice selections that would help build out a draft coop articles of incorporation and as well as bylaws/member agreements. Lastly, c)There could be a dove-tail into the Strategyzer platform which helps teams develop & test the assumptions of their business models. And, while we're talking, perhaps d)there could be a set of questions that helped coops (at least) identify which funding streams would be in keeping with their principles/reality/stage.

A few tools I could imagine being part of a patch-work MVP: Google's appsheets/ forms/ sheets. Strategyzer.

The real issue here is that "resources" are increasingly outdated forms of assistance. What people need are "systems" into which they can insert themselves (or their team) and come out the other end with relative certain results. It's why business have internal systems and processes -- because they want to know they'll be able to achieve a similar result as other times. Not always perfect, but processes offer relative predictability. (This is why I'm stuck. I want to know that if I go through a gauntlet of learning - even more- or taking a workshop or whatever, that I WILL come out the other side with that which I seek. And right now, rarely, do informational resources provide such assurance.)

Now, to take it to a meta level for a moment, we like to talk about simple, complicated, and complex systems where simple and complex are just a degree of how many steps are involved but complex systems are in a different universe entirely where "we just don't know how everything's connected." As an entrepreneur, I acknowledge that running a business, and as a person who's worked my whole life in/with community to get things done, I recognize that these things err complex. However, huge leverage is to be had by those who find small aspects of complex systems and recognize them as replicable simple (even complicated) processes. That way, as human beings navigating complexity, we are freed up to focus on those parts that are, truly, complex.

My hunch is that some of y'all who have worked coop-developments could embody your knowledge in a decision-tree like app that would grease the wheels for coop development. And, my hunch is that people - in my position - would be willing to pay some relatively minor up-front fee (like would be paid to attend a workshop without all the expense of airfare, etc) or a SASS like fee + a percentage of revenue going forward to make it worth it. Think of Stripe's Atlas' biz model. Or think of every online webstore platform ever...

Anyone interested in pursuing this line of thought, please reach out or chime in here.

R

Rory (FSA) Thu 17 Dec 2020

https://fairsharesplatform.eu gets us close, but it will need a push to get over the line.

CMI

@Mark Simmonds (Co-op Culture & Platform 6) @Graham @Austen Cordasco isn't this another version of what we're trying to do with P6? It also echoes the 'coop in a box' plan that CUK and the Enterprise Hub were planning so presumably there's stuff to learn from already. It sounds like a fundable project for someone to drive - presume there would be CoTech folks who'd be interested in being involved. @Rory (FSA) what's the sticking point for the fairsharesplatform?

MSC

Not exactly. I'm not a fan of coop in a box solutions - see above.