How does co-operative digital business work? We asked Maciej from tech co-op Good Praxis

by MJ Widomska

Maciej comes from a dev background — he's spent most of his career in marketing agencies such as Saatchi&Saatchi, Brand 42 and Phantom. He's currently a Senior Developer at Good Praxis, a tech co-op he co-founded.

You may recognize his work on Google's award-winning Petra VR or Tate's States of Matter.

His role in a small business means he has to put a lot of hats on: in addition to being a Dev Lead on all the co-ops projects, he teaches junior developers and helps Good Praxis organise its work.

Why did you decide to start a co-op? One complaint that almost everyone has is that they wish that their boss would listen to them more. Or, they wish they had more influence regarding how things are run in the company. This is definitely how I felt as an employee. Even though I was quite lucky in my previous job where I had a pretty good relationship with my boss, at the end of the day, there is always this divide between a boss and employee.

I wanted to set up a co-op which is structurally different, and built from the ground up in a way which allows everyone to be involved in the decision-making process. No one feels excluded, and therefore, everyone feels motivated to deliver the best work they can. I think it's probably the fairest approach to setting up a company, where you know that everyone will be treated equally, that everyone who's a member of the co-op has an equal say and equal power. You don't have unnecessary hierarchies. It's more about people collaborating and trying to come up with the best solution instead of just forcing their way.

What would you say are the three key differences between co-ops and more traditional forms of employment? The first one is definitely decision-making. If you want to be involved in making a decision, you can. You don't have to, it's optional. But, if you feel like a decision made in a company can affect you in any way, you can get involved and your voice will be heard. So that's definitely important.

Second thing, I think it's the fairness in terms of how your work is perceived and appreciated. In traditional businesses, you can end up in a situation where, because of politics, because of egos, some people get a lot higher salaries than other people. With co-ops, because everything's transparent, people definitely feel like they are treated equally and fairly. If someone genuinely has more experience and is working hard, they get paid more. People who may be starting out, they might be getting paid a bit less. At the core of the co-op, we've decided, for instance, that the highest salary cannot be higher than three to four times than the lowest salary. There are structural conditions in place that make sure that there won't be massive discrepancies between the highest and the lowest earner. That means that people don't feel like they're being exploited. They don't feel like they are treated unfairly.

The third thing definitely is a huge emphasis on collaboration, and not just internally, but also with other companies. We are quite lucky since we started, we've been in touch with a lot of co-ops in London, and we've been working alongside Outlandish, which is an older, more experienced digital co-op. It's incredible how helpful and friendly the community is. You see this massive difference between companies that compete against each other and might sometimes end up collaborating. But, at the end of the day, they do treat each other as competitors in the market. Whereas the co-op environment is more like, let's share experiences, let's share learnings that we have. Let's make sure that we can all grow at the same time. Let's make sure that we all learn from each other. That definitely helps.

Some people might see it and say it seems counter-intuitive. A lot of people don't even know what a co-op is. The idea that you collaborate instead of competing? That's something that might seem crazy to them, because, this competitive form of working has been normalised, as opposed to how about we collaborate, how about we work together, how about we try to improve not only ourselves, but the people around us, and companies around us.

Do you think there is space for co-ops in the future of work?
I definitely think there's space for co-ops in the future of work. I think the main problem right now is that as digital co-ops, we are definitely in a privileged position when it comes to setting up, because we are a service-based company. So we provide services rather than products or physical items. So if you want to set up a company, all you need is a laptop and your skillset, and then you're good to go. You can already start a company. You can already start delivering work. You can already start earning money.

If you want to be like a tee shirt co-op, or a bakery co-op, or a food co-op, where you actually need the equipment, where you need space, obviously you need a lot more investment in that area. You need capital. I think that's, unfortunately, something that will definitely slow the growth of co-ops down. It will always be the people who have capital, people who have the financial means who will be deciding whether they want to set up a regular company or whether they want to set up a co-op. Unfortunately, most of them will make the decision to set up an ordinary company, so they can be in charge of everything. They can decide who they employ, how much they pay them, and basically what happens with "their money."

But we believe that it's counterproductive to work that way. We believe that when you're a co-op, there's obviously some time and money investment that the people who set up the co-op have to do. But at the end of the day, once you get more people on board, we are all working hard for the company to move forward. And therefore, it feels unfair that just because someone was lucky enough to have some spare money to set up the company, it doesn't mean that they need to be paid an extraordinary amount of money for the rest of their lives. I'm not saying that it's easy to set up the company. I've learned myself there is a lot of work that you need to put in. Yet, when you start working with other people, you're collaborating. I think that's the sort of mindset that hopefully will become more normalised and more familiar to people.

How did working in a co-op impact your productivity? How would you compare your productivity working for someone versus working in a co-op? I personally found that, now that you're doing something on your own, you feel like everything you do for the company is meaningful, and that you are contributing to the greater good of the company. That definitely motivates you to just work harder, and also just take a lot of things into account. I think it's easy when you work for a regular company to be like, well, I'm getting paid for this job. I don't really care how this company progresses. They're probably not going to fire me. So sometimes you're only motivated to deliver just the bare minimum.

With co-ops, you feel like it's worth investing time, because if the company does better, then that means that everyone succeeds, everyone gets the benefits of that. That can help to get you a better salary. That can help to get better clients and work on more exciting projects. I think the fact that there's a lot more transparency, a lot more involvement in decision-making also increases productivity, because you don't feel demotivated by the lack of conversations, or no one listening to you.

How do you organise your work within Good Praxis? We are pretty small right now. We only have four people on board, but are looking to expand soon. Because of our size, most discussions include everyone who's on board. So, that means that we don't really have to worry about how information is propagated around the company because, well, everyone basically is in the same room right now.

We have quite clearly defined roles and responsibilities within the company. You want to make sure everything gets done, and the best way of doing that is to be clear on what to expect from whom, and who delivers what.
Work is usually self-structured in coops. For instance, that's something that our friends at Outlandish do. They structure work in the form of circles, so there'll be a design circle, an accounting circle, a dev circle, and so forth. Everyone can belong to a circle, and then discussions about the different things that need to happen, take place within the circle. If you want to involved in social media, there will be a social media circle, and if you want to help with new hires, there will be an HR circle. Everyone has the right to join a circle or leave a circle whenever. If you want to get involved, you can, and we don't force anyone to be part of a boring meeting about things that don't interest them.

Now that you work on your own, how do you manage your productivity? Sometimes it's difficult to feel productive when there are so many things going on. When you set up a company there's quite a lot happening around you, and you actually get a lot done, but it doesn't feel like you've done a lot because you haven't done a lot of one thing, you do a lot of small things. I think that sometimes can make you feel like your productivity is low, especially as I'm the sort of person who likes to completely focus on a project. Still, the easiest way is to make sure that you keep track of everything you're doing and everything needs to be done. I know having a to-do list sounds trivial, but at the end of the day when you have so many things going on, you can find yourself in a situation where you end up doing nothing. You just feel overwhelmed and think, "okay, I want to go on Facebook just to chill."

You have to avoid that just by making sure you know exactly what needs to be done and just to take everything one thing at a time because it's so easy to overwhelm yourself.

What do you do when things do get stressful, and work becomes overwhelming? How do you deal with that? It's important to just stay focused and remember to slow down. A lot of people, when shit hits the fan, go into turbo mode and try to do everything really quickly, and I think that's when things can get even worse. There's been a couple of moments at the beginning of my career when if something went wrong, I would panic, try to speed up, and end up creating more problems.

What I've learned is, if you slow down and you're like, okay, hold on, what needs to happen?, only then you can fix whatever mistakes have been made. It also makes you more relaxed because you can accept this is the situation you have to deal with, and use your energy to focus on how to make things better. And then once it's sorted, then you can release the emotions and express that this was annoying, but at least we've sorted it out now.

I think actually this approach of slowing down helps people around you who as well. For instance, if you are the person who might know or have the answer to the problem, and others see you panicking, that's not helpful to anyone.

If you could change one thing in the marketing industry, what would it be? I have worked with advertising agencies in the past, I've worked for Saatchi&Saatchi, which is a very traditional agency. Something that definitely hit me when I was working there was the hierarchy of things. There was a lot of money spent on projects, and sometimes decisions were being made by one person, and that decision was overriding all other decisions.

When you look at ads, it can sometimes feel like it was one person's idea, that may have not been the best idea but was made by a senior person and then it was just executed and done.

We've all seen ads where we're like, who signed this off? Exactly. I think that still happens way too often. Ideas are not consulted with others, and you think: how on earth was this signed off? You definitely have women on board, you definitely have people of colour on board, and we still get ads that are sexist or racist, or completely out of touch. And then you think, it really does sound like a boomer made this ad, basically.

If you have a senior position in a marketing agency, don't assume that you are the smartest person in the room. You may have the experience, you may have magnificent projects under your belt, but when it comes to the project you're working on right now, there might be someone else with great ideas. Or, perhaps your approach to the project may not be the best one. Don't let your seniority go to your head.

Is there a cause close to your heart that you'd like to give a shout out to? Game Workers Unite, which is a workers union for game workers. There's this perception that game developers have great jobs because they get paid loads of money and get to work in gaming. But, there's a surprising amount of exploitation in the game industry where people work extraordinary hours and get exploited emotionally and financially. Unionisation amongst game developers is very low, and it's nice to see that there are groups like Game Workers Unite who are trying to change that.

To find out a bit more about Good Praxis, visit their website.

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