This post is the first in a series of interviews aiming to present worker cooperatives in the UK. All of the coops profiled are members of Cooperatives UK – the Campaign for Cooperation.
The Bristol Bike Project came into being in December of 2008 after project founders James Lucas and Colin Fan were inspired to set up a charitable bike project while cycling their way through Scandanavia (pictured above). James was volunteering with Bristol Refugee Rights and began to understand the importance and need for disadvantaged and marginalised people to be independently mobile in our city. With ridiculously over-priced bus fares and our even more ridiculous reliance on the oil industry to fuel our cars, bicycles make perfect sense for navigating and living in an urban environment.
What were your biggest challenges on day one?
It wasn’t until 2 years into the project that we became incorporated and so we are possibly quite different in this way. There was no big change when we did register as a co-op – in fact the extra structure helped us and the project to become more sustainable.
What or who was the biggest help?
Hilary from the CDA in Bristol – she was and remains a fantastic help.
How did you go about getting funding?
The core of the project is self-sustaining as we have a trading arm that supports our volunteer-run community arm work. We apply for various small grants to set up other programmes at the project and have been supported by the Local Sustainable Transport Fund this year. Also Colin and I volunteered for two days every week for a year and a half to kickstart the project, so we did not need to apply for funding.
What problem is your business solving?
Many things, but primarily giving underprivileged and marginalised people access to free, sustainable transport, i.e. bikes
How did you find out that this problem exists?
By working at Bristol Refugee Rights and realising the extent to which refugees and asylum-seekers in Bristol would hugely benefit from being independently mobile at no cost.
Why a coop, why not a regular business?
Because we like the idea of being flat-structured and of creating ownership of the project amongst our members and workers.
What type of cooperative are you?
A worker’s co-op
What is your cooperative’s income sharing structure?
I don’t understand what you mean here – can you be more specific?
Some coops share equally whilst some have a graded structure based on different reasons – level of participation or expertise among others.
Not sure that we have a graded income sharing structure – there are 3 full time paid people at the project and a whole bunch of part-time paid people.
What is your decision making process?
We have monthly director’s meetings, monthly operational meetings and try to have quarterly member’s meetings plus our AGM. We try to reach consensus wherever possible.
How quickly can you make decisions?
Normally within a few days up to a week, once we have asked for feelings and feedback about something – it really depends on what it is. We remain a very agile setup which can respond and act quickly – this is really important to all of us at the project and also to the project’s success and quick evolution.
Agile is a big thing in software development. How did you translate it for the business setting?
In terms of being an agile organisation, I think that we are just all naturally that way inclined. We are all enthusiastic, motivated people and like to get things done and see things improve and evolve.
How would you compare the individual level of autonomy as compared to a regular employment?
Massively different and much more respectful and empowering.
What extra advice can you give to would be founders of coops?
To try and be an agile setup and to make sure that all its members agree on this.