When it comes to how to start a cooperative specifically, I’ve found there are three key individuals whose presence or absence will make or break your project.
Cooperatives, or, worker-owned businesses offer a unique strategy for creative thinkers to collaborate on projects that benefit their communities in ways greater than they could accomplish as individuals.
I’ve worked on my fair share of cooperative projects, including a farming co-op I started with my friends back in 2017. Each of these projects experienced successes, as well as setbacks. In the spirit of helping others experimenting with how to start a cooperative, today’s article is about the three experts every cooperative needs to succeed.
Everyone knows that businesses need workers to function. Most people know that businesses also need leaders within that workforce. Experts, either inside or outside your company, help clarify certain aspects of the business that keep it running smoothly. When it comes to how to start a cooperative specifically, I’ve found there are three key individuals whose presence or absence will make or break your project.
The Legalese Expert
When it came time to incorporate our farm as a business, this was an area where we immediately struggled. There is no “cooperative” option when it comes to registering a business. So, we needed to determine whether to register as a corporation or a limited liability company (LLC). Along with that decision, there were questions of how to structure the business in order to realize our intentions as a cooperative.
The standard boilerplate stuff you find for by-laws and company articles lacked the clarity we needed around issues of power within the company, payment, and how to prepare our taxes as individuals.
We needed someone who understood both the legalese required by the state and our specific desire to start a cooperative. Those kinds of individuals are few and far between, and with the variation in policies around operating a business that shifts across state lines, you’re really limited to finding someone local who can help you.
I put this expert first because if you’re looking to incorporate your cooperative, finding this person is going to take a little extra effort and research. Start early.
The Diplomacy Expert
In general, I think cooperatives — whether incorporated businesses or loose collectives of collaborators — tend to overlook the importance of this expert. Here’s the thing: operating any sort of business together is never going to always be sunshine and roses. You’re going to have disagreements and conflicts. That’s the nature of democratic models — dissensus — and it’s not something to fear or to repress.
Here’s another thing: society doesn’t really teach us how to deal with conflict.
It teaches us to fall in line within a status quo and its hierarchies of power. So when you’re starting a cooperative — a business that by nature gives you a voice and more power than you’re accustomed to — we’re all unprepared for how the good consequences of that will play out in our work together. How will you hold one another accountable? How will you value subject matter expertise and the voice of every worker?
You’ve got to invest in learning real listening skills, in team-building, in learning how to really speak to and hear one another on difficult issues. Your diplomacy expert could be a therapist, a business coach, an adventure guide, all of these and others — they know how to resolve conflict, forge agreement and team identity, and guide you through difficult (emotional) terrain. They help you get creative with how to cultivate synergy together.
The Industry Expert
Lastly is the industry expert — your guru for the specific type of market in which you’re starting your cooperative. She might seem like an obvious person to have among your workers, but even when that’s the case, I’d challenge you to expand this role into other people or businesses to which you can compare your own successes.
This person knows what kind of social media presence you need. They know your supply chain, and details (if not specific people) in your local market ecosystem. They know a few tricks about the business and have the work experience to back it up.
They know at least roughly what a full cycle of your business looks like. Newspapers, magazines, and other publication cooperatives ought to have at least an abstract idea of how a full year looks for you. Same for farms, or any business that experiences major seasonal changes.
One of the strengths of starting a cooperative is in making the sum of your collaboration greater than what you could accomplish as individuals. Inevitably this means that not everyone’s skill set is at the same level, even though you all share a passion for your project.
That difference is good. It’s fun. It’s challenging. It’s an opportunity to learn together and to support one another. Experts like the legalese expert, diplomacy expert, and industry expert provide some guardrails for keeping your train on its tracks. If they’re members of your cooperative, that’s wonderful — but don’t sweat it if they aren’t.
No cooperative exists as an island to itself. That’s the whole point of starting a cooperative, right? Workers work together, workers help each other.
Who else would you put on this list? Share your answers in the comments.