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Bristol’s co-op businesses: Top tips for success

This article featuring top tips for success from Bristol’s co-op businesses was originally published in The Bristol Cable and written by Kate Whittle and Maff Tucker, recent graduates of the Cable’s Media Lab course. They both have extensive experience in the cooperative movement: Kate works with Co-operantics offering consultancy and training for co-ops, and has worked in and with co-ops for over 30 years including The Phone Co-op, Essential Trading in Bristol and Unicorn Co-operative Grocery in Manchester. Maff has worked with the Bristol Wood Recycling Project, Kebele Community Co-op and Hydra Bookshop.

What exactly is a co-op? Simply put it’s a business run for the benefit of its members, be they customers (convenience stores), employees (Bristol’s Kino Co-op), tenants (Cog Housing Co-op) savers and borrowers (Bristol Credit Union) or members of the community (the Bristol Cable).

Being run for the benefit of members means that profits are ploughed back into the business or paid as member dividends instead of interest on investment being paid to external shareholders or distant owners.

We love co-ops and we think they are an important part of an economy that works for everyone, not just the 1%. But how do they work? Who makes the decisions if there’s no boss? Since there are so many types of co-op, it’s difficult to generalise, but key features are open membership, structures that allow decision-making to be delegated amongst teams or individuals, accountability to members and democracy – one member one vote.


But how to make them successful and a great place to work? Bristol has a thriving co-op scene. We asked members of The Folkhouse, Bristol Wood Recycling Project and The Bristol Bike Project for their top tips on starting up:

1. Go and talk with other existing co-ops.
Find out what has and hasn’t worked for them. Many people who work in co-ops are committed to seeing it grow as a movement. They will be a great resource for the development of your business.
2. Make use of the resources that you can find online. and have a whole bunch of downloadable PDFs dedicated to co-ops.
3. Good communication skills…
…will ensure that co-op members feel engaged and heard and will be committed and loyal.
4. Think about the model for decision-making in your co-op.
Consensus (making sure all members agree on a decision) is often seen as necessary in co-ops, but can lead to slow or no decisions and can be extremely frustrating. There are various ways to make decisions, so check that your approach is right for the type of decision. Use consensus if it involves all the members, large sums of money or has long term impact. Seeds for Change Consensus Handbook goes into the detail.
5. Agree and write down your purpose.
What do you hope to achieve? This is your Mission Statement. Agree your objectives and base decisions and policies around them. Don’t be afraid of referring to them as regularly as you need to. This should head-off problems and challenges as they arise. It keeps them fresh in the mind and should hopefully serve as a ‘guiding light’.
6. Establish ground rules for working together.
Working with others in a co-op can be tricky, people will have different aims and objectives, and different ways of working. If ground rules are not set out early on, bickering and infighting may result. The workplace can become toxic and intolerable, worse than the most menial of corporate jobs.
7. Make your working environment empowering and fun.
There is little or no point in working in a co-op if it is not an antidote to standard mundane business structures. To paraphrase Emma Goldman: “If there is no fun and laughter, it is not my co-operative!”
8. Write a business plan, with good financial systems and reporting.
Make sure you live within your means.
9. Ensure you are providing good consistent customer service.
10. Creative use of social media…
…and other marketing tools (website, well design printed marketing material) is essential!

The Bristol Bike Project is a Community Interest Company with a co-operative structure. This means that we are an organisation whose focus is community benefit rather than private gain, and that we are a Member-led organisation. Read more about becoming a member of our co-op.