What start-ups can learn from affinity groups

The start-up world has come to the same conclusion as many social movements, that a small group of people working together make the most effective and creative choices.

A group of around seven people is recommended by both Google Venture’s “Design Sprint” method, as well as various activist guides to “affinity groups”.

The idea with affinity groups however, is not only to organise your part of an event or action, but also to be a part of a bigger horizontal structure of other groups working towards the same ends.

While the close-knit cooperation in a start-up is a good thing for creativity, it hits a wall when it comes to cooperation with others. The economic incentives doesn’t encourage that. In the rule book of capitalism you can do four things: you can compete, you can merge, you can buy or be bought. This creates a tribal culture were you only look after your own little group. The priority is your clan, not innovation, cooperation or the free flow of ideas.

A small group will be good at coming up with creative ideas, but not at solving large scale or long term problems. And the clan culture stops the kind of collective intelligence where a large group of people can create truly innovative solutions.

As this clan culture clearly stifles innovation, some alternative cultures arise, like co-working spaces, meet-ups and hackathons. But this still has limited effect. The culture of competition and only looking after your own needs to be more consciously broken if we want to see more large scale innovation and proliferation of good ideas. That requires not only a cultural shift, but also creating economic incentives for cooperation.

A structure for sharing ideas and profits between different worker-controlled companies through a horizontal network of start-ups could be one way. This kind of large scale horizontal coordinating is done all the time at large activist gatherings, so the methods are just there ready to be used by future minded entrepreneurs.

Trapped between network and hierarchy

Technologically, we are headed for zero-priced goods, unmeasurable work, an exponential takeoff in productivity and the extensive automation of physical processes.

Socially, we are trapped in a world of monopolies, inefficiency, the ruins of a finance-dominated free market and a proliferation of ‘bullshit jobs’.

… everything is pervaded by a fight between network and hierarchy.

Paul Mason, PostCapitalism

Paul Mason sums up the conflict of systems on a societal level pretty well. The dying hierarchy and the emerging network. But what messes with you on a personal level is not just the hierarchy, but the fact that you’re constantly being trapped between the two systems.

Like when your boss finds your Instagram account where you make memes about your sexual identity and mental health issues. Which is really empowering on a personal level but not very good for your sales career. Or you are expected to check your work email when you are sunbathing on the Canary Islands. Which would be fine if all you ever did was chilling and checking the occasional email, but you’re trapped in an office most of your time, and your free time is precious as fuck. Or you’re unemployed and can’t pay your rent, cause thanks to automation we don’t have work that much. But it’s not like you’ll see the benefits of that.

The new celebrities of social media are the ones that supposedly have found a way of escaping the hierarchy altogether to only live in the network. My uneducated guess is that the people who pull that off are either:

  1. Exceptions, which are allowed in the hierarchy to make it look like there is an escape from the system if you’re lucky, talented or hard working.
  2. Really poor, but keeping up appearances.
  3. Selling the dream of living in the network to people who want to believe it. Like those inspirational speakers who talk about having a start-up, but make all their money from public speaking, not the actually start-up.

And no, having other people work for you is not a way out of the hierarchy, it’s a way of sustaining and prolonging an exploitative system.

I had a worker-owned cooperative for some years and thought that might be a way out, but it mostly just worked according to the same hierarchical logic, with the difference that we got to be our own exploiters.

There might be a forth way, and I’ll definitely do what I can to try to find it. Let me know if you have any ideas.