The Case for Technology Worker Coops from a Former Freelancer
Some of our esteemed tech co-workers have proposed a discussion of the value of tech coops at SXSW in 2012 which got me thinking about just this question. I started this post there and have flushed it out here further. I thought it might be of some interest to share my thoughts on the experience of moving from a freelance web developer to a coop tech developer / co-owner…
In my opinion there is definitely something to be said for freelancers banding together to form small, aligned groups of worker-coops.
Some background: After 7+ years of worker as a freelancer / entrepreneur while starting up a couple of different tech startups, I co-founded CoLab with some of the folks I had been freelancing with over the years.
Here are the main benefits I have found to forming a coop from the perspective of a freelancer considering their options:
Your co-workers have got your back!
From my experience, the main drawback to "go it alone freelancing is that as a freelancer, you are left without anyone who has "got your back" when "life happens." As a member of a small co-op (we just launched in 2011) there is a shared sense of responsibility.
Life continues to happen where crazy things go down at the most in-opportune moments, but now we are in it together (there are four of us). We have a shared commitment to cover for each other as challenges come up (kids get sick, multiple concurrent deadlines / emergencies, etc), so that the crazy moments of life are no longer quite so crazy.
Not to mention, as a freelancer, vacation was basically impossible without informal partnerships with other freelancers to cover business during time away. This almost never happened.
Some additional background: I have set up a number of business entities over the years from a "for-benefit LLC" with Giveback.net to a traditional bottom-line C-Corporation with RhythmBase Technologies in early 2000, to a traditional freelance Sole-Proprietorship during my own early freelance design days with JPeery Designs. Note that we plan to set-up a non-profit arm to our Worker Coop for our more obvious philanthropic work in order to test out another socially-positive structure. Stay tuned.
When one forms a worker coop, there is a diminishment of the sense of business being tied to greed or selfish motives. Doubly so if your mission is to ‘help clients use technology to help others’ as is the case with CoLab.
Depending on the type of business structure you set-up, there is either a subtle or perhaps more obvious selfish orientation to the business. In a society based upon consumer capitalism, you have to work pretty hard to weed out these motives. I am sure some will take issue with this statement, but at the end of the day my conclusion is that most of the business world - tech included - is driven by the desire to improve one’s own lot be it reputation or financial clout.
With a coop, I personally feel like the business entity we are operating under comes close to matching my desire to both do good work in the world while not simply fattening my own pocketbook at the same time. ( See my other post on building a sustainable mission driven company if it sounds like I don’t care about making money).
No, it’s not perfect. But I feel way better putting checks in the bank knowing that it is a cooperatively owned account.
I also take satisfaction from knowing that at a time when finding gainful work in our community is a challenge, we are helping our co-workers to feed and shelter their families and we are mentoring the next generation of tech workers through our internship and contractor relationships.
This is true for my co-workers as well. When they are working on projects, delivering for clients, and closing deals; they take satisfaction in knowing that they are helping out a greater whole. Together, we are moving forward together, supporting our community, our friends, and our families with our work.
Author note: In a day and age where CEO salaries are so ridiculously out of proportion with the money earned by the workers doing the heavy lifting, I take also take personal satisfaction in being both a manager and a worker at the same time - without any of the strange power dynamics that come from most organizational hierarchies.
Do more of what you love.
On a more pragmatic note, like it or not, there is a lot of painful work to be done as a freelancer that is not actual web development work and which nearly all freelancers end up doing independently at great expense.
My short and none too thorough list:
- Proposal writing
- Portfolio updating
- Marketing (what’s that??)
- Invoice sending
- Contract executing
- Book keeping
- Project management
- Content management
A collaborator shared a great quote that I think especially applies to freelancers:
“The cobblers children have no shoes.”
When I was a freelancer, I never had shoes. Or rather most of the stuff on the list above got pushed back while I delivered more tangible client work. I actually had an apology on my website for a number of years to the effect of:
“I apologize that my website is not more up to date. I am too busy helping my clients currently to update my site. Here is a list of my recent projects: ...”
My portfolio was a running list. Straight ordered list style.
Having moved from overly-committed freelancer to worker coop I am happy to say that our portfolio is no longer a list. To state the obvious, in the context of a coop, thankfully only one person is assigned responsibility for each of these tasks as they execute on behalf of everyone.
[Insert genuflections or praise exalting actions of your choice here.]
There are certainly other things worth touching upon… the value of democratic decision making especially. But I will have to save that post for another day.
All in all, having been both a freelancer and now a tech coop member I would suggest there is a strong case for the formation of tech worker coops by small / tight groups of aligned freelancers.