Starting a business isn’t considered impossible. You think of an idea, you build a simple website, you go to town. Success certainly involves a lot more; assessing your market competition, testing your pricing, having a good pitch, having a lot of luck along the way. But we take it as a given that anyone should be able to start a business, give it a shot. We’re flexible with how we define a successful entrepreneur; maybe they change the world, or maybe they just carve out a life for themselves, living with dignity and being their own boss. I want to live in a world where starting a coop is as easy as starting a business–think of an idea in community, and see if it works. The operational considerations are large, like any business. But when I talk about cooperative structures today, I get blank stares. I can describe a model for a coop that is in almost every way identical to its private ownership counterpart, or point to an existing coop that could be replicated, and people respond with different versions of “How would that even work?” I’ve also run into many people who have poked around the idea of a coop with their friends or colleagues, gotten excited at the idea, but feel lost at where to even begin. Starting a coop feels like making chocolate chip cookies without a recipe. We have a sense for how they should work, a gut for the components.. but how do we put it together?
Part of the journey to arrive at our destination requires a cultural shift, an acceptance of coops as a viable and normal model. What I think could seed that wider acceptance is making cooperatives as easy to start as any other business. Part of this probably requires changes to our corporate entity structures (think LLC, INC, DBA) and possibly tax code considerations. A cottage industry of “How to start a coop” guides, with incorporation templates, typical governance procedures, advice on managing financials etc could help–think of the existing resources on Youtube and at local business support organizations.
I am not a policy expert, and I am not particularly interested in thinking through a perfectly designed coop “how-to” kit. What I am interested in are the design principles of this endeavor; what guides us as we build structures and policies to encourage adoption of coops? I think asking ourselves at every step, “Is this easy?” and “Can anyone do it?” are the most important guiding lights. The great momentum of a public push should not be trying to educate everyone up front about the nuances of different cooperative models, their benefits and drawbacks, or debating which of these constitutes the “right” coop. Do you own it together? It’s a coop! Is it easy? Anyone can do it! Capital access is a huge consideration here–this is currently a major barrier to viable business growth for most female entrepreneurs and businesses of color, and left unaddressed would carry over to cooperatives as well. The frame of “is this easy/can anyone do it” cannot include qualifiers such as “assuming they have access to $100,000” or similar assumptions that exclude marginalized communities. The frame challenges us to seriously unpack and address the racist assumptions often imbedded in design at the policy level.
I’ve always been captured by the cooperative principle of self-determination. Part of solidarity is knowing when to trust others, let them decide for themselves what their goals are and allow them to get there in their own way. A national cooperative framework should enable this instinct; not prescribing movement-approved uses for coops or trying to own the moral use cases. We can be excited that we have no idea what genie we’re letting out of the bottle; sweeping industry disruptions alongside tiny experiments that provide no broader value except to the small membership who find them deeply fulfilling.
I propose that this agnostic approach makes it easier to get buy-in from the public. We don’t even need to argue cooperatives are superior; if we make them easy, anyone can try it for themselves. We can make it about increasing options for how to form a business or other organization. We can design it as a pathway that makes it easier to become a small business (co)owner. Options and ownership seem popular. Democracy does too. While existing institutions may fear (and fear-monger) that we’re talking about nationalizing our oil industry, framing coops as a “mom and pop” business strategy might make it easier to get the framework passed and easier to get it in the hands of regular people.
These little seeds might be all we need to instigate a new economy. In my exploration of coops around the country, and why some communities have a flourishing network of coops while others have none, it seems that coops are contagious. Once people see one in action, whether it’s a grocery store or coffee shop or credit union, folks seem to imagine other applications. Once they’ve experienced a coop, it seems people can’t help but start other coops. That’s the power I want to seed. Conversely, if we end up with cooperative models that require special lawyers and accountants, require special consultants to really get set up properly and have a chance of success, then we’ve failed on the democratic promise and would likely see a corresponding failure in economic outcomes. This shouldn’t be like passing nuclear secrets and can’t be rocket science; this should be like sharing the concept of fire–easy to spread, immediately empowering for individuals and society-building in its potential.