Monthly Archives: March 2015
Snowden: Spying is “much worse in the UK than the United States”
Written for Tech City News and first published here.
Mass government surveillance is “much worse in the UK than the United States,” NSA whistleblower Ed Snowden has warned.
Speaking at Nesta’s FutureFest Snowden said the “light oversight regime” here has seen billions of normal people’s communications routinely accessed by GCHQ. “It’s not security – it’s spying.”
He pointed to the recent rebranding of this activity, from mass surveillance to “bulk collection”, saying that: “we have to get the government to admit there’s a problem… we can’t let them redefine it.”
Snowden left his $200,000 per year job working for the US’ National Security Agency back in 2013 after he after he felt he “could not consciously participate in” what he saw happening.
He says officials from the UK, Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia were able to use a searchable database to look through communications records. “Our communications are being stolen and stored so they can be rifled through at the convenience of security agents.”
Snowden advocates end-to-end encryption but says he is “fairly conservative” on surveillance “if they [government officials] have a warrant from a court”. He said he believes the technical side will win, as it’s easier to protect communications in transit than it is to enforce legislation in every country in the world.
He pointed to Iceland’s anti-surveillance stance and said it’s likely that data centres and other services will start to locate there if they feel they cannot be protected from mass surveillance in their own countries.
Today’s “pre-criminal” activity, he said, is “an incredible departure from the liberal tradition… If we go along with the status quo then we will be living in a mass surveillance world.”
Mobile Marketing Magazine – Issue 19, March 2015 – 2015: The Year Iteration, Not Innovation is Key
Written for the 18th edition of Mobile Marketing Magazine. See the full issue here.
So the New Year hasn’t quite brought the ‘new you’ that the mobile industry might have been looking for, instead we all seem to be focused on delivering, or perfecting, those innovations we’ve all been talking about since that fated ‘year of mobile’.
With sales halted on the current version of Google Glass, plus wearables like Nike FuelBand resigned to the scrap heap, it’s clear that smart device-makers are doing some soul-searching. Despite several new launches at CES, Apple’s Watch, set to launch this Spring, is really the only wearable on everyone’s mind.
But check out the Uno Noteband for something a little bit different. The device, which has just completed a successful crowdfund on Indiegogo, comes pre-loaded with Spritz fast-reading software that promises to help you read a 300-page book in 90 minutes. This might be the key to keeping your New Year’s resolution to read more books, while Bond could be just the app to help you keep those promises of regular contact with family and friends, enabling you to set regular reminders to reach out to certain people, on whichever platform they want to hear from you.
It’s clear the handset market is still hot though, with Chinese upstart Xiaomi sealing its position as the world’s third-best selling handset in 2014, and rousing investment rumours from big players like Facebook. The company, founded in 2010, has just unveiled a couple of handsome handsets that are shorter, thinner, lighter and much cheaper than the iPhone 6 Plus.
Although failing in its bid to get a slice of the Chinese device market, Facebook just made an interesting buyout in the form of Wit.ai, which could accelerate voice-controlled functionality in the social giant’ products. Facebook’s enterprise efforts are also a hot tip for 2015, if businesses are willing to part with their data of course!
Behind the scenes, Qualcomm has been working hard on improving the processing power of our much-loved smartphones, and its Snapdragon 810 is now coming into production in Windows and Android devices like the LG G Flex 2. This means better data speeds, longer battery life and optimised support of 4K, or ultra-high-definition, video.
And this is perfect timing for what’s becoming our all-video culture, with visual feasting set to represent 79% of all consumer internet traffic in 2018, up from 66% in 2013. With everyone from Facebook, Youtube, Amazon, Netflix, Instagram and Vice all vying your attention in this fast-growing media space, prepare for the definition of TV, the ad spend and the metrics to change dramatically.
And where would video be without, next gen video: virtual reality. Gamers are clearly the big winners in the growth of VR, and mobile games are already tipped to outsell consoles this year. But advertisers, too, will start to make virtual reality pay. Although the Tesco store walkaround was pretty awkward, companies like Chrysler are turning a ‘behind the scenes at the factory’ slot into a truly cinematic experience, with the help of Google Maps and Oculus Rift.
And where there’s ‘bells and whistles’ tech, there’s now a real drive to create the products and services that help every day. Covering everything from assistive technologies for people with disabilities, to ‘quantified self’ applications like Health from Apple, 2015 is surely the year that health products, and health data, become awesome. In Berlin, MiMi is using smartphones to help make hearing aid technologies accessible to all. Peak Vision is likewise bringing cheap eye tests to the developing world via its smartphone app.
And where there’s small data, there’s bigger data, the likes of which is helping smart city innovation trickle down to smart towns. MK:Smart is a £16m project currently smartening up Milton Keynes, proving that projects like this can be done on a smaller scale. The company behind this was just bought up by Huawei, while Samsung Ventures has invested in London-based IoT startup Everythng, so it’s certainly a battleground to wtach going into 2015.
Keep an eye on eye-tracking and facial-recognition tech, long-tipped to come into mainstream usage, save the creepiness factor, plus even more mobile-first product customisation, like that just announced at BBC News. Mobile money, yet again led by Apple, is also likely to become ‘just another thing we do’ come New Year’s Day 2016. But don’t think about that now, there’s a whole year of improvement and iteration to do first!
Mobile Marketing Magazine – Issue 19, March 2015 – Will it really be Twitter wot won it?
Written for the 18th edition of Mobile Marketing Magazine. See the full issue here.
January saw the celebration of Democracy Day here in the UK, this year marking the 750th anniversary of the country’s first parliament, although it’s perhaps not an occasion up there with Christmas. The month also saw anti-austerity party Syriza win a majority in Greece’s parliament, on the promise of a renegotiation of public debt obligations that many believe are crippling the country’s economic recovery. It was quite the month for democracy, if easily missed by the attention-poor British public.
The UK will be holding its own public vote in May, with some billing it the ‘lottery election’ because of the colourful range of parties that are in a real position to win seats this time. The Independent has narrowed the race down to just 100 key marginals, noting that Labour is likely to face fierce competition from the Scottish National Party post-#Indyref, and the Lib Dems are in danger of dropping from 57 to just 19 winning candidates post-LibCon.
Just as the political race has been thrown a little more wide open, the digital world has come a long way since we voted back in 2010, and no doubt contributing to the loosening grip of the ‘big two’ parties. Personally, I’ve switched from a BlackBerry, to a Samsung, and finally got comfortable as an iPhone user. Globally, the US and Europe went iPad mad, before realising we all only have two hands. But, despite near-peak-smartphone penetration in the UK, policymakers are still yet to give the green light to online, or better yet, mobile voting.
In true lumbering bureaucracy fashion, two different groups in parliament have been consulting simultaneously on proposals around a ‘digital democracy’. Speaker John Bercow’s Digital Democracy Commission has just produced its report, stating that internet voting could be online in time for the 2020 general election, while also noting that parliamentary language and procedures will need to be simplified by then if we have any hope that “everyone can understand what the House of Commons does”.
Although Cabinet Office minister Sam Gyimah believes: “the fact electronic voting is incredibly rare across the globe I believe is testament to some of the problems delivering it,” Anthony Walker from Tech UK says “we are confident the tools exist to address these challenges.” It’s something that’s been a reality in Estonia for a decade, where in 2005, it became the first country worldwide to offer legally binding online votes in a national election. The numbers casting their ballot in this way has risen from just under 10,000 people first time around, to a third of the population doing digital democracy in last year’s European elections.
The UK’s Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has likewise just finished accepting submissions on voter engagement, covering proposals including automatic registration, online voting and votes at 16. The former should be of particular interest to those who want more tech solutions in powerful places, given that moves by the Government Digital Service, tasked with transforming the British state for the 21st century, has tried to streamline voter registration and knocked almost 1m off the register in the process.
The Labour Party published its Digital Government report in November last year, calling for a digital government infrastructure that’s accessible to all. They cited figures from BT estimating that getting internet access means an equivalent extra £1,064 every year for each new user. The study points out that while the less well off are less likely to be online, 80 per cent of government interactions are with the poorest 25 per cent of people.
A new model for digital democracy is shaping up in the form of DemocracyOS, a cross-platform, open-source tool for debating and voting that’s being developed by a group of young professionals in Argentina. Its creators say: “The internet has changed everything: the way we share and consume culture, how we engage in commerce, and how we communicate with others. But the internet has failed to change in one key area of our lives: politics. Democracy is in great need of a serious upgrade.”
Having already appeared as part of a TED talk, and been demoed in front of the World Economic Forum, the project is about to be crowdfunded (of course) via a Kickstarter campaign. The vision is that voters will be given the opportunity to express their preferences on any given issue, directly to their elected representative, with the hope this will increase engagement with politics, and accountability of decision-makers.
Elsewhere in the world, and post-financial crash, the Icelandic public was given the opportunity to take part in drafting a crowdsourced constitution. The 10-month process saw an elected 25-member Constitutional Advisory Council seek feedback through social media sites before drafting the new document. But the effort ultimately failed in the country’s legislature, despite huge public support. In Seattle, meanwhile, an online game was used to challenge residents to pick funding priorities in order to close a very real $31.7m gap in the city’s 2013 budget.
So if we aren’t going to have a digitally-enabled election in the UK this time, how are the campaigns shaping up? It’s Barack Obama’s 2012 election campaign that usually springs to mind when considering great digital election campaigning. Harper Reed was certainly an unusual suspect when he was appointed CTO for the campaign, heading into the Oval office with a beard and thick-rimmed glasses you’d more likely find in Shoreditch than in power. But the victory won here is among the greatest examples the world has ever seen of big data being made genuinely useful, and much credit is given to the tech tools deployed during the race.
Going into 2015, and despite bringing in ‘the wizard of Oz’, Australian electoral guru Lynton Crosby on a £500,00 deal to secure electoral victory, the Conservatives look to be running more of a bad data campaign. The Spectator reports that the party is running two ‘rickety’ databases simultaneously in the run up to the May vote, VoteSource and Merlin, but points out this isn’t a new issue, with one campaigner admitting they “called quite a lot of dead people” in 2013’s Eastleigh by-election.
In contrast, Labour Digital, a young team of Labour supporters working in tech who ‘want Labour to be number one in digital’ has been called the party’s “most powerful weapon”. They created last year’s NHS Baby campaign, a minimally-party-branded tool that created lots of socially shareable nostalgia ‘I was the 25,484,298th baby born on the NHS’, while harvesting perhaps millions of email addresses in the process.
The cost-efficiency and democratic access that comes with digital campaigning has not gone unnoticed by the smaller parties. “Digital means a level playing field,” says Conservative defector Douglas Carswell. “Almost anything the big corporate parties do on massive central databases can now be done on a £600 laptop. With a good desktop publishing programme and an army of volunteers, you can compete on equal terms with the Westminster machines.” The ‘Reasons to Vote Green’ website, knocked up by a tech-savvy volunteer, has seen more than 42,000 Facebook shares.
In the past, the Sun was confident enough of its own power to influence the election debate that it printed the famed ‘It’s the Sun wot won it’ front page following the Conservative victory in 1992. But the most heated discussions around the election so far have been centred on the TV debate: will they won’t they? If they do, who will appear? And perhaps it’s the chatter happening around these TV spots that will make the biggest difference this time round. It’s still not quite clear whether Facebook ‘likes’ actually turn into votes, I know I follow UKIP on Twitter, but only so I know what they’re up to. But FremantleMedia’s Keith Hindle recently told the Guardian that the level of social engagement its TV shows drive is now more important to advertisers than TV ratings.
Twitter has taken this opportunity to start opening up and highlighting tools that could help political parties make an impact in target seats, including geo-targeting around individual postcodes. “This is potentially even more important in 2015 when the role of the smartphone will come to the fore as a way of connecting with voters,” Twitter says on its blog. “Mobile is in Twitter’s DNA: of Twitter’s 15m UK users, 80 per cent access the platform via their mobile device.”
But, unlike newspapers, digital doesn’t become tomorrow’s fish wrappers: the internet doesn’t forgive or forget. David Cameron was mocked early in 2014 for ‘paying people to like him’, in the form of a paid Facebook campaign. The party was also ripped to shreds on Buzzfeed for trying to delete from its website some of the promises made before the last election. “The Tories have attempted to wipe all of their pre-2010 speeches off the internet. So we’ve dug them out,” says the website’s political editor Jim Waterson. Many voter choice sites, like VoterforPolicies.org, have sprung up to cater for an audience that just wants to know now.
Unfortunately for the political parties, the world won’t wait for them. The challenges now facing political parties are the same of those being tackled by legacy brands: when people can make a one-click purchase on Amazon, why would they use our site? Do they trust us to look after their digital DNA? Although none of the parties have so far fallen foul of membership data leaks or breaches, given that discs containing information from three of the UK’s most sensitive inquiries around police misconduct just got lost in the post, let’s not put it past them. And are we being honest? If not, we could get found out pretty quickly.
Many modern citizens, some spurred into caring by the #GreenSurge and events taking place in Greece, are now trying to make their decision ahead of the May vote and will be expecting an online experience comparable with Airbnb or Netflix, something that’s pretty tough to deliver. The Green Party, for example, is funded entirely by its members, which means collaborative efforts have to be made to bring digital assets up to scratch.
But it’s not actually those digital-savvy consumers that are the people most likely to vote. Despite the cheeky antics and big conversations now made possible online, in the 2010 election, fewer than half (44 per cent) of 18 to 24s cast a ballot, while that shot up to 76 per cent of over 65s. As well as focusing on policies that favour older people, this perhaps explains the reluctance from the major parties to move to online or mobile voting: if you make it easier, digital, people might actually do democracy. And you wouldn’t want that now, would you?
Policies or personalities?
@David_Cameron = 905,000
@Ed_Miliband = 374,000
@nick_clegg = 207,000
@nigel_farage = 184,000
@uklabour = 172,000
@conservartives = 134,000
@thegreenparty = 102,000
@libdems = 79,600
@ukip = 79,200
@natalieben = 49,500
Mobile Marketing Magazine – Issue 19, March 2015 – Y Business Accelerators Attract Big Brands
Written for the 18th edition of Mobile Marketing Magazine. See the full issue here.
Since the launch of Y Combinator back in 2005, the business accelerator space has truly come to life, with 2013 marking a record year for new programmes opening their doors. Y Comb’s first cohort included one of the internet age’s most interesting success stories – online news platform Reddit– as well as mobile location startup Loopt, which was bought for $43.4m in 2012. The world’s first tech accelerator also gave early backing to Airbnb and Dropbox, now both multi-billion dollar companies.
SEE-DB, created to profile each new and hopeful innovation hub, lists 227 programmes worldwide in 2015, which have supported 4,274 business, celebrated 245 exits totalling $3.4m, and seen $7.2m raised. And they admit that’s probably not even the half of it. Competition for certain accelerators can be high, Telefónica’s Wayra has received more than 29,000 pitches worldwide and has an admission rate of just 1.6%, but in an increasingly crowded accelerator space, most new programmes are now going down the specialist route. Female Propeller for High Fliers in Dublin only accepts female-led startups, while the EyeFocus Accelerator in Berlin is dedicated simply to innovation in eye care.
Many of the UK’s highstreet brands are now flocking towards this kind of innovation as an alternative to things like in-house R&D or M&A activity. Companies are using the accelerator model to help with technological innovation, or build an ecosystem around a specific product, like the Nike+ Fuel Lab. Some, like Disney, have opted to sponsor existing programmes, in this case, TechStars, while brands like John Lewis, Barclays and Telefónica, have all put their name above the door on their relevant offerings.
In January alone, a new accelerator has been launched in London by delivery firm DPD, in partnership with tech fund L Marks, to help it innovate around logistics and fulfilment. As the cost of doing business in the digital age drops, starting an accelerator and supporting startups looks like an increasingly resource-efficient strategy. And if you’ve attracted and interviewed the right teams, you may have a new supplier, or even a new business unit in your midst.
But, there are risks, and unanswered questions around the model: how do you distinguish the unicorns from the donkeys? How do you make strategic decisions about your direction given the little data there is on offer? Are accelerators too focused on companies that offer the clearest, short-term hope of success, meaning more complex areas are left untouched? And how do you actually turn a profit? Y Combinator took five years to start making money – perhaps that’s why Tesco set up its Rainmaking Loft as a co-working and events space, rather than an accelerator programme.
What differentiates your accelerator is becoming increasingly important, whether that’s by mission – are you for good or for profit? – whether you have a specialism, or how the project is funded. The quality of learning resources or mentors, along with the time and equity commitments, are also key considerations for startups that are looking to get involved. And accelerator owners are still ultimately trying to understand what success looks like for them, and how they measure it.
Founded: May 2014
Specialism: B2B marketing programme working with Unilever marketers through partnership with Collider accelerator in the UK, plus more worldwide
Length of programme: 3 months
Funding structure: No equity taken. Unilever pays 50% of pilot project cost, with the remaining 50% paid on delivery. Following this, the project may be taken on for investment by Unilever Ventures.
Projects: Unilever creates briefs for its existing brands across different geographies, asking relevant companies to apply to solve a specific business problem. As of July 2014, five Collider startups had signed revenue-generating deals with Unilever brands.
Founded: March 2014
Specialism: Retail technology accelerator with dedicated space within the Level39 fintech hub at Canary Wharf.
Length of programme: 15 weeks
Funding structure: £12,500 investment for 4% equity. The winner of the JLAB programme receives up to £100,000 investment and a chance to supply John Lewis.
Projects: Five projects made it into JLAB 2014, giving them access to John Lewis’ retail infrastructure, plus internal and external mentors. Location-based tech provider Localz, which uses iBeacons to send relevant information to smartphone users while shopping, won the first JLAB.
Founded: 2011, March 2012 in the UK, totalling 14 established across Latin America and Europe
Specialism: Looking at areas including cloud services, financial services, M2M, digital security, e-health, mobile applications, social networks and e-learning
Length of programme: 9 months
Funding structure: up to $50,000 for 10% equity, with $23m already invested
Projects: Wayra has accelerated nearly 450 companies across 20 different industries, which have gone on to raise more than $70m from other sources. 80 of the programme’s alumni are now working with Telefónica in selling, pilots or trials.
Founded: July 2013 in California, September 2013 in New York
Specialism: Looking for products and services that can enrich the lives of consumers. The startups do not have to make their products exclusively for Samsung.Length of programme: There is no fixed duration
Funding structure: There is no fixed amount. “We understand each product has different timelines and resource requirements, and we work closely with our entrepreneurs to determine what they need to succeed,” Samsung says.
Projects: Samsung does not have an application process or deadline, instead offering experienced entrepreneurs the opportunity to approach them with their idea. The programme has kicked off in the US, where all of its current projects are in stealth mode, with a goal of getting them to market within one to three years.
Founded: California in June 2013, now operating across 7 countries including China, India and Israel
Specialism: From coding to gaming, advertising to online dating, Microsoft is simply looking for great ideas and skilled teams.
Length of programme: 3 months
Funding structure: London applicants receive up to £75,000 prior to entering the programme. Microsoft takes no equity and offers free workspace, mentoring and access to its business ecosystem.
Projects: Globally, 80% of the 240 graduates across 7 accelerators have raised an average of $1.9m in funding within 1 year of finishing the programme. London-based alumni Caribu got a mention during Apple’s recent keynote event.
Founded: April 2014
Specialism: Builds on the work done through the 2013 Nike+ Accelerator program, developing digital services for the 28m-plus people that use FuelBand, plus expanding its audience by partnering with companies like MyFitnessPal.
Length of programme: 12 weeks
Funding structure: $50,000 per team
Projects: Although the company announced after 18 months it would stop selling its FuelBand fitness harware, it continues to work on the software ecosystem. It’s not clear where the project has got to.
What the brands say
“As part of our 150th anniversary celebrations last year, we launched our first ever technology incubator, JLAB,” says John Vary, IT Innovation Manager at John Lewis. “We have been ahead of the game in omnichannel retailing and our JLAB incubator was designed to help nurture the next generation of technology startups, while helping ensure we remain on the cutting-edge of retail change.
“We had five finalists but the overall winner was Localz, a startup business specialising in micro-location technology. Their technology gives customers the opportunity to take advantage of some enhanced services using their smartphone based on their precise location. For example, it could automatically offer to trigger a customer’s Click & Collect order to be picked as they enter the shop. We’re going to start trialing this solution very soon before rolling it out more widely if it’s successful.”
What the participants say
“We chose Wayra because they are a global accelerator with offices around the world with an excellent reputation,” says Daniel Reina, CEO and co-founder of app discovery startup Tappx. “They offer investment support, offices, metrics, mentors, legal and financial support, and internships. You also benefit from a close working partnership with Telefónica, and a wide network of advisors. It was a strategic decision for us, mobile app discovery is a global market and we needed a global partner.
“You have to be able to juggle multiple things at the same time, pitch at a moment’s notice and do a lot of networking. Being part of an accelerator means you have more work and responsibilities to meet the expectations of those supporting you. In return, you have a wider network, which is an invaluable resource to a company that needs to grow rapidly, but you are always busy and need to work hard. We also learn from the other companies participating in the programme, it’s its own intensive MBA.”
What are the other options?
So perhaps the corporate accelerator isn’t right for every brand – but what are the other options?
The Pop Up Agency
“We solve briefs in 48 hours,” says Zlatko Corluka, co-founder of The Pop Up Agency, which came out of work done by the team at career accelerator Hyper Island. “The client is not expecting a fully functioning app or a website after this time, but something that you can start implementing or producing the next day.
“Innovation is almost always the factor and they often come to us to try new ways of working. We could be called in to accelerate a project, to think of new markets for an existing product, to create or launch a new product, and much more. Before settling down in London, we did a world tour where we worked with everyone from Facebook, to Coca-Cola, and some startups in Berlin. From this we got great knowledge of how different markets and industries around the world work, something that clients really appreciate.
“Often our clients already have one or more agencies working on their communications, but they’re not always happy with what they get. From what we have seen and heard, the value of the end product isn’t matching with the time and money spent on it.”
EY Startup Challenge
Some large companies, like Ernst and Young, have opted to create short competitions in order for them to engage with startups around a specific business problem, in this case, the ‘right to be forgotten’.
Sedicii has developed and patented a technology that eliminates the transmission, storage and exposure of private user data during identity verification. They won the six-week EY Startup Challenge from a shortlist of seven tech startups.
“We wanted to work with EY because they are focused on delivering real commercial outcomes for their customers that use new innovations that startups can provide,” says Sedicii’s global commercial director Richard Coady. “From this programme and working with the EY team, Sedicii benefited from having access to and engaging with EY clients in verifying our solutions and introducing them to our innovative technologies.”
Should Tech Companies That Derive All Their Value from Users Be Co-ops?
Written for How We Get to Next and first published here.
Writing for Forbes last December, Cameron Keng argued that if Apple were a co-operative, each of its employees — from mine to production line, in-store genius to CEO — would have earned a $403,000 share of its profits last year, on top of one’s salary. But Apple is neither jointly owned nor democratically controlled by its workers. Nor are the vast majority of digital companies starting-up today.
Companies like online shoe retailer Zappos, now owned by Amazon, have famously adopted holocratic principles that encourage a flatter structure and abolish job titles, but that greater equality ends at wages and stock options. While Zappos looks a far cry from the rigid hierarchy seen at Apple, its approach appears more as a socialization of efforts and privatization of profit, hardly opening up the business for the benefit of all its workers.
“The Internet is built upon global cooperation and collaboration often with people you don’t even know,” said Rhiannon Colvin, founder of AltGen, which helps young people combat youth unemployment and precarious work by setting up their own co-ops. “There is a lot of synergy between the values of the open-source movement and the co-operative movement, but it has yet to be capitalized on.”
She added, “Imagine if new digital and tech inventions such as Facebook or Uber were owned by the people that actually create the wealth — the users of Facebook that generate the content and all the taxi drivers that work with Uber. Of course, there would still be paid staff to run it and innovate, but the shares and growth of the business would be making everyday people richer, not already-wealthy investors.”
In just such a move, Marcos Menendez launched the TheGoodData co-op a few months ago to see if he could help combat growing issues about data ownership by ensuring that “users are part of the solution.” But he’s only too familiar with the challenges that co-ops can bring. Global finance systems are not built for them and there isn’t yet an out-of-the-box solution for setting one up anywhere in the world. There are also questions over whether co-ops can work at scale and, in an increasingly unequal society, how to garner the necessary first-stage startup costs.
La’Zooz, a ridesharing platform launched late last year that offers users community-based tokens for shared journeys, is attempting to get around this complexity by operating without any ownership. “It has governance principles and tools, but has no legal basis,” Menendez explained. “Its members couldn’t set up an office, but they can work together to try and oust Uber and Lyft.”
One of the key things a co-op model could offer tech is a re-engagement with its supply chains and a more holistic approach to tech production. Catherine Williams is a director (alongside all of her colleagues) at workers’ co-op Unicorn, a food store based in Manchester. “Regardless of a member’s primary role, everyone has shop-floor time, whether it’s on the till, managing the store, making soup at the deli or packing commodities on our production site,” she said. “In food, we talk a lot about the farmers, the people doing the hard work in the fields. In tech, nobody really talks about the factory workers, working long hours, or the children out in illegal mines foraging for tin.”
The collaborative message does seem to be hitting home with some unlikely characters at the top of the tech industry. Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist with Union Square Ventures in New York City, has started engaging in online conversations with his peers about community ownership of tech companies. “With more and more web and mobile applications deriving their value mostly or completely from their user base (Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Etsy, Reddit, Kickstarter, Uber, etc), there is a growing sense that the community could or should have some real ownership in these businesses,” he wrote in January.
Some policymakers are also taking note. A $1.2 million investment in workers’ co-ops by the New York City Council announced last year was quickly bettered by a $5 million investment by the mayor of Madison in Wisconsin. “With a co-operative you don’t have to worry about a buyout,” said Mayor Paul Soglin. “You don’t have to worry about a CEO one day picking up and moving the company to Fargo. With a co-operative you can have confidence that the company and the wealth it generates are going to stay local.”
Williams of the food shop in Manchester said, “The main perk for me is, ‘a problem shared is a problem halved,’ and if I had a similar role in a hierarchical business, I’d probably have a lot of sleepless nights. The only negative I can come up with is decision-making. Consensus isn’t always the easiest or quickest method, but the advantages are well worth it. We learn from one another all the time and are able to make strong, well-founded decisions upheld by a unified and active membership.”
Still, Rhiannon Colvin believes the co-operative movement has been “incredibly bad at making itself look cool, sexy and progressive,” which is a real issue for our image-obsessed culture. But, she added, “It fundamentally challenges capitalist structures of power and wealth distribution, which most startups replicate.” Perhaps cooperation simply appears more of a political statement than many apolitical techies are willing to make.
So while it’s unlikely that Apple CEO Tim Cook will swap his comfy boardroom chair for a tin mine in Indonesia anytime soon, there are already plenty of resourcesand hundreds of successful case studies to help organizations that want to give co-ops a go.