Recap: Platform Coop 2017

Alternatives to the damaging VC-backed status quo

Now in it’s 3rd year, Platform Coop 2017 brought together [1] a diverse group of technologist, entrepreneurs and cooperative veterans to challenge the status quo around platforms.

TL;DR

The current mode of economic organisation isn’t working. A world in which stakeholders are shareholders is possible. Platform coops are one of many alternatives to the domination of capital, helping to build a slightly fairer world within the shell of the old.

Platform coops reduce alienation between stakeholders and shareholders

We’re all familiar with how platforms such as AirBnB, Medium and Uber innovate and impact our daily lives. The unfortunate state of affairs is that there is an alienation between the core stakeholders of these platforms — the platform participants and end-users which are their life-blood — and the VC-dominated capital shareholders.

In a VC-backed company, it is no surprise that the demands of maximal accumulation of capital reign paramount over the long-term sustainability, community, platform participants and our shared planet. The damage inflicted by the concentration of capital ownership into the hands of alienated shareholders is a choice we make as a society.

Platform coops are one way forward, towards a fairer world in which stakeholders are shareholders. A world in which the narrow interest of a capitalist elite are not the end-all and be-all of economic organisation.

Platform coops are successfully operating now

The good news is that platform coops are here, now. We aren’t talking about a theoretical exercise, rather real firms, competing in real capital-dominated marketplaces, proving by their continued success that there is a better way.

For a concrete example, imagine the plight of photographers, beholden to the narrow capital interest of copyright trolls such as Getty images. What if they banded together, to sell and distribute their own content for the collective benefit of photographers rather than the narrow capital interest of the Carlyle Group. Stocksy presented at the conference and has grown to 1k+ photographers.

Platform coops provide voice for the voiceless

Expanding upon the diversity of emerging Platform coops, they are not limited to the private sector.

For example, Carina is a public-private partnership lead by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services to help connect elders to qualified care-aids. Such a model will never be a “scalable”, multi-billion dollar “unicorn”, but it solves a very real social need, while simultaneously uplifting two under-voiced populations, elders/persons with disabilities in need of care, and often underpaid care workers who serve.

For another example, Alia is operating under the aegis of the non-profit National Domestic Workers Alliance, to help provide benefits and a small degree of economic security to household cleaners.

For yet another example, Savvy.coop is bringing together patients and folks that want to talk to patients in a patient-owned cooperative.

Platform coops are international

Though the conference was US-focused, the platform coop movement is not constrained by geographical boundaries. There were platform coops in attendance from Australia (bHive), Canada (Modo), Switzerland (MiData) and state-less digital fediverses (Social.coop).

Indeed, there were even a few more enlightened capital-dominated firms attending to learn more about transitioning (Finland, ShareTribe).

More ethical alternatives exist along a continuum

The division between VC-backed capital-dominated firms and more ethical alternatives is not binary. Platform coops demands that platform stakeholders are shareholders, that have a voice/vote in the direction of the firm and a share in the economic benefits of the firm.

Maybe a Platform coop isn’t right for your firm, and that’s o.k. There worker cooperatives, that demand the same for workers in a firm. Multi-stakeholder coops, which incidentally is how many platform coops are organised, which recognise multiple stakeholders as shareholders.

It’s even possible to promote a subset of cooperative principles within the context of a VC backed firm. Here, the Zebra movement of real companies that solve real problems, rather than ride the hype to a billion dollar “exits” that serve mainly to enrich already affluent white men.

What you can do…now.

Business owners: Consider reducing the alienation between capital and labour within your firm. Organisations such as the National Center for Employee Ownership can help plan an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) or worker/community-buyout. Consider o-determination, common in other countries such as Germany, including worker representation on the board, profit sharing and working closely with organised labour for mutual-benefit.

Consumers: Every dollar you spend is a vote for oppression or a slightly fairer world. Consider the non-financial cost of “race to the bottom” prices. Reduce your harm with slightly more ethical alternatives, including shop local, cooperatives and B-corps.

Entrepreneurs: Consider slightly more ethical alternatives to becoming a VC-backed “unicorn,” such as cooperatives (consumer, platform, worker) and Zebra’s.

Investors: Choose to apply capital towards empowerment instead of the status quo of oppression. Consider the non-financial cost of “market leading” returns. Longer-term, our shared planet is in existential danger. Shorter-term, slightly more forward thinking VCs such as Indie, will eat your lunch. For a personal guide, see: “How to invest in the solidarity economy.”

Workers: Organise. Reduce information asymmetry. Highly compensated workers, in particularly, have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with less well compensated workers and to use their individual bargaining power to push for fairer treatment of the contributions of labour vs capital. One of the more egregious examples is the treatment of workers (options) vs investors (preferred stock) in technology startups. As a first step, see: “An ethical guide to options grants.”

Workers, Technical: Offer your services and apply your technical knowledge to helping budding coop entreprenuers.

Additional perspectives

Footnotes

[1] Special thanks to the Agaric technology collective for the kindest possible introduction to non-capital dominated organisation and making my attendance at the conference possible.