From self-employment to the co-op model: Paper Rhino

More than a quarter of the UK’s workforce aspire to be self-employed - but are put off by the lack of security associated with going it alone. But what if there was a way of enjoying the benefits of being self-employed while minimising risk?

For Paper Rhino, turning the business into a co-operative was a creative solution for a business all about being creative. Incorporated in 2014, Peterborough-based Paper Rhino specialises in graphic design, illustration, video and typography. Started by two freelancers, the workers co-operative now boasts a six-figure turnover – and this is only set to grow.

The business operates on a flat structure, with shared profits and an equal say in all decisions. Offering “affordable design to ethically-conscious organisations”, Paper Rhino’s now six-strong team – its ‘members’ - do not simply pay lip service to their mantra, having recently moved into a new office boasting solar power and rain harvesting among its socially responsible credentials.

Co-founder Jay Gearing said: “Becoming a workers’ co-operative made a lot of sense to us. We didn’t want to be bosses, we wanted to be as fair as possible and we wanted to share the responsibilities equally among everyone. Democratic decision making gives all the employees a real invested interest with the business, instead of just being a passive worker that is told what to do by the bosses. It brings creativity with different personalities.

“Everybody contributes new ideas for the business that one or two CEOs may never have thought of. We share our profit-making rather than paying people at the top more and more money. If the business makes more money, we all make more money - and that is the best incentive you can think of.”

"Democratic decision making gives all the employees a real invested interest with the business, instead of just being a passive worker that is told what to do by the bosses." Jay Gearing, Paper Rhino

Having reached an all-time high of 4.6 million in 2015 – with further growth projected - self-employment (in its various guises) has become a reality for an increasing number of the UK’s workforce. While issues relating to irregular work and earnings are well documented there is also a serious, often unnoticed, pitfall to being self-employed in certain sectors. Loneliness can be a serious concern for home workers according to Jay Gearing.

Jay Gearing said: “It can really impact your entire life and as designers there’s not much scope for getting out. Your working environment is where you spend most of your time every day - so having no one to interact with can really affect your general wellbeing.”

In stark contrast, working co-operatively boosts the creative spark. Jay Gearing said: “We find it’s the best way to work as we can combine our creativity. It also stops us from being distracted by things at home.” Dealing with HMRC (“a nightmare”) as a self-employed worker is something else the Paper Rhino videographer and designer does not miss. He added: “One of the major problems of being a freelancer is that you have to be able to sort everything yourself, without the support of co-workers.”

Those concerns are now a thing of the past for Paper Rhino’s growing membership who are keen to promote the co-op model as a creative alternative to self-employment. Jay Gearing said: "Every worker should be taking a share of the success of any business. Only a co-operative model enables that. The more you put into a co-operative the more you get out. It also builds relationships and respect.

“Everyone is on the same level, no-one is better than the other and everyone’s opinion is worth something. All of us at Paper Rhino agree that we have no idea why anyone would be happy with other business models. Co-ops really are the best for everyone.”