Signalise Co-op is a multi-stakeholder platform co-operative delivering sign language interpreting and translation services.
UnFound is a UK-based accelerator and business support programme for platform co‑ops, which launched in 2018. As we relaunch the Accelerator for 2021, we’re publishing a Q&A series, in partnership with Stir to Action. The interviews are with a group of platform founders who share their experiences of building teams, raising finance, and user experience. Keep an eye out for more over the coming weeks and months...
The co‑op is a matching service to give deaf people more choice and empowerment, with an online list of preferred interpreters who can be called upon when needed to assist in healthcare settings.
We spoke to Jen smith. An interpreter for 16 years who has retrained as a web developer, Jen is a co‑founder of Signalise.
What gave you the initial inspiration and confidence to start a platform co-op?
The British Sign Language interpreting profession has seen real threats from larger agencies taking public sector contracts, especially spoken language agencies. After ten years, this has left the profession in decline, fragmented, and at risk. A co-op is the natural antidote to fix these problems. After researching and blogging about contracts, with a background in interpreting and having spent time volunteering as the first Chair of the National Union of BSL Interpreters, it was clear that interpreters needed to have a legal entity that could bid for contracts and that this would be stronger if it was done with and alongside the Deaf community – a powerful coming together of end-suppliers and end-users!
After 16 years as an interpreter, I had also decided to learn coding as it was something I’d always wanted to do. I was just completing a bootcamp course when I found myself at Open Co-op 2018. After volunteering earlier in the day, I was sitting in the audience typing away trying to finish off some modules. Someone on stage asked everyone to close their eyes, he talked us through some visualisations then asked us to think about their future selves and what they’d say to us. Mine said get on with it and Signalise was born. It was just a matter of gathering all the passionate and talented individuals who I knew were already keen on a co-op and who understood that for interpreters, the Deaf community and the organisations we serve, a platform co-op is the answer to a brighter and more exciting future.
In the platform economy, the initial unpaid labour involved in building a product is a trade-off for the promise of a big payout when the business is eventually sold to an external investor. How do you build a team where this option does not exist? Can you explain your story so far?
We have survived on a combination of grants and sweat equity so far. Development so far has been achieved by two in-house developers, with a background in interpreting, and one external developer who is Deaf. We’re working towards the minimal viable product (MVP) at present. The plan is to launch a product that won’t have everything we need but will be something we can test and improve upon.
From the grant we originally received, we’ve organised payment via timesheets under a strict budget and again, there has been a lot of sweat equity! That is partly because we believe in the product and the solution we are building. Along with the co-operative structure, it has the potential to radically change service delivery for the benefit of all users. And we’ve just been awarded some regional funding linked to Covid-19.
We’ll be working with an external web agency and continuing some work ourselves. Once we’ve completed this stage, we’ll be in a better place to understand where we go next. This is likely to be moving away from the software as a service solution and building our own application programming interface and back-end – which will give us more flexibility in how we progress.
For this work, we’ll be relying on a community share offer and we’ll probably continue with a mix of in-house and external developers. So I guess the answer is passion, commitment, reasonable payments and the thrill of working on what we plan to be a game changer.
Financing a platform co-operative is a challenge, but there’s excitement about testing existing forms of equity in the sector. What’s your funding mix and how do you see it changing in the next five years?
We’ve existed mainly on business support programmes, grant funding and sweat equity so far. We started with support via the Hive and Co-operatives UK. Then had grants for social entrepreneurs, one as an individual that allowed us to set up as a co-op and get in basic business expenses and then as an organisation.
We’ve since gained more grant support and are attending another business programme for social entrepreneurs. We did a Crowdfunder last year, which tested the community’s response and allowed us to get more publicity and widen our network. We’re still taking in donations, mainly from union branches who have responded to a call and can see the value in what we are doing. As our co-founder set up the union and three of us were on the initial committee, we have union roots and this support has been a real boost.
We are trading now and aiming to increase this throughout 2021 to prepare for increasing our trading income into 2022 and beyond. We are aiming for a community share offer in spring 2021 which will finance salaries to market the business and fund further platform development. We need to iterate on the MVP to ensure the platform achieves our vision and can bring in more trade, especially from larger contracts, which has always been the main goal. This is where there is the most impact to be had. We plan to continue with grant funding partly to develop platform features and especially to do more community work – there’s so much to do!
Platform co-ops are about rebalancing power but this can be unavoidably complex. How do you find the right governance model that offers a ‘cultural fit’ for your community and business purpose?
We’re still working on it! As a bilingual/bicultural co-op, and especially in a pandemic, it has been harder to reach out to our communities. We’ve been lucky enough to get the funding we need to ensure we have BSL translations for the governance documents and the website.
Sociocracy is working really well for us as it allows everyone in the room (or Zoom meeting) to have their say. For both worker members (interpreters and other communication professionals) and user members (Deaf people who use communication professionals) this can be an issue for different reasons. For workers, as interpreters, we are often in the room communicating for everyone else but rarely share an opinion unless asked or it is appropriate. There are interesting power dynamics, too, that happen with interpreters as the only person in the room who’s aware of everything happening.
Deaf people, communicating in BSL and as a linguistic minority, are often excluded from the mainstream conversation, sometimes even with an interpreter in the room.
A multi-stakeholder co-op allows the freedom for expression as separate groups, as well as when we come together. We’ve seen the start of the possibilities that our governance and using sociocracy bring in addressing power imbalances – and I believe that time will show us just how powerful this can be.
What should business support programmes offer to make a platform co-op founder’s journey easier?
We found that the support we’ve needed at different stages of the journey have been slightly different. Governance and business planning at the start and a bit of coaching to understand how to apply co-op principles in perhaps ways we had not considered. Advice on financing and where to go to raise funds or apply for the initial funding needed to register with the FCA. Programmes that helped around the next stage focussed on marketing, finding your offer, social impact and developing the business idea and offering. We’ve also taken part in a couple of programmes focussing on entrepreneurship, marketing and pivoting the business due to the current Covid-19 pandemic.
In summary, what is mostly useful is financing, governance and marketing. What would be really useful is networking with others who run platform co-ops. As the movement we exist in is so new, we’ve had to find our way through and it is a continual journey. There is a real value in people coming together from different business markets to learn from each other’s experiences and viewpoints that could really help move the progress of organisations forward as well as the whole movement.
While raising finance is always presented as the most difficult challenge for early-stage platforms, your ‘route to market’ is really important. Platform Co-ops are much closer to their users and customers than traditional businesses, so what are your channels for selling your services?
We have started trading for ad hoc bookings and have so far covered events, meetings, training courses and workshops. We aim to increase ad hoc work, as well as become a supplier for public sector work. We are concentrating on contracts for health and social care where the social impact is the greatest, as well as higher education.
There is a shortage of interpreters. They get asked for their availability all the time, and Deaf people are often asked where interpreters can be sourced. Therefore, we want our members to be brand ambassadors to refer work through the co-op and we’ll be looking at how we recognise that contribution to the growth of the business. We’ll be working with users, commissioners and public sector organisations to ensure our offering has features that put our business ahead of the competition. We’ll also be investing in our SEO and marketing to ensure we can pick up business across the private and third sector too.
If you need any BSL translations for web content or are organising an event and need an interpreter, lip speaker, speech-to-text reporter or note taker, please email [email protected] and we’ll be happy to help!
Many assume that co-operatives have flat pay structures. Can this work in the tech sector? What is your pay structure?
We have been mostly paid via timesheets via grant funding for some of the work done on the platform, governance and finances. The rest of the work has been done by volunteers, who have been either directors, members or people externally who are interested in supporting Signalise.
We are just organising two part-time salaried posts where the pay is commensurate with the role. These are not developer roles. We expect our salaries to be in line with the demands of the role. Many of our worker members will not want to take salaries as many interpreters are freelance by choice. This allows them more flexibility and room to work in different areas, to ensure skills are maintained across a variety of types of interpreting work.
We do not yet know whether we will have in-house paid developer roles of whether we will continue with the timesheet format. This will depend very much on the type of work, the skills of the existing in-house team and whether we feel working with an external agency would be better. As we progress past MVP stage and start more research and development for the next phase, this should all become clearer!
Based on your experience, what advice would you give to others who are at an earlier stage of becoming a platform co-op?
When interested in the tech side, it is easy to get lost in the excitement of an innovation. Get the business plan in place. Hunt for a passionate team. Get finance. Test the idea early. Do your market research and get as much external support and advice as possible.
Grow the board and membership carefully as the governance comes together. A great board has been fundamental. We have brought people in with aligned values and a good mix of knowledge and skills. We can challenge and discuss so that when we can reach the right decision. It depends on your field and what kind of membership you are looking to have, but take your time in getting this right.
Smaller may be easier to start with. Look into sociocracy as a way to make decisions collectively and ensure everyone in the room is heard. Join forums, network and find your people. It’s an exciting collective progressive world!