Unbundling Enspiral — part 2 of 3: Business

Read part 1 here.

What is the Enspiral network?

Enspiral is a group of businesses organising for maximum positive impact.

Operating in the market, the full breadth of Enspiral is hard to pin down. What was not that long ago a small collective of software developers is now a cluster of businesses and projects, sitting somewhere between the NGO, education, technology, professional services and startup sector.

As an eco-system of businesses we collaborate closely with local and national government on projects like LifeHack and the Low Carbon Challenge, we offer consulting services like accounting and software development, we build products like Cobudget, and support teams like Loomio, we help to champion emerging democratic infrastructure like Scoop and Action Station, we run conferences like OS//OS and are prototyping a significant contribution to the ‘skills over quals’ paradigm of education with Enspiral Dev Academy recently turning 2 years old and opening a second school in Auckland.

As a network we are self governing, self owning, self managing and operating with full control of our sovereignty and values. The ventures and projects operate as independent units with their own organisational structures and principles — but as a network we do not have a formal management team or top down strategy.

How does that all work?

I’m no lawyer — but this is the rough mental model I use to navigate how it all works.

  • Enspiral is an informally connected group of companies held together by Enspiral Foundation. As a ‘member’ of the network I have been invited to hold a share in Enspiral Foundation Limited which is a New Zealand limited liability company with a non-profit constitution that sits structurally in the heart of the network.
  • The number of Foundation shareholders changes, depending on the active membership, but it’s normally somewhere between 30 and 50 active people. All these Foundation shareholders have opted into active cultural and legal stewardship of the whole Enspiral network as “Enspiral members.”
  • Being a shareholder of Enspiral Foundation will not see me earn a financial return or dividends. It exists as a container to hold in trust the collective risk, assets and brand of the Enspiral network. We operate legally with a ‘Minimal viable board’ governance structure with directors who take on particular roles and clear agreements with our ventures.

Enspiral ventures and people contribute their resources, vision, time, hugs, (and blogs) to Enspiral in return for mutual value (including brand licensing, reporting agreements and the ability of to make the most of the collective leverage out in the market).

Enspiral Foundation is not at the top of a hierarchy of ventures. The ventures stand as equals. This principle of equality ripples through every level of our key organising processes — right down to the human level. Ventures and projects use their own organisational, management structures to get things done, but within Enspiral network it is intended that no one voice weighs more than any other. We have to actively invest in processes to keep it that way.

Looking back on what as emerged from this community, there is just no way a top down strategy and centralised management/ownership team could have ‘designed and built Enspiral’ with the (scarce) resource base we had.

The Foundation exists to create common resources, shared agreements and processes that support the common purpose of Enspiral.

Whats the common purpose?

Depending on who you ask, you’ll likely to get a different answer to this question. You’ll also get varying opinions on if there is a shared purpose or not.

We have learned that scaling organising systems built around personal autonomy while also trying to scale culture with clear shared purpose at the same rate is tricky….

The narrative around Enspiral’s common purpose that tipped the scales for me 5ish years ago was something like:

To support more people to build a livelihood working on the stuff that matters most to them.

Functionally, Enspiral is still very much a startup of startups needing active investment — but the eventual goal is to create a thriving system with surplus to invest and plenty to go around to support people to do the work that inspires them to have the highest possible positive impact.

Supporting more people to work on stuff that matters.

We’ve invested time in a handbook for anyone to view and reference how we do things. This is designed as a practical resource that allows us to understand whats going on and others to learn and remix. But, in my opinion, these agreements and processes are really just a sketchy map that anyone could draw up anywhere in the world or put into a textbook. It is the motivated and aligned community that brings power to it. Without the community bonds the words and diagrams in the book are all pretty useless and every business problem is harder to solve.

The opportunities, ideas and processes are cheap. The personal relationships and ability to execute are priceless. Dry wood without flame keeps nobody warm. Building a group of businesses like Enspiral starts with building a community.