In 2019, Relay Online Marketing became a worker-owned cooperative workplace. Every member of our team is a co-owner of our business; we all make the same hourly rate. When we need to make a business decision, we vote. Every vote is equal. When we hire new employees, they will be invited into the ownership structure no later than one year after the date of their hire.
And no, we’re not hippies.
Here’s what happened. In 2008, I quit a customer service job and began my career as a freelance writer. I quickly learned that I work much more efficiently when I can directly see the benefits of my labor; if I know that I get $20 for turning in a blog, I’ll complete the work as quickly as I can.
So I wrote hundreds of articles, and over time, the quality of my writing improved. Soon, I had more clients than I could handle on my own. Rather than turn away work, I hired employees, and by 2018, I had a successful small business.
But by 2019, I was burned out. I’m not a natural manager, and more importantly, I didn’t see myself as a boss. Neither did anyone else. My management style is basically, “Hey, when you’re done with that, come look at this YouTube compilation of news anchor fails.” I spent my time meeting with clients, digging through Quickbooks, and performing other tasks that didn’t involve writing or SEO in any direct way.
Those tasks were important, but they weren’t especially difficult. I couldn’t justify taking a significantly larger paycheck than my employees. This isn’t to pat myself on the back for changing the structure — that was a group decision — but an honest appraisal of the situation. My time was no more valuable than anyone else’s time, and as we grew, the bureaucracy of business became a bigger problem.
That made me think about those early days of copywriting. I knew I worked better when my pay was directly tied to the quality and quantity of my work, and I knew that what motivated me would be just as effective at motivating other people. I sat down with my employees (now partners), showed them a few hours of YouTube videos, and laid out a basic plan: We’d share every part of the business. They recommended changes, we voted, and we printed up an operating agreement.
We were small and nimble enough to make that approach viable, and our risk was limited: If our business started to fail, we could always revert back to our old structure.
In 2019, we reset the business as a shared LLC. Our day-to-day work changed in minor ways, but we immediately became more productive. We worked less hours. We eliminated some of the efficiency issues that had plagued our old business — I didn’t have to worry about payroll or health insurance payments, and our company meetings were smoother and quicker. Difficult decisions were handled democratically.
We know that our approach isn’t ideal for every type of business, but it worked for us for a few key reasons. First, we’re writers — we understand the importance of deadlines, and we’d all worked as contractors before joining together as a business. We’re willing to hold ourselves accountable. Second, we’d already set up a great team. We know how our coworkers work, and our company’s culture has remained consistent as we’ve grown and changed.
Finally, we were willing to try something new for the sake of creating a more equitable structure. We believe that worker ownership helps businesses grow while preventing racism, gender discrimination, and other forms of prejudice from taking hold. We wrote several articles into our operating agreement allowing for the swift dismissal of anyone who creates a hostile work environment, and while we don’t anticipate those issues in our business, we believe that limiting our power as individuals will help us protect each other.
With that said, we work with businesses of all sizes, and our clients have found plenty of other ways to maintain safe, productive work environments. This is simply what works for us — and while our structure is slightly unusual, it gives us the best possible framework to serve our clients effectively.