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Life inside a cooperative – A personal journey

By Maddy Neghabian, 27 Apr 2020

I joined the Outlandish team – a workers owned digital agency cooperative, back in August ‘19 and I’ve felt so at home, I’m surprised it hasn’t been longer.

It’s a privilege to be working with an organisation that understands the demands of parenthood and a healthy work/life balance. Outlandish is a cooperative and being part of one has been an eye-opening experience, especially considering I come from a very different background.

Like many people, after I finished my degree (Business at Birmingham Uni, a real culture shock for an innocent Iranian Swede), I headed straight for the bright lights of London and grabbed the first job I could find, pulling pints in a heaving Camden pub. Unlike many I stuck around and found myself fast tracked to management. 

What strikes me in hindsight is how hierarchical the pub trade is. It usually involves a white middle-aged man owning a string of sites, with a manager in each (that’s me!) and a number of staff under our management. I prided myself on having a low turnover of staff and empowering them to take ownership over their roles with chefs designing menus, bartenders sign-writing, designing the interior and organising live music/DJ nights. This is where I really thrived, reaching out to the local community, organising everything from poetry nights, film shoots to life drawing and busking events. But it was always an uphill struggle fighting against the “profit-hungry” management in charge. For example I resisted with every bone in my body for many years the pressure to turn my little Camden pub into a dreaded sports venue. 

Eventually I left the business after swiftly finding out motherhood was incompatible with the anti social hours, but I’ll always miss the buzz of a busy shift, and I hold fond memories of the crazy adventures and the friends I made from all over the world who passed through my pub.

Working with Outlandish

Outlandish main purpose is to change the world through the use of technology and to collaborate with other organisations on socially positive projects. As an example Outlandish recently built a website in just 24h that allows businesses to support organisations with pressing needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

During the summer of 2019, Outlandish also built the NHS Cuts  and UKCSN Youth Strike website – all amazing and important campaigns working towards a better future. 

Even though I’m not officially a member of Outlandish, I have been included in meetings and daily discussions around the business, even more now during COVID-19. The focus has been around honest and open conversations in which everyone has a voice that matters. No one is hiding behind long, complex, awkward emails, everything is face to face or via online video calls nowadays. I know where I stand and I understand the structure of the business model. This experience is refreshing yet all too rare. 

The ethics of a co-operative seems to be the future of business, it’s vital that employees feel part of something, whether in tech, in hospitality or any other trade. Not only does it make you feel valued but it allows for greater productivity and motivation. As I see many businesses in my former sector collapse under the COVID-19 lockdown, I wonder whether in a post-COVID world where people demand more rights and security, we could see a surge in the cooperative model, and long may it continue.

So what’s my role within Outlandish? 

I’m marketing and events manager (I use that word lightly as there are no managers/bosses in a cooperative) for our coworking space SPACE4. Outlandish originally set it up in 2017 as a way to invest time and money into growing the cooperative economy, supporting tech-for-good organisations, and supporting our local community. SPACE4 provides affordable work and incubation space for the tech-for-good sector, small local businesses, and cooperatives. We host training events, and provide opportunities for clients and workers to collaborate in a mutually beneficial and open environment. We are always developing ways of supporting our community to be more impactful and sustainable, and to find strength in collaboration. 

Why the cooperative business model is the future 

I strongly believe any business model that gives its employees a sense of ownership brings motivation and motivation brings productivity. It’s a win win. If you spoke to any one of the Outlandish members they would all say yes being in a cooperative comes with a lot of responsibility but at the end of the day the job satisfaction and the way we communicate with each other will always outweigh the stress and the bad days.

A cooperative is a people-centred enterprise owned and run by and for its members, whether they are employees, customers or local residents. Democracy, equality and sustainability in the workspace are key factors. This is a very flexible model that many organisations adapt and implement according to their peculiarities. 

The downside of setting up a cooperative is that less people understand them than most ‘regular’ businesses, and they take more time to register. There are also a lot of variations in models and structures, and we’ve found that some people feel bogged down in choosing the right one. Also, coops tend not to take on debt or capital investment in the same way that traditional startups do. Our mission at SPACE4 is to support organisations to set up a coop, help them prosper once they’re established, and get the word out to the wider public about the benefits of coops. 

All in all, working at Outlandish has been a really positive eye opener for me. We embody what I’ve always practiced – empowering individuals in the team to take responsibility and shape their working life and the company itself. I’m using the people skills and organisational skills that I picked up in the hospitality industry now to network with tonnes of people, and create a positive social impact. When things go wrong (and when they don’t!) I have a whole network of people to reach out to – in Outlandish, and beyond, with all the coops and small businesses in our network. Plus, I’ve learnt that there’s a whole range of coops who operate in the hospitality sector, like the Wine Society and the growing network of community-owned pubs across the UK. Whilst COVID-19 is one of the most isolating experiences any of us have lived through, being part of a coop community is one of the most connecting professional experiences I’ve had! 

Successful cooperatives:

Outlandish Obviously 🙂 

Suma wholefoods

The Wine Society 

The Ivy House ( London’s first cooperatively owned pub)

Indycube – A cooperative supporting indie workers across the UK

Blake House Cooperative – Film makers and artists making films with communities, progressive and social movements