What Are Co-Ops and Employee-Owned Companies?



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There’s nothing worse than contracting services that make you feel like you’re inconveniencing people with your business. Earlier this month, I needed to hire a timely maid service and before I could even see a rate, I had to fill out a questionnaire to request a quote. Two days later, I got a response informing me that there were no openings for another month. When businesses become decentralized and driven by their bottom line, the buyer suffers because the interpersonal ceases to matter—there’s going to be another body to take your place if you choose to do business elsewhere. While I waited for an answer to my inquiry, my word-of-mouth referral from a friend pointed me toward a privately-owned cleaning service that was prompt, attentive, and exemplified care for its reputation by treating me like a human being. I’ll certainly be calling that number again.


Some businesses feel like they’ve got the liberty to treat their customers like livestock. It usually takes a call to an internet service provider, a chicken restaurant refusing to take my one-item pick-up order over the phone, or a listless teenager telling me I need to “come into the store to see if they have it in stock,” before I start wondering what happened to giving a damn. The answer is a distressing lack of stakes. When they’re paid the same either way, chicken restaurant lady has about as much interest in my pickup order as big-box electronics store guy does in my coming in to buy a wireless mouse.


From my experience, employee-owned companies pay dividends in positive customer outcomes. Instead of an uninspired workforce waiting to punch out, employee-owned teams are comprised of individuals who have skin in the game. Corporations that operate in this manner usually offer commissions, profit-sharing, or stock options to their career employees. When looking at things from this angle, the success or failure of any individual interaction becomes critical. Why? Because the employees know that if sales are up, so too are their bonuses and incentives and as much as institutions want you to believe word of mouth and singular opinions don’t matter, they do.


What is a co-op doing differently, then? A co-op takes those same principles but leaves each employee to function as his or her own business under one umbrella. As a freelance writer, I am lending my services to individual co-ops who put me in touch with clients, but my reputation, as well as that of the co-op’s, are equally on the line in my delivery of assignments. I want the client roster to keep expanding as equally as I want repeat clients to keep my name on their lips, all because I have a stake in the company’s future. Not only are there larger dividends paid if more clients roll in, but the better my co-op does, the more work I’ll have for years to come.


Co-ops and employee-owned businesses are disrupting the freelance industry because they’re putting pride and accountability back into the incentive mix. Companies like Kingdom of Ink engage in profit-sharing, meaning a percentage of total earnings from each freelancer is siphoned into a fund that gets redistributed to the rest of the freelancers each fiscal quarter. In other words, when one person succeeds, everyone does. Beyond the leg-up, practices like this keep everyone within the co-op rooting for one another and away from each other’s throats. After all, what is a co-op without cooperation and goodwill for your fellow freelancer?


Work culture shifts dramatically when the gap is bridged from, “I’m here for a paycheck,” to “the better I do, the more paychecks there will be.” These operational procedures keep clients and workers content on either side of the aisle, and I look forward to watching companies with this structure become more mainstream as consumers realize that quality work comes from happy employees.


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Jack Salvatore holds a degree in Writing for Screen and Television from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. He’s pitched in writers’ rooms helmed by Emmy-winning showrunners, has script-doctored for popular television shows and major motion pictures, contracts with production companies to mold concepts into marketable properties, tells people about his dreams before realizing what they say about his subconscious, and still finds time to moderate two writers’ groups in his free time. He lives in Burbank, California with his wife, Christine.