Why I started The Brightoneers, and what I hope it will do

Last week we got The Brightoneersvision for a new local economy in Brighton out into the wild. It has been great to see so many people joining the meet-up group; tweeting about us and emailing offers to get involved. Thanks to you pioneering people who instantly ‘got it’ we are already making the vision closer to reality.

The Brightoneers is not a typical approach to business. It isn’t directly selling anything, it doesn’t have a bank account and isn’t even a company. Whilst there is a very clear vision guiding us – there are no defined goals for The Brightoneers itself. So understandably some people are confused:

This isn’t a problem. We’re building up a critical mass of people who do get it and I’m sure others will be drawn in over time. In this post I wanted to share my personal story about what I’m doing and why. If you’re expecting the specifics of a standard business plan you’ll still be disappointed, because this is not standard business.

What’s driving all of this are the huge challenges facing the world today: A larger rich-poor gap, climate change, and stagnation or even decline in standards of wellbeing in developed nations. Capitalism as we know it has failed, and socialism despite its good intentions hasn’t worked either. I want to have children one day, and I think they deserve a better world than the one they’re going to inherit as things stand.

Right here in Brighton there is enormous income inequality with great affluence in some places together with areas like Moulsecomb and Bevendean where child poverty rates are up to 45% versus the national average of 21%. This is bad news for everyone, not just the poor. For example, where I live on Saint James’s Street, the road is being gentrified with higher value homes, yet all residents suffer from the effects of poverty with crime and anti-social behaviour like street drinking. The largest employer in the city is American Express. The city badly needs the jobs that have been created, and I certainly don’t want them to leave, but it’s not owned by the people here and so most of the profits leave Brighton. We also have many smart graduates and other residents who struggle to find fulfilling, if any work at all here. The Brightoneers think we can do better than this.

We have some incredible home-grown industries like the creative and digital sectors where Brighton is a world leader, and we already have a number of pioneering businesses that are demonstrating how capitalism can be used to create jobs with real meaning, and deliver sustainable products and services that benefit society. Businesses like Infinity Foods; Mooncup and Brighton Energy Coop are demonstrating what’s possible. We’re not affiliated with these businesses yet but we love what they do and what they stand for. We want to see much more of this type of business so that it collectively becomes the largest employer in the city, sustainably and affordably providing everything that local people need, from food to transport to
energy as well as exporting the things we’re best at to the rest of the world.

Business alone can’t fix all of society’s problems, but it can go a long way. We need to re-imagine what business is for and make capitalists of the many, not just the few. We need to value and build human, social and environmental capital as well as the financial capital that greases the wheels of the economy. We need to set up businesses that benefit society, and help them to collaborate and thrive. We need to create jobs with real meaning and not just a salary. This is the purpose of The Brightoneers.

So where might this take us? One of my big inspirations for The Brightoneers is the Mondragón Corporation in the Basque region of Spain. Mondragón is a large group of worker cooperatives that come together to form a network that can behave like a large corporate entity with tens of thousands of employees at times when size matters (like lobbying government or setting up high investment shared resources like R&D facilities) but be small, agile and independent in their day-to-day running. Since they’re worker owned, all of the profit circulates around the local economy making everyone in the region better off. They even started their own cooperative bank that invests savings from local people into new worker cooperatives. Standards of wellbeing in the society there are extremely high and a big reason for this is the smaller rich-poor gap. And guess what, the whole thing has been extremely resilient though the economic turmoil in Spain, saving jobs and fighting poverty. Wouldn’t it be great if the local economy in Brighton was more like this?

It would be wrong to try to build a Mondragón from scratch in Brighton. Something like that will emerge organically if it’s needed. That’s what happened in Spain – they started bottom-up. What we’re doing with The Brightoneers is connecting and supporting the people and businesses that share the vision for a better local economy and see where that takes us.

This isn’t just a dream. There are various activities happening already. For example, we’re investigating how to turn my previous company into a worker coop so that it’s owned by the employees forever, and I’m supporting hiSbe – an ethical supermarket opening early next year. We’re also exploring whether we can secure a large property to house pioneering businesses working towards the vision in Brighton. Since we got The Brightoneers website live the council have been in touch to see how we can work together, and I’ll be doing all I can to steer local government towards our vision for the local economy.

The journey has already started, and everyone can get involved. It’s a network which all are free to join. If you haven’t signed up already, please come along to the free networking event and launch party in January.

Free event: Using freedom and democracy to build an incredible company

Monday 10 Dec, 7pm – 9pm, NixonMcInnes Offices, Brighton. FREE.

How do famously successful companies like Zappos and Valve Software create such damn amazing places to work that innovate, delight customers and generate big profits? The key to success is abandoning the dominant mindset of fear in business and instead embracing freedom, possibility, and trust. With this mindset, great companies use democratic principles like decentralisation, transparency and dialogue to set their people free to do amazing things, and reap enormous rewards.

Tom Nixon (me!) ambassador for WorldBlu and co-founder of NixonMcInnes – certified as one of the Most Democratic Workplaces in the World every year since 2009 – will reveal how to adopt the right mindset for business success, and explain the 10 principles of organisational democracy, with lots of ideas that you can immediately take back into your company. And as it’s nearly Christmas there will be mince pies.

Thank you to Wired Sussex for supporting this event.

Sign up here:

A pioneering new local economy for Brighton

This week sees the launch of my new project – a pioneering new vision for the local economy in Brighton. We’re calling it The Brightoneers – a hat-tip to the Rochdale Pioneers who founded the modern co-operative movement.

The Brightoneers isn’t just about co-operatives. It’s about the purpose of the local economy. It’s a project to use business to improve the wellbeing of all of society. That means giving us the opportunity to be happier, healthier, wiser, safer and have better relationships. Our intention is to build a highly collaborative and supportive network of local businesses that work both independently and together towards this aim. As we achieve this in Brighton, we want to create a model that other cities in the UK and the rest of the world can replicate, to increase the wellbeing of people everywhere.

You can check out the vision for The Brightoneers on the website and keep in touch through the meet-up group. We’re having a free launch party and networking event which you’re also invited to. Finally, if you’d like to get involved, please get in touch.

Why W.L. Gore are afraid to have open salaries

W.L. Gore is one of the most famous democratic companies in the world. They are 100% owned by employees; there’s very little hierarchy, with leadership occurring organically by people voluntarily choosing who to follow; and a high level of personal freedom for employees to innovate and be autonomous in their roles. It works spectacularly well. They are massively profitable and market leaders in several product areas.

So I was surprised to learn recently that at Gore, salaries are kept secret, which is contrary to the transparency around financial information in most democratic companies.

For most traditional companies where salaries and other financial details are kept under wraps, it’s usually fear driving the behaviour: Fear of the consequences of unfair salaries being discovered or fear of letting go of control of important information. Gore doesn’t seem to have these fears. Colleagues are evaluated by their peers to ensure salaries are set fairly and they have demonstrated in many areas that they are not afraid to give up control. So what’s going on? Why would they not want the benefits of higher trust and scrutiny that fully open books bring about?

Gore say that they have a different fear: They want leadership to be merit-based above all else and they fear that if colleagues know what everyone else earns then they may show a bias towards following the higher earners rather than the best person in a particular context. I can understand the logic behind this, but to me it’s still a practice rooted in fear rather than freedom, possibility and trust (the mindset of the best democratic leaders) so I wonder if they could do better.

Humans are not purely rational creatures and we are naturally biased in many different ways. Even with closed salaries, it’s possible that people may be biased towards following leaders based on age, gender, personality, physical characteristics and many other traits which are even further removed from true merit than salaries. I wonder if having closed salaries is fighting a symptom of bias, when perhaps a better approach would be to educate and increase awareness of bias among all colleagues to help them make more conscious decisions. If they did this then they could enjoy the benefits of greater transparency, and make better decisions about choosing leaders and more.

Expecting the unexpected in Papua New Guinea: Part 2

…continued from part one.

I’d been warned about safety in Port Moresby so I was walking through a chaotic bus station with my hands in my pockets wishing that I didn’t have an iPhone, cash, cards and a digital camera on me. Dumb tourist, but I was with two local friends so wasn’t too worried. As we were getting on a bus I felt hands trying to get into my pockets but a big North London “Oiiiii!” from me had the thief scurrying off. This was thankfully the closest I came to being a victim of any crime in PNG and I have to admit it was actually quite exciting and I felt smug that I was ready for it. I wouldn’t have been so smug if they had been armed which is common in the capital.

We were heading across Port Moresby via a series of local minibuses to go and visit Uncle Boga, the brother of Reverend Jacob who I stayed with in Mt Hagen. He lived in a very quiet fishing village away from the mayhem of the city. It was a completely different world. A peaceful simple life fishing in the warm Pacific. Many years ago, Uncle Boga had begun medicine training but his father needed someone to stay and continue the family fishing tradition. Out of about 5 brothers, he was the only one who was willing to sacrifice a modern career for the traditional life, but he was happy fishing and said he enjoyed being out of the dirty city.

Back in town, we visited PNG’s interesting parliament building built after independence in 1975. PNG is a very young democracy with its 9th parliament just sworn in. The parliament building had an inscription about power to people, but the country is incredibly corrupt. It’s well known that when ordinary village people are elected into government they instantly become incredibly rich from all of the back room dealing. Without sufficient rule of law there doesn’t appear to be consequences for corruption even when it’s fully exposed. I read in the local newspaper that a former senior policeman was trying to set up an anti-corruption task force but the prime minister refused to back it. It made me realise that although we might not like the government in our own countries, it’s a hell of a lot better than in places like PNG.

Ollie and I went to Port Moresby’s cinema at the new Vision City mall and watched the film Ted. It was exactly like every other modern air conditioned cinema throughout the world. I felt like I could have been in the Odeon on Brighton seafront until we got back outside into the humid nighttime heat and danger of Port Moresby, with red betelnut spittle on the floor and making sure we got into the right kind of taxi. It reminded me instantly how far I was from home.

Staying with my friends in Port Moresby was so humbling and I continued to be blown away by the hospitality and kindness that they showed me.

Next I flew to Madang met and met Reverend Zachariah at the airport, a friend of Rev. Jacobs from their days at theological college. Reverend Zachariah was a young and slightly built man with big cheeky, charismatic smile. In spite of the very loose connection, he hugged me like a brother at the airport and a member of his congregation took me to his house on the campus of the Divine Word University where he served as the chaplain.

Also staying at his house were Kudeb and Vela (who was amused when I told him that his name meant ‘candle’ in Spanish.) They were trainee teachers doing their practical assignment – a week of observing primary school classes then teaching for the first time. Kudeb was possibly the most earnest person I have ever met. He moved all of his things out of his room so that I could have it and then shared another room with Vela. Being British it feels uncomfortable to have other people making such sacrifices for you and once again I felt humbled by the PNG people. At meal times Kudeb always turned to me incredibly seriously and asked ‘Are you satisfied?’ at least twice which always made me chuckle. Such a great guy.

On my first night in Madang, Zachariah invited me to fellowship with some students, which is a bit like a mid-week religious meet-up. On the way I had the religion conversation again. I repeated my belief is that it’s values and actions that bind us rather than faith and said I thought that people with and without faith are capable of doing both good and bad things. He thought about this for a while and seemed to like it, later repeating it to the fellowship students. As in Mt Hagen, there was no attempt to preach to me or convert, and whilst I know I will never share their faith, I had grown a huge respect for the values that Christianity gave them.

Fellowship was a small bunch of people, about 10 students including a young man wearing a ‘jesus loves you’ shirt in a completely non-ironic way. In that place it was just fine. Jesus-shirt was a really good guitarist and kept going even when a string broke. There were teachings about life and the bible. As a non-religious person I felt how secular society misses out on thinking about things beyond our own existence and reflecting in this way, but I find it impossible to accept a philosophy based on just one book, written so long ago, as having all the answers we need. I think human understanding is built upon and extended over many generations, yet there is still something that atheists can learn from those with faith.

I asked Zachariah how he’d met wife. With a trademark cheeky grin he said the usual way is to write a love letter, but he was a modern reverend and so had done it by text message. He said he really admired her commitment to her faith and church work and asked if she was interested in a deeper relationship. Apparently she’d never thought that a reverend would be interested in her and was very flattered. He gave her a few days to think about it, then they got it together and were enjoying the first couple of months of marriage… with a random English guy and two young trainee teachers also in the house!

The next morning, Zachariah and I took long walk down the seafront into centre of Madang. It was so different from Port Moresby. It was safe and relaxed with well maintained grass verges, a golf course and one fancy tourist resort where I booked myself in for two days diving. Zachariah told me that although Madang was considered one of the safest cities in PNG, it was becoming more dangerous with people from outside the city moving there. He no longer felt safe walking along around the city at night.

I met a young guy of about 15 who wanted to tell me about his idea for a new invention which was essentially a perpetual motion machine – an engineering impossibility unfortunately. I encouraged him to keep to keep working on ideas. This wasn’t his only plan. He also wanted to export spicy ginger to Europe. I gave him some ideas about finding agents or distributers or even trying to arrange a trade mission. This was a real entrepreneur in the making and I think he’ll go on to great things, however with very little Internet access it would be so hard to actually make things happen.

After five days in Madang I flew to Manus, a tiny island province to the West of New Ireland. This was where the trail of hospitality I’d enjoyed for my first two weeks in the country finally ran out and I was on my own again. I arrived in the tiny island airport with nothing arranged, an hour away from the town. I saw a modern looking minibus with ‘Harbour Hotel’ on it which looked promising so I told the driver I wanted to find out if they had any rooms, and got a lift into town (by the way, this is a great way to get a free transfer from an airport to a town centre anywhere in the world.) It was actually a pretty dreary hotel and really expensive but I was able to leave my things there and walked into town asking local people for help finding a guest house. It seemed like there were only two on island. I found one a bit ramshackle on the outside but much cheaper than the hotel, with air-con and the room was clean. As the sun went down and the tropical rain hammered down I felt very alone and wondered what the hell I was doing there.

The next day, a Sunday, some local kids took me out for a walk and showed me around. They took me to their school and we walked back along beach where we saw WWII wreckage from the war with the Japanese. It was amazing how much rusting war junk was still lying around. Back at the guesthouse, one of the young guys said his older brother wanted to meet me. He was downstairs drinking South Pacific, PNG’s only local beer with a few friends. He was a very lively and friendly chap and they enjoyed the novelty of having a lost white guy there. He arranged for a friend to take us all out on their motorboat, loaded up with South Pacific, to a little island off-shore where we swam in gorgeous warm water. Then they took me on a little tour to a huge channel bombed out of the island by the Japanese for their submarines with wreckage of pontoons by the shore. Everyone was getting drunk. I’d tried to stay off the beer but had given in under pressure by this point and was quite merry myself. We stopped at a little store to buy gas but there was none available and we didn’t have enough to get home. Fortunately my friends managed to stop another boat who sold us some petrol and we made it back. One of the guys was so drunk he was lying semi-unconscious in the boat as the rest of us dragged it up out of the water. After a couple more beers I sloped off to bed. What an awesome day. Expect the unexpected in Papua New Guinea.

My friends arranged for the same bus to take me back to the airport for free the next morning. My friend was working on the check-in desk, soaked in sweat, massively hung over from the day before. It was a very funny sight watching him struggling to get the passengers checked in. We had a sweaty hug (I wasn’t in a much better state) and said goodbye on the tarmac. Next up, New Ireland.

To be concluded.

Organisational democracy and wellbeing

Last week I presented at RobertsonCooper‘s Good Day at Work conference. I had a really great time – thanks to the organisers and everyone who stayed right until the end to see me. Here are links to the things I covered:

My slides are on Slideshare.

WorldBlu: helping organisations globally to be more democratic using their 10 principles of organisational democracy and publishing the list of Most Democratic Workplaces in the World (together with lots more inspiring ideas)

NixonMcInnes: my previous company

Happy Buckets: measuring happiness in the workplace daily

Analysis of happiness and profit

Celebrating failure at the Church of Fail

The amazing story of the cardboard box factory becoming a democracy that kicked off this whole journey for me which my friend and business partner Will McInnes left of my desk with the words ‘Fucking amazing – read this’ emblazoned on it.

Employees First, Customers Second: Vineet Nayer’s book about transitioning a large business, HCL Technology to a democracy

Beyond the Corporation: David Erdal looks at how employee ownership is the future of business, including research into what makes humans cooperate and the benefits to the whole of society of employee-owned, democratic businesses.

Erik Weihenmayer: The first blind person to reach the summit of Everest. I really recommend buying the DVD of this. Watch it with your family over Christmas.