Tribe is a worker-owned staffing platform for technology professionals, and in this interview, co-founder and chief technology officer, Jeremy Neal, talks us through the design of this innovative cooperative, and explains how they got started.
Jeremy studied computer science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and had worked in tech for several years before he met Tribe co-founder and chief executive officer, Joseph Cureton.
“I met Joseph three or four years ago, bouncing around the Baltimore tech community. Baltimore is not a huge city, and we would see each other at various tech events. We were two of a handful of brown faces we would see, which with Baltimore being 60-70% black, was a little jarring to us, so we started a meetup, Bmore Black Techies, focused on bringing black and brown people in tech in Baltimore together.”
“That was two years ago, and since then, Bmore Black Techies has exploded. We started with ten members, and grew to over 1000 in the list-serve, with 30-50 showing up every week.”
Joseph was already involved in Core Staffing, a staffing coop that focusses on finding entry-level employment for returning citizens, part of the umbrella worker-owned coop: The Staffing Cooperative. When Joseph approached him about helping the Staffing Cooperative expand into technology staffing, at first, Jeremy wasn’t sure.
“It took a little bit of selling to get me to come over, to leave a comfortable job, and all that, but this something I think is really powerful, and if we can effect change, even on a small scale, I think we are doing something right.”
Jeremy was particularly attracted to the opportunity to broaden his skills. At the time he was working at a consultancy, and there wasn’t much room for mobility. Starting his own coop gave him the chance to take on more leadership roles.
“I now have the opportunity to be in a position of leadership but also to build the sort of organization that I would want to be a part of.”
At the center of the coop is a software platform that connects Tribe worker-owners with employers. In the gig economy, employing remote tech and design workers through an online platform is nothing new, but what is new is organizing those workers as owners of that platform, and Jeremy acknowledges that maintaining a cooperative culture among workers spread across the United States will be tricky.
“That will be sort of a pain-point as we grow. It will ultimately come down to good communication. Right now we are trying to build our membership base, and every two weeks, we have these community calls. We sit down with people on Google Hangouts or ZoomCall, and explain from the bottom up: here’s what are model is, here’s why we’re doing this, and ask, what questions do you have? That’s a starting point. And in the future, honestly, I think we are going to have to have people whose entire job is just managing our community.”
The Staffing Cooperative and Tribe are also unusual in the cooperative sector in that they have decided to try to attract outside investment. Jeremy definitely sees both dangers and opportunities in this approach.
“A lot of coops, for a lot a very good reasons, veer away from outside investment, but it’s all about being upfront with your expectations. In the same way we tell members, ‘Here’s the model and here is what you can expect to get out of it,’ we have the same conversations with investors. So instead of going with the traditional venture capitalists who want their 8% in some marginal buy-in and all this control, we explain, ‘You have one seat at the table; our members have another seat.’”
“Outside investors have their place. Getting that capital in allows us to grow, allows us to roll out services faster than we could if we were just reliant on our own, but our terms are very clearly structured around our members being our first concern. Also, there is a lot of value in having people involved who have prior experience running businesses and watching them grow.”
“We are at this intersection: we are a coop and we are a start-up, and we have a lot of the same sort of pressures that exist on both sides. We want to grow, we want everyone to make a good living, to be sustainable, but we are clear that massive, unicorn-style growth is not one of our goals. It is about building a sustainable business, so as long as everyone agrees with that, we’re fine, and if they don’t, then that’s one of the lines in the sand we have with people we work with.”
Tribe has been receiving support from Start.coop, a cooperative accelerator based out of Boston that works with worker-owned start-ups that want to growth and diversify. In addition to providing business and cooperative training, Start.coop also introduced Tribe to potential investors.
“Through Start.coop we met an investor in Boston, and from there it’s just been a series of introductions to people, some of which have been fruitless. Someone might see us, and be interested in our model, but in terms of delivering on expectations, they’re just not acceptable, and we have to say, ‘Thanks but this isn’t going to really work for us. Thanks for your time, but do you know three other investors who might be interested?’ And just going down the line, being clear about our needs and expectations, and what we are willing to negotiate, and being resilient enough to walk away even when it seems like, ‘Oh, this might be easy money.’”
Jeremy also found the coop accelerator’s training program a huge benefit, both in terms of building his business skill-set, but also in boosting his confidence.
“The actual ten week program itself was a huge crash course in business for me. My background is computer science and software development and I have never been on that side of the table where I have had to make the decisions, have had to understand the cap table, have had to research comps. So I feel much more comfortable getting on a call with an investor and discussing things in really granular terms.”
“I came into this with an initial idea that I was just going to help with the technical stuff, and Joseph was like, ‘No, you are a co-founder. You’ve got to do a lot of stuff that you do not know how to do, or are not comfortable doing, and are probably bad at, just … let’s do this.’ So every day is a new set of challenges, I’m learning new things, I’m uncomfortable, and really socially anxious in a lot of these conversations, but it’s just about putting on a game face, going forward with confidence, and decompressing later.”
Jeremy is clear that starting a worker cooperative is harder than starting a conventional business, but he believes that the benefits more than compensate for the extra effort involved. In his view, putting people first makes for a more sustainable business, and ultimately, a fairer, more sustainable society. He also argues that working together and building consensus often leads to a better product.
“It is great knowing that you can lean on other people for advice and ideas. I go into every situation with the idea that I am an idiot, I don’t know what I am doing, but let’s see what we can build together. I have my subset of expert knowledge, someone else has their subset of expert knowledge, and by merging all that knowledge together, you end up with a better product than anyone would have on their own.”
“No one is an expert at anything, so don’t be afraid to have your opinions, and just try to do whatever needs to happen. I don’t like to rail against the concept of expert advice, but I truly have found in every situation I have gone into that most people are faking it until they make it, and you can too!”