P’s in a pod: Purpose, Proximity & Product — the journey of the Golden Pandas

Summary

The four of us (Susan, Damian, Kate and Joshua) started working on the idea of Golden Pandas in August 2016. The spark we gathered around was to form a small team that developed products for our collective, Enspiral, and the broader network. We are inspired by the idea of developing open-sourced business models that can provide us with the means to create an abundant livelihood, and help others do the same.

In April 2018 we refactored our business…

Where we came from

Assumptions & Intentions

  1. The Golden Pandas was a Livelihood Pod* with an intention of building a multiplicity of products for the commons
  2. We believed that there was the right amount of complementarity and overlap in our work to make this possible
  3. We convinced ourselves that even when some of us were remote we could manage to stay tightly connected and focused through weekly synchronous and asynchronous check-ins, and quarterly meetings
  4. We’d all be contributing to the pot and feel good about the money flows

*Livelihood Pod — a lightweight definition

Livelihood Pods are essentially micro-cooperatives — their exact form is still emerging but our working definition is:

Cooperative ownership: Livelihood Pods are cooperatives and follow the 7 cooperative principles

Limited size: A Livelihood Pod has an upper limit — we don’t know what this should be but somewhere in the 6–12 people range.

Interdependent: They are deeply interdependent with other Livelihood Pods and are collectively responsible for the health of the wider ecosystem.

There are two models we’ve seen pods experimenting with: Mutual Support and Income Pooling

Golden Pandas was an Income Pooling Pod — we put 100% of our earned revenue into the middle and engaged in collective decision making on how much each person is paid, as well as how much to spend on team expenses. People can be paid different amounts but everyone in the team consents to those amounts, and/or to the process for determining them.

In a Mutual Support Pod the members of the cooperative run agreed commercial activities through the company but keep control over the majority of the revenue they generate. A small portion, 20% for example, would go into the pods core coffers and the team engages in collective decision making about how to spend those funds.

The key idea behind Livelihood Pods is that they can act as “Economic Home Groups” which offer support and opportunities for individuals in the wider network. There are a growing number of pods active in Enspiral currently (EXP, Root Systems, Optimi, Greater Than and Golden Pandas) and it is an area of active experimentation.

What we did

Timeline

Outcomes

Panda Planning resulted in a number of successful collaborative projects and a created a couple of ventures:

  • open.enspiral workshops — Europe / Australia / North & South America ~20 events and over 400 participants
  • T4NT (Tech for Non-Tech) licensed to Code for Australia
  • Practical Self-Management Intensive online course via Leadwise — 4 cohorts to date with participants from Australia, Japan, South Korea, The Philippines, Singapore, India, Brazil, Ecuador, USA, Canada, Denmark, Germany, France, Slovakia, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK
  • Cobudget finding a home in Greaterthan
  • Bamboo being developed with Root Systems
  • Community Retreat in Hungary in conjunction with Social Fokus
  • Convened and co-hosted Art of Hosting Aotearoa
  • Launched the Peer Garden
  • Developed some good processes for prioritising business opportunities
  • Collaborating with other pods and teams

What we learned

Cohesion

Things are easier when teams are:

A) co-located and

B) deriving livelihood from the same activities.

Things can still work if you have A or B but if you have neither then there isn’t enough ‘gravity’ to keep the livelihood pod together.

We had a wide variety of skills which put us in good stead for developing products, but when it came to generating income we were all working on quite different projects. This alone would have been OK except we were quite often in different time zones — that combination created a significant barrier to collaborating.

Learning: make sure your livelihood pod is at a minimum a) co-located or b) working on the same stuff. Both is best.

Flexibility has a price

There’s a difference between being remote, being in different time zones or changing time zones often. When you’re remote, it’s easy enough to set standing meeting times but If you’re changing time zones often, the cost of coordinating those meetings and the awkward hours can be a real killer.

One of the biggest pain points we identified as a pod was the admin associated with scheduling meeting times. All of us went through long phases of jumping between time zones which meant there was a high cost to scheduling meetings which lead to us spending less time together and working on the things that generated revenue.

Learning: if you have remote members, maintain a consistent meeting time that isn’t up for negotiation. If someone really needs to be skipping around time zones, organise travel so it doesn’t interrupt the meeting rhythm or, take a leave of absence from the pod while travelling.

Critical Mass

There needs to be a critical mass of energy going into the pod for things to work well. Our Golden Pandas experiment started well but we lost a lot of energy when Joshua had to jump in to help Dev Academy through a rough patch by working for several months unpaid. This took his energy off our product development and earning power away from our short term cash flow.

We took another hit when Kate dived so deep into Cobudget that it made more sense for her to be based in the Greaterthan pod (who took responsibility for the project) than to stay with the Golden Pandas.

Learning: Ensure you have a critical mass of people, energy and money to keep the pod healthy. If the critical mass changes then take action (recruitment or pod disbandment / readjustment) quickly.

Company Admin

One of the hypotheses of why many livelihood pods are more interesting than one large collective is the idea that lots of small simple companies are cheaper to run than one large complex one. Additionally, the skills that pod members acquire by running simple companies are valuable for running larger ventures.

While the pod affairs were quite simple there was still a lot of financial admin reconciling expenses, dealing with banks, managing Saas accounts and keeping the whole operation compliant. We often spent valuable sync time on administration and operation tasks, which wasn’t the best use of our time.

Learning: Make one person responsible for accounting, admin and operations and either rotate the role around the pod or better yet, hire Optimi to do it for you ;)

We loved our rhythms

One of the highlights of being in a pod together was the time we spent together on our bi-weekly syncs and Panda Pounces. See our previous blogs Introducing the Golden Pandas and Panda Pounce for details on our processes and patterns.

The pod was most alive when we were all together reflecting on the past cycle and planning for the next one. It was these moments which gave us the clearest picture of what pod life could be and why we are still experimenting with pods as an organisational form.

Learning: Spend time together and make it fun. It is a privilege to work closely with your friends so make the most of it.

Where we’re going

The three of us — Damian, Susan, and Joshua are committed to continue our experiment in Pod Life and are changing the way we work, together.

The new formation of Golden Pandas puts the focus on:

  1. supporting one another on our entrepreneurial journeys
  2. helping activate other people in the network to build livelihoods

We synchronise weekly for 3 weeks out of 4, every Monday for one hour via zoom (or in person if possible)

On the 4th week, we work together for the day, have a luxurious check-in, build an agenda on the fly, triage our needs, get through the agenda and spend the rest of the day co-working.

We are no longer running our individual invoicing through Golden Pandas, rather we have decided to value each other as partners and coaches by ‘paying’ a minimum of $500 per month into the Golden Panda’s kitty.

The idea is that we can then collectively decide how to invest that abundance — through gifts, loans or investments into other ventures and projects we believe in.

Our new hypothesis is that our configuration works because we are all in Wellington and can come together physically once a month, and don’t have persistent time zone issues that complicate our rhythms. We are all entrepreneurs and founders of (at least one!) business. We trust and love each other. Our collective support matters to each of us. We are in this for the long-haul.

We are also open to new people joining the pod and have set these boundary constraints for this iteration of the Golden Pandas. If you:

  • are based in Wellington,
  • can commit to an hour a week and a day a month,
  • are a founder, entrepreneur and business owner
  • want to help activate others in the Enspiral network to create a meaningful livelihood
  • value peer support enough to pay $500/month,
  • and are interested in participating in this experiment, let us know.

What we are hoping to learn

  • How to support each other meaningfully
  • What really good peer coaching looks like
  • What patterns and processes help activate others to leverage opportunities to create and cultivate meaningful livelihoods

The experiment continues. Hurrah!

This article is a Golden Panda production, co-created by Joshua Vial , Damian Sligo-Green and Susan Basterfield
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