Agencies for Good
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Agencies for Good

On Growing a Co-Op

How we do it at We Are Open

A post about growing an agency. Questions by Janinah McKenzie. Answers by Doug Belshaw.

Penknife with flowers instead of blades
CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers of We Are Open Co-op

What does growth look like in your business / organisation?

We Are Open Co-op (WAO) is not an ‘agency’ as such but instead choose to define ourselves as “a collective of independent thinkers and makers helping charities, ethical companies, government departments and educational institutions with sensemaking and digital transformation”.

As our Spirit of WAO wiki page outlines, we exist to grow in a way which is just, fair, and doesn’t only serve the needs of our own organisation. We reject the idea that endless growth is a measure of success. We believe that as long as our members have “enough”, then we are a successful cooperative. We don’t therefore have numerical targets other than having open and honest conversations about what we need to (or are looking to earn) in a given year.

The DO-MY-USERS-CARE-ometer
CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers of We Are Open Co-op

Following on from the above, how did WAO go about implementing growth strategies?

It will be six years since we founded WAO on May 1st this year and in that time we’ve had people join and people leave our co-op. We see value in staying nimble, keeping communication overheads low, and focusing on work we find enjoyable.

Those who have joined WAO in the past, either as members or collaborators, have been friends, former colleagues, or family members. As we’re not looking for an ‘exit’ from our business, for example to sell it to someone else, the focus is on having the capacity to get the work done that we believe needs doing in the world.

WAO is a member of CoTech, a network of 44 tech co-operatives. As such, and in keeping with Principle 6 of the International Principles of Cooperation we actively look to collaborate with other co-ops in our network. This means that we don’t necessarily have to have the capacity ‘in house’ but rather in our network.

Right now, for example, we’re working with Outlandish on a client project with a charity focused on climate change in the arts and culture sector. Their members and collaborators bring skills we don’t have in our co-op, and vice-versa. We host websites through Web Architects and we’ve also collaborated with co-ops such as Agile Collective and Dot Project.

Pie chart with segments: “Know you know”, “Know you don’t know”, “Don’t know you don’t know”
CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers of We Are Open Co-op

When implementing the above actions were any in particular difficult to implement? If so, how were these difficulties overcome?

We’ve made mistakes in recruitment, for example giving people membership too quickly as this also made them directors of our business. This has led to us changing our policies about how long we need to all have worked with an individual as a collaborator before offering them membership.

The hardest thing in any organisation is making good use of the resources you have at your disposal. All of the members of our co-op are co-owners of our business. Members of other co-ops are co-owners of their businesses. So we need to communicate, plan, and co-ordinate not only within our organisations, but across them as well.

There are some useful methods to help this go smoothly, for example consent-based decision making and reframing conflict. WAO members consciously work on our communication skills to ensure better relationships with each other, fellow co-ops, and of course our clients.

We’ll untangle your spaghetti
CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers of We Are Open Co-op

What are your key takeaways surrounding growth at WAO? Are there any methodologies you would recommend other organisations to try?

As a co-op, we seek to strike a balance between individual member needs and what we need as an organisation. We have a saying which we often repeat in our planning meeting which is “we are our members” and it’s important for us not to subsume our individual voices under a corporate one.

Growing a co-op is different to growing a regular business, because you are not ‘employing’ people for a specific role. Instead, you are are first collaborating with them and then potentially giving them co-ownership of your business. This is necessarily a slower process than defining roles into which to fit people.

More recently, we’ve taken on an intern who has been a breath of fresh air. After an initial onboarding period, she has helped us with the various projects we have on at any given time. There is a power structure within this relationship, but we try to make this explicit and focus on mentoring — including co-creating Open Badges to chart and demonstrate her development.

The hardest thing, other than communication, within any organisation, is making decisions. We find many of our clients who come to us asking for help need help with prioritisation around resources, which means that they need to make better decisions. As we see ourselves as partnering with clients rather than simply doing whatever they ask us to do, we often challenge them to better serve their audience.

Finally, growth at all costs is a very problematic concept. So is thinking about growth in purely financial terms. WAO usually thinks about growth in terms of capacity-building, asking questions of whether we’re growing the capacity of our members, of our co-op, and of both the clients and sectors which which we work.

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