Last weekend, JustDesign members gathered for a digital retreat to chart our course in 2019. While we spent a lot of time talking about the growth we hope to see in the coming year, we also had much to celebrate. As a co-operative, our journey never seems straight or even straightforward. In the coming weeks we will share out our lessons learned from starting a co-op; for now we want to share with you how far we’ve come.
Our membership held steady at seven member-owners in three states (Illinois, New York, & Arizona) for the duration of the year. At the beginning of 2018 we agreed that before bringing new members on we needed to establish financial viability and stability. We defined this as paying ourselves on a regular basis for our work.
Using our consensus-based decision making process, we established $42 as our set hourly rate of pay for all members and all work, and three tiered rates for clients: $105 or market-rate work, $63 or non-profit rate, $42 at-cost community-led rate; there are some occasional modest adjustments to these rates based on special circumstances such as working abroad or subcontracting portions of the work. Market-rate work supports our operations, such as blog writing, bookkeeping, and special projects. Non-profit rate simply covers the costs of the project. At-cost projects cover staff time only, and allows us to support the leading edges of community work where funding and philanthropy has not caught up with yet.
Our 2018 revenue rounds to $32,000 with an additional $8,000 expected from invoices sent at the end of the year. This covers our start-up costs (repaying interest-free loans made by member-owners to cover the costs of incorporation) and all hours worked by members in 2018. There will be no surplus, but we could hardly have planned better for our first year. (A surplus in a co-op is paid out as dividends, a good adventure to undertake in our second year of operation, after the basic tax and guaranteed payments processes are routine).
We worked for six clients in 2018: the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), Global Health Network International (GHNI), Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), Justice Informed, Kivu Green Energy, and St. Sabina’s Stein Learning Gardens. After working with ELPC and LVEJO on one project, each contracted us for a second project before the end of the year, and ELPC is talking with us about adding another scope of work.
We spoke at two conferences in 2018. In May, Dan Wahl presented an updated version of our Well Siting Meter developed for GHNI at the World Environmental & Water Resources Conference in Minneapolis. In July, Maria and Frank Bergh presented tools and strategies for community engagement at the EPA’s Community Involvement Training Conference in Kansas City. While at a glance we spoke more in 2017 (at the Engineers Without Borders USA Conference in Milwaukee, Association for Community Design Conference in Dallas, and Archeworks Agendas in Chicago), our tone in 2017 was primarily a provocation: what if there were an alternate way to practice? In 2018 we spoke with authority: this is how to practice anti-oppressive, open-source, rights-based design.
As data-driven designers, we believe in numbers but know there is a richer story to tell. We began 2018 with a drafted operating agreement and a promise that we would pay ourselves by the end of the year, insured only by our enthusiasm and hunger for the work. The year has been marked by a series of milestones that prepare us to do this work at scale for the long term. We designed and printed business cards. We hosted our email at our web domain. We selected a bank and opened a bank account. We set up a time-tracking ritual. We developed a project selection matrix to help us articulate how each project will forward our values and spent a lot of time learning how to fill it out and review projects together. We researched and instated ethical, inclusive guidelines, and a conflict resolution process. We engaged an accountant and learned how to use Quickbooks.
At the very end of 2018 we ceremonially paid our dues and paid our first quarterly estimated taxes, our bank account finally full enough to be worth it. While each threshold was, on its own, small and gradual, the difference between deciding on an hourly wage (“42 is the answer to everything”) to setting an annual cost-of-living increase that will track with the national average, there is a sense that even if this organization is not yet paying us each a living wage, there is potential if we all stick together.
We remain inspired: by each other (our collective, complementary intelligence and experience is formidable) and by our clients. We remain dedicated to our principles, and committed to developing a compromise between our current capitalist system and the cooperative economy that supports rights-based, anti-oppressive, and open-source solutions to our technical and even some social problems. We hope that you will join us in our optimism that in spite of our current political climate, there are solutions in front of us if we only come together.
Inspired? Have a problem we can help with? Check us out on twitter, facebook, and instagram or fill out our project application form. Skeptical? Are you considering starting a co-op? Look for our upcoming blog post on lessons learned in 2018.