Joshua Vial is an Instigator at Enspiral. He spends his time imagining and implementing organising systems, especially when he gets to steal patterns from programming. He loves technology, entrepreneurship, leadership, teaching and people. Joshua is active across several Enspiral ventures and yearns for a comprehensive theory of decentralised organising alongside a complementary suite of open source tools.
Q: Could you please describe your path to Enspiral?
Sure. We started out as a professional services cooperative of mostly web developers. The key idea was to help more people work on meaningful things. I set out to find people who cared about global issues, help them find high-paid contract work, so they had time to be self-funded change-makers on whatever they wanted: climate change, global poverty, transitioning, etc. That was pretty much the work I started doing in 2009.
Up to then, I was just a freelance web developer. I did a couple days work a week and the rest of the time, I did whatever I wanted. I volunteered a lot in the climate change movement – at 350.org for example - and in youth leadership. I was trying to figure out for myself the: “Wow, the world is messed up, how do I turn my time into positive change?”. So, I was trying lots of things for a couple years. And I just saw heaps of people wanting to do the same but weren’t able to in their jobs. I realised that there were too few jobs which lined up with what people most wanted to work on, and the issues that matter. So, I thought that if I could help more people quit their job and become freelancers, and self-fund into change work, then we could get more people to work on issues that mattered. It seemed to me a very straight forward strategy. That’s what got us started.
Q: How do you help someone “self-fund into change work”?
I said yes to every contract that came my way, scrambled to find people and programmers. A lot of people I worked with would only do one or two contracts, but over time I kept selecting for aligned values and, some people hung around. When you’re a freelancer you’re often getting leads for work you can’t do but when you have a whole bunch of friends you can pass them on to, it helps everyone. We became a big referral network.
We also started looking into decentralised organising and non-hierarchical structures, future organisational structures… We started a whole series of experimentations on how you do that in practice. By this stage, quite a few people were increasing their disposable time and money, and saw that commercial ventures were a good way to change the world. If you can create full-time jobs for people, where they are working on the stuff they really want to, then works becomes a mission. So, we gradually transitioned into social entrepreneurship and social ventures.
Over time, we shifted from being a cooperative of freelancers to a cooperative of entrepreneurs. That is pretty much the point where we are now.
Q: So, what kind of help do you provide to these social entrepreneurs?
We don’t have programs, we don’t have mentors or coaches. We just have peers helping one another. Instead of signing up, or doing an accelerator, or getting a business coach, you just are amidst people building businesses similar to yours. They might be further ahead in some areas and behind in others. We are an informal peer support community. The key structure of the group, at an individual level, is that we have members and contributors.
Members have a share in the cooperative. They are basically a citizen of the group. A member is a person that most other members trust. Members have several powers, the first being the ability to invite a contributor. A contributor is somebody that one member trusts a little bit. If you say “Hey! Enspiral is awesome, I’d like to join”, as a member, I can invite you in, show you all our systems, support you for a little while and then, you are kind of on your own. We now have about 200 contributors and around 40 members.
It takes about one or two years to become a member, because you need to get to know all the other members, build relationships with them, until they trust you and give you the power to yourself bring people into the group. Members also have the power to veto. For our decision-making process, we use consent quite a lot and a single member can block a decision. This consent decision-making process is why we went to this two-tier structure. If you are going to give someone a binding block over the group, you want to know them and trust them. All Enspiral systems and processes have evolved in a small high-trust ecosystem. When you do that, you can lower the friction of many other activities. If you are not optimising for people not trusting each other or even exploiting each other, you can create a pretty fluid system. It is naturally bounded in size though. Therefore today, we are exploring how to have multiple member circles rather than just one. The idea would be to have multiple of these high-trust circles working in a network.
That member/contributor structure was probably one of the most successful things we did in the early days. Once you’ve been around for a while and you get your share in the cooperative – which is a bit of a rite of passage – you have a lot of engagement and you feel ownership over things. You also have a rather permeable membrane on the outside, so it is easy to become a contributor. But becoming a member requires quite a lot of energy because there is no job description, no salary, you need to find your own livelihood. We have this saying: “The right people tend to hire themselves”. You need to build relationships with people. You need to navigate a pretty confusing structure. You need to have some commercial skills… There are all these skills that entrepreneurs need to have which also helps our selection process.
This is another thing that worked really well for us: people who stuck around long enough to become members usually had gone through a subtle but strong selection process, not based on interviews but based on working together for a couple of years. That means that the quality of the people in the membership group and their relationships with one another are all very strong.
If you are a contributor, you have access to all our budgeting, all our decisions, all our processes and systems, all our information systems. You can work in any of the ventures, you can start your own venture. It just means you do not have a biding block over decisions and can’t invite other contributors. If a contributor starts making a livelihood and is around for a long time, they usually become a member pretty quickly.
This system also has some down sides as well. It selects for privilege a little too strongly. It is also a bit exclusionary: If you have high cost people who need a high salary to jump ship, then it is very hard for them. If relies on people having quite a bit of energy to invest before they start to get work. If someone comes in through an employment contract in one of the ventures, it is usually quite a poor pathway into membership, because moving into this cooperative of entrepreneurs creating their own livelihood is quite a big shift and we’ve found that being hired in to a venture directly isn’t a very good recruitment process for getting people to engage with the network.
Besides the member/contributor structure, the second important aspect to Enspiral’s makeup was built around Clay Shirky’s thinking that, when the cost of transacting information goes through the floor, then command-and-control hierarchical structures become less efficient than network-based organisations. We took that to heart and so designed for rich information systems to replace management hierarchies. That has showed itself to be true, but I took for granted all the experience in facilitation and hosting retreats from the beginning. We have a lot of people who can hold space very well, who create really good social processes, and it wasn’t until a couple years ago, that I realised that our success came from the combination of the two: the ability to build good tools for information sharing and decision making, and the social knowhow to create a good organisational culture. Without either own, it doesn’t work.
Q: What is approximately the total revenue generated by Enspiral today?
It is one of the things we have not done such a great job tracking. I would say total group turnover would be around NZ$ 3-4 million, plus or minus 50% in those numbers (laugh).
Q: What is the Enspiral Academy?
Enspiral Academy is a programming training school. It is a 20-week boot camp we created three years ago, with an American company. We take people who have never programmed before and in a 9-week online / 9-week in person course, we teach them enough skills to get them their first job as a junior developer.
It is very much about teaching programmers soft skills and employment skills. That is probably the main difference we have from a lot of other businesses doing similar offers.
Q: What are the objectives of your Retreats?
We have them every 6 months. Their fundamental purpose is to weave the social fabric of the group and to strengthen it. Part of it is creating unconscious coherence. When things feel right or make sense in the organisation, it is usually because we have created these shared models, shared languages, shared world views… It enables people to have good conversations and read the right meaning behind what someone is saying, which is particularly an issue with online conversation. Proper interpretation of ideas comes from a deep shared understanding and coming from a similar place.
We used to do a lot of work-related stuff at the retreats: strategy, planning sessions, etc. We don’t do that anymore. The retreats are usually three to four days. We actually have one coming up on February 16th, our Summer Festival. About 100 people are going this year, 30 or 40 are from overseas. I think it is the largest international contingent we’ve had so far.
The format is pretty simple. We have food and decent accommodation. We welcome everybody, do a bunch of check-ins, get people into home groups (for this scale of assembly, we make groups of six or seven people). Open-space sessions make up the most of the time. Someone can go surfing, someone can talk about organisational structures, someone can talk about growing in Brazil… We’ll have a party one night, a sharing circle another night, and that’s about it. It’s the simplest format we’ve found but it works well.
Q: How many members do you have outside of New Zealand?
I don’t really know, I think it’s 20% - 30%. Last year, we did a lot of workshops around the world because we had this idea of open sourcing a lot of what we had been doing, so people can copy it and build their own communities. Therefore, a lot of people are flying into town for the retreat, not necessarily as members of contributors but to come and see how Enspiral ticks.
Right now, I am proposing quite a big restructure to people, to become more international and shift from one member circle to many member circles. Melbourne would be the most mature location outside of Auckland and Wellington. There are people in Christchurch and Brazil who have been talking about starting their own groups and handful of people scattered around Europe plus a bunch of digital nomads.
A lot of people say “I want to start Enspiral in Hong Kong or Perth”. That usually isn’t a very productive conversation. It is much better when we hear “We want to start an entrepreneurial cooperative” and would like to be part of the network. So, instead of creating Enspiral Melbourne, it is about creating Cooperative XYZ and building strong ties with Enspiral and the other cooperatives. This is one of the big topics for this festival.
Q: Many corporations, across the world, are creating entrepreneurial accelerators. What is your perspective on this trend?
Well when you do that, most of the value created gets captured by the old economy. The thing that excites me a lot about Enspiral’s model and the networks I just described, is that if we structure the ventures well, we can actually outcompete some of the old economy and keep the value within the new economy.
Stocksy would be quite a good example of this. They are a platform cooperative doing stock photos. I think one of their founders was a founder of iStock, which was bought up by Getty Images. They were quite disheartened by the acquisition and so created Stocksy in response to that. It is a venture owned and controlled by the people uploading the pictures, who basically become stakeholders in the venture. Juno, in New York is another example. Fifteen thousand Uber drivers decided they were sick of Uber and created this venture where drivers get half the equity. This platform cooperative model is a good hint of the direction to follow to compete with old economy companies.
I see a lot of people doing self-management and Teal, doing consulting work for anyone who will pay them. I am much more interested in taking away the customers or the funding of an established organisation, than taking their money by trying to help them change. There is a space for that work but it isn’t something I focus too much on. I think publicly traded corporations have a very limited capacity to evolve to a more equitable sort of model. A lot of their biases are quite engrained in their structure. On the other hand, a company owned by its members or owned for a charitable mission and whose investors have been paid out like the capped returns model,, has a much bigger possibility space. I am much more about finding those opportunities and helping them win in the marketplace than trying to help existing organisations transition.
The model I imagine are hundreds of these entrepreneurial cooperatives helping one another in a peer to peer sort of way. Maybe they have roughly twenty or thirty businesses each, if one starts to get traction, the whole network swarms in and scales it with local money and local talent. If you think about Uber finding a model with definite traction, they raise funds though venture capital and then build a command-and-control hierarchical structure to scale this idea globally, which will mostly give the value away to the shareholders, a net loss for society. The value created will be less than the value paid. If instead, you utilised this web of existing two hundred coops, who all know one another and one of them comes up with an idea with traction, all the others can raise their own money, their own teams, and scale it out that way, with the core IP or brand treated as a common that everyone owns and stewards together for the benefit of all of them. This way would scale business globally very quickly with the value remaining in society.
Organic farmers sometimes say “I farm the soil not the plants”. The work I’m very interested in is farming the ecosystem, helping to build these relationships, from which these ventures will grow. That is my main theory of change at the moment.
Q: On your website, the term is often used but everyone I know struggles to define it. How do you define “meaningful work”?
Whatever someone finds meaningful.
When it comes to defining social entrepreneurship, or meaningful work, or impact… I just don’t care what the definition is. When working with people, you know it when you see it.
If somebody says: “I just want to help companies be a little more efficient”. A lot of people may say it’s not meaningful to them but it might be meaningful to the person who wants to do it. Take for instance the fact that many people don’t like their job. Some person may say I want to help people find more meaningful work or work they love. Many might say you are helping the old system, it isn’t meaningful work… The conversation between people about what they find meaningful is much more important than a definition.
A lot of organisation design is about tension between two opposites. One of those tensions for us is between collective action and individual freedom. On one hand, I want people to have the freedom to start a venture that a lot of people disagree with, get the support of the people who want to support them, and not get told that they need to leave the group. They may not be able to use the Enspiral brand on that business but that’s fine. And then, there is the collective action of needing everyone to help to make this work, which is done at Enspiral through our agreements (our version of legislation). You need to find the balance between those two forces.
Our website is a very poor representation of Enspiral and we don’t try to make a better one. We did a bit of work on it a few years ago, and left it. We’d rather just do the work. We try to tell our story not through our website but through the projects we create or the stories we tell on our blog. So, Enspiral Tales on Medium is a much better reflection of the community than the website is. We believe that anyone who we really want to work with will take the time to come through other channels: ventures we’ve created, personal relationships or whatever it may be. Part of that decision is also link to budgeting. We would rather use the money for other things.
If anyone in the group would like to improve the website to make it awesome they are free to raise money through cobudget and do so - for me, it isn’t a priority.
Q: A similar question. What are your shared values?
We have tried to do them. Bonnitta Roy and open participatory organisation have done some brilliant thinking which has clarified some things for me. She was talking about strategy and she believes you do not need to have a formal strategy in order for an organisation to have coherence, what you need is space for strategic conversation.
If you have that space and people are constantly having strategic conversations, your actions will be strategic even if you don’t have a three-point plan, a timeline and a very clear strategy that everyone can recite. It doesn’t scale to the tens of thousands organisations but for a few hundred individuals, it works. I have found that if you have retreats and people go to them, and you have a lot of space for value and strategic conversations, and conscious cross-pollination in the group, then you achieve organisation coherence and your strategy and values can live unconsciously within the organisation.
Q: Do you sometimes find yourself or other people in the organisation having to catch up on what is going on in the organisation because of that?
Yep, and it is part of the cost of this approach. However, there is a fluidity and an organic nature to the way people intuitively understand what Enspiral stands for without being able to recite a well-crafted memo. I think there is something really interesting in playing with the conscious and subconscious in a collective environment. For example, I have found that diversity doesn’t work when left in the subconscious of an organisation. It needs to be explicit. If you don’t constantly talk about diversity and measuring it, you end up with a very homogenous group. Whereas strategies and values can be implicit, as long as you have space.
Thanks to the retreats and the long period to transition from contributor to member, I don’t think we would gain anything from having a formal list of our values.
As for knowing what is going on in the organisation itself, that is much more to do with information flow. For that we have several tools, including a fortnightly newsletter, we’ve got an improvements board for changes to Enspiral, we have Loomio for decisions… So, we have many streams to disseminate information about what is happening. Retreats are much more about the subconscious of the organisation.
Q: How are collaborative decisions taken? What checks and balances exist?
We have quite a few. There is one class of decisions that I think of as legislative decisions. We have a handbook in which there is an agreement section, to which everyone has to consent with in the network: How does a new member get added, how does a venture get added, what is the role of the board, etc.
About four years ago, we actually made quite a big mistake. In our agreements, we didn’t write down that only members have a binding block. Because Loomio has this consent process and everyone has a green thumb and a blocker, a handful of the contributors thought they had a binding block over decisions. Nobody ever used it, but three or four years later, I brought up that it was a member’s privilege. Quite a few contributors felt alienated because of that. So, that is a bit of an ongoing issue we have. In my opinion, only members have a binding block, which is why they are the stewards of the organisation. Everyone has the ability to give an opinion .
Another class of decisions are financial decisions: how we spend our money. For that, we use participatory budgeting, we built CoBudget. Some money goes to the core and is allocated by the Board for fixed costs. The rest is decided individually. Every contributor can give as much or as little as they want and they decide on where to allocate their money and which ventures or initiatives they fund. An internal Kickstarter if you wish. It is one of the most powerful things we implemented in the organisation.
When you have a membership fee and somebody else spends it for you, there begins to have this separation and you hear things like “Ahhh, they are spending my tax money”, “that’s good”, “that’s not good”, you get lobbying, you get pitching, you get people complaining about stuff, and you end up with this parent-child relationship between the people who give the money and the people who spend it. There is also information lost, where people don’t know how much money there is and how it is being spent, what the options are… So, people lose contextual understanding of what is going on in the organisation.
By making the pay-in voluntary, you give people responsibility over the organisation and the direction in which it is moving. It also increases greatly the transparency within the organisation.
Today, we have individual and venture contributions and I am going to propose we only have individual contributions, because when a venture grows and starts hiring people outside the network - which is normal - the venture gradually and understandably loses its link to Enspiral, so they pay in less and less or the non-members or non-contributors in the Venture don’t understand why money is being paid to Enspiral. It is just easier if everything is done individually.
Q: How do you balance offline and online presence?
Our old co-working space was pretty crucial to our development. But in the end, no one was passionate about running the business so we shut it down.
The Dev Academy business, and others in the network, make some of their space open for co-working, in part because of the space’s size and their need and in part, to better serve the community. We call it the Federated Space Model. Because Loomio - further down the road – also have a few more desks there, Rabid, same thing. I think this is an OK way of managing co-working spaces in a city, because as a business in itself, it is being commoditized and has very low margins.
Another strategy is creating international retreats so it is easier for people outside of New Zealand to take part. We had our first European retreat last year, a gathering in Brazil, one in Melbourne. We are hoping Wellington stops being the centre and becomes a node of the network linked equally to other nodes.
A few of us are also proposing an event in October called a Convergence. We are thinking of renting about twenty Airbnbs in Parati in Brazil, half-way between Rio and Sao Paulo, within walking or cycling distance from one another for a month and invite people to work and live together for a month. It is a way of getting a bunch of people together from each of the communities and seeing what could come out of it.
Q: What’s next for Enspiral?
Moving from one circle of members to many circles of members, as I have mentioned and exploring what an international network looks like.
I think there has been a tracking of our theory of change.
· It started out by helping people get more money so they could become self-funded change makers.
· We then moved to creating businesses that can change the world and through scaling these businesses can have an impact.
· Then, we came up with this open-sourced Enspiral idea, where Enspiral is this petri dish where we start breeding technology, or social processes, or culture which can be scaled globally. If you look at how cell phones scaled in the 90s, the Rio Earth Summit in 91 is when the first GSM network happened and there is something very different on how these initiatives scaled globally. If you can just build something small and replicable, that is better for someone, it will naturally be copied. So, we thought about organisational DNA, or technical DNA, which we could craft and share with a few people and if it were good, it would just ripple like a virus across the world. This became the theory of change for some of us and that is still there. All these things are still true, in different parts of the group.
· For me the fourth theory of change now is this idea of networked venture cooperatives building billion dollar businesses controlled by their members, have capped returns for their founders, have an explicit social mission and are starting to carve out pieces of the economy and funnel it towards the new generative economy rather than the old extractive economy.
I can see the platform coop movement merging really well the ideas of global IP, brands, technology with local chapters implementing the businesses, contributing some time, money and experience to the commons in the middle, and building something that looks a bit more like a virtual nation than it does a corporation. That kind of direction is pretty interesting.