Collaboration is part of our daily lives, whether it’s agreeing with a partner who is cooking dinner or making informal child-care arrangements with friends. It is also becoming increasingly important in a business context.
The word “co-operative” usually throws up a number of (not always positive) images to many people – dividends, funeral parlours, the supermarket on the corner, and general worthiness. But there are also other images – think successful, thriving businesses like The Co-operative Bank or John Lewis Partnership. Co-operative and employee-owned business models like these date back to the early 19th century but are enjoying a renewed period of growth – thanks in part to political initiatives like the ‘Big Society’, which champion community co-ownership. Across the UK, co-operative, mutual and employee-owned businesses turn over more than £95 billion a year and employ almost a million people. Around the world, co-operatives support the livelihood of nearly 3 billion people in industries including utilities, financial services, retail, agriculture and many more.
We joined the co-operative family just over four years ago by setting up The Very People.
We are a group of six senior, award-winning, PR, marketing and editorial consultants – Kenny Kemp, Victoria Masterson, Stewart McIntosh, Ian Spinney, Liz Taylor and Ruth Webber. We all run our own businesses and have worked for a diverse range of outlets including The Sunday Times, Sunday Herald, Glasgow University, The Edrington Group, KPMG, The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland, The Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland and Glenfiddich.
The idea to form our co-operative was borne out of previous informal collaborative experiences and the realisation that, by working together and increasing our clout, we might be able to win more, bigger bits of business. Sharing resources including ideas, skills and facilities means reduced overheads for us and a more cost-effective, efficient service for our clients.
Co-operative Development Scotland [CDS], a new government-backed agency to increase the contribution of co-operative business models to Scotland’s economy, was launching about the same time and provided us with invaluable specialist knowledge.
This included advising us to set up as a consortium co-operative. These allow groups of businesses to buy, produce and sell more effectively, while retaining their individual brands, independence and control.
Our starting point was to identify our aims and goals. On paper this sounds quite straight-forward, but required significant discussion to ensure that all the nuances were clear! Our core objective is to be market and client focused at all times. It was essential that from the outset that we should share common objectives and values (despite the fact that we did not all know each other); that we had shared ownership and that we were prepared to invest in the start up costs of developing this new brand. The process of first meetings to registering as a limited company and signing all the co-operative paperwork took about four months – pretty fast considering that there were six people to consider.
That’s not to say that starting up was not without its challenges. It took some time to find a suitable name – and when the name came, it was a Eureka moment – we realised that we are The Very People! We spent a great deal of time formulating the ground rules on how we would work together including bringing in new business, remuneration, internal communication (we have no central office) and communicating to clients, as well as our plans on developing the brand and pitching for business. This all had to be done in conjunction with balancing our own business requirements, managing time and ensuring no conflicts of interest. We also needed a bank account – and finally found one which would allow us to operate on the terms we required.
On day-to-day business, we field enquiries from a number of sources including word of mouth, from our website, from networking contacts and through tendering processes. Depending on the nature of the brief, we will decide who is most appropriate to work with the client and develop a proposal, with one individual taking the lead as the main client contact.
Small projects which focus on just one skill set, for example, writing or PR, are generally handled by one of the individual member businesses. However, when clients require a breadth of skills and capacity, that’s when the appropriate Very People team can be identified and marshalled to meet the brief.
We enjoy working with a broad range of clients in both private and public sectors and benefit from long-term relationships with many of them.
One’s personal approach is important – and we have found that both flexibility and maturity are key skills required to make the model work, as well as respecting the co-operative culture of true collaboration. We work hard to raise the profile of the business and the old saying “what you put in is what you get out” rings particularly true.
So why co-operate? For The Very People, the co-operative model has been low maintenance and has led to increased income and opportunities for all the member businesses. There is greater strength in numbers rather than operating as a one-man band or a small employer, yet each member of The Very People has been able to retain their independence and manage their own businesses as well. Over a period of time, the trust amongst all members has continued to grow. Together with significant new business wins, this has helped us build our confidence and develop new skills.
Like all co-operatives, we have shared values. But apart from our desired objective to provide a great service for all our clients, our core motivation was economic.
Our business has developed slowly and steadily. It has provided all of us with the opportunity to work on sizeable projects which may not have been possible as a smaller, less well- resourced business and it has given us all the opportunity to develop our own businesses at the same time. There are areas which are difficult to quantify – it can be lonely working in a small business – especially if one has been used to working in a larger organisation. Our co-operative provides a trusted forum in which a wide range of topics can be aired or developed – including sharing frustrations and successes!
Collaboration can suit a wide range of businesses and is attracting growing interest both formally and informally. Consortium co-operatives particularly suit independent businesses and sole traders seeking strength in numbers and increased scale with minimum fuss. Food & drink, tourism, creative industries and renewable energy are among the sectors that could benefit from more co-operative collaboration – particularly in uncertain economic times.
Collaboration in a formalised manner is not and should not be complex. There are excellent sources of specialist advice and support available – and we have found that the rewards far outweigh the challenges.
In short, co-operation is the VERY thing to build your business.
For more information on The Very People: firstname.lastname@example.org
Useful website for more information on collaboration and co-operatives: www.cds.org.uk
(First published September 2010)