So today I took a bit of a luxury day off work to attend Co-operatives South East's "The Creative Alternative", a day of talks and workshops about creative co-operatives.
I'm going to write a bit about it here, mainly because a couple of people asked me to take notes, and this seems like the best way to share them with anyone who might be interested. However this may also mean a slightly disjointed and over-wordy entry, so forgive me on that front.
For starters, a bit of context on my knowledge of co-operatives.
I have been aware of roughly how the co-operative model works for some time, however only recently have become a bit more actively involved. My partner is a member of a housing co-operative (Although a support member rather than a housed member), and is interested in setting up a workers co-operative, and I find myself becoming acquainted with an increasing number of people who have switched to this way of working/living and have found it to be an overwhelmingly positive move.
For anyone who doesn't know much about how co-operatives work, read a little bit here, it's a good simple summary…
I'm interested in how, in future, I might find a way of being part of - or even setting up - a co-operative that works with my interests, rather than forcing my interests to fit into a co-op that isn't right for me. Until today, I'd heard very little about co-operatives within the creative industry - I was aware that Pentagram are run to a slightly unusual - if not fully co-operative model - and I have a friend who is in the process of trying to set up a co-operative small press, but aside from that… nothing.
So today has been a great eye opener, and I'd like to share a few points that I took away from each speaker with you!
First up was probably the speaker I was most excited about - Harry Pearce, from aforementioned Pentagram. He provided a fascinating insight into the way the company is run. It started 40 years ago with 5 (now 19) partners, all equally accountable for the running of the business, and each partner (or a few partners together) run their own studios across the world. The studios themselves appear to follow a more traditional heirachy, although (perhaps unusually) a Partner remains in creative control of each and every project, with a small team working underneath them. At least that was how I understood it.
"Pentagram exists for the Partners to do the work they want to do, the way they want to do it."
The Partners span many creative disciplines, including Architecture, Graphic Design and Product Design. When asked what Pentagram's business plan was, Pearce immediately responded that it was the selection of the next Partner. He set the tone for the day, which is that the right people are at the heart of any good co-operative. Every speaker re-emphasised this. There is nothing more important than bringing the right people on board, and Pentagram have an incredibly arduous and drawn out process of selecting new partners. Drawn out, not least, because, in the spirit of co-operatives, all 19 partners are involved in all major decisions. To keep this sustainable, they have meetings every 6 months where they all get together and discuss important issues - including the potential selection of new Partners.
However, in defending co-operatives' sometimes notorious slowness to make decisions, he stated "Slowness to make decisions is not necessarily a negative thing. It's good to take the time to listen to everyone and consider things carefully." Adding that the only big decisions they'd made hastily tended to be the ones they regretted!
In terms of creative words of inspiration, (and he had many), he mainly left me with:
"You're always at your best creatively when you're in love with what you're doing." Which obviously applies across all creative career paths, not just co-operatives.
Following Pearce's morning keynote speech were a series of speakers from a range of different creative co-operatives. First, Chris Funnell from the Co-operative Assistance Network, a co-operative who specialise in giving business advice to other co-operatives.
I took lots of short quick notes here, so here are they key things I picked up:
- The most important decision you make is who you let into your co-op
- You can take a lot of courage from the mutual support that a co-op provides, especially in the early days of setting up a business
- You have to create a business! Deliver a product to a market who wants it, to bring in an income. The co-operative model alone is not a business, it is a way of building a business. (Stating the obvious really, but it reassured me that co-operatives are an appropriate platform for such a wide range of companies)
- Put rigourous systems in place to decide who joins the co-op.
- Everyone has to discuss everything and agree on everything, but in a larger co-op, this can happen on different levels. Ensuring that the right people at the right level make the right decisions. Obviously every co-op is different, so this needs to be worked out on a case by case basis. There is no fixed model.
Next up was Chris Brazier from New Internationalist magazine.
I found his talk about the running of a magazine very interesting - I've have always had an interest in the idea of working as part of a magazine design team - however there were fewer handy soundbites which I could take away with me. I was, however, very interested in their structure of no 'editor in chief', just a number of co-editors, and also their equal pay structure, which he very openly discussed the pros and cons of. They also had decided to set a limit of 20 employees, so that everyone could remain involve in all decision making, which certainly appealed to me as a strategy.
Following him was Mark De'Ath from the Creative Co-op. I think I fell a bit in love with him, in the way you tend to fall in love with people who are LIVING YOUR DREAM. Well, my co-operatively run design studio dream, anyway. It didn't sound like everything had always been (or even still was) easy going, in terms of maintaining a work load high enough to keep everyone paid, although I imagine this is a stress for many smaller design studios (ah, the joys of working in-house…)
De'Ath rapidly discovered after graduating that working alone (freelance) is no fun, and I'm definitely inclined to agree with him. With this in mind, him and some friends set up a co-operative design studio, and quickly found that being under the umbrella of a design studio massively increased their credentials in taking on work, not to mention sharing the workload between many brains is always a positive thing.
Their structure involved 'Members' and 'Associates'. Members are, as it sounds like, actual members of the co-operative, and have full say and accountability when decisions are made. 'Associates' are people close to the co-operative, who dip in and out and work when required. While not members, they still experience many of the benefits of being part of a co-op, and some do eventually go on to become full Members. This system means that the Creative Co-operative remains agile - able to take on larger jobs, as well as survive when the workload is perhaps a lot lighter. This seemed like a pretty good strategy to me.
The final speaker of the morning was Ingrid Wakeling from Acumen Third Sector, a (mostly) web based design co-operative who only work with charitable organisations. They have only been around a year, and she made it clear throughout her talk that they were still on a pretty steep learning curve, however many attendees felt that they were actually quite advanced and responsible in their planning and organisation! One of the things that interested me most about them was their income distribution - 70% goes directly to co-op members (as a salary, if you like), while 30% goes back into the business, for overheads and promotion, if required. Anything left from this 30% is distributed between the charities they work with.
Wow! What an idea - a way of both giving something back and offering an incentive to charities to work with them as clients! This idea really impressed me, and if they find it workable in the long run, I think it could take them far.
Wakeling also talked about the importance of the social element in their co-op. They are, above all else, friends and equals. No one pulls rank on anyone else, and with a clear, open pay structure and open finances, the business sounded like it was run in a very honest, open, friendly way. I found that really inspiring. For some reason I've always associated co-operatives with long, tedious group meetings with people you might not even like that much, but that bought it back to me - there's no reason why a start-up co-operative can't be a group of friends. That's a pretty exciting prospect.
Wakeling also emphasised the importance of who you hire, as well as the importance of putting pride to one side and looking to hire people better than you.
After super tasty lunch, we returned to the theatre for a WORKSHOP.
A ridiculous comedy team-building workshop which involved banging coloured tubes of different lengths in rhythm to make co-operative music. It was pretty corny and shamefully fun.
Following this was a bit of an unusual, meandering (but quite enjoyable) talk from Paul Birch - former executive of Revolver Records who have now branched out into… um… coffee. In the form of 'Revolver world'. A slightly unusual message for a day about creative co-operatives, when surely the message he was mostly presenting was '"this creative industry (music) is screwed, so let's sell commodities instead"
Here are the exact word-for-word notes I took during his talk:
"APPARENTLY 70% of all groceries sold in the EU come from co-operatives. REALLY?!"
"Should we be frightened of the Conservatives? YES WE SHOULD"
"Shouldn't we all sponsor a bit more?" (eg. the new washing up bowl in my house, 'sponsored by Emma Charleston" - I'll put a sticker on it")
"We're going to do a cube o' coffee"
"A cube of coffee?"
"A cube o' coffee"
"A CUBE? of Coffee?"
"A Cuba coffee."
Alex - "The creative industries are fucked so buy coffee"
The final section of the afternoon was about case studies of co-operatively run design studios. First up were Agile collective's Finn Lewis and Ged Dale. Charming though they were, they were clearly in the early stages of setting up their co-op too (about a year in) and by their own admission had been so busy working that they had yet to set up a lot of the secondary rules and processes that make a co-op work - and which a lot of the people in attendance were interested in learning more about! The main point they wanted to make was that, as co-operatives, we should all be trying to use open-source software/OSs (eg. Drupal, Firefox, Android, Linux etc), which is a pretty valid point. Although can anyone tell me of a suitable open source alternative to Adobe Creative Suite? Because I would like to know about that.
They were followed by Nadiya Donovan of Wave. Who are probably about the only reason I would ever consider moving to Hastings. (No offence Hastings.)
They are a print and web based design studio who work exclusively with Charities, and have been around for 25 years. Which is pretty good going. They keep their numbers down fairly small (9, at present), again, so that everyone can have a say in decision making. Donovan presented a pretty good spectrum of the pros and cons of working as part of a co-op, including the joys of everyone being a 'Director', flexible working choices, equal pay scales (with long standing employees being rewarded with extra holiday days), and the downsides of there being no one to 'put their foot down' or tell flagging members to up their game.
Overall, both these co-operatives (and indeed everyone throughout the day) painted a very positive picture of the co-operative business model, despite explaining both pros and cons of the system. I come away inspired and hopeful for the future!
My current job makes me very happy, and I feel very fortunate that, although part of a more traditional heirachy system, it is not in any way oppressive, and our office is incredibly friendly and everyone is treated equally. So I, for now, feel happy as part of a more traditional system. However, it's good to know that an alternative is out there, to one day maybe explore some more, and also to support my partner Alex is his co-operative endeavours.