Post-Mortem for Ampled

Image credit: Austin Robey depicting Ampled members. Pictured from left to right, top to bottom: Collin Lewis, Sean Adams, Bradley Belliard, Rene Kladzyk, Derek Singleton, Molly Mary O’Brien, Emma Epstein, Jeremy Neal, Austin Robey, Emma Cunningham. This image is protected under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 3.0 License.

On May 9th, New York City entrepreneur and solidarity economics advocate Austin Robey delivered a spicy Post-Mortem on Ampled, an artist and worker-owned cooperative platform, which he co-founded. His talk, available for download here, expands on his view that platform cooperatives need to embrace ‘winning’, by building products and services users want and not falling prey to virtue signaling.

The digital cooperative ecosystem now includes about 638 projects across roughly 53 countries, featuring five operational incubators and accelerators. A new PCC sister organization is set to launch in Thailand. Notably, federations like Coop Cycle, with 69 courier worker co-ops, and the nascent Drivers Cooperative, highlight the expansion of this sector. PCC Conferences have engaged around 290,000 participants over the years, and countries like the United Arab Emirates have enacted legislation to foster economic activity through platform co-ops. The European Commission, the OECD, and the United Nations have increasingly been featuring platform cooperatives in policy discussions on the social & solidarity economy and the future of the platform economy.

And yet, Austin’s main assertion is piercing and true: Contrary to the inflated hopes and expectations of the early days, platform cooperatives have not toppled giants like Apple or Google. There isn’t a single project that has destroyed a Big Tech incumbent and put a cooperative ownership model in place. Other platform cooperatives have struggled too. Fairbnb, Open Collective, Fairmondo, and Loconomics have faced various difficulties. 

A broader acceptance of shared ownership is hampered by the lack of successful, repeatable models and a general unfamiliarity with implementing or even discussing such structures. Furthermore, the unconventional nature of these ideas compared to mainstream tech culture adds another layer of complexity. Legal frameworks are often inadequate for the specific needs of platform cooperatives and even the tools and templates used by start-ups either do not exist for platform cooperatives or are not widely available. As Austin cogently explains, financing remains the biggest obstacle for platform cooperatives. Yet, it’s crucial to understand these failures in context: similar to how 90% of Silicon Valley startups fail, cooperative failures shouldn’t be seen as indicative of systemic issues within the co-op model.

Despite Austin’s assertion that there has been no real progress in the last five years, platform cooperatives have undeniably made a positive impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. They’ve managed to establish themselves effectively within the cracks of the global economic landscape. 

New cooperative projects continue to surface globally. For instance, Transkribus, an AI/Machine Learning cooperative based in Scotland, boasts a team of approximately 35 full-time employees and has garnered a user base of over 200,000 registered users. Notably, it has successfully processed an impressive 82 million pages of documents, backed by an initial investment of €10 million in EU funding for software and infrastructure development. New platform cooperatives are emerging to serve diverse communities, from fishers in South Africa to unbanked women in Tanzania.

It’s important to note that success in the digital cooperative sector is not straightforward or guaranteed. Variability is common, as seen in the enduring success of cooperatives like Stocksy and, and the shift of others like towards venture capital models to sustain growth. Large consumer cooperatives like Migros in Switzerland and the Coop in Italy, although less technologically flashy, play a significant economic role in their local economies through their sizable online marketplaces. Locally, The Drivers Cooperative in New York City has onboarded 12,000 drivers and is in the process of expanding into Colorado and Minnesota. In Brazil, the LGBTQIA+ cooperative Senõritas is launching its platform in São Paulo, developed in collaboration with the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto (Homeless Workers’ Movement) and the State University of Campinas.

In his reflection, Austin remained optimistic about the benefits of shared ownership, stating, “In my view, shared ownership is better… more upside for workers and the community is better… more accountable and transparent. Governance is better. … we want to see them win.” Austin is motivated to reshape perceptions and practices within the cooperative sector, challenging the view of cooperatives as ‘loser spaces,’ reducing harm from project failures, and tackling platform insecurity. Robey also expressed his optimism about the potential for cooperative platforms to succeed in the market context, stating, “And so that’s the thing that I’m most rooting for … can a project like this win in a market context? … I don’t want this space to just be perceived as like a loser space. I want it to win.”

This raises a critical question: what definitions of success truly guide us here? It echoes the stark binary of the American capitalist success model—a zero-sum game where one is either a victor in the market or the vanquished, with no middle ground. Even progressive public intellectuals, like Evgeny Morozov, who is famed for his critique of Big Tech sees the challenge to platform capitalism in all-or-nothing terms. In 2021, he lamented: “Cooperatives have proven powerless against the capitalism of Big Tech, asset managers, wealth defense industry…”, adding that the “emancipatory potential of this discourse rests on the mistaken idea that creating islands of decommodification in an ocean of commodification—and doing it as efficiently as possible—has system-transforming effects. But it doesn’t.”

Historically, cooperatives have rarely obliterated incumbents; instead, they have coexisted and competed alongside them. In many instances, cooperatives served needs that corporations have been unable or unwilling to meet, and in doing so have transformed entire economic sectors. For instance, Sandeep Vaheesan, in his new book Democracy in Power, documents the notable role of cooperatives in electrifying the rural United States. Efforts may falter, and self-exploitation does exist, yet the multitude of approaches—from donut economics initiatives to gig workers forming collectives or unions—contribute to an anti-capitalist push. Rejecting the notion that one approach will change the world, we embrace the diversity of efforts towards a more equitable future; a digital cooperative commonwealth in its widest sense, embracing a variety of democratic firms, collectives, and unions.

Transitioning to a more focused examination, in his review of Ampled, Austin Robey articulates the hurdles that cooperatives face, particularly emphasizing the issues surrounding public perception and operational difficulties.

“I have this concern, that if projects continue to pursue paths that are likely to fail, it can cause harm to people that we’re asking to trust to use certain platforms,” Robey notes in his post-mortem.

In his reflections, Austin Robey articulates the obstacles that cooperatives face, particularly emphasizing the issues surrounding public perception and operational difficulties. Ampled struggled due to abstract ownership concepts, a need for clear financial benefits to engage people, an ill-suited Patreon-style model for music entailing high switching costs for artist-members in particular, and a lack of legitimacy and credentials which led to widespread skepticism. He stressed that merely changing labels isn’t sufficient; a cooperative must offer a unique and engaging experience to truly resonate with its audience. Addressing the stigma often associated with being part of a co-op—he discussed the impact of this perception on cooperative initiatives.

Drawing on his experience with Ampled and more recent projects like Metalabel, Austin explained how shared ownership might be more effectively designed. Dismissing a casual, ad hoc approach, he clarified, “It’s definitely not just — get friends together and fuck around … you have to like, really figure it out.” Robey also acknowledged some achievements, mentioning that during the company’s existence, they managed to raise $90,000 through grants, and $250,000 going directly to artists from user contributions.

However, Austin critically addressed the reliance on volunteer and underpaid labor within Ampled, sharing, “And there were worker owners… everybody that was a worker, owner had contributed at least 80 hours to building the platform. … The reliance on volunteer labor. I worry about continuing these approaches. … We just all burned out. And it’s tough.” He concluded with a sobering realization about the assumptions regarding cooperative growth, “We assumed that being a co-op would make it grow. But it wasn’t true.” Simply being a cooperative and offering a distinct ownership model was not sufficient to draw artists or community supporters.

This realization prompted Austin to also critically evaluate the product development and market perception within the cooperative sector. He firmly stated, “The products are bad. I think .. the products in the platform co-op space aren’t good. … I think, like, really, really strong products are going to be hard to overtake with this kind of model. Maybe, with very few exceptions.”

He cautioned against under-resourced initiatives, “if we’re building projects that only last a few years or break and were not properly resourced, then I worry that that is actually worse for users.”

He’s right to point out that the products currently available aren’t up to par. Having also worked on crypto-adjacent projects in recent years, he thoughtfully commented on the idea of ownership in crypto, asserting “I don’t think that DAOs and crypto are the answer here. What I do think is the answer is, taking some things that have shown to be successful there and moving them out like. They don’t have to be locked into blockchains that we can, we can take the kind of growth mechanisms that have happened, and just bring them closer to co-ops. That’s my view.” He observed that token ownership spurred growth “in a way that no cooperative platform has”, but at the same time this growth can be perceived to have a “mercenary style.” In short, the artist can sometimes win from the upside of crypto bull markets, but can also be hacked, ‘rugged’ by an unscrupulous founder, or harmed by the speculative whims of degens. Austin also mulls on the lessons that platform cooperatives could draw from ‘vampire attacks’ in the crypto space, where a new project forks the open source software of an older project and then offers attractive incentives (e.g., governance tokens in the new blockchain project or protocol) for users to switch projects. Could nascent platform cooperatives launch a vampire attack on corporate incumbents so as to draw away users? At first blush, while there may be some potential for this in digital markets where the use of open source software is common, it seems an unlikely strategy in industries where the incumbents use closed source software and forking is not possible. 

Moreover, it’s clear that there’s a pressing need for better-quality software to ensure the success and competitiveness of cooperative models, particularly within the tech sector. Additionally, embracing peer production and coopy-left licenses can be a valuable strategy to advance cooperative efforts in this space. Lastly, “the experience of founders is low,” he notes, highlighting another critical area that demands attention.

Austin also underscored the importance of the environment in which cooperatives operate, questioning whether the current climate is conducive to their growth. “There was always a sense that the idea was early,” he remarked, questioning if people are familiar with and supportive of the cooperative model and its platforms. He expressed the difficulties faced in altering perceptions and behaviors, “I also, in reflecting, just thought that we are trying to solve too many problems. So it feels very challenging, like one to convince to encourage a new behavior and educate about a new model.”

In addressing funding issues and the sustainability of cooperatives, Austin provided insights, highlighting the potential risks of pursuing untenable paths. “I also have this concern, that if projects continue to pursue paths that are likely to fail, it can cause harm to people that we’re asking to trust to use certain platforms,” he stated, emphasizing the dire consequences of failing cooperatives on community trust. He cautioned against under-resourced initiatives, “if we’re building projects that only last a few years or break and were not properly resourced, then I worry that that is actually worse for users.”

Austin also detailed the broader funding difficulties within the cooperative movement, noting, ”We were excluded from any kind of traditional equity fundraising … So it was largely friends that gave really generously, … revenue-based loans. And then grants and also”

Furthermore, Austin argues that supporters of shared ownership dislike platform exits because they overwhelmingly disadvantage the community that depends on the service, whereas community ownership can transform these exits into positive outcomes. An alternative model of success, he cites is the corporate acquisition of New Belgium, the fourth-largest craft brewery in the US, that till late 2019 was 100% employee-owned via an ESOP trust: “I think it’s also interesting to like, for example, the fourth largest craft brewery in the US, New Belgium being acquired and workers getting a $190 million dollar windfall. This is a workaround. Is that something to mourn? Or is that something to celebrate?” For some employee ownership advocates the closure of New Belgium’s Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP)  meant the loss of a prominent and successful example of employee ownership. For conservative critics it reaffirms the superiority of the corporate form of business where investor-ownership is king, while for critics on the left it demonstrates the transitory nature of employee ownership, evincing its lack of capacity to transform or transcend capitalism. Yet, more concretely, for hundreds of erstwhile employee-owners, the pension contributions arising from this sale are life-altering. In other words, the experience of employee-ownership was life-changing. 

Some businesses survive generations, and many do not. It is unsurprising that employee-owned companies may also wind up for different reasons, even if there is an effort to preserve the business for the long-term. Many ESOPs that existed in the 1990s no longer exist. New Belgium Brewery installed an ESOP in 2000 and became 100% employee-owned in 2012 through the gradual acquisition of the shares of the family-founders. The employee-owners themselves voted to approve the sale of the business to a corporation, given market competition and difficulties in raising capital as an independent brewery. In doing so, New Belgium has achieved the limited, but important, primary ambition of ESOPs: to boost the retirement income of employee-owners. In that endeavor, as Jason Weiner has previously argued, the ESOP “largely satisfied its purpose which was to create wealth in a tax-advantaged vehicle for its past and current owners.” Understandably, people may have greater ambitions and expectations of democratic firms in the digital economy, involving more direct forms of governance and more lasting forms of employee- and community-ownership. This example also reveals the differences between types of employee ownership, with cooperatives in countries like Italy focusing on being “good ancestors” of new generations of cooperators, as Paola Bellotti of Italy’s CoopFond powerfully put it in a recent presentation for the Mutualist Society Pod series. 

Austin agrees that more shared ownership, increased benefits for workers and the community, and enhanced democratic governance are positive; he advocates for wider distribution and adoption of these values in business and culture, aspiring for more projects with these principles to succeed. Adding to Austin’s takeaways, a broader perspective reveals that platform cooperatives must prioritize business viability, federation, close collaborations with municipalities and team building. Emphasizing shared digital infrastructure over starting anew is crucial. Operating within a context that fosters psychological, emotional, and cultural support for cooperatives and solidarity economy models—alongside favorable legislation—is essential. Moreover, having experienced and competent leadership within cooperatives is immensely significant. Despite setbacks, there is still optimism surrounding the potential for cooperative platforms to thrive. Reflections like those from Ampled propel us forward.

Related event: June 13th
Exploring Business Models for Collective Flourishing with Cooperative Principles

The ICDE 2023/2024 reports cover a range of topics including “Thai Delivery Reimagined,” “Driving Economic Justice: Cooperative Taxis in San Diego,” “Waking Up to Data,” “Food Commons: Nurture vs. Capture,” “Legalize Global Co-Ops,” “Cooperative Roots for Climate Justice,” “Principles for a Cooperative Technopolitics,” and “Regenerative Co-op Farming in Madagascar.”
ICDE Reports 2023-2024