Tech

Meet The People Who Think Co-Ops Are The Way To Build A Better Uber

People love gig economy apps like Uber and Airbnb, but some are increasingly dissatisfied with how those companies treat people and communities. One group of hackers, academics, policymakers and weirdos thinks they can do it better. It won't be easy.

Posted on

Academic conferences tend not to be overbooked. But at November's Platform Cooperativism conference, hosted by New York City's New School, nearly every session was standing room only. Last year, when associate professor Trebor Scholz put on his annual Digital Labor conference, a few hundred scholars showed up. This year, more than 2,000 registered to attend.

To be fair, it's a hot moment for the kinds of problems Scholz (and the conference) are interested in. Digital platforms like Uber, Airbnb, TaskRabbit and more have redefined how (some of us) live our lives. But these companies have also become known by some for their tendency to compress labor, treating human workers as little more than dots moving around on a digital map. Lawsuits, protests, and attempts at organizing by the workers who drive Uber cars and carry Instacart loads attest to this. Scholz thinks there's a better way. He and Nathan Schneider, who co-convened the conference, are looking to see what would happen workers owned the platforms themselves.

amazing anger toward @Airbnb at #platformcoop. some bridge building would be useful

At the event, Scholz announced his intention to create "a foundation that would bring together open source programmers to work on a kernel for labor platforms." Such a body would likely be based out of New York's Civic Hall, a coworking and civic hacking space funded by the Microsoft, Google, and the Omidyar Network, among others.

This idea isn't new: Household name companies including Cabot, R.E.I. Land o' Lakes, and Sunkist are run as cooperatives. And a number of civic-minded, anti-capitalist programmers are already working on — and in some cases successfully running — cooperative platforms.

One of the most successful, at this point, is probably Stocksy, a stock photo website that is owned by a collective of nearly 600 professional photographers. Stocksy sells its unique inventory to a number of clients; in its second year, it brought in $3.7 million dollars, according to founder Brianna Wettlaufer.

There were plenty of hopefuls at Platform Coop — people who, accustomed mostly to theoreticals, were excited to imagine their ideas playing out in a digital reality, like Wettlaufer's were. But there were also people who have tried this before, and knew that it's harder than it looks.

Trebor Sholz at the New School. #platformcoop

A few years ago, Felix Weth managed to crowdfund more than 350,000 euros to build Fairmondo, a cooperative alternative to e-commerce giants like eBay and Amazon. With that money, plus a small grant from Google, Weth was able to assemble a team of developers to begin writing the software — all open source — for the site. He already had members lined up — those who contributed to the crowdfunding campaign got shares in the cooperative — so there was no need for marketing. Weth plans to launch Fairmondo UK in 2016, and is now working on Fairmondo US. But cloning Amazon, from a technological perspective, was harder than he thought. "We can repeat that for 50,000 euros, I thought," he told BuzzFeed News over lunch in New York. "That was an illusion."

I met a young man who had flown to New York from San Francisco to attend the conference, and he was far from the only one. He told me that he started a digital co-op five years ago, and has long been convinced that worker-owned technologies are the way of the future. His platform, Own.coop, ultimately failed due to lack of funding, but he said he's still a believer in the movement. For now, though, he works at a big tech company in Silicon Valley. (He wouldn't say which one — he didn't want his employer to find out about his side project.

Robin Chase, one of the founders of Zipcar who now runs a car-share startup in France, said if a kinder, gentler version of the gig economy is going to exist, the people who are going to build it need to start moving fast, before the Ubers of the world expand into every nook and cranny of the U.S. economy. "The private sector is going to do it," she said, "and they're going to do it with hundreds of millions of dollars, in every sector."

Chase wasn't the only tech executive present who has struggled with toeing the line of good capitalism. When Scott Heiferman founded Meetup back in 2002, he conceived of the site, a platform where people can make IRL plans with strangers who have common interests, as a nonprofit organization. But Heiferman was convinced by famous venture capitalist Pierre Omidyar that only a venture-backed corporation could build what Heiferman hoped Meetup would be. Heiferman demurred; Omidyar invested.

Today, Meetup is classified as a benefit corporation. Like fellow b-corps Etsy and Kickstarter, that means there's less pressure to maximize profit; for example, benefit corporations can't be sued by their shareholders for not making enough money. But even with millions in venture capital that paid for a team of dozens of developers, it's still hard to build a successful company, even if your end goal isn't huge profit. Even with venture backing, Heiferman said that building a platform that people actually want to use, and return to, while also creating enough revenue to keep paying the developers, has been a significant challenge.

Throughout the conference, people argued that it will be easy to clone popular apps and create technologically similar versions that are run cooperatively. Janelle Orsi of the SELC called the mass migration of users off of platforms like Airbnb and Uber and onto new, more fair versions "crowd leaping," and argued that, since these companies don't actually own any capital like fleets of cars or acres of property, replicating what they do now should be easy. But Heiferman, a CEO with with 13 years of experience, said not so fast.

"It is much fucking harder than you think to run Uber," he said.

our excellent audience and my insightful co-panelists at #platformcoop. thought-provoking, feel a sense of progress

Even if it wasn't so — even if it wasn't incredibly difficult to achieve critical mass on a successful tech platform — Platform Coop has another problem: Some people don't even believe that building traditional businesses is the right way forward to begin with. Cindy Milstein, a San Francisco-based author and activist, was on the same panel as Heiferman, and found the idea that a private company can be operated in a way that benefits the many, if not outright repulsive, at least laughable. "We shouldn't feel good about making capitalism work," she said. "We can come here and make ourselves feel good about making capitalism work, but I want you not to feel good about making capitalism work."

At the end of the day, capitalism is the system in which these would-be cooperative tech founders will have to work. Some of the conference attendees had ideas for how that could happen. Brendan Martin of Working World is trying to help co-ops — digital and otherwise — come together and negotiate for funding in groups, where their leverage in terms of achieving capital will be much more powerful.

Kanyi Maqubela is a venture capitalist who attended Platform Coop on behalf of the Collaborative Fund, a venture firm with $70 million to spend. Collaborative is what's known as an impact fund; it looks for companies with a social purpose, and founders who want to do more than profit. Maqubela said many of the entrepreneurs present at Platform Cooperativism came to him looking for funding — or already had in the past. So far, Maqubela told me over coffee, most on-demand economy apps had been designed to serve the kind of people who built them; rich, privileged knowledge workers. What he's looking for is companies that want to build "tools for the labor class," a group he sees as "an opportunity for a new network." And he's confident, from an investment perspective, that this new network is a good bet. "I think you will see a decentralized, cooperative Uber," he said.

It's not like starting tomorrow a bunch of Lyft drivers and TaskRabbit taskers are going to rise up, overthrow their corporate leaders, come together and usher in a new age of apps. Legions of domestic workers who belong to co-ops aren't suddenly going to start drinking soylent and talking like Silicon Valley venture capitalists. In fact, the only panel that actually featured any people who actually work on digital platforms was also the only session that had empty seats. Kristy Milland, who works on Amazon Mechanical Turk, said there couldn't have been more than 15 people in the room. This movement, while definitely real, has enormous hurdles before it, both from a technological perspective, and in terms of building interest. At the end of the day, some people may not like Uber's labor and business practices, but it's also pretty convenient.

Wise #platformcoop close by @rushkoff of #mediaecology tribe, talking bias of tech (Innis) & #GuttenbergParenthesis

When I left the New School at 9 p.m. on Saturday, the crowd had thinned, but the conversation was still going. I stopped in a bar to collect my thoughts, and reflect on the weekend's events. While I waited for my beer, I couldn't help but overhear a conversation going on a few stools down the way. A man, who turned out to be a venture capitalist with 645 Ventures, was celebrating Google's acquisition of one of the firm's companies, a digital media startup called iLabs. His drinking buddy congratulated him, and chimed in on what it takes to build and sell a successful tech company.

"Gotta get that cash flow! Gotta get those costs down!" he said, laughing. "Nobody rides for free." His friend laughed too.

"Yeah man" he said. "No one rides for free."

Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Caroline O'Donovan at caroline.odonovan@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.