Interview: Elisabeth Barton, Echo Adventure Cooperative

echo-team

Echo Adventure Cooperative is a new worker-owned outdoor guide company established by four experienced guides who are based in the Yosemite wilderness in California. The new cooperative had the opportunity to take advantage of some recent legislation in California aimed at normalizing the worker-cooperative model in the state, and I had a chance to interview founding member, Elisabeth Barton, about how they got together and how they set up their company.

Tim: I guess the first thing I’d like to do is ask you if you could briefly tell me a little bit about the history of your cooperative, and maybe about some of the motivation behind starting a cooperative, about why you thought of doing it in the way that you did?

Elisabeth: Yes, great question. We incorporated in early August, and then operations began on the first of December, so it’s still really new.

It was an exciting adventure getting to this point; there are four of us that started this coop, and we had all come out of awkward job experiences. Guiding in and of itself is a relatively exploitive industry. A lot of people don’t realise, but oftentimes guides are making less than minimum wage and living in tents behind the homes of the owners that they work for.

So we had all experienced these exploitive practices and we were looking to transition, so then it just sort of happened over coffee, beer and a few conversations. Maybe within a month we were legitimately looking at incorporating, so it was very quick.

We always knew that we wanted a cooperative, or what we thought a cooperative was, so that guides could have a better chance at having a family and a career at the same time. We didn’t quite understand what it took to get there, so that’s why there was such a long time between when we incorporated and when we began operations.

Tim: Excellent, could you explain a little bit about what you learned and why it took so long, and what you had to adjust to?

Elisabeth: None of us are MBAs. I’ve worked in management for years, specifically recreation management, so I had that side of it on lock-down, but I’ve never started a business. Our CFO, William Holtsman, has been in finance for years, but he’s never seen terms like non-member profit and member surplus. Everything about the cooperative model is the opposite of traditional business, from profiting to terminology.

So we had to relearn an entire subject, or not really relearn, we had to learn an entire new subject. It was tedious for sure, but when we spoke with our lawyer for the first time, this amazing guy that helped draft the California Worker Cooperative Act, he laughed and said, “You guys know way too much about this. You’ve done most of my job for me.” So we may have over studied. (laughter) I’m realising now that not everybody needs to go as in depth as we did.

Tim: What were some of the resources you used to learn about starting a cooperative? What did you take advantage of?

Elisabeth: There were three things in particular. It began with a lot of web searching, and in that process we found a really amazing website called California Center for Cooperative Development. We didn’t know at the time, but the California Worker Cooperative Act had passed in 2015 making Worker Coops a legitimate entity. The CCCD had done a really wonderful job at translating the Act and putting it on their website. So all of the sudden we had a relatively new document that we could read, and learn what the expectations were for our structure, and then decide if that’s how we wanted to go forward.

Then we had the Tuttle Law Group. Sushil Jacobs is our lawyer, and he helped craft the California Worker Cooperative Act, and this is all by coincidence. I don’t know if it was his first opportunity to apply the new law to a new business, but he definitely couldn’t have been more excited for us and couldn’t have been more helpful.

Tim: Excellent, so then can you explain a little bit about your organizational structure? I noticed on your website that each member is also a member of the board. Could you talk a little bit about that and how, through this new California law, your coop structure is designed?

Elisabeth: We’re legally considered a Collective Board Worker Cooperative Corporation, organised under the California Cooperative Corporation Law, an obscene sentence! (laughter) What that means is that anybody who comes on, after they go through a six-month vetting process, they become a board member with full access to all of our information and documents as well as full voting rights. Eventually we hope to have our bylaws, our articles of incorporation and everything on our website for anyone to see, but right now our members have full access.

In this industry in general, guides give up a lot to live their dream, so the four of us felt like this was another step in becoming a productive member of the community. Being a Board member gives guides full access to their company and the opportunity to make decisions about how the company operates in the community in which they live. What other questions do you have in terms of our structure?

Tim: I think that explains it pretty well. I also noticed that you have a very transparent process on your website for joining your cooperative, and that struck me as particularly remarkable. Could you talk to me a bit about how you envision that process working?

Elisabeth: Yes, I should say that our guiding agency is really the next step in guiding, so somebody who is in finance or is a professor or maybe an amateur birder, we’re really not the place for those people to step in and to begin a career in naturalist activities… I guess in Europe naturalist means nudist doesn’t it?

Tim: I understood what you meant! (laughter)

Elisabeth: In a career in the natural world, maybe I should say. We’re really here for those guys who’ve been around for a while; they’ve done their time in their tents. What we wanted to do was provide two things. First, our requirements help eliminate those that are not experienced or serious. For example, we tried to make the amount of money to join the cooperative as low as possible, but still be just enough money to be serious. People wouldn’t just throw down $2,000 for nothing.

Then we also wanted to give a map or a blueprint for those people who were stepping out of their old careers and heading into this industry. It’s important for us that somebody can come to our website, without feeling awkward or having to call and ask questions, and read the information and know exactly what they need to do, what decisions they needed to make in their career to eventually either create their own cooperative, which would be awesome, or join ours.

Tim: Yes, I noticed that you mention different certifications that you wanted to see and so forth. That’s really interesting, that you’re kind of pitching your new cooperative at people who have some experience anyway, so they kind of know about the industry and what you do, is that correct? You’re not so much envisioning that you’re going to be training new guides?

Elisabeth: Exactly, however, that being said, one of our goals in the near future is to have mentoring programs for people who are either just out of high school or college, or maybe making a career change. Having these details on our website is just the first step. Eventually we want to offer mentoring and volunteer opportunities, beginner job referrals to local B-corps like Evergreen Lodge and Rush Creek, and a comprehensive a guide school.

Tim: Excellent. Stepping back a little bit, could you talk to me a little bit about the philosophy of your group? What appealed to you about the cooperative model and why was starting a worker coop something that your group decided you wanted to do?

Elisabeth: That’s such a great question. I think ultimately all we knew is that we didn’t want to be exploited, and we knew that we didn’t want to exploit. People in this industry always start out with really wonderful intentions, saying, “I’m going to profit-share and I’m going to give these huge bonuses at the end of the season.” Then, for one reason or another, they don’t and guides are left with, “But I thought…”

So from the beginning we wanted to build in egalitarian approach to business, as well as goals and guidelines for things that we wanted to accomplish in the future. It was really important to us that no matter how we structured our business, that our stake holders and the things that we’re the most passionate about were always considered. That’s our community, our environment, our member guides, and our guests, the people who pay for our service.

It was difficult to cement those ideas into our business model when we started to look at traditional corporate structures. So when we found out that worker cooperatives had just been established in California as a new legal entity, it was so perfect, because it gave us this blueprint for including those four stakeholders and gave us opportunities and ways to work towards protecting or enriching those four things.

So I guess the short answer is we wanted to build in protection for when we’re really wealthy and famous, and our company is known around the world (laughter), that we would be forced by the way we are structured it to continue to look after our four stakeholders on a daily basis.

Tim: Looking back over the last few months, and as you’ve been putting your business together and organising yourselves, are there lessons you’ve learned that you would like to share? If you were talking to other people who were thinking about starting a cooperative, what advice would you give them?

Elisabeth: Totally! The first one is just do it. We desperately need more cooperatives. This is something that I say all the time, but we really believe that coops are to the service industry what unions were for manufacturing. The only way that we’re going to have the kind of impact that unions had on manufacturing is if there are more of us.

And it really is easier than it appears at first. I guess that would be the second thing I would tell people. When you go out looking for your cooperative model, don’t expect to find a step-by-step guide for how to create your cooperative. The thing that makes cooperatives so beautiful is that they are a reflection of the values of their shareholders or their members, so each one is uniquely different

I think that gets a little overwhelming when people first go out there and start looking, because they really want to find their LegalZoom.com template, where they can plug in their information and simply print out a business plan and their articles of incorporation. It just doesn’t work like that, but again, that’s one of the most beautiful things about it is that your cooperative is solely a representation of what you’re passionate about.

So I would keep those two things in mind, and don’t get discouraged! Really just keep moving forward, and make it happen. It’s so much easier once it’s done. You’ll look back and say, “Oh, it’s done. OK. Cool. Let’s go!”

Tim: That’s really inspiring. That’s excellent. That’s perfect because we’re just at about 20 minutes and this a good place to stop. Thanks so much Elisabeth for sharing this.

Some links:

Text of the California Worker Cooperative Act AB 816

A helpful summary of the Act

Pictured: (the Echo team, left to right) Jamie Plouffe, Bryant Burnette, William Holtsmans and Elisabeth Barton

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