At first blush, a business with no bosses as such, run on a democratic basis where participants opt in on projects would seem a recipe for a disaster.
Yet, 30-month old Wellington collective (if that’s the correct term), with an Auckland hub, Enspiral is thriving and a poster child for the supposed coming wave of social enterprise.
So, how does a non-hierarchical, democratically run business operate in the age of the internet? In fact, it is possibly only because of the internet that it works as well as it does.
Throw in the fact that its founder Joshua Vial, decided recently that he wanted to go and do some other things in his life, and told the rest of his team simply to get on with it.
Enspiral is a loose group of mostly web/computer developers, along with designers, visual communicators, branding and animation experts. The 15-20 core members of what is effectively a collaboration aren’t run in a top-down manner.
“Most business models are stuck in the 1880s, with a hierarchical control and a centralization of knowledge,” says Enspiral business development manager, Josh Forde. “The focus of our work is that teams are formed around a project, disbanded, and maybe come back together, or it might be a different team altogether.”
There may be six or seven projects on the go (at the moment) at any one time says Forde, and though the BDM’s may be maintaining the relationship with the client, “we try not to have it too tightly controlled.”
That said too, the company project creation and delivery is still a work in progress.
It has been greatly aided by discovering BetterMeans.com, an open and democratic decision making tool built around a collaborative workflow.
For example a project may be put up on BM’s platform, and ‘Enspiralers’ (though Forde’s still to come up with naming/descriptor) vote the project up or down, somewhat depending on its importance and value.
As a governance and organisational model BetterMeans.com provides an open and democratic approach to projects – and enabling each contributor’s (who may be in Sydney, the U.K. or Canada at this stage) input to be kept.
For example a client will present a challenge to Enspiral, and will receive an agreement back that attempts to break down the expected project’s stages.
Enspiral uses open software sources as much as possible, often coding through Ruby on Rails, mostly because this means the client isn’t locked into a company because of proprietary code.
“We want to be as open and honest as possible,” says Forde. “We’re after a longer game with clients, a long relationship where they receive the best value they can.”
Sometimes this includes the frank admission that the collective team doesn’t have the skills, say in moving graphic animation at the moment, and Enspiral will suggest others that the client could work with.
The Enspiral model allows a great deal of flexibility, and staff can choose the hours they work, how long for and at what rates.
“It is inherently lean and efficient,” with the benefit that staff may have a particular affinity for types of projects, Forde says.
Project groups could come together around a geographical location for example, or values – such as a specific environmental project.
As a work in progress and a stage beyond a start-up, Enspiral doesn’t have ingrained systems or legacies; “we’re on the shop floor of what is going to be,” he says.
An increasingly large part of the company’s work is around science innovation, cleantech, social enterprise and a number of not-for-profit organisations. Part of the social enterprise ethos is about giving something back, and Enspiral is part of its worldwide movement says Forde.
Without centralised control, there can be free sharing of information, and much more openness and transparency of how things work.
The company is not undercutting its business competitors’ prices, as it is sustainable at a rate that is 25-30% less than others.
“We’re a fully functioning business, with a different way of going about things,” says Forde. “The fact that we’re transparent about how we operate, and where the costs lie, is of tremendous benefit for most of our clients. We go out of our way to develop relationships with who we work with. It may not necessarily be the quickest way to make a dollar, but making money quickly isn’t really our intention.”
Forde says the whole social enterprise model is loose, ill-defined and growing. With that, Enspiral’s method of doing business doesn’t really have a name.
Perhaps its best description could be ‘ordered anarchy’ – as contradictory as that sounds!