A Technology Freelancer's Guide To Starting a Worker Cooperative

Edited by Brent Emerson and Jim Johnson, with stories from tech worker co-ops:

  • Brattleboro Tech Collective by Jason Mott
  • Design Action Collective by Sabitha Basrai
  • Electric Embers by Brent Emerson
  • GAIA Host Collective by Benjamin Bradley
  • Quilted by Everybody in Quilted
  • TechCollective by Yochai Gal
  • Web Collective by Alex Tokar
  • Chicago Technology Cooperative by Jim Cramer
  • Tech Underground by Brent Emerson
  • May First/People Link by Alfredo Long

Why create a worker co-op from a group of freelancers? 
At first glance, forming a co-op of freelancers might seem like a contradiction in terms. After all, isn’t the whole idea of being a freelancer to be independent, your own boss, a lone wolf wandering the range? Many of us who have been employees, then freelancers, then worker-owners of a co-op have found the worker co-op model to offer the best of both worlds. You still get much of the self-determination of being your own boss—but you don’t have to do it all alone. Here are some of the advantages that a freelancer may find in being a worker-owner of a co-op:

Someone to back you up
So much of the time, freelancing is feast-or-famine. During the crunch times, or just vacation time, you have teammates that also know the client and can step in for you—as a fellow worker-owner, they can garner the same authority and respect that you do.

Provide 24/7 coverage without taking years off of your life
Those of us in high-availability work that can have a call coming in any time of the day or night can share this burden. For those of us looking to start a family or go back to school, this can make a critical lifestyle difference. And since a co-op is democratic, everyone can be doing their fair share of the late-night duty, instead of just one or two lower-rung people getting stuck with it all of the time.

Leverage complementary skills
Over time, we all tend to become specialists—perhaps too much so. A shift in technology or industry can wipe out a niche carefully cultivated over many years. By being part of a team, we are engaged with coworkers with distinct but related strengths, and the natural cross-pollination of knowledge and ability enriches everyone. Unlike traditional companies, the shared-fate structure of a worker co-op incentivizes the sharing of skills between professionals who might otherwise see each other as competitors.

Economy of scale in overhead and administration, more options in facilities and support systems
Combining forces can lower overhead by aggregating buying power in office space, information systems, bookkeepers, accountants, attorneys, and other business necessities. Whatever else your co-op may become, it also represents a natural buying club. (Or a natural not-paying-for-things-after-all club—you may discover existing facilities or systems that can be shared, and your new co-workers may have skills in areas where you’ve been outsourcing.)

The ability to take on clients with greater needs
Have you ever had to pass up a job because they needed more than you could give? Or regretted taking on a big job because it turned out to be just a little beyond your abilities? As a member of a cooperative, you can consider a much wider range of opportunities, knowing that you’re not facing it all on your own. At the same time, your work relationship with the co-op can be much more flexible and less all-or-nothing than a typical employment relationship; co-op agreements can vary widely to meet the needs of their members. For instance, a co-op could allow its members to keep doing their own solo gigs with their past clients (or maybe even new clients), while agreeing to look for larger gigs to share, and commit to sharing those.

A greater volume and diversity of work from which to choose, including more niches
A co-op of five people may do five times as much work, but the increased volume brings increased perspectives on the market and the clients. Simply gaining more exposure to more action will present higherquality opportunities, with more brains to analyze and brainstorm about how to take advantage of them.

Professional camaraderie
Even the toughest situations become much easier to resolve when several brains, eyes, and perspectives are applied to them. Ongoing give-and-take and a sense of solidarity make tedious work less taxing and rewarding work more enjoyable.

More than the sum of its parts
The members of a team may increase arithmetically, but teamwork increases geometrically. With each new person comes more than one new interpersonal dynamic, more than one new opportunity for fresh ideas and new angles. And groups usually make better, more careful decisions than their members would have individually.