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Harry Robbins
14 Dec 2015

Outlandish 4.0: Outlandish is becoming a Co-operative Consortium

Outlandish is in the process of formally becoming a worker co-operative.

We held a day long session in December 2015 to determine the structure of the new organisation with the help of Sion Whellens of Principle Six and Cath Muller of Footprint. We invited some of our friends and collaborators to share ideas and have an input on something that affects them. We had a fun and challenging day and came out with some fairly concrete ideas about what Outlandish 4.0 is going to look like (we’ve done this before).

Why we’re becoming a co-operative

Outlandish already largely conforms to the seven co-operative principles that are widely held to be the core of what co-ops are all about:

  • voluntary and open membership
  • democratic member control
  • members’ economic participation
  • autonomy and independence
  • education and information
  • cooperation among cooperatives
  • concern for community

We made some notes on the co-operative code and generally felt that while there was plenty of room for improvement and clarification of Outlandish’s processes, we don’t score badly on the co-op scale.

There are four main reasons that we’re formally reconstituting as a co-operative. Firstly, our current structure is complicated, with four legal partners, two freelance ‘Outlanders’ who have chosen not to become partners and a bunch of friends, freelancers and collaborators that we work with on a regular basis. Decisions are made sociocratically by all six Outlanders but the legal responsibility for the company rests only with the partners – a classic pigs and chickens scenario. Outlandish also has no formal way for our extended group of collaborators to take part in the decision making processes of the company and there is no explicit entitlement of these people to a share of Outlandish’s resources or surplus. It’s also not clear what qualifies someone to become an Outlander or partner.

The second reason to formally become a co-op is that co-operatives have hundreds of years of experience creating effective governance structures. Creating radically different organisations is difficult, as we have found with Outlandish 2.0 (which had employees) and Outlandish 3.0 (which is our current structure) – Outlandish 1.0 was basically a very simple worker co-op and worked pretty well. Once organisations begin to grow they need to adopt more complicated structures that take into account people’s different roles and experience. A classic approach is to have a managing director at the top, a board of directors, and employees who get bossed around by the directors. Outlandish has always tried to do things differently but creating the appropriate system of checks and balances from scratch is a full time job in itself and would leave no time for making beautiful, useful digital stuff as is our wont.

The third reason for becoming a cooperative is the solidarity that it brings with other co-ops. There are around 6,000 cooperatives in the UK,  all of which are committed to the same values as Outlandish – providing needed services and decent jobs in a fair and democratic way. There is a great spirit of solidarity between co-ops – we’re already working with Calverts, Footprint, AltGen, Co-operatives UK, CBC, Agile and others in the few months we’ve started investigating co-ops. Having a pool of people who have experience running democratic organisations is invaluable – while learning by experience is fun, there are a lot of hard lessons that other people have already learnt.

The fourth reason becoming a co-operative it to help make it clearer to our potential clients and collaborators what we are all about and how they can work with us. Outlandish is an unusual organisation and I think it’s fair to say well-liked by workers and clients alike. We’re unusual in the breadth of work we carry out – everything from enterprise scale data tools for corporate organisations such as the BBC, to immersive experiences and websites for artists, universities and Jeremy Corbyn. We have an unusual number of office cannons (a potato cannon and a super-sonic vacuum cannon) and we have an unusual way of running the company – democratically, transparently and fairly. This diversity is the key to Outlandish’s success – people get to do a nice mixture of work, we get to subsidise the fun and charitable work with the corporate projects and we get to explore our personal interests and fund things that make the world better. This leads to a committed group of people who want to make great digital products, understand the needs of users and push the boundaries of what can be done.

The structure of the new Outlandish co-op

We decided to adopt a structure with a core group of co-op member Outlanders who take responsibility for stewarding and running the co-operative, and a wider group of freelance Outlanders who take a lesser degree of responsibility and therefore less decision making power.

The model draws on the one developed by the Enspiral Network in New Zealand who built the excellent Loomio decision-making tool, and some of whom came to stay with us for a week in October.

Outlandish's new model is influenced by the Enspiral Foundation

Outlandish’s new model is influenced by the Enspiral Foundation

The aim is to make the two roles different but equal. We’ve learnt over the past few years that people want and need different things from work. Some people thrive with responsibility and some people hate it. That does not mean that those that like responsibility should take decisions without involving those that don’t, or that they should exploit them. However, as the proverbial pigs at the Ham and Eggs restaurant, they are committed, whereas the chickens are only involved. They invest more of their labour and energy in making the co-operative work and take more risk and so ultimate decision-making responsibility must lie with them. This is also a requirement of principle four of the co-op code – autonomy – since it is the members of the co-op that must be an autonomous organisation free from external control.

Outlandish 4.0’s founding members will be the four current legal partners of Outlandish LLP (Harry, Ras, Abi & Sam) but the aim is to expand that group to include everyone who meets the requirements of membership. The founding members will create the new legal entity and will invite anyone who meets the Outlandish criteria to apply for Outlander status. Anyone who doesn’t get an invite but who feels they deserve one is welcome to apply for membership too.

A key part of Outlandish’s future strategy and efforts will be to identify potential freelance Outlanders and develop them into members. This is essential as the organisation will not be sustainable unless it can find enough people who believe in its goals and are willing to take on the responsibilities of membership in return for the benefits that it offers.

Based on our requirements and pending some no-doubt expensive conversations with lawyers and accountants we decided to adopt a Co-operative Consortium governance structure. A co-operative consortium is a form of worker co-op which can have both individual members (humans) and corporate members such as companies, partnerships, unincorporated bodies and other co-ops as members. While we don’t intend to have any non-human members just yet, we’re open to the possibility in the future. A Co-operative Consortium can raise finance from its members in the form of non-voting shares and can pay dividends to its members in proportion to their contribution. We don’t intend to do either of these things in the near future, but both may be useful in the future.

Transition from Outlandish LLP

The four partners of Outlandish LLP agreed to transfer the assets, brand and activities of the partnership to the new co-op and that the new co-op would be asset locked. An asset lock means that the members of the new co-op would not be able to take any assets out if they decided to disband or sell the co-op, and would instead have to find another co-op or charity to pass those assets on to.  This means we’re giving what is currently our property back to the commons where we feel it belongs. In the short term that means Abi’s going to be saving a while longer for her extension, and in the long time we can kiss goodbye to our private islands and jets when we invent the next Google.

We made the decision to make Outlandish’s assets collectively owned for these reasons:

  • the assets in Outlandish were the product of everyone who’s worked with Outlandish, not just the four of us
  • money tends to cloud people’s judgement, especially when it looks like fat stacks of cash that they potentially own. We feel people will be better able to pursue Outlandish’s goals if a potential big payout was taken out of the equation
  • we really like Outlandish and believe in it and we want it to have the best chance of survival with or without us
  • we don’t want to fall out with each other, and arguing over how to split a big asset is a good way to do just that
  • we want to minimise the unnecessary difference between members and freelance Outlanders
  • we’re not really jet planes and islands people anyway

Next steps

We now have a whole load of tasks on our plate including:

  • Consulting a lawyer who knows about co-ops
  • Consulting an accountant who knows about co-ops
  • Formally registering the co-op
  • Finalising the legal structure of the co-op
  • Finalising the criteria and processes for becoming a freelance Outlander or member
  • Finalising the responsibilities and benefits of being freelancer or member Outlander
  • Transferring the assets and activities from Outlandish LLP to the new co-op
  • Updating our competency framework to include co-op skills
  • Organising training sessions in co-operative skills
  • Inviting our collaborators to become Outlanders
  • Identifying more people who might be suitable Outlanders and finding ways to work with them
  • Finding more organisations that we want to work with – especially other co-ops

 

As you can see, there’s plenty to do. We’ll be keeping the blog up to date with progress and will be publishing our formal documents as they are finalised so please do keep an eye on us.

And of course, if you’d like to discuss starting a co-op, joining Outlandish or how to take over the world then please get in touch.

 

Notes:

Sion Whellens also works at the excellent Calverts printers and Cath Muller lives in a housing co-op that is part of Radical Routes. Both Principle Six and Footprint are part of the Co-operative Business Consultants co-op.


Co-operatives UK is the national membership body for co-operatives and has lots of great resources including model legal structures that co-ops can adopt and adapt.