In our previous post, we discussed what a platform cooperative is and why it matters to the Artisans Cooperative. In this post, we’re delighted to interview one of platform cooperativism’s most vocal advocates, Nathan Schneider, Professor of Media Studies at University Colorado – Boulder.
Professor Schneider is co-editor of the book, Ours to Hack and to Own: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, a New Vision for the Future of Work, and a Fairer Internet, with Trebor Scholz. The book is a collection of 40 essays about the need for, beginnings of, and future of co-operatives online, published in 2017 and discussed in our previous post.
Interview by Valerie Schafer Franklin, organizer at Artisans Cooperative on November 14, 2022:
1. I just finished the book you edited with Trebor Scholz about platform cooperatives, which has been super useful and informative. What has happened in the world of platform co-ops in the 5 years since it was published?
A lot of the book’s material dates to the initial platform cooperativism conference in 2015. Above all, the conference and the book served to plant a flag: to lay out a vision for why the online economy should integrate cooperative economics. But what we’re finding is that the scale of funding you can get as a platform co-op is so much less than platform capitalist enterprises. The policy and business environment is not designed well for shared ownership. We need to change that. In the meantime, the best hope of building new co-ops is where you’re not directly competing against a capitalist platform, you need to find different approaches.
The second thing we’ve learned since then is that you have to be careful how much you rely on cooperative branding. It brings some people in the door, but not everyone and the cooperative model itself is not enough to get people to stay inside. You have to think about solving their problems: how are you going to change people’s lives for the better and focus on that. The cooperative model is just a means to an end, not the end itself.
2. When we first had the concept for Artisans Cooperative, we thought our idea for an online-only co-op might be entirely new. We were so wrong! How many are there now? Is there one active place where platform co-ops are gathering, where lists of tools and organizations are kept up-to-date?
The main spaces right now are:
- The Platform Cooperativism Consortium just had its annual conference in Rio, it has a more international focus. The PCC has an online course, which is like an incubator.
- Start.coop helps anchor platform cooperatives in the US.
- In October, the National Cooperative Business Association, which covers all kinds of cooperatives, did its annual conference in Washington DC
- Also check out social.coop on Mastodon
3. Having a robust communications platform for members, organizers, and collaborative decision-making seems to be a unique challenge for organizing a platform co-op with disparate members and so many communication styles/methods in the world (young vs old, email vs social media, specialty apps vs meeting wherever they are). Do you have any recommendations on tools for this, particularly for bootstrapped companies that may not be able to afford paid platforms right away (Loomio, Slack, email+Discord, list-serves)?
That’s actually a really good question. This is a concern for platform cooperatives, as well as values-centered online communities of all kinds. It is something I experiment with on my own a lot, including with the students in my university lab. But, for instance, running your own server in and of itself is its own job – and it’s a big job.
We need to develop an integrated toolkit to support communities that want to rely on non-corporate tools. I am working with four different tech co-ops that are trying to solve this problem. When you already have a community built, it can be hard to change platforms. But, in the long-term you don’t want to be beholden to corporate tech.
Currently, our lab is using NextCloud with Matrix. We find Matrix is cleaner than Discord. Those and other tools run on Cloudron, which manages all the software updates and integrates the user experience. This is a link to the tech stack we’re using in the lab: https://handbook.medlab.host/technology
Loomio is also a great tool, we use it daily for social.coop. But in Loomio, you don’t get to chat. It’s forum-based. So it’s really good for moving from conversations to decisions. I would use Loomio for making decisions as large groups, and use a chat program for small operational teams, like Matrix. Matrix has ethical values and is free. With Matrix, you create a space, and then you have different rooms.
4. Are there any case studies you recommend we emulate as an online marketplace considering a multi-stakeholder cooperative (Artisans, Partners, and Supporters)? Are there any that we should learn from as a cautionary tale?
If you’re considering a multi-stakeholder cooperative, you want to be careful to set clearly expectations with online governance design for who the “ultimate” stakeholders are.
Let me play devil’s advocate against multi-stakeholders for a moment:
- Co-ops can have a clear primary stakeholder and still be good to all the stakeholders if the governance is designed right.
- Multi-stakeholder organizations can make the governance more complex, creating elements of faction, pitting sides against each other.
- It’s hard to say how the business will evolve in the future. If revenue ends up coming from an unexpected place, how do different stakeholders react to moving business in one direction or another?
I encourage you to even consider just one primary stakeholder class. It could still be done in a multi-stakeholder way, such as by making artisans the owners but making sure the employees have a union. But with a single stakeholder class, when hard decisions have to be made, everyone knows whose interests need to come first.
For example, in Julet Schor’s book After the Gig, she tells the story of how Stocksy, a cooperative online marketplace for photography, ran into some trouble with conflicting interests of staff and artists—in this case, photographers. Both have membership in the co-op. The staff wanted to recruit more photographers to the platform to grow it, while the photographers didn’t want more competition, and the conflict may have held the co-op back from growing and being more successful.
Another model to consider is clustering: having a cluster of single stakeholder organizations that all work together—such as a worker co-op that collaborates with a purchasing co-op and a consumer co-op. There’s a case study from solar energy as an example.
[Editor’s Note: Another good “lessons learned” case study is this post-mortem on Loconomics by Danny Spitzberg]
5. Our three biggest challenges to getting this project off the ground right now are: 1) trying to get self-organized with an all-volunteer crew, 2) getting the word out to artisans, and 3) developing the website. Any words of advice?
It’s important for you to get to revenue (cash flow) ASAP. Can you think of any ways to make revenue before you launch the marketplace?
I know the saturation of the marketplace is real. Etsy is a goliath and it’s hard to compete with the unimaginable scale that these capitalized marketplaces have. Instead of competing with Etsy, can you support artisans by giving them the services they need without trying to replicate what the competition is already doing?
Pleasing customers is always the best marketing strategy. I encourage you to think about how you can solve the artisans’ problems as fast and cheap as you can to get liftoff.
That may mean, technology-wise, that you’re using existing tech and existing tools, and even using something like Shopify, where you’ll have more capacity and more tools, right away. Doing business cooperatively doesn’t work if you try to beat investors at their own game; you need to develop business models around cooperation from the ground up.
What are your responses and reactions to this interview? Do you think we can build a successful platform cooperative? What questions would you ask Prof. Schneider? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
About Artisans Cooperative
We are growing an online handmade marketplace for an inclusive network of creatives: a co-op alternative to Etsy.
Shop the marketplace!