Greenmarque is an ethical business consultancy. Their mission is to change the way that business operates. They aim to help co-operatives & social enterprises compete effectively against conventional businesses, and to convert more conventional businesses into co-operatives and social enterprises. They have remained small with between 2 and 4 consultants. They provide advice and support on business start-up, strategy development, business planning, marketing, fundraising and community shares as well as carrying out market research and evaluations.
Enter Brian Millington (pictured above):
What were your biggest challenges on day one?
Resourcing the business while having little or no wages. Having a low perception of our own value. Finding customers – i.e. ethical businesses prepared to pay for business advice at a viable rate.
What or who was the biggest help?
Lambeth Co-operative Development Agency provided low cost shared office space.
How did you go about getting funding?
We did not get funding. We grew the consultancy organically and slowly. In retrospect, this was a mistake. The business remains underfunded which inhibits its ability to take up some contracts, to invest effectively in marketing and service development and to take commercial risks.
What funding options are there for you as a cooperative?
Funding options are limited because we are structured as a company limited by guarantee, rather than because we are a co-operative. We are only able to access finance through loans (from banks, members or friends) or from potentially from retained profits. If we were structured as a company limited by shares, we would be able to use equity finance from members or non-voting equity from external investors.
What problem is your business solving?
We help businesses consider a co-operative or social enterprise structure, where they might otherwise choose or retain a private structure. We also enable ethically structured businesses to consider viable conventional business strategies, rather than reject practices such as marketing and profit generation because of their association with other capitalist practices.
How did you find out that this problem exists?
We set up the consultancy because in 1997, we had seen first hand examples of co-operatives rejecting sound business advice from conventional consultancies because of the capitalist values that advice would come wrapped up in. Our founders were from the co-operative wholefood sector, and could see that ethical businesses both needed sound advice and would be more willing to accept business advice from a consultancy which shared their values.
Why a coop, why not a regular business?
Both founders had always worked in co-operatives, and neither wanted “to employ, nor to be employed”.
What type of cooperative are you?
A workers’ co-operative company limited by guarantee.
What is your cooperative’s income sharing structure?
We simply pay wages, with all employees receiving the same basic rate. There is no dividend / profit share.
What is your decision making process?
We have a flat structure. All members have a say in long term strategy development. Operational decision-making is also shared, though there is some delegation of power to manage specific contracts. The flat structure reflects the fact that each consultant has a high level of specialist knowledge and expertise which can be brought to the decision-making process. The co-operative needs that knowledge and expertise to be available at board and operational level.
How quickly can you make decisions?
We can have discussions and make decisions rapidly if we need to, for example, by email. This is critical in a fast moving market where opportunities emerge rapidly.
How would you compare the individual level of autonomy as compared to a regular employment?
We operate a higher level of autonomy than have either conventional consultancies or even co-operative development agencies.
What extra advice can you give to would be founders of coops?
Research their market thoroughly. It is not enough for people or organisations to want or need your service. Make certain they, or someone on their behalf, are ready, willing and able to pay it.