How to start an ad-hoc Co-Op, and why you should.
Context: I’m a tabletop RPG designer, and I run a group called Sandy Pug Games. All the advice given in this article is mainly about my experiences in the TTRPG scene. It is heavily influenced by reading about economic models and observing co-op structures in other industries, but that’s where I’m at.
Working as a part of a co-op is the most fun I’ve ever had making things, and it’s by far and away the most powerful model for making art out there right now. I mean that in every sense of the word. Cooperative groups win big on Kickstarter, get eyes on their projects, and produce the best work in the industry. I think you should start or join a co-op, and I wanna teach you a few things I’ve learned after doing it twice.
This article won’t go into the legalities and finer details of running a co-op on an administrative level (besides a section about how to structure things internally), cause it’s not really all that important. Whatever legal structure you adopt for your endeavour, the important part is to run the thing the right way. I run SPG, legally, as a sole proprietorship and all my coworkers are technically freelancers, but I still run it as a co-op in principle. Laws aren’t real. Lets get into it.
To play this game, you’ll need the following
Let’s start with the hard one — you need people. A cooperative’s power lies in having more people more invested in a project than a traditional model allows. A co-ops power is directly relational to how much passion and fire you stuff the team with, and I’d even say one of the biggest draws of the model is that it unlocks that creative passion and investment. So you need some comrades. I can’t really help you massively there. If you were planning on making something, you’ve probably already wondered about people you could get to write, layout, edit, illustrate, and promote your work. That’s where you start. Reach out to these people and pitch the idea of doing this project cooperatively.
You don’t have to make it a big and formal Event. It can be as easy as saying “Hey, I want you to work on this, and if you do, just fyi but we run on a co-op model. It means you’ll get paid in shares on the back end, a bonus from the KS if we do well, and you’ll have a big say in what goes on with the project. Are you ok with that?” and go from there. Not everyone you wanna work with has to join the co-op, and if they don’t, nbd. I tend to have two different models to remunerate people in the co-op and people outside of it, both of which involve paying people their upfronts, but with all the share-based stuff reliant on participation in the project beyond just the commission. People can opt in or out as they please, and you should make sure anyone you reach out to is comfortable with these terms. Transparency is vital!
You’ll also need momentum. Momentum is the most important thing by far. You need a project for these people to work on, and you need to keep them hyped about it. There are no bosses in a co-op, but there are leaders, and one role of a good leader is making sure everyone's passion is directed effectively and channeled creatively. In practical terms, this means as soon as you’re inviting people to your discord, have templates ready, examples of work put together, art requests in a big spreadsheet, and a clear invoicing process ready to go. Give everyone the tools to start creating right away — or, if your project is a Kickstarter, a clear path for promotion, discussion, and so on, around the project.
Maintaining momentum is tough, especially in longer term projects — there’s a few ways to tackle this, from the terminally corporate (hangouts, movies, buying people takeout!) to the practical (show off peoples work in preview builds, promote each others other projects, start side work, etc), but as a general rule, you just want people to keep making stuff, and keep hyped about the stuff they make. Show them how cool their work is, or how it will look in the finished project, encourage praise and feedback, tweet about cool stuff they write or draw, try to build your discord or w/e to have less of an Office vibe and more of a workshop vibe. Have space for people to share links and shoot the shit and goof around and share experiments. You’re making art together, remember that, always.
Whatever you do, momentum is vital. When momentum starts running out, projects pitter out, people stop checking the discord, people stop checking in, things get confusing or cluttered, and people stop identifying with whatever the project is/was as their own. To some degree this isn’t a big issue! You will find all co-ops tend to delineate themselves between the core and the surrounding support structures. There’s no issues in people taking a few weeks to live in one of those camps over the other, you only have issues if the only person who gives a shit about the project on a level other than financial is yourself. This can quickly turn into a death spiral
[Aside; For some people, discord, or whatever organizational tool you use, is an utter nightmare, and an uncrestable barrier between them and your co-op. You should spend some time figuring out workarounds and support methods for people on your team with these needs. A co-op is its members, and taking care of one another is a #1 priority, always.]
Share The Load
Let’s alternate between the Hows and Whys. That’ll be more fun to read. Probably. This is kind of both tbh.
So, benefit #1 of running your project as an adhoc co-op, you can share the responsibility, stress, and challenges of running a major independent art production across way more people than just your anxiety ridden depression-brain having ass. The huge, huge winner with this is promotion. A co-op short circuits the algorithm on social media and allows you to amplify the project massively, massively more than you could do by yourself. This allows smaller creators to effectively punch high above their weight and get funding for projects they otherwise would have to spend years building up to. We’ll get to the social media tricks later, but remember it, it’s a biggy.
You can also distribute tasks like reaching out to podcasts and blogs, you can easily distribute graphics design, accounting, you have a team of people who’re happy to look over your numbers and ideas because the numbers and ideas are also theirs. As long as you’re paying them for the work (and yourself, for that matter), a co-op represents a group of people you can lean on just a little when you’d otherwise be shouldering the weight of a thousand little jobs a day. I can not stress to you how helpful it is having a room in the discord I can go to and ask a question, and have 3 or 4 people pop in to have a discussion about the pros, cons, alternative approaches, etc. It’s invigorating. I have a window open with my team right now discussing a problem I’ve been stewing on for weeks and it’s already solved. It rules.
Cooperative Design Ideals
Simply put, you can’t just port over your 4 years-in-development heartbreaker to a co-op format. Well, maybe you can, I’m not a cop or your dad or anyone, really, I’m purely imaginary, a fiction. Anyway, co-ops work best when you specifically and explicitly design the project around the benefits and the structure a co-op gives you. You want easily quantifiable chunks of Work that can be easily assigned to people who have signed up to do work of that Flavour. You want to know in advance at least roughly what this looks like — consider the Roleplayers Guide To Heists as a great example of this. Every single entry in the book is a distinct heist, which all follow the same guidelines for headers and layout, they all have the same rough word count, and they all cover a similar topic. This means you could say “Right, 30 heists in this book, we have 10 writers. Here’s how the heists should look, here’s a template, and an example. You get 2 arts per heist, who wants one?” and assign work that way.
This isn’t to say it’s impossible to write more traditional, less episodic content via co-op models, far far from it. Once you sit down and start asking some of these questions, you’ll find yourself noticing how modular you can make your work, how modular it was already, and the rest will come easily.
This goes for almost every job you can think of in the project, and I wanna sideload a benefit here — by doing away with the hierarchy inherent in more traditional models, you can let people who know their shit *run* that shit. Your editor is in charge of how the editing works. Your artist and layout person make the rules for their content, and so on. Letting go of the need to control your coworkers frees your work to be stewarded by the people best suited to own that responsibility. The work will be better for it.
On that note…
+10 to Good Art
I have no data to back this up, but it’s true. Co-Op produced projects, when they are run well, produce work that is significantly better, more interesting, more true to its intent, than work that is done in traditional frameworks. I think this happens because when everyone owns a little piece of the project, they give it more of themselves than if they are just getting paid or doing freelance. I think the chorus of voices gives the project a wider and deeper well of experiences and influences to draw from. I think the fact that everyone who knows what they’re doing has the room to breathe and a support structure to help them means everyone makes the best art they can.
Whatever the reason, co-ops make better stuff. Its facts!
I think a lot of people make the mistake of assuming a leftist model completely dissolved any and all ideas of leadership. This is incorrect. A Co-op, as mentioned before, has leaders. It does not have Bosses. What’s the distinction? Important, that’s what. BEWARE, CORPORATE BULLSHIT SOUNDING STUFF INCOMING: A boss tells people what to do, how to do it, then gets to enjoy the profits generated by their labour. A leader enables people to do what they want to do.
As a leader in the co-op, your actual job might be anything, but your role within the structure of the project is to keep your foot on the gas and keep a high level idea of where things are going. It’s your job to navigate the troubles that come up. You might not be the person who writes every update or sends every email, but you are the person who has to say “This needs to be done”. This structure is really important, because even when everyone knows what they’re doing, there needs to be a source for energy and direction for any project. This is where you, and to a degree, your core team, comes in. You may even be pleasantly surprised as several other team members step up into this role as the project rolls on. When I helped put together my first co-op, the people we picked as the core mentor roles, and who turned out to be the most leader-type people were two very different pools. (Wait, that’s another lesson. Be like water, change your structure as your needs change.)
One of the biggest responsibilities as a leader, and this ties into the momentum thing — someone needs to make choices. In a co-op, everyone gets a say, everyone contributes, but that can very quickly lead to a situation where nothing ever happens because you’re all too wrapped up in the cat’s cradle of running the co-op. It’s very easy to feel like you need every single person’s input on every single choice, it’s very easy to feel like you need to vote on every single option, but think of it this way; you’re trusting your artists and writers and editors and layout and so on to do their job, yes? You’re not hovering over their shoulders, dictating every pen stroke. Thus it is for you too, as the person heading up this endeavour, to occasionally make decisions that will keep the project alive and running. This doesn’t always have to be you, this shouldn’t always be you. You should confer with the team regularly and address and debate every time a major fork comes in the project, you should be willing to walk back choices sometimes, and you should advocate for everyone to have their say as much as possible, but you should also accept that sometimes, you have to hit send on that email, confirm on that order, etc.
[Aside: You may not be leader material. That’s fine! Co-ops don’t need a single project lead, and that doesn’t really have to be you, but a co-op, like any project, needs some people whose work includes keeping their foot on the gas a little bit. Embrace it and work it like any other role — in collaboration with, but not subservient to, the rest of the members of the project. You (or whoever) do not always need permission to be leaderful.]
The Smallest Mountain Starts As A Stone
One of the coolest things a co-op can do is provide the framework to mentor and educate yourself and others. The fact that nobody is working for anyone, but instead everyone is working with each other, presents an environment that makes it very easy to pass along skills. Every Kickstarter I’ve run in the last few years has, as a major element of its process, been about educating the people taking part on how to run a Kickstarter themselves, something I think has paid off. This can be a good thing to keep in mind when you sit down to have a debate or discussion about a thing you know a lot about — show your working, answer questions, etc. Then maybe do the same when someone else is working through their bit, if their bit is something you want to learn. One of my art mentors teaches me through discussions about Monster Care Squad, for example!
Everyone worries about this. I get it. Money is hard. The Money could be a whole article in itself, and maybe it should be, but for now, let me give you a general birds eye view of how I do The Money. Most of how I make stuff revolves around crowdfunding, so keep that in mind.
You have to pay people. Understand that above all else. Even in a co-op format, you have to understand that these people are working with you under the promise that you will pay them. Being in a co-op allows you to spread the risk somewhat, and you can and will recruit people under the understanding that the money comes after the Kickstarter wraps, but remuneration in a co-op isn’t JUST shares and backend profit splitting, it is also upfront payments. The first thing you should do is discuss with your potential co-op pals what their rates are, and budget around those numbers.
Once you have those numbers, I highly recommend the following terms for your project. Discuss them with your group and use democracy to figure out what model works for everyone;
- Everyone on the team gets a percent of the profits of the final product, based on a shares model. How you determine what one share is, and what jobs get however many shares, is up to your team to figure out.
- Either a bump to the standard rate they quote you, or a flat sum, once the KS funds, everyone gets some money. This includes you, dingus.
- When I run co-op projects, I make sure everyone retains personal ownership of the work they produce, and that I effectively license it for use in my game. This lets the artist retain merch and reuse rights.
- Based on the agreed upon rate, and paid at least in part upon commission.
The finer points of all of these can, should, must, and will be decided upon by the group as a whole.
[Sidenote: A few people read the first draft of this and wanted hard examples of how I did/do shares. I strongly recommend you hash this out with your squad, but the quickest and easiest way is to identify what one quantifiable piece of Work is (be that one Heist, one Adventure, one Art) and award one share per piece of work. This can get Funky sometimes, like if a project has a lot of simple artwork or if the work can’t be easily quantified like that, but that’s why I say you should hash it out with your team.]
One Weird Trick
So when you make a Kickstarter, the thing most people think they need is a huge account retweeting you — the reasoning is obvious, 20k followers seeing your project can be a huge bump, and it’s not wrong that it can help, but do you know what helps more?
20 people with 1000 followers each all tweeting about a project nonstop for a month.
You probably won’t get that exactly with your new co-op, but even wielding a percentage of that power utterly fucks the way twitter and social media does its algorithm. If you can get 10 people in your co-op, each of them commenting, retweeting, quote tweeting, and posting their own content constantly, you’re going to be in front of so many peoples eyes, on a consistent basis, that you’ll quickly decide you don’t really need to worry about begging for shares from anyone who might give you a pity like.
If you can score someone on your team with even a passing familiarity with social media, scheduling specific days and themes where your entire team leverages their numbers, the reach you can achieve is absolutely absurd. This is without talking about the connections, forum accounts, friends, networks generally, that you unlock by having a larger group of people working together.
When you start putting together your co-op finances, you’ll notice you’re looking at bigger numbers than if you were working alone. This ability to absolutely dominate the social media game is why you shouldn’t sweat those larger budgets very much. By yourself, you might be able to raise $3k, but with 20 dedicated people all tapping their networks, the sky’s the limit.
And this group promo engine can be an attractive benefit for joining a co-op too. Remember to leverage this power on each others side gigs, retweeting sales or deals or new games your coworkers are making. Support one another, and you’ll find future work just flows like water.
Wait, support each other? That sounds important. Thread (1/261)
Love Lifts Us Up Where We Belong (In The Trash)
I’m going to be real with you. This last piece of advice will make you zero money. It is not a financial piece of advice. It’s just an ideological bullet point, but I think it’s an important one.
A co-op at it’s heart is about a group of people working together on equal footing to make something they all believe in. It is a closer, kinder, warmer way of doing business and making things than the mainstream models offer, and it offers us a unique chance to reject the corporate, capitalist idea of what it means to be coworkers. You are not competing with anyone, you are not fighting for raises or promotions, you have no quotas but the ones you set for yourselves. It is a chance, in short, to be nice to one another.
In the SPG co-ops, we share each other’s gofundmes, we support one another through crises, we share funny videos, send each other presents, and we love one another. Maybe not best friends, not always. Maybe sometimes we butt heads. Maybe sometimes we part on difficult terms. Maybe. But we’re not faceless cogs, we’re comrades.