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The Knowledge Economy and the Rise of the Cooperative Entrepreneur


There’s a saying in management circles to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. This year has tested the business world’s ability to prepare, we’ve seen how even the best laid plans can evaporate in time of crisis, and we’ve experienced firsthand the importance of remaining flexible enough to adjust to quickly changing dynamics. In most major cities across Canada businesses shut down and fired workers, while others have changed business practices to adapt to this rapid changing environment. As much as we’ve seen some people suffer the consequences of this rapid change, we’ve also seen opportunities that exist, especially for cooperative entrepreneurs.

The worker co-op is a business in which people combine their skills and resources to develop a product or service that they provide to their community. With the ability for each member to contribute their skills one of the key resources that each individual brings to the business is their knowledge, and in today’s interconnected world bringing to market, sharing, and selling one’s knowledge online is an accessible path for anyone looking to start a business.

Due to its sizable digital population, e-commerce retail trade sales amounted to almost 1.85 billion Canadian dollars in 2019 with approximately 28.1 million Canadians having made purchases online. The pandemic has altered traditional business dynamics and accelerated the growth of the online knowledge marketplace as thousands of Canadian small businesses were quick to transfer their operations online: from yoga and fitness studios offering online classes, to administrative assistants offering their services on various platforms.

With digital connections available in most Canadian households, advances in technology, and a growing cooperative economy, the barriers to entry are low and to most entrepreneurs offer an opportunity to enter a market with little capital requirement and sometimes nothing more than a camera, a microphone, and an internet connection. A growing spotlight on online learning and on the cooperative movement makes this a great time to collaborate with friends and colleagues on building a cooperative business.

Democratizing the Workplace

Between finding investors, developing a product, sourcing a distribution network, and building the infrastructure, starting a business has traditionally been a challenge. Now, at a time when supply chains are disrupted and the traditional brick and mortar business model needs to move online, launching a business with little-to-no startup-costs and relying on a small group of committed members has broad appeal.

To create their worker co-op, members combine their skills, interests and experiences to achieve mutual goals such as creating jobs for themselves, running a business, and increasing democracy in the workplace. By sharing the burden of starting a business—the planning, the decision-making, the initial investment, and the workload—entrepreneurs are able to build online audiences and offer alternatives to the traditional business with less individual effort, lower upfront costs, and a range of skills and knowledge.

Unlike a traditional enterprise that must alter business processes and acquire new systems to adapt to the digital transition, today’s entrepreneurs have been able to bring their knowledge to the online marketplace without the thousands of dollars in overhead costs by using the digital tools that are already available to them. Platforms like Thinkific allow entrepreneurs to bring their knowledge to a wide audience via training courses, others are publishing e-books, physical training and meal plans, newsletters, or podcasts on platforms like Patreon, Twitch, Etsy, Teachable, Anchor, Lulu, and OnlyFans. By removing the barrier to entry for people to sell their skills online, these sites are doing for the cooperative economy what WordPress and Wix did for web design and development.

In a mid-pandemic survey, recruiting firm Hays found that nearly half of Canadian employees were unsatisfied at their current job, many of which are now exploring the benefits of ditching the traditional employment contract for one in which they have more control. Seeing how accessible starting an online business is and by distributing the risk and rewards, starting a worker co-op is an attractive option amidst economic uncertainty. More than that though, starting a worker co-op serves an important social function as well: shifting away from the conventional business structure in which a small group of people make all the decisions; worker co-ops are democratic enterprises in which members have a vote in key business decisions. This allows workers to take control of their careers and their economic prosperity.

Fostering Connection Amidst Uncertainty

With 33 million internet users at the start of this year, it’s no surprise that internet usage spiked in the early days of the lockdown as businesses moved their activities online and people sought connections through apps and videoconferencing. As we prepare for the Canadian winter and a second wave, internet usage and online activities are sure to continue. Some businesses have permanently shifted their staff to remote work, restaurants have brought in patio furniture and increased takeout and delivery service, and students receive course material online.

As students increasingly adopt online learning it’s not just course material and self-improvement they seek, they’re building community as well. As people are unable to congregate and build professional connections, these activities have moved to the online world: Facebook now boasts of more than 10 million groups with nearly 1.4 billion active members. Entrepreneurs have answered the call by building online communities along with their course content; this allows participants to share and collect best practices, provide feedback to improve the course material, and network with a base of loyal fans.

Canadians have been early adopters of online technologies, this year has pushed us to increase our digital presence. As community building increasingly moves online and with a rise of remote work, it is a perfect opportunity for entrepreneurs to combine their skills and knowledge to build a cooperative enterprise and take control of their careers.



Originally published Oct. 30, 2020


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