For all the tales of gilded startup parties and billion-dollar valuations, tech workers are often the most overworked, misunderstood and undervalued employees. Others struggle as freelancers or attempt to launch their own businesses. In the face of all that hardship, developers like me are turning more and more to collectives.
I’ve been a part of the cooperative movement for eight years. During that time, I’ve visited conferences and cities all over the country to promote the worker-owned co-op I founded, The Toolbox for Education and Social Action, or TESA. (You might recognize the game I created there, Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives.)
While traveling the country, I’ve watched as the number of people launching co-ops has exploded, especially in tech world. And while they might be flying under the radar in the mainstream, they’re poised to shake up the way things are done. Just last month, eighteen of these cooperatives launched the Tech Co-op Network.
Here’s how technology co-ops work, and why you might want to join one.
Tech worker co-ops come in all shapes and sizes and operate across a wide variety of industries. From web development to graphic design, web hosting, engineering, manufacturing, and more–technology workers anywhere can band together to accomplish what they couldn’t do alone.
What makes cooperatives an exciting alternative is their structure: they are democratic businesses owned and operated equally by a specific membership. Some co-ops have memberships composed of only workers, some of consumers, some of producers. Each owner only has one share and one vote in the organization. During the good times, these co-op members share the benefits equally; and in the hard times, they share the burdens equitably. This makes them more sustainable in low-income communities as well as economic downturns. There are cooperative art galleries, cafes, print shops, farms, grocery stores, and much more.
To be clear, this is not like being offered a stock option in the company you work for. As an example, if a tech business earns five million dollars in profits, all of that money is typically controlled by one person, a small private group, or unevenly distributed amongst shareholders. In a worker co-op, however, each worker owns an equal share of the company’s finances. One worker, one share, one vote.
Sassafras Tech Collective is a young worker co-op, launched only six months ago, that focuses on web and app design and development for social justice orgs, non-profits, academics, artists, and others. The two founding members, Jill Dimond and Tom Smyth, began Sassafras after completing their PhDs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Both of their studies focused around issues of social change and technology. Dimond and Smyth, wanting to continue this work outside of academia, decided to launch a business that would make a difference in the world.
“In having a democratic workplace where everyone is a worker and an owner, we thought that we could help bring about social change by starting with ourselves,” Dimond says. “As a woman in technology, I have long been concerned about diversity issues in computing. By creating a more egalitarian workplace, we hope to also create a safe space for those who are underrepresented in tech such as women and people of color.”
This is an important point. The democratic nature of worker-owned businesses means they must be responsive to the needs of their membership, thus making them better suited to address issues of diversity. Historically, the tech world has not been a friendly space for women, and Dimond has firsthand experience with that issue.
“I still deal with stereotypes and issues as a woman when I go to various tech events and talk to prospective clients,” she says. “In a former job, I experienced sexual harassment from a client but I was not in a situation where I could do much about it. Being a worker-owner gives me agency about what kind of clients we take on and ensures that my voice will be heard.”
While both Dimond and Smyth have worked for major corporations–Dimond for Google and Smyth for Microsoft Research–they’re happy to be in a small co-op.
“We have more agency to determine what types of projects and work we want to do,” says Dimond.
Gaia Host Collective, another worker-owned entity, offers internet hosting services with an environmentally and socially sustainable business model. Gaia began when two neighbors purchased a fledgling web hosting service, starting them off with two servers and fifty monthly customers. Today, Gaia has grown all of those numbers: the servers, the worker-owners, and the clients. It hasn’t all been rosy, however. The first several years were a constant struggle, with members working long hours and barely scraping by financially.
And even though their employees (the worker-owners) aren’t making a killing just yet, the benefits they see from sharing the responsibilities of ownership go much deeper.
“We have a stable and growing financial outlook that we manage collectively as worker-owners,” says Charles Strader, one of the founding members. “Being a cooperative has benefited our workers with working flexible schedules, the ability to have passion and time for things outside of work, the ability to be supportive of social justice and environmental organizations and business allies as part of our regular for-profit work, to be able to have some freedom of geography in where we choose to live, to be able to work from home or from a coworking space,” says Strader. “There’s also a lot of intangible benefits to the camaraderie of being a co-owner in a worker cooperative that aren’t easily expressed as benefits.”
Gaia Host has been so pleased with the cooperative model that they and several other worker co-ops teamed up to produce “A Technology Freelancer’s Guide to Starting a Worker Collective” (PDF).
Isthmus, which began in 1980, is an engineering and manufacturing cooperative based in Madison, Wisconsin. Before starting the co-op, the four founding members left another company that treated them poorly and broke numerous promises. After trying to figure out how to make it on their own, the disgruntled, out-of-work employees settled on cooperation. To them, a co-op was the best structure that would ensure the business operated fairly, preventing repeats of the outrages that caused them to leave their former jobs.
Over the years, Isthmus has had great success with the model, and the democratic structure has given worker-owners the room to grow in ways that likely wouldn’t be the reality in typical workplaces.
“Most people are used to just being employees at other companies,” says Ole Olson, an engineer and worker-owner at Isthmus. “When given the responsibility and power to make their own decisions, it is amazing how some people change.”
“We work with several fortune 500 companies,” Olson adds. “When they first learn of us they don’t understand (or aren’t willing to accept) how our structure works. Once we have them as a customer—they are hooked.”
The cooperative model is much more than just another business structure that tech workers can consider when launching their ventures. It’s a growing movement.
On in late October, 18 worker co-ops joined together to launch the Tech Co-op Network. The Network’s purpose is to take cooperation in the tech world to the next level by fostering collaboration and mutual aid amongst worker-owned technology businesses. In the short time since its launch, the Network has already grown to a total of 23 members.
“Our members are small businesses, most with 3-10 worker-owners,” says Brent Emerson, a worker-owner with the Electric Embers Cooperative and coordinator of the new initiative. “The Network helps us market our services and collaborate on large projects that we wouldn’t be able to take on alone; to refer work to each other when we’re too busy and benefit from those referrals when we’re not; and to ask for and offer experienced advice about owning and operating small democratic businesses. And we assume that the network will be an evolving platform to enable projects and collaborations that we haven’t even yet envisioned.”
Right now, the Network provides a range of services including website and graphic design, web and email hosting, web development, IT consulting, training, computer repair and sales, social media, mobile application development, communications strategy, and more. And they plan to expand that list as their membership grows and diversifies.
Emerson also sees the launch of the network as a part of a larger trend.
“I think it’s fascinating that most of our oldest member co-ops were founded around 2001-2004, right after the dot com bubble collapsed,” Emerson says. “They’ve thrived over the past decade, but the pace of new business creation slowed a bit. Along comes another business cycle and the Great Recession, and from 2010-2013 we experienced another little boom: our community’s email list more than doubled in size, tech worker co-ops were a hot topic at conferences, and new co-ops started popping up left and right. I have the sense that, in our own tiny way, this community is telling the story of skilled workers being left behind by corporate America and responding by creating their own democratic alternatives.”
Brian Van Slyke is the founder of The Toolbox for Education and Social Action, a worker-owned cooperative. TESA creates educational resources on social and economic change issues, and works with other organizations to build engaging educational programs for their own causes. TESA published the award-winning Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives and offers several interactive online courses on co-ops and cooperation.