New co-op brings bossless business model to tech support in Somerville
Traditional worker-owned cooperatives in the Boston area will remodel your home, fix your bicycle, or even dispose of your commercial waste. Now, a new contender in Somerville will repair your computer or configure your network following the same model.
Unlike a typical business, Boston TechCollective is run democratically, by employees who are also stakeholders — so there’s no boss, a rarity in the regimented world of tech support.
“Here, we’re collaborating,” said cofounder Yochai Gal, 31, who founded a similar organization, also called TechCollective but financially distinct, in San Francisco in 2007. “We feel valuable. In the corporate world, I didn’t feel free. My freedom is worth far more than the benefits I got there.”
There’s a faint smell of warm electronics in TechCollective’s headquarters near Davis Square, and the muffled sound of fingers on keyboards. Here in the shop, some of the five co-owners root out computer viruses, recover data, and diagnose dire computer problems. Others are out in the field, visiting client businesses on site to troubleshoot errors and perform network maintenance.
“These guys are great,” said Gina Kamentsky, a Boston area visual artist who brought her MacBook to the shop after it began to behave erratically. “They make me feel comfortable. Sometimes you go into a tech place as a woman, and they give you a hard time.”
After he relocated to the Boston area, Gal started looking for partners to start a similar project. He assembled a group with backgrounds in systems administration, programming, Web development, and technical support. They met to draw up bylaws, took out a loan, and opened as a limited liability corporation in May.
“We’re not trying to hide,” said cofounder Charlie Hoover, who has worked in IT in the Boston area for about 10 years. “We want to make sure [clients] realize we’re people. We don’t talk down to anyone.”
Somerville, Gal said, reminds him of San Francisco’s Mission District, where he started the first TechCollective. Somerville was already home to Community Builders Cooperative, a carpentry and design group.
The tech group’s members are quick to point out practices that they say management at previous jobs, which range from small computer repair shops to corporate IT departments, would never have approved, like hosting free educational workshops in the community, and working primarily with the open-source operating system Linux.
“I’ve had employers both large and small who’ve treated me with respect, but wouldn’t allow me to have any say in how the business was run,” Gal said. “The distinction with a worker co-op is that we truly have control in both the service offerings and tools we use, as well as our customer service policy.”
Their prices are competitive — similar to or slightly less than more traditional tech support businesses. With personal financial stakes tied to the success of the project, though, there’s pressure to market their services. No one is off limits — for example, two of the founders say they have convinced their dentists to become clients.
On the job, members of TechCollective are personable, and often unfiltered. At a party planning business in Newton, where Gal was troubleshooting a printer that had been behaving badly, he took a moment to chat with an employee in Hebrew. During downtime, he talked about Karl Marx and the merits of different computer operating systems.
“What I hate about traditional businesses is how workers are exploited by them,” said Gal, who points to widespread burnout, long working hours, and outsourcing in traditional IT jobs. “People running a business have no interest in day-to-day operations. What I saw again and again was that good ideas got squashed by bureaucracy.”
Worker cooperatives date to the Industrial Revolution, and came to prominence again during the 1960s and ’70s, when a new wave of San Francisco Bay-area activists opened politically and socially conscious worker-owned restaurants, grocers, and bookstores, some of which remain open today.
In the past decade and a half, technical workers have started to apply that food service-oriented model to small technological ventures, often in tech support and Web hosting. Others look to the Mondragon Corp., a Spanish worker cooperative that has become one of the largest companies in that country over the past half century, as an example of a worker cooperative operating successfully in the modern economy.
After the dot-com boom, new cooperatives started to offer desktop support and Web hosting. The movement gained urgency after the recession, and a growing group of high-tech cooperatives is now represented by the Tech Co-op Network , which encourages member groups to share resources. The two TechCollectives collaborate on documentation of technical solutions, vendors, and financial procedures.
Now, high-tech co-ops like TechCollective have caught the attention of advocates of the larger cooperative community.
“Tech co-ops were among the first worker co-ops to support organizing in local and regional, and then a national level,” said Melissa Hoover, executive director of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. “There are IT co-ops springing up all over the country. They’re also getting that organizing spirit — they were among the first group of co-ops to produce their own documentation.”
A democratic workplace may help workers break free of corporate conformity, but sometimes, individuals still have to make concessions to the will of the group.
“I did not want that,” Gal said, pointing to a glowing neon “Open” sign in the window.
“He didn’t want that at all,” Hoover said.