Micky Metts on Agaric

Micky Metts talks about cooperativism, free software, and life and work at Agaric, a Boston-based web development cooperative.

You can reach Micky on Mastodon at @freescholar@social.coop. Check out other forms of contacting her on her Agaric profile.

People and organizations mentioned by Micky:


Recorded on January 31st, 2021.

Micky: People see cooperatives as a risk-taking thing. I see it as a thing that envelops and takes your whole, your whole being to be in it.

[intro music]

Ana: Hello and welcome. This is Real Co-op Stories. I am Ana and today I’m talking to Micky Metts, a worker-owner at Agaric, a Boston-based tech cooperative.

Micky: My name is Micky Metts, Micky of Agaric. And Agaric is a worker-owned web development technology cooperative.

We are based in several places around the planet. We’re in Boston, Minneapolis, Managua, Puebla, and Denver. And we have a partner in Hamburg Germany. So we’ve been around for 15 years. I’ve been with the co-op for about 10 years, I guess, or almost 10 years. And it’s just wonderful. There are five worker owners and we build based on free software.

We also teach people about free software. I host webinars and workshops on using free software and protecting your privacy online and not being surveilled. How to best protect yourself because of course we know there is no ultimate solution for all of this. And a lot of it is a little above the knowledge level of the average phone user to grasp immediately. It’s a process. It’s not just like you can download some software and all of a sudden be protected, but yeah.

So before the world of co-ops, I would say my family was cooperative without really putting a label on it. My parents were very open and honest. There was no family secrets type of things, and we helped neighbors when they needed it. Neighbors helped us. And in fact, at one point a family’s house burned down in the next town and we took in the whole family into our house. I had an older brother who was seven years older than me. And during his schooling and early years since I was born, my parents had been hosting foreign exchange students.

So we were very much exposed to other parts of the world, other types of food, other types of customs and cultures, and it was all embraced and very wonderful, wonderful time. I still have friends that I met, like when I was five or six from being being introduced to the world like that.

I grew up in Connecticut, a very small, wealthy town in Connecticut, where we had, the property taxes allowed for an excellent school system that was modeled on what a lot of charter schools say they’re modeled on now.

It unfortunately did not have diversity. We were the only Black family in the town.

Ana: Wow.

Micky: Yeah. So, and that, but it was a very small school. And I went from first to 12th grade graduating with the same pretty much the same hundred kids. I have an interesting experience of high school because the town did not have a high school and everyone went to Westport, the next town over. To Staples High School, which I guess if you search for it, it’s a pretty famous high school. A lot of people came from there that are well-known. And so right before I was about to enter high school, Weston, Connecticut built their own high school. So I was in the first graduating class, which means I had a high school experience without any upperclassmen.

So, I don’t know very many people who have had that experience. No, no hazing, no. None of that.

Ana: Pretty rare. Yeah.

Micky: It’s extremely rare. I don’t know that I’ve found another person that had that experience yet.

After high school, actually I moved to Mexico for two years and learned how to weld and learned silver smithing goldsmithing and stone cutting, and jewelry making.

Ana: Can I ask you about that? Why Mexico and jewelry making, what’s the connection?

Micky: Well my high school boyfriend’s mother had rented a house in Mexico because she was interested in becoming a, a tour guide, kind of a thing and setting up vacations for people like, you know, a Cancún visit for two weeks kind of a thing.

So she went to scope out the place and rented a house for a year. And then we ended up staying another year. I stayed for half a year and my interest was in working with metal. At home in Connecticut, my boyfriend had a shop in his basement, working with metal and wood, woodworking, metalworking. I gravitated to the metal.

We lived in San Miguel, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. And there were two schools, the Bellas Artes and the Instituto, and they both offered courses in jewelry making and metal smithing. And I found that interesting. So I just got involved. And it was really special because our teacher in the metal smithing class was a German. So he spoke Spanish with a German accent. That was just so delightful.

After I returned from Mexico to Connecticut, I found there was not much to do in this small town and I hitchhiked to Boston to join a punk rock band.

So that became my life the next 25 years. And I was in a few different punk rock and heavy metal bands during the late seventies and up until the mid nineties.

Ana: Oh, wow. Can we find your music somewhere?

Micky: Oh, no, it was, it was way before that. Way before the internet took hold of people. I will upload some at some point, but that’s kind of low on my priority list.

Yeah, we didn’t have these gadgets back then and yeah, so it was much more difficult to promote yourself. And it’s actually one of the reasons I started working with the internet. I wanted record execs in California to be able to hear my band and see them without us having to travel. Since we didn’t have the funds to drive out to LA and do auditions.

And so that was in 1996. I started working at an internet company three days before images were being or on the internet for the general public, so that people could upload any image to the internet. And I had been telling my friends, yes, I’m going to have videos of my band on the internet.

And they were laughing at me in 1996. They’re like, yeah, sure. And that I did manage to do that. I started a website called Graphic Audio. And I was one of the first beta testers for video on the internet, through a company in Israel, VDO, which was one of the first video companies online. And what I did was I created a little site and I had people send me their VHS tapes and I had a condenser and all kinds of equipment to make them ready for the internet.

So I had like four categories of video on my site. Short stories, movies, comedy, and punk rock music. And it was really wild, really fun. It was like the first YouTube. It also had a, I had been working with chat software that integrated with this so that you could use your webcam to be in a chat room.

So it was kind of looked like what Zoom looks like now, but much, much earlier, like all the videos would be at the top of the screen and the chat would be going on below the screen. So it was, it was not an audio chat. You couldn’t hear people talk. It was a text chat, but it’s a peer to peer type of thing where you could send people files and you could edit documents together online, etcetera.

So it was a way ahead of its time and no one understood it. So it just went the way of the dinosaur.

Ana: What was it called?

Micky: Graphicaudio.com. The chat was called The Chat House and you can find all of these on archive.org back in the nineties and up through early 2000.

So yeah, there’s great, great representation on archive.org. If you search for The Chat House or graphicaudio.com or punkTV, even, .com. So that is how I got into working online and building websites. I built out a chat community that had over 300,000 users in 1997 and 9,000 people a day were registering for it.

And then the company that was that I was working for thought it became too much to handle. It was too much tech support. And I was answering every email individually and that’s what made the thing grow. They didn’t realize that. So when they cut that cord people went crazy. It was, it reminds me of the Parler thing.

Like all of a sudden people had nowhere to go. Like it was very sad. And that led me into finding Drupal, which is a content management system. It’s for developers to use to build websites. A lot of the large websites you go to are built with Drupal content management system, and it’s a system of choice by most, a lot of governments and all the Ivy league colleges use it. Or most of them.

And it’s just a wonderful thing because it’s not just software, it’s free software and it has a community around it. The tagline is you come for the software and stay for the community. I’ve never seen a community like that, of developers where they have all different areas where you can do Drupal for Good or Drupal for a specific things. Drupal for health communities. Anything you think of pretty much, there’s a Drupal group for it. And Drupal is kind of easy for a newbie to get into, but then there is a steep, steep learning curve to get really advanced at it and become experts.

And that’s where Agaric comes in. Agaric are early Drupal adopters. They’ve been there pretty much since the beginning. And we also contribute to Drupal core, which is the core software and Drupal has the community of people that contribute modules that extend the functionality of Drupal. So there’s like a shopping cart and photo galleries type of things. Similar to WordPress, but I have not really found a community around WordPress that equals or rivals the Drupal community.

Back when we could meet in person, there are Drupal events all over the world. You can see them at drupical.org, like the Drupal calendar, and it’s just all over the world. And once a year they would have a Drupal con on each continent. So there would be Drupalcon Europe, Drupalcon South America, Drupalcon North America. And these are huge. They turned into huge events. They started out very community-centric and very welcoming of everyone. And it, it kind of turned into a more of a corporate thing. Where the latest or the last one Agaric went to and we do some Drupal training.

So that was in Seattle and it was attended by a lot more corporations that have, you know, a lot of fancy graphics and really nice people working for them. But it, it was more of a corporate thing than a community based thing. So we still work with Drupal. That is, most of our work is in Drupal, but Agaric does work with other types of software building.

We’re not just a Drupal shop and our forte is migrations though. Migrating content from one platform to another. And through Drupal and meeting people there. We also fell into the world of cooperatives because there are a lot of cooperatives that need website and need to learn about software building and coding.

And it, it just kind of seemed like a natural fit. So I started joining some networks and organizations that were based on cooperativism and I was introduced to platform cooperativism, which is a movement that was started in New York at the New School by Trebor Scholz, a professor there, and a professor named Nathan Schneider, Colorado university.

And they started hosting events once a year around platform cooperativism and, and for those who don’t know, a platform is something like, say Facebook is a platform and type of a thing. We’re building platforms that are owned by the people. So it would be like Uber is a platform. So building an Uber platform that is owned by the drivers and perhaps the riders. It’s a really wonderful group of people and it’s worldwide. It’s open to anyone to just join and take a look. So I stumbled into their first conference, which was called Digital Labor that was held in New York at the New School.

And I was just curious, so I signed up for it. I said, Hey, I do digital labor. What is that about? And I went there and met people and ended up speaking at the next few conferences.

Ana: So when was this?

Micky: When was this? Oh boy, I’m very bad with dates. It was around 2014, I guess, or 2015, right? Yeah.

And I spoke to introduce the platform cooperative groups to free software and how that is, that should be our foundation for building so that people don’t just own the cooperative, they own the foundation and what it’s built on.

Ana: That was already after you had started working with Agaric, correct? Cause you said you started with Agaric about 10 years ago. So tell me a little bit about that, you know, how do you start working with them? How do you end up becoming a worker owner? You know, what’s the journey.

Micky: Yes, the journey is this. It’s a bit different from corporate thing, as you say, where you go to an interview and someone hires you. In cooperatives, you kind of hang around and then you get in the network and hang around with the people that are in cooperatives.

And Agaric offers this to people by sponsoring a weekly Show and Tell, which is a meeting where people developers non-developers, we call them organic people because saying non is very negative. Like a non-technical person sounds like you’re lacking something. So organic people and developers can meet in this chat room every week and discuss things that they’ve found, new tips and tricks, or what they do.

In cooperatives getting to know someone is the most important thing, getting to know people, taking interest. If you see a project happening you write to the people who are doing it and ask, how can I be involved or how can I lurk, where’s your GitHub repo. And GitHub repo is like where all the code lives.

So there are many doors to getting in, but they’re not very obvious to people. Which is sad and we’re doing our best to remove the barriers to that by building a site called Co-op Guide, which is where we can all list what we do, you know, our skill sets and our experience and get to know each other better.

So when you have a project, you can go to co-op guide and you can go, I’m looking for someone who does themes or who does CSS or someone who does you know, builds databases and you can go through there and see people. Then you can actually meet them at one of our Show and Tells. And talk about projects that they have, that they need help on.

Or you can bring a project to Show and Tell and say, you know, I have this wonderful thing, but I don’t know how to build it. These people need a showcase where their, you know, furniture store or whatever it might be. And so it’s basically getting to know people is at the root of cooperativism, whereas corporatism you, they don’t want you to know people.

And that’s why they put up walls between, between your cubes. You know, Like, you’re not supposed to know that guy next to you

Ana: Yeah, if you start getting the guy next to you and then you start getting organized, you know, they don’t want that.

Micky: No, you can’t. It’s like a rule, you know, no talking during your working hours, you know, it’s like, what is that about?

And, you know, so. Learning skills together. And so the journey would be you meet Agaric at a Drupal convention and you want to work with them. Well, we’re not expanding right now, but we do work in a pool of different cooperatives that might be expanding right now. So you’ve come to a few meetups or these Show and Tell meetings or other Drupal events or other just coding events or even co-operative events.

We don’t just belong to technical groups. We belong to cooperative groups, or like I’m a board member on the Solidarity Economy Network. And we do a lot of work with cooperatives and people wanting to join them or know where they are. I’m also a board member on May First, which is mayfirst.org.

You spell out the word first and we are pretty much known as a web host, but we’re more than that. We just transitioned to a cooperative, but we’ve always been a member driven organization where we offer free software tools to our members. It’s like super cheap to join, like twenty-five bucks a year, and you get access to this suite of free software tools so that you can de-Googlize and use things like Next Cloud for document storage and document sharing and files, file sharing, et cetera.

So it’s basically cooperatives know each other and it is kind of still hard for people to find them. But I think doing a search online for cooperatives and cooperative organizations. You’ll find that we’re different and you can just contact us. Unlike a corporation where you can’t just look up, you know, corporations and, Oh, I’m going to contact a developer at IBM or something and talk to them. No, no. But cooperatives work like that. So people should know, you can just look up a cooperative and either call them up, email them. Or find their Twitter, whatever they have social media and contact them and get more information and get introduced to the cooperative world.

Ana: That’s very sweet. Is that how you got started with Agaric?

Micky: I met them through a Drupal conference. Yes.

Ana: Cool. And then you just started collaborating with with them on projects or was there like a little bit more formality there? How did that work?

Micky: What happened was, I just started looking at the projects that they had on their website and then asking them questions about it, asking how I could help. I was welcomed into the cooperative soon after meeting them, because at that time they were growing and being a cooperative thinker myself, I thought I’m learning this.

This is kind of like school. People pay to go to school. I should be putting in what I think it’s worth. So I didn’t allow them to pay me for like six months. And even when they tried to pay me, I paid that money back and hired them to do something. So it’s kind of like a give and take thing, like a family thing.

It’s not just going in there to get something for yourself. It’s being sensitive to what is needed by the group. And I sensed that I was not ready to be paid because they were teaching me a heck of a lot. And I was not feeling like I had stuff to offer, even though they felt like I did have stuff to offer.

It was on me to say, I’m not ready yet. I’ll let you know when I feel like I should be making money from this. And so for about six months, I, I didn’t accept any pay now. And that’s not normal, of course, that’s probably just me and few other people, but it’s, it’s an egalitarian way of like just coming in and being a member and like looking at what is needed.


Ana: I was going to say that’s certainly very different from the corporate world.

Micky: Let’s go into the corporation and see what they need.

Ana: So once you started working with them on, on projects and with them, I mean with Agaric, did you become a worker owner right away or was there some kind of process where you sort of became progressively more involved or more committed?

Micky: Well, once I started working on actual projects that they had, they voted me in as a worker owner. So a worker owner cooperative means one member, one vote. So everyone gets a vote, unlike shares and stockholders where someone can own 51% of the corporation. We don’t have that type of a setup, ever. No matter what you put in or take out you’re a worker owner, and you have one vote. And co-operative is, it’s not so mysterious when you break it down.

Agaric is just an LLC. We incorporated as an LLC and our bylaws determine how we operate and we operate as a cooperative. So everything in there we voted on and any cooperative can vote on different things. In Agaric’s instance, we voted to all be paid the same amount. Now that can be different in different cooperatives.

You could vote to have a hierarchy if you want, like have a president, have a CEO. We don’t have any of that. There’s no boss. Everyone is on equal footing and we all get paid the same amount each month. And that was determined by you know, where we had a meeting and said, how much do you need to live on every month?

You know, what would make your life comfortable? And we all came up with a little bit different amounts and we chose the highest amount that was workable with what our income was. So we value and we also valuated our company. Too, since we had been around for years and have all this history we can’t just have done all this work and let someone come right in and own everything.

So we decided on a number that would be paid for a person to join the cooperative. And you think, Oh, that’s such a high number. No one could pay that out of their pocket to join us. So we take deduct from their monthly earnings. So deducting like two or $300 a month and you put it in an account, like an escrow thing.

And so if you ever want to leave the co-op, that’s yours to take with you kind of like the way corporations do a severance package or whatever.

Ana: Hmm. Very interesting.

So you were just talking about how, you know, it’s one person, one vote, and in the case of Agaric, everything is flat and there is no boss.

So. That leads me to the question of how do you do day-to-day decision-making? How do you decide, for example, which customers you take on or what kind of work do you take on or, or, you know, whatever it is needed for the day to day operations?

Micky: Yes. Wonderful way is we have a meeting every day in a very short meeting or can go longer up to an hour if we need it.

And we discuss these things. We have our leads that come in through the website where people write and say, I need a website, or I need this piece of code built. And so at our daily meeting, we discuss that and we say, is this a client we would like to take on. Because our clients don’t usually remain clients, they become friends. And it’s always been a long-term relationship with our clients. We’ve only had to fire two clients, I think in our history.

Ana: That’s very good, actually. Yeah.

Micky: Yes, it really is. So, and then we divvy up the work. We do different, we have different skills, so it’s not that hard.

There’s only five of us. Obviously one person who does the server infrastructure and environment to, to work in, like where do all the, where does all the code live and, you know, how does their domain point to their IP address now and all those things. The hidden things we don’t see on the internet. We have one member who does that.

A few other members have a little bit of knowledge in that area, but you know, one expert and then who wants to do the project management? Most of us have project management skills and who wants to be the contact of the client and who wants to be the shadow contact, which is the secondary person that follows along in case the first person is you know, incapacitated or whatever or wants to go on a vacation.

So we all have some involvement with each of the clients, but it’s not as deep as the person who is managing the project or actually building the code.

Ana: You used to work, in the nineties and the early two thousands for these like internet companies, I’m curious what, what’s the comparison between that style of working and this cooperative style of working, the way you practice it at Agaric? What are the pros and cons or your take on the difference?

Micky: Well, it’s a lot of I guess less stress in the bad stress way. Right before Agaric, I worked with a corporation that had received a hundred million dollars in funding to build this app that is sort of like Google Hangouts. And it is used for like concerts and stuff where you could go backstage at a concert and talk with Ozzy Osborne through the app.

And people online could ask Ozzy questions and get responses. So that was pretty crazy. And it ended up getting robbed and pillaged by the, I guess, the executives that had been brought on board. So it was totally trashed. When I joined it, there were nine people. It was a website that allowed you to configure your homepage when you open your computer and go online and choose all the news places you like and all the entertainment places, sites that you like. So it was like a little table of contents of your favorite stuff. And then, when the a hundred million dollars came in, that’s when we started working on a thing called well, I won’t even name it. Started working on the software to, for the app to go backstage and do all that stuff.

And, I guess, the big difference was there was such a concerted effort in that to hire on people. We started with nine, we ended up with 450 people within six months.

Ana: Oh my God.

Micky: Yes. And we rented a huge office space, had our big logo on top of the building. Everyone was like, it was like a rock concert or something.

And it just got too big before it’s, you know, too big for its britches.

And some unconscionable people got in there and, unfortunately, at the highest level, and were using this as a way to springboard into their next project. And no one really realized that until it was way too late. So that just blew up. And I should mention, we did get a second round of funding too, for another hundred million.

And that’s like, that could run a small country.

Ana: Yeah.

Micky: It’s just very disheartening. I’m very sad. And just like in our, our governments today, the people who were least responsible got rewarded the most when they left, or when it blew up. And they’re in high positions in big companies that you know about.

Ana: Yeah. That’s disheartening as you very well say.

Micky: Yeah. It’s, why does that happen? I guess? Yeah. There’s lots of reasons. That’s another podcast.

Ana: Yeah, it’s definitely a big question, right. One reason why I am interested in cooperatives is because I have the hope that if we learn to work in this more equitable, partnership-oriented way, as opposed to a hierarchical way with some people on top, some people on bottom, some people doing more work, some people benefiting more, and those two groups not being the same, that may be some of this problems might be improved.

But at the same time, I am also very aware there are problems in the co-op world, which leads me to my next question, which is: have there been any hard decisions that you’ve all had to make at Agaric? And you talked about firing clients and even though that’s not the favorite thing, that’s a thing that can be done. But what about voting out worker owners or having to pivot or any, any other such hard decision. I’m curious what kinds of tensions or frictions have you seen and how are those usually handled at Agaric?

Micky: Well, I think we’re small enough to have not really seen any of that. At one point we did finish up some work on clients early and ran out of work. We were like, Oh geez, we’ve never marketed ourselves or advertised or anything. Maybe we should start doing that. So we looked into it for a bit, but before we could really get on a train with that more clients came in.

So we abandoned that again. But what happened was so the cash flow went down a bit. And in a corporation, when that happens, you usually lay off people or fire some people or discontinue some line of product or something like that. All we did was get in a chat room and say, all right, so can you make a thousand dollars less for a few months?

And we’ll see what happens, you know, when it picks back up. And so we, you know, lowered our salaries for a few months and then raise them back up. That was the worst thing. I think that’s happened in Agaric. When you, when you’re small and you have five people, it’s easy to pivot, as you said. So we were still finding our place in, in development.

Like what do we do and what do we do well, and that ended up being content migration. And with Drupal, there was a lot of work in that, and there still is because people need to migrate from an older version of Drupal, to the newest version of Drupal. And also people want to migrate from other older proprietary software things into a free software setting like Drupal. So there’s plenty of work there.

People find us through word of mouth. Usually our clients are our best marketing people, so they recommend other people to come to Agaric and that’s how we survive and meet new people and expand our work. Also, by being in being a part of lots of networks and organizations.

And I don’t just mean being a, you know, a silent member, being a member that’s in there, suggesting things and helping to steward good ideas through to the top and interconnecting people. I’m always meeting people that like, “Oh, you should know Joanne she’s, She does this " type of a situation. So we meet lots of people and those people come to us with their projects.

Now, the thing is that Agaric is we can’t take on every client we, we meet or every potential client. So we do a thing where we open up our leads. In GitLab, we use GitLab. And as I was saying, that’s a, a repository place where developers put their code. So all of our projects are in GitLab.

And when we have a section in GitLab called leads, and we opened that to freelancers that are looking to be a part of a cooperative or join a cooperative or start their own cooperative. And it’s also a place where freelancers can bring a project to Agaric because they need backend capacity. So a lone developer could get a huge job for like Boston City Hospital and go, “Oh, I couldn’t do this alone.”

And they could come to us and see if we could do it. And we’re kind of small. So it’s like, Oh, well we could take it on if we contact these other co-ops that do these things we don’t do. And so it’s kind of like you put together a team.

Ana: That sounds really lovely.

Micky: It’s wonderful. There’s actually a South American group called FACTTIC. It’s a Federation that does this for some co-ops we know, specifically in Argentina where if they find a project that’s too big, the FACTTIC Federation will help split it up because they know what the different co-op ’s skills are. So they could put a team together from five different co-ops to work on a large project. And that’s what we’re looking to do in the North America. We need a FACTTIC type of a Federation for that. Now there is the United States Federation of Worker Owned Cooperatives, and we’re working with them to set something up like this.

They’re a wonderful group of people. There’s over 400 cooperatives that belong to it. And I think 800 members, 400 cooperatives. I’m bad with numbers. So don’t hold me to that. Please look at their site. And they have events every couple of years or every year they have either an East coast event or a West coast event when we could still meet up in person.

And now those will be online. And it’s just a great way to meet other worker cooperatives that are doing stuff and of all different flavors, like solar cooperatives that have built solar bikes and you know, food co-ops that have bakeries and have different bakeries in different cities.

So it’s, it’s really wonderful to just meet all these people, find out what they’re doing and see how, what you do fits in with them. Yeah. So that’s one of the seven cooperative principles to work with other cooperatives.

Ana: Yeah. This are the Rochdale Principles you’re referring to.

Micky: Yeah. There’s seven, seven cooperative principles and the first one is self care and that’s the one we must pay attention to most, especially in this era.

Ana: I was just listening to a wonderful talk last week by Reverend angel Kyodo Williams, who’s a Zen teacher out here, in the Bay Area. And she was off on fire ranting about how, you know, our liberation requires everybody else’s wholeness. And so, you know, if you, if I am not working on my wholeness, I am interfering with your liberation is her point.

Micky: That’s so true. And yes, and if we’re not using free software we’re interfering with other people’s liberation, which is a harder one for people to see. Because we have all been nurtured on convenience and that has made us intellectually lazy, you know, and I’m not saying that in a bad way, it’s like a comforting nurturing thing where I can just go out and find a piece of software that does what I need.

But when you don’t know enough, you don’t understand how it’s robbing you underneath of all your information and tracking you and surveilling you. And some people have that horrible answer: I don’t have anything to hide. Well, maybe your friends, do you know, it can’t be centric to you.

Ana: You might think you don’t have anything to hide, but if the powers that be change, if the world situation changes, something that you thought was completely innocuous now might paint a target on your back because you know, we’ve seen what happens.

Micky: Exactly. Or people don’t understand when they aggregate all of your content. That is very perplexing. The story I usually tell is like a young woman goes to on the way home from work buys a pregnancy test.

Well, the company that she works for may be buying data involved from like Facebook and Google and all of these places. And it’ll notice on a purchase from her credit card that she bought this and she may be fired the next day for a different reason, you know. Well, they’ll think, “Oh, she’s going to have a baby. We better get rid of her now.” But people do not think this far ahead. Which is sad. And it’s sad that you have to think that way. You know, in a cooperative world, there’d be like, Oh a baby, what can we do? How can we help? We’ve got, have we got enough childcare co-ops? Are you getting time off?

I’ve always said where else in your corporation, could you go at five o’clock until the boss, My aunt died in Missouri. I have to leave tomorrow morning to go there. And I don’t have any money. I need an advance of two weeks of the salary to go there. They would look at you like you were insane. And a co-op would be like, great, take three weeks. And how much do you need? And you want the car and take the company car.

Ana: I think that’s very, lovely, and very, what’s the right word for it, very heartening to hear that there is a different way to be with each other and work with each other, while making a living and meeting our material needs.

Not necessarily looking at everything from the point of view of competition, which brings me back to this really intriguing thing, or intriguing from a traditional corporate standpoint, I must say Which is this idea of sharing leads with other co-ops. The late 20th century neoliberal ethos of competing for everything makes it unthinkable that a company would share leads with other companies that might be also seen as competitors. Right? Because if one believes, as many do believe, that there is a limited amount of work to go around that there’s a limited amount of resources to go around, then why would I share my leads with you? Because what, if you outbid me on that next project, instead of cooperating with me, then I’m left high and dry. So how do you, how do you manage this at a place like Agaric? How do you manage those risks? And how do you think about that?

Micky: We don’t. It manages itself, pretty much. The people that we offer access to this are in our network and that would not be something that they would think of doing, or if they did so, well, there’s but there is not a finite amount of work. There’s an infinite amount of work.

So we, we don’t think like that. I think that is a false thought that that work is there’s only so much work to go around. New work is made every day. It’s it’s crazy. That’s, that’s a crazy thought. That’s like saying all the food we have is in the refrigerator. We must keep it all in there, you know, and then it goes rotten in their refrigerator, and there’s a store right down the street.

Okay. Or food pantry or whatever. There’s, you know, there are resources. We don’t do it that way. And we also look at it as people who are in there looking for leads are potential to bring new leads to us because we offer the backend capacity to build out a projectthey may find that’s too big for them.

Ana: So talking about really big projects, you gave an example earlier when you were talking about the example of sharing leads and you gave the example of getting a contract with Boston Hospital and got me curious about what kinds of clients do you work for and are they typically nonprofits or governments or are they all sorts.

Micky: They’re all sorts. The only real requirement is that they must be doing something good for the community. Like we don’t have State Street Bank as a client or Bank of America or things like that. A lot of our work is done for universities. A lot of our work is done for small business. A lot is some online magazines publishers and things that generally have something that is good for the community around them. And the word gets out through our network about that. And those are the types of people that our name reaches. So we’re not contacted by Bank of America.

I love it on LinkedIn, some of these these contacts that I get, “we can help your business expand” like, Oh, it’s just horrible. But you know, I, I try to be nice and help them understand cooperatives. And a few times it’s worked, you know, people ask for more info. And so I get on an email with them and I send them all the co-operative info that I have.

So it’s like planting a garden that may not grow for a few years, but when that person leaves their corrupt job shilling for a Bank of America, they may be able to look into cooperatives.

Ana: So speaking of planting a garden for the long term I’m curious if at Agaric, you ever think the way, the quote, unquote, mainstream, corporate America, thinks of exit strategy, for example, you know, Oh, how do we get acquired? Do we IPO? Is that ever a thing that you’ll think about or, or is your plan to just keep doing what you’re doing?

Micky: It’s just to keep doing what we’re doing and when we can’t do it anymore, we hand the baton to someone who can, that is in our network. Yeah, I don’t ever, I don’t think I’m not sure about all the other Agarics, but I don’t plan on retiring.

You know, that’s not a… not a thing. I think, I think that’s such a false thing, you know, of course you may get too old to do your job, but there’s always something you can do in a co-operative. And then there is the money that I put in to join Agaric. So if I was ever to leave, I would have that as savings or whatever, but and the exit strategy or being bought out by what a larger cooperative I don’t think that’s something we think of.

Ana: Out here in Silicon Valley where I’ve worked as a programmer for quite a few years, that is such a taken for granted way of thinking. And then in five years we get out and we make out like bandits, and then we start the cycle all over again, I guess is the idea, but I’ve never quite understood that.

Micky: Yeah. I did work for a few startups. And it just seemed ludicrous to me. It, it, it would be like having babies to get them adopted by some rich people or something.

Ana: I love that image because it feels very apt and it’s appropriately horrifying.

Micky: I have five babies and two of them will be adopted by some rich people who have a beach house I could live in, you know, but you know, that’s, that’s kind of crazy, but I don’t know, people do that.

Ana: I’m going to steal that

Micky: Right? Well, I’m young. I’ll have several and then they can, I can farm them out or whatever. It’s not, not a good brain, I don’t think. It’s not good brain work. Yeah, it’s not contributing to, to the community. I love contributing to communities like whether it’s software or processes, methods or ideas, and seeing them flourish and grow and having them come back a year later and go, you know, that thing, you told me about how to do this and how to use this software. It’s really helped us.

Ana: When we started and you introduced Agaric, you talked about how y’all are spread all over. Right? You said Boston, Managua, Puebla. So I’m curious about how that comes about and how does that look like in a day to day, when you’re all so distributed. So tell me first, how did you end up having members that are all over ?

Micky: Through Drupal. As I said Drupal is international and we met pretty much all of our members through Drupal, except for one of them I met through Libre Boston, which is a the new Linux-based group. It’s the desktop users group for new Linux, which is the free operating system created by Richard Stallman in the eighties at MIT.

And Basically. Yeah. We meet through groups. We belong, belong to, so we know we have some similar agenda and then we get to know each other, like I was saying, you hang around, come to meetings. Talk with each other, you know, schedule chats, like what you would like to do with your life. So when, when someone wants to join Agaric, we usually talk with them and say, why, why do you want to join Agaric?

Oh, I love what you do. I want to be free. I do this and that. And we say, well, we’re not expanding, but would you be interested in, are you interested in the cooperative model? Of work or just all the great things you’ve heard about Agaric and a lot of people, they, they don’t really know about the cooperative world.

They’ve just seen some, or heard something about what Agaric is doing through a Drupal thing or through some, someone talking about us or some client that we’ve had. And so it’s kind of like the interview is not about what can you do for Agaric. It’s about what do you want to do with your life?

And from that, we usually can come up with a few good suggestions of networks and organizations they should join. Mailing lists they should be a part of, like listserv that are for developers or for cooperators like arts and culture mailing lists and guide them into groups that they should know or know about.

Ana: I’ve heard companies say like, Oh, we don’t want to go remote because it’s too hard. When people are in place, we don’t want to be distributed because it’s still hard when people aren’t in the same time zone yet a small cooperatively run, five worker shop is perfectly comfortable having collaborators all up and down the continent.

Micky: Yes. Well, it was wonderful before the the virus happened because we used to have weekly in-person co-working we had rented office space at a collaborative cooperatively run office space in Cambridge, Mass. And it was wonderful. We had a little office where people could come and work together once a week for like half a day and share things like next to each other and share lunch and bring, you know, cookies or whatever.

And that was a really wonderful thing, but it never was a thing where all the Agaric people worked together every day in an office. We find we’re able to do more when we’re spread out around the world because there’s things happening in Puebla and Hamburg, and you know, that I don’t know about that we could be helpful with.

So our members there bring us into, you know, knowing more about the world and the world’s situation, which guides us as to what type of work we should be doing. What type of software should we be building? Or should we be joining a group that’s already building this like voting software you know, things that are really important to a large number of people on the planet.

We’d rather be a part of something like that than building the golden goose egg that we can sell in three years and, you know, go buy our yacht. I came from the land of yachts and I’ll let you know, it’s pretty lonely on the yacht, especially for older, famous people. Not many people know they usually die alone.

Which is a strange, strange conception, you know, like what that guy he’s so famous, he’s alone in a house right now in his eighties, you know, dying of something. That’s hard to conceive, but we’ll tell you that’s what happens.

Ana: The other thing that comes to mind when I think about having, you know, worker owners in Managua and Hamburg and Boston, Is that there is some implicit diversity there. I mean, unless the members you have in Managua and Hamburg are, you know, white American males that happen to be living there. I imagine that there is, I imagine that there is a, a little bit of variety there. And that’s another thing that I’m curious about your perspective on tech and software building and even the open source community is heavily white male dominated and not very much oriented towards inclusion and, and being welcoming to others that do not look like a Stanford grad or an MIT grad.

Micky: Right. Well, the members we have are citizens of their country, and Spanish speaking and have grown up there. Even our white male in Hamburg is German. He speaks German.

So yeah, we do have diversity. It was planned not, not really hardcore planned, like, but being open to, you know, talking with someone who speaks Spanish and has a little bit of English and now their English is excellent. Not because of us, but because their own impetus for study and, and learning and growing.

Yeah. I guess I do have a lot to say about this and I’m writing a book on it. My experience and the working title right now is called, “Growing up white.” And it’s a very strange thing because all of the people I knew were white cis males throughout my life in high school, punk rock, all of those things are pretty much heavily influenced by white cis males.

So I’ve never had a diverse group around me. And I’d say Agaric is the most diverse thing I’ve ever been in, because know, well, when I was young, my family did join to some did belong to some groups that were mostly mostly black, but it wasn’t like a whole lot of them. So it was like a few times a year I got to go into a group that was mostly black people and it’s yeah.

It’s really hard to say. I just take people as people. And I do see that there’s a lot of bad stuff that can go on in that, but I try to just bring my whole real self to things. And don’t judge people on whether they are a white male or not, or, you know, whether they’re a feminist or, you know, things like that, that can all come later.

And it comes from learning and knowing people. And I don’t mean it should be put off. I mean, it should be, it should be, you know, implicit that yes, you want your group to be diverse, but not just diverse to be diverse, you know, not just, Oh, we better run out and hire an Asian person quickly or something bad will happen.

Ana: So one thing I’ve observed in, in other conversations with other folks in the co-op space is that often the people that are able to do work, you know, for free or take bigger risks, tend to be people that are more, you know, socioeconomically comfortable or people that come from backgrounds that are more privileged or more advantaged.

And so there is this catch 22 where often we’re like, well, get involved with co-ops or get involved with libre software for, for, you know, for the love of it. But that also tends to benefit, you know, people who are very comfortable. And so I’m curious if that’s ever come up at Agaric or if it’s something that y’all have ever talked about or had to face?

Micky: Well, I’ve been thinking about that a lot and I, I do realize that my background affords me a different view on things. And the fact that I left all opportunity for big money purposely when I left Connecticut. I did not want to go to you know, big name college. I could have done pretty much anything I wanted or joined some corporate thing that was owned by a friend’s father and been making, you know, like six figures back in the nineties or eighties, you know? Seventies, you know. I did, I just really wanted to see what I could do myself with nothing. I just hitchhiked to Boston with a suitcase and a guitar. But I realized is that everybody can’t do that because they didn’t have, they weren’t afforded the education I was given when I was little. I realized coming to Boston that the education I got in Connecticut in a wealthy town was like, what people are going to Harvard for.

And, you know, I was getting that in like third grade, fifth grade. I was doing things people are going to college for now. And I’m like, wow, that’s pretty crazy. But I was on the other side of it. So I didn’t really realize all the stuff that I had gotten. So as I realized that I, I, I understand your question, but I don’t have an answer for it.

I think the, the main thing I can do in it is to help educate people on what they need to know that I have found most fruitful and that anyone can enter the world of software without being a coder. And you can become a valuable person in, in the development world. If you are aware of that it is going to be mostly people who don’t look like you, for a while, but you have to have tolerance with that and have a strong enough character to not feel dissed.

A lot of people will feel dismissed when they’re not. I figured this out recently, the way I grew up was I was treated the way a governor’s son would be treated so that when we had a conversation, we just all blurted things out. Now in, in a world away from that that’s seen as rude and weird and stuff. But it’s not when you’re a wealthy kid and you’re with 12 other wealthy kids, you’re just encouraged to like blurt out your great idea and go for it.

Telling that to someone who has not had that privilege and has been told to shut up and sit still and do what I say is like you’re coming from Mars. I have to get a handle on that as I’m writing and figure out how to explain that, like that the inst the instillation of privilege in a child.

Like, I was always told I could talk to a peon or the Pope and I should treat them the same. Call him Jim, if that’s his name. Don’t call him Mr. you know Colonel blahblah or whatever, some title. Title things have gotten in the way of people recognizing each other. So, yeah, that’s a big, vast area that I’m still working on.

Ana: As our time comes to close, I wonder if there is any advice that you have for people out there that are interested in getting into cooperatives, especially cooperatives around software. How, how should they get started? What should they think about? How should they be learning and thinking about it?

What words of wisdom do you have?

Micky: I think the main important thing anyone interested can do is to do a search, find a couple of cooperatives, contact them, call them, tell them I am outside of the cooperative world. Help. What can I do to get involved in cooperatives? And they will get a lot of loving.

And important directive information and to meet other people because someone in a cooperative will take time to get to know you before they start recommending things that you should do. Like in a, you know, in a corporation it would be so different. Oh, you know how to add numbers, go to the finance, go and do this stuff.

You know, it’s not like that. And cooperative people usually have time to deal with you. It’s not evident. Cause no corporation would. You can’t go in and say, how can I help your corporation? But in a cooperative, find one you like. Even if it’s different from what you want to do, if it’s not a software one, a bakery co-op, you know, how did you get in there?

How do I, how do I find co-ops? Where do they meet? What are the, what are what’s going on over there? It’s a secret door. So contact.

Ana: Are there any good places online to find, you know, lists of coops or ways to get in touch with coops?

Micky: I would go to the USFWC site. It’s US worker dot coop, dot c-o-o-p and it’s the United States Federation of worker cooperatives.

And they can direct you to some cooperatives that are more vocal than others, or have more time to do outreach. Cause it does take time, you know.

Ana: Thank you for that. Before we do finish our conversation, is there anything else you’d like to share that I haven’t asked you about?

Micky: Oh, boy, let’s see. Bungee jumping. No, I don’t do that. I guess risk-taking. People see cooperatives as a risk-taking thing. I see it as a thing that envelops and takes your whole, your whole being to be in it. Because at Agaric, when we have our daily meetings, we always have a part of it that’s about your personal life. How are things in your personal life? And that can, that leads to a lot of understanding, a lot of empathy. And I think that people are afraid to share parts of themselves because they have been hurt by competitors. The competition level and competition really doesn’t or shouldn’t exist in cooperatives.

So you can show your whole self and be your whole self. As part of a cooperative. And I think that’s the, you know, balancing your life work thing. There was no life and work difference thing. It’s all together. If you really are honest and look at it, your life is your work and your work is your life. So it’s time to admit that, get over it and don’t keep splitting yourself into multiple personalities.

Ana: Thank you. That’s very nice. Very insightful.

Micky: You’re welcome. It’s been a wonderful ride.