A surprisingly well attended meeting at the Trades Hall last night given the low key publicity. Developers, designers and folk from 5 different trade unions were there. Interesting perspective on the potential power of developers to influence the shape of new tech to meet privacy-by-design and other yet-to-be-defined principles. Only one developer raising the blockchain flag as a solution in waiting. But perhaps most encouraging, the trade unions showed real willingness to engage on the issue and explore how things like platform coops can help change the balance in favour of workers from all industries – particularly designers.
When tech meets organised labour then the pendulum starts its swing back from current economic extremes.
A meeting for workers interested in collective action & unionism
We believe in workers’ rights, social justice, diversity and equality. We want to challenge corporate control over our technology.
We share a vision for an inclusive & equitable technology industry. We want to collaborate with workers and friends to build tech worker power, organise on workplace issues and create a space for educating ourselves and exchanging ideas.
Over the last couple of months I’ve been getting to know the team at Monash BikeShare. I’ve followed their intrepid lead, huffing and puffing my way around the Monash University campus. They’ve shared their stories of rebuff and conquest from their epic start-up trek. And their youthful enthusiasm leaves them with plenty of runway ahead to pursue some grand plans. All-in-all they’ve got a great springboard from which to pursue their bikeshare dreams…
Australia’s most successful bikeshare
So how did the team take an a unloved scheme and turn it into Australia’s most successful bike share? Like all well executed plans, it looks simple in hindsight.
Their first step was to implement the Donkey Kong model of user engagement – they identified the biggest barriers to user take-up and sought to remove them:
Cost – the scheme was introduced with a membership fee structure that had proved an immediate disincentive to potential users. The team convinced Monash University that it would be better to have people using the bikes for free than to have those same bikes rusting in a shed.
Awareness – Notwithstanding the relative visibility of the bikes around campus, there remained the problem of people’s awareness of how and when to use them. To solve this, the team sought to draw in separate groups within the campus to show how the bikes could directly benefit them. By ratcheting up their use by specific users, the team were able to increase the visibility of the bikes actually being used – and thereby tripping the tipping point for network effects.
Know your customer
There’s no doubt getting a critical mass of people to use the bikes was a great achievement for the team. Perhaps the more intriguing thing is their understanding of the way the business works. On the face of it, you’d think that the customers of the bikeshare are the folk who ride the bikes. Not so, say the team, they see their primary customer as Monash University. This starts to make sense when you break down the benefits.
When it is easier for people to get around the campus, Monash University can:
Help IT and support staff get to where they are needed;
Understand how people are moving across the campus;
Infer which facilities and areas are being used – both in and out of term; and,
Encourage better and more timely attendance by students.
We can start to see that the potential benefits of sharing schemes in a digitally connected world are not simply the immediate and most obvious ones around the consumer getting to use the bike. For a relatively small investment, Monash can start to generate some pretty interesting returns…
Bikeshare as a data coop
Which leads us to potentially the most interesting part of the conversation. If the customer of the bikeshare is Monash University, as it pays to derive the aforementioned benefits, what are users?
You could argue that they are the beneficiaries of a fabulous free service.
But we think there’s more to it than that. This is the same situation that has been played out in the models employed by Facebook, Twitter and anyone else that seeks to monetise the consumer. We get to use their platform, and they get to sell our attention and data. The costs of getting the platform up are minor compared to the payoff of locking in the network.
That’s why we believe that there is a different model. That this is the perfect opportunity for a new type of consumer coop – where the members benefit from using the bikes, and where the customers are those organisations that derive second order benefits. The members own the bikes, the data and the platform. The coop negotiates the terms with the customers.
Controlling our data
See this is about more than sharing bikes. As the mesh – as Lisa Gansky calls it – sends its tentacles ever deeper, the real world gets mapped in greater and greater virtual detail. So that while the sharing of assets and infrastructure get more efficient, so too does the information about those that are using them. Our customers want to know more about us.
You want to hop in that self-driving car? Sure just wave your chip, and we’ll map you into the grid. Think about the types of data that the self-driving car company will want on you. They’ll want to check that you wear deodorant and haven’t trashed any self-driving cars lately. Our reputation will be built by the things we do and the data exhaust that comes with it.
Regular readers will know that I believe data coops offer a way through to the next place. That our personal data is best managed in ways that enables the individual to maximise control while still allowing the collective to optimise value in aggregate. Having had a good look at the Monash BikeShare, it looks like a great place for the personal data revolution to start….
It was delightful to have the opportunity to attend a couple of events last week where Lieza Dessein (current Board member and Project & Community Manager) introduced the SMart cooperative to various audiences. The reception was very promising with some of Australia’s more progressive thinking trade unions like the AMWU and NUW leading the way in considering how this model could be introduced into Australia. Following are my notes…
How SMart works
The aim of SMart is to assist skilled freelancers in managing their business administration. It does this by helping with contracting, invoicing and associated functions like insurance, accounting and tax. These functions are primarily managed through the SMart IT platform.
Additionally, every member is allocated a personal advisor to provide career and legal support. It’s intentionally a high touch approach. As there are ~50 advisers for ~20,000 active members, every advisor has 400 potential clients to work with. As a former adviser, Lieza confirmed that this is a number that works in practice.
The interesting thing about SMart is that it brings the power of a cooperative to freelancers – blending independence and flexibility with the strengths of a collective organisation. So for example, as a cooperative it can:
Spread the risks relating to payment and debt collection across its members through a mutual guarantee fund. This means that members can be paid for their work within 7 days of a contract being completed and SMart will then manage the debt collection process; and,
Aggregate purchasing power to enable better access to services such as creative hubs, equipment hire etc, and to business support such as insurance and training.
SMart has helped 90,000 people in Belguim since its inception in 1998 – artists, architects, journalists, IT developers, graphic designers, dog-walkers etc. It is expanding into 9 European countries currently, and Canada has a project underway to explore how the model could be applied within its borders.
SMart’s business model – a worker cooperative
The core idea behind SMart is that members create a pooled capability that can be shared without fear or favour – it’s a new type of worker cooperative. The resources and services of the cooperative are financed by collecting revenue based on the volume of business undertaken on the platform. As freelancers typically have irregular income, each member is participating according to their billing capabilities. It’s a system based on solidarity. This pooling system enables 100% of the members to benefit from SMart’s services when, based on billing capacities only, SMart services are covered by 20% of its active members.
To get a sense of SMart’s operating model, following are its financials from 2015 and 2016. (Note that they are translated from French and there is little by the way of notes to the accounts, so any analysis is necessarily superficial.)
First up, a snapshot of SMart’s revenue. When a freelancer becomes a member, they can use the platform to contract with their clients. In doing so, they actually become an employee of SMart during the term of a contract – which means that SMart reports the gross revenue of all their members.
For the same reason, SMart’s expenses include the wages, commissions and other fees that are paid to members as their employer.
Fees, Purchases & Charges
Participation of members in shared costs (6.5% of sales)
Budget not consumed
To get a clearer picture of the operating performance of SMart, they also provide a ‘clean’ income statement where the activities of members are excluded from the analysis. I have included the complete income statement at the end of this article.
If we assume that capitalized platform development is largely offset against depreciation and amortisation, then there are really only two drivers of income:
Participation of members in shared costs – Members share in the costs of running SMart by effectively paying a fee of 6.5% of the value of the contracts that they enter into on the platform. You can see this number flow through from the gross revenue number reported (ie. 6.5% of €136m is ~€8.9m).
Benefits from pooling – This revenue item contributes as much again as the 6.5% fee – and it is not clear exactly what it relates to from the accounts. The reference to ‘rebates and reduced commercial charges’ implies that SMart is receiving a margin on products and services that it provides to its members. In essence, the volume of administrative, tax, commercial transactions gives rise to scale benefits that the SMart cooperative collects on behalf of its members.
Given that there are approximately 20,000 currently active members, the average annual cost of the entire platform is €850 per member. If the principle that 20% of the members effectively bear 100% of the costs holds true, then the average cost per year for these folk would be €4250. Either way, these costs seem pretty reasonable given the services provided!
Permanent staff – SMart has intentionally pursued a high-touch service model. It believes that by marrying the technology platform with expert advice, its members are best able to learn and develop their businesses. For this reason the largest component of its permanent staff are personal advisors and legal specialists. Additionally it has a large IT team to support this infrastructure that must be tailored to each legal jurisdiction. It also requires a core team for debt collection and contract management.
Bankruptcy losses – Based on these two years, SMart has a reasonably high bad debts experience. As Lieza explained, the losses from bankruptcy arise principally from bankruptcies by major employers (SMart will pay out the employees even if the employer is unable to). While the bad debts experience may be material, the social benefit of providing this safety net to members is significant.
Opportunities for the model in Australia
This model, whether in whole in or in part, has direct application in the Australian context. Following are some reflections on the opportunity and how it could work.
Growth in the gig economy
With at least 8% of the workforce now considered to be working in the gig economy, which may well understate the true extent of the casualization of work, the need to provide services that can effectively help these workers is already substantial and growing. This could include the SMart suite acclimated to Australia:
Career advice, legal support & training
Standardised contracts and cashflow management
Insurance & superannuation
Regulatory and tax management
Shared resources such as co-working spaces
The platform used by SMart is highly customised to the European context. Even if the tech stack can be installed on an Australian domiciled server, it will require customization and integrations with the likes of the ATO, WorkCover, ASIC as well as an API for industry super funds and local accounting packages to draw upon. There is also the question of ongoing development and maintenance of the ‘core’ and the customised components. How will a federated SMart infrastructure be governed and developed across an international user base? This raises questions whether importing the SMart model is really about protocols and processes – and what technology could be efficiently shared.
Industry agnostic versus industry specific
The approach taken by SMart is very much industry agnostic. They can be used by any skilled freelancer regardless of the type of work they do. In their experience, freelancers are often career polymaths moving from industry to industry, even over the course of a year. To effectively spread the risks and costs of the business, they need to adopt this approach.
In Australia, there may be advantages to breaking at least parts of the model into industry segments. For example, it may assist to have specialization around member communication, career advice, micro-financing, training and standardization of contracts. This specialization could occur within a single entity or through the creation of industry specific organisations.
The challenge then is how to aggregate those functions that are common. For example, the mutual guarantee fund and the ‘core’ technology components could be best shared across industries.
SMart has intentionally eschewed setting up marketplaces for its members. Their view is that this is a business that could conflict with their single-minded representation of skilled freelancers. As online markets are generally industry or skill specific, this may support the notion that implementations of the model are industry specific. For example, the creation of a ‘pacemaker coop’ in the graphic design sector could have material benefits in bringing up standards for all workers (following the Stocksy model).
Freelancers as employees
In the Australian landscape, freelancers are typically required to register for their own ABN. They can have all the same problems in managing their back-office, payments, training, and super – but they do so from the perspective of a registered sole proprietor. This may create barriers, whether cultural, legal or mechanical, for the ‘freelancer as employee’ model.
SMart have taken a very constrained approach to data, for example, avoiding any temptation to undertake deep analytics of their member base. This approach meant that navigating the recent introduction of GPDR was relatively straight-forward for them. My view is that coops offer a very attractive way for enabling individuals to better manage their data for both their own benefit and collectively. This is exactly where the work with the farming sector has taken us. Given this, there is a substantial opportunity for the SMart model to lead to better data management tools and capabilities for its members.
Where to start with an Australian model?
Any member-owned organisation must grow from the ground up. One of the challenges with introducing the SMart cooperative model is how to gather freelancers when, almost by definition, they are a disaggregated lot. In a sense, this supports that notion that the starting point is in single industries where the gig economy is dominant (eg. graphic designers). This would allow industry representative bodies to focus on the benefits to the workers in that sector (for example, the AMWU represents graphic designers). Ideally, these organisations have the existing organising capabilities and resources to bring freelancers, government, and industry stakeholders to the table to effectively execute a coherent strategy.
SMart’s ‘clean’ income statement
Participation of members in shared costs (6.5% of sales)
Hard data on co-operatives and mutuals in Australia is a little scarce. Perhaps it’s because they cover so much territory – from the very large to the very local. So some quick cuts from the CME database.
Not surprisingly the location breakdown of CME’s pretty much echos population density…
And the type is interesting insofar that if we mapped the same by assets or revenue rather than sheer number of entities, then it would be the exact opposite – superannuation funds would be the largest by a fair margin, then health funds… and coops.
What perhaps is more interesting is seeing how the breakdown by industry maps to emerging trends in the sector:
Emerging trends – consumer coops
Community owned assets – The Housing and the Sports & Recreation sector are the most numerous by far – with groups as diverse as model railway operators to the Hells Angels using coops. They often use coops as a mechanism to gather management and ownership of shared infrastructure. We’re seeing emerging interest in the coop housing sector for this purpose from specific demographics such as aged care or respite.
Shared financial services – still going strong when it comes to aggregating consumers money with financial services (aka credit unions, building societies, mutual banks etc), health insurance, superannuation funds. Merger activity and rebranding is often leading these entities to become increasingly remote from the constituencies that created them.
Education, Training & Childcare – numbers are swelled by public schools using favourable legislative treatment to create coops for building projects. Having said that, the childcare sector is another where workers and community can come together the use the coop structure to deliver better outcomes.
Information & Media – the community radio sector in Australia is huge with some 22,000 volunteers contributing over $300m in value to the community. Notably, the local and community nature of these operations has provided natural protection against the disruption that has been rippling through this sector.
Retailing – community ownership of retailers is a growing category of coops. So while most retailing coops are community owned stores there is also an emerging recognition that promoting consumer-ownership is the best defence against online disruption. If we follow in the footsteps of the UK, then we can expect more retailers to be acquired via coops – such as pubs, service stations, your local bakery.
Utilities – current energy retailers are pricing their offers to promote the emergence of community owned energy providers. We’re seeing wide interest across Australia in renewable energy projects that are likely to leverage the coop model.
Emerging trends – producer coops
Agribusiness and Fishing – Some of Australia’s more prominent agricultural coops were demutualised recently (Murray Goulburn and Namoi Cotton). Whether their members were better served by the coop structure is a moot point. Conversely, the federally funded Farming Together Program has sparked another crop of coops into existence. They are yet to appear in the data. Perhaps the biggest emerging trend is this sector is the wave of new technology that is being propelled at farmers. The potential impact on farmers has encouraged many to consider the role of coops in helping them manage their data both individually and in aggregate.
Arts & Culture – with 8% of the Australian workforce now part of the gig economy, we are expecting to see the arrival of platform coops that can help these workers to aggregate their needs and better protect their interests. As the Arts & Culture sector has a long history in using coops to manage resources, they could be well placed to emulate the SMartEU and Stocksy models in Australia.
Wholesalers, Professional Services, Purchasing Services & Shared Services – the industry aggregator coop remains alive and well despite the best efforts of Amazon.