When we got serious about founding Village One we didn’t yet know that it would become a cooperative. Rather we conceptualized what our ideal company would look like, based on the tensions we had felt in previous employments and what inspired us in other organizations.
Why is Village One a cooperative?
So we went to the drawing board, asking: What would make us super giddy to apply at a company? Which values would it hold dear? How would it treat its people? How would power be distributed? Who would make decisions and how?
Our goal was to design a new organization for the 21st century, from scratch: One that took the backdrop of the climate crisis and rising inequality seriously, one that would avoid repeating harmful business patterns that no longer serve society, one that would have some answers for the questions of this tumultuous time, contributing (however small) to a more just and equitable society. One that could serve as a bridge into the next economy beyond capitalism and let us explore this mostly uncharted terrain.
These are big questions and topics, but we gave it a go and arrived at what we saw as five crucial pillars:
1: Democratize work, distribute power equally
Isn’t it odd that we fiercely defend democracy in political spaces, yet most of the economy is autocratically governed? We strongly believe society would be better off if economic power and wealth were less concentrated and more voices were heard. Instead of a few detached people ruling over the majority doing the actual work (as is the pattern in most companies), we’d all meet each other as equals.
2: Treat people as the adults they are
In most jobs you get to hear things like “you can’t buy this”, “you can’t say that”, “you have to follow that process”. There’s always someone with more power than you, and being told how to do your job is certainly not a prerequisite for great work. We aim to empower our people, with real autonomy, through radical transparency and extending unequivocal trust, instead of infantilizing them. People who work at Village One are treated as capable adults who will make sound decisions and can self-organize their work.
3: Curiosity, diversity and emergence
Too many organizations think they’ve figured it all out: A few (usually white and male) people at the top come up with all the plans and decisions, featuring a staggering lack of diversity and curiosity about new approaches. We strive to do the opposite: Learn as much as we can from others, value collaboration over competition, invite as many perspectives as possible and trust in emergence: that the right things will capture our energy and evolve us in new and unexpected directions.
4: New work, but according to Frithjof
When Frithjof Bergmann coined the term “new work” in the 1970s, it wasn’t a meaningless consulting buzzword, but the proposal for a new culture around life and work: For him “new work” meant a profound shift, it was about finding meaning and purpose in work, working less, bringing your whole self to work, self-organization and decoupling work from place and time. We aim to take on some of that liberatory spirit!
5: Only work on projects we care about
Studios working with clients inevitably run into discussions which kinds of clients and projects to take on. We wanted to be really clear from the start that we’d only accept projects with a purposeful element and where we see eye-to-eye with the clients. Our heart needs to be in it, otherwise we won’t do our best work! Therefore we wrote a wishlist (and consequently a blocklist) very early on.
Dare we say it: It’s common sense!
What would be the result of these five principles when brought to fruition? Our hypothesis is more fulfilling work of higher quality, due to increased motivation, freedom and exposure to new ideas.
And really: When taking a step back these aren’t exactly surprising or radical goals, but almost (dare we say it?) common-sense, if you manage to suspend your preconceived notions about business for a moment:
- Of course those who do the work should be in charge and make the decisions!
- Of course we should treat people with dignity, give them autonomy and remove as many barriers to creativity as possible!
- Of course we are stronger together and can only thrive through adaption and embracing new perspectives in a rapidly changing world.
- Of course we should seek meaning in our work and reap the benefits of technological progress, resulting in more focused work and fewer overall hours.
- Of course we should reject harmful and exploitative projects and business relations, as they won’t lead to good results anyways.
With these goals in mind we looked for a matching company structure. Having read Frédéric Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations we didn’t want to fall into the “green trap”: In his model “progressive green” organizations have noble goals and embrace new methods, but are still structured like traditional hierarchical companies. This disconnect and inherent contradiction can not be resolved, leading to tensions: You can pretend it’s everyone’s company all day long, but in feedback talks, lay-offs or salary negotiations it always becomes painfully clear who is really in charge. The high goals end up being hollow.
So, why is Village One a cooperative?
For dramatic reasons we’d like to claim that one day we stumbled upon cooperatives and our mind was blown, but the reality is that being a co-op was always on the table as an idea: We knew co-ops existed and were instinctively drawn to the concept of a collectively owned + democratically governed organization. But we needed to sit with it for a while and gain more certainty about the kind of company we wanted to build. And so gradually we warmed up to the idea, then suddenly it became clear that being a co-op was the right fit for us. The structure would support our goals and also formalize them without any one person being able to change them at will.
Worker cooperatives are really an old idea (the first one dates back to 1844), but many people don’t know much about them, which is a shame: Co-ops are democratic at the core (one person = one vote in decisions), membership and ownership are fluid, they emphasize collaboration over competition, remove speculation around the value of a company, … honestly we could not not choose to become a co-op in the end.
We also believe co-ops are a natural fit for smaller creative companies, because they remove a lot of the “business” cruft from industrial times and needless hierarchy, presenting an opportunity for economic inclusion and democracy in the workplace. A co-op puts everyone on equal footing and ensures everyone’s voice has to be heard. We see our privilege as a responsibility and in a co-op it becomes really easy to extend it to more people.
A different economy is possible
Since making the decision to become a co-op we’ve talked to dozens of people about it and it seems to be hitting a nerve for many of them, who’ve already felt that something is off and unnatural about the ruthlessness and exploitative nature of business. We think we’re reaching a point where rethinking economic structures and incentives becomes an inevitability—where co-ops are one of the few tangible examples of a different economy. Only time will tell where being a co-op is going to lead us and how it will unfold in the long term, but we’re proud to be a cooperative, underpinning our lofty goals with a structure that matches them. In there also lies a promise, to uphold these principles through good and also tough times.
Intrigued? If you’re thinking about founding a co-op (especially in Germany) or converting your existing company into one, do reach out! We’re happy to share everything we know and to support you.