Local Cooperation Made Easy

Well, they've finally finished it! Our traditional community sharing and cooperative methods have finally been made super easy online.

As I described in previous posts, the traditional route to organizing neighborhood projects or purchases is difficult and few communities do it. Many try, but few succeed in finding or rallying their neighbors. Traditionally, organizing neighbors largely consisted of posting fliers and knocking on doors. Or one can build a community center or a physical co-op and let people come to you. In our case, we were already attending neighborhood meetings due to an unrelated neighborhood crisis. The topic of collaborative efforts to reduce expenses was raised at these meetings and the collaborative mindset evolved very slowly from there.

My husband was the one who suggested to a friend that a web service be created to simplify this process of combining effort and expenses on group projects and purchases. They liked the idea and created SplitStuff. Of course I have some pride in SplitStuff and helped to test it and helped find other testers. After lots of rounds of feedback, new features and improvements, SplitStuff is now open to the public. I'm so excited that now people far and wide can cooperate very easily with their friends and neighbors, even those they haven't met yet.

The thing I love about SplitStuff is that you can sit at your computer and find people near you who share your interests in local projects, bulk purchases or sharing of items. You can organize anything! And it's completely FREE! It's just so easy - compared to what we had to do to find a small number of like-minded neighbors (and then continue to communicate and agree on logistics). The barriers are now gone.

Now there's really no excuse any more to buying anything retail, or buying the cheapest, lowest quality stuff just to save money. There's no excuse for buying equipment that you rarely use, that all of your neighbors also bought, that they rarely use too! The same goes for trucks, jewelry, sporting or educational goods, etc. There's no excuse for buying stuff in bulk and letting it clutter up your house and letting it spoil, go stale or rancid. There's no excuse for not buying local farm fresh organic produce or dairy for your kids. There's no excuse for not having a neighborhood composting system, or farm, or parade, or other event. There's no excuse for tolerating potholes or other problems that a group of unified local voices could help solve.

So sign up, get your friends, neighbors and co-workers signed up, and start splitting stuff!!! I volunteered to help promote SplitStuff. Now that I've gotten the hang of Facebook, blogs and forums, etc. I plan to spend some time every day to spread the word. I have no financial interest in SplitStuff. If you have any questions about it or need any help getting started please let me know - I'm happy to help.

Frugal and Healthy?

Frugality comes in a number of flavors: those interested in reducing expenses, those interested in simplicity, recycling, anti-consumerism, and to some degree the green movement. No matter what your motives, the increased focus on health and the environment has created some challenges. Organic foods and other higher quality foods with healthier ingredients are almost always more expensive than the lower quality equivalents. So those interested in frugality together with health and the environment must get creative to solve this potential conflict.

There are many strategies to frugality, coupon clipping being perhaps the most popular. Products promoted by coupon are simply those products the companies offering them wish to promote for various reasons. These products tend not to be the healthy or green choices. When leading a green and/or healthy lifestyle, one does not want to be subject to the whims of chain stores with their coupons or discounts for things they'd like to promote.

I scoured the web to find solutions to this conflict, and some that I found were quite legitimate - I already do many of these: cook and eat at home, prepare from fresh foods, buy in bulk, buy directly from the farmer or at a farmer's market, grow your own, compost, buy less and eat less, make your own beverages, cleaning products, etc.

But in terms of direct savings on specific items, only buying in bulk has the potential to save big. The problem is that buying in sufficient bulk for big savings means lots of freezing and lots of clutter and waste. Bags and sacks and bins take up space, and often the food goes bad before you can use it. And we all know what freezing does to most foods, especially the fresh stuff.

My solution, and that of my neighborhood, is to pool our money with neighbors and friends and order the things we need in huge bulk, then split it up when it arrives. We buy directly from suppliers, distrubutors and farms. We get the healthiest and freshest foods for prices far under what most pay at the grocery store for the common equivalents. We order only what we need for the near term to reduce clutter, waste and freezing, and we make orders fairly often. We do this for fresh foods, packaged foods, and non-food items.

The only hurdle is that you have to be willing to communicate with your neighbors and local friends and coordinate the order. My neighborhood was already having regular meetings when somebody first mentioned this idea. For most neighborhoods this is not so easy, and the community hurdle is the biggest one. Many don't know their neighbors and would feel uncomfortable calling them or knocking on doors. This is a sad fact of life in most of the Western world.

A friend of ours is reducing this hurdle by creating a free web tool that lets people indicate the types of things they'd like to order in bulk, and then shows them other people near them who are interested in the similar things. The logistics of the order are discussed and the "split" happens. Suppliers must be found that will agree to sell in huge bulk to you, but there are many that are willing. This can require a bit of research, but the rewards are well worth it, and you can order from the same supplier again and again if you like.

This web tool is operational but in "beta testing" mode - meaning you must get an invitation and must be willing to provide feedback. Let's give him some good feedback and start splitting stuff by going to SplitStuff.com. Enjoy.

Co-op 2.0

A cooperative or "co-op" is most commonly defined as a voluntary association of members united in order to obtain economic and social benefits not available to the members separately. As Robert Grott states in "Why Coops Die: An Historical Analysis":

Co-ops are unique in that they have a dual mission -- part economic and part social. Economically, they provide a way for a community to capitalize its own business and to provide for needs that would otherwise go unmet. They can then return the economic benefits of that business back to the community. In other situations, they can protect people from abuses such as monopoly overcharges. Socially, co-ops actualize the ideal of human co-operation. They operate democratically, and they suggest a new type of relationship between businesses and consumers. They can provide people with a new measure of control over their lives, and they offer a context for community organizing.
Often a benefit of a co-op involves collective buying power; such a cooperative can leverage its size (and therefore its purchase volume) to obtain lower per unit prices or rates. Members may be individuals (consumers), retailers, or any other association or enterprise. I'll write more about retail cooperatives in a future post.

There are many different types of consumer cooperatives, focusing on food, housing, health care, insurance, etc. A food cooperative is essentially a grocery store owned by its members. It is a real business and must compete and attract consumers to survive. It must price food items attractively with enough of a markup to pay for the overhead involved in a maintaining and running a physical store. Often paid members get special low rates compared with walk-in visitors, and occasionally members are required to perform all the human work of the co-op.

Continuing to use food co-ops as an example, we see many problems common to large associations, voluntary organizations and corporations: bad management, complex political structure, inability to compete, requirement for participation, the need for a physical location and elitist snobbery.

The solution to these problems is to make co-ops less like corporations, and more like small local grassroots meetups or buyers clubs. The advantages of these micro-co-ops ("Splits") are:

  1. Economic and Competition: since there is minimal overhead, there is either zero or minimal markup. A Split leader may take a small markup for his/her troubles as long as there is full transparency. Each Split is usually focused on a single item or small set of items. The leader chooses a source in part due to the per unit price being less than comparables at local stores or co-ops, etc.
  2. Political and Management: a far simpler political structure means far fewer problems. There is one leader who has ultimate responsibility. If the members of the Split are not happy with the leader, they may request a change of leadership or simply form a separate Split. Splitters vote through their participation.
  3. Variety and Choice: Leaders and splitters may choose from unlimited sources and suppliers. They may choose any level of quality, price, from local producers if they desire, organic, green, low packaging, etc. Or not... it is their choice. At a physical store, the choices are largely made for you.
  4. Distance and Transportation: Splits can be quickly formed from members of your local neighborhood. The only driving required is on the day of delivery of the items. Normally all splitters converge at the house of the leader in order to take their share. Transportation from supplier to consumer is reduced dramatically, with proportional reductions in vehicle emissions, refrigeration, etc.
  5. Spoilage and Waste: Shoppers often buy in bulk at co-ops and warehouse stores because of driving distance and the uncertainty that an item of interest will remain (or remain at a certain sale price). Local splitting allows participants to order only what they need immediately - and such Splits may be repeated often and regularly. Bulk goods must be stored or frozen, and often go bad or add to the clutter in a home.
  6. Social and Community: Each splitter may be a member of multiple splits with different splitters. The direct communication and cooperation with neighbors for mutual benefit leads to greater feelings of community and better community relations. Neighbors become so accustomed to working together that many other community projects (political, social, civic, infrastructure, etc.) suddenly begin to take shape. Community festivals and BBQ's are more frequent, and potholes are less frequent.
Start creating your own micro-co-ops today! Reminder: you can get started (as a beta tester) at our friend's new web application. Mention my name (in addition to any other instructions) to receive an invitation.

Overcoming Resistance to Local Cooperation

In previous posts I talked about the power of local groups as they cooperate for the common good, especially motivated by saving money and improving their communities. Our transformation to a community mindset was dramatic and difficult to imagine given our location (outside of Boston) and makeup (former city folk). I imagine that the traditional route to neighborhood and community cooperation, outlined in the previous post, would be difficult to replicate for most others. Encouraging it is noble, but not particularly effective. Unfortunately, in my brief activism online I've found that resistance to group effort is fairly universal. How do we overcome this resistance? Here's how.

I mentioned before that our collaborative efforts have been aided by software created for us by a friend who volunteered his time and gave us something simple that helped us keep track of every "split", who was involved, and all the details of that split. Each split had a forum where discussions could take place and logistics could be ironed out and group consensus could be reached. Each split had a leader who was ultimately responsible, and most of those involved in our community have been leaders of at least one split. It worked great for us - and we still use it today. But it is not appropriate for world distribution. First of all, it requires an existing organized community, which is a rarity, and second, it is difficult for new individuals and families to become involved - it is not particularly inviting and friendly to newbies who must be shown the ropes by existing members.

A few months ago, my husband suggested to our programmer friend (Steve) that he use our software as the basis for a new web application, open to everybody, where local people can find each other through the application itself. People with similar interests in goods, items, services and other interests - who live near each other - can find each other and organize splits online, and invite others or permit others to join in a similar way. This seems to be the answer: the barriers to community formation are far lower, and the organizational tools are freely available. I am therefore encouraging participation in the new web application as much as I am encouraging the theory and benefits of collaborative effort. I have no financial interest in the site, nor does my husband, nor does anybody in our community. In my opinion, it is simply the single best way to encourage collaborative local activity of any kind.

The above describes the ultimate usage of the application, where thousands of people are using it in every city. Currently it is quite new and undergoing beta testing. In order to use the site at this stage you must invite your local friends, neighbors and co-workers to use the site and organize your splits with it together. Pick something you all want to split, like a durable item or a bulk good, and just do it. In order to make it a universal tool and encourage collaborative activity widely, we must all play our part to grow it in our local areas and spread it to new areas. It's in beta testing mode, so you must also provide Steve feedback. Steve seems very willing to modify it to suit our needs. To request an invitation, go to http://www.splitstuff.com/beta and mention my blog, your city and briefly explain your interest in it. Also, he is limiting beta testing to the US and Canada for now. I have friends in the UK and New Zealand who are anxious to get started - very soon, I'm sure.

Saving money as the doorway to community

There are a plethora of "communities" online. But the notion of online or virtual communities has been mocked by those who consider community a more intimate group of geographically local individuals working together for a common local good. Traditional holdouts miss the point that common good does not have to be local. Nonetheless, for cooperative buying it's better to be local.

Non-local collective buying power works for ipods and car parts - there are many online apps encouraging suppliers to bid to supply groups of buyers interested in the same item. Most of these applications have gone out of business for reasons I'll try to reference in a future post. Local collaborative buying is far more powerful:

  1. local groups can split ownership of durable items, getting full use out of dozens of quality items for a tiny fraction of the price,
  2. local groups can buy goods in huge bulk directly from suppliers by pooling money and splitting up the delivery as soon as it arrives. Needless to say, huge bulk means huge savings, less transportation, packaging and waste.
  3. local groups can negotiate as groups for better deals on local items, services and community improvements. Think gym memberships, babysitters, instructors and classes, community projects, local political change, etc.
My previous post outlined a major psychological and practical hurdle: expanding from solitary efforts to more powerful group efforts. How does one get past this hurdle? Traditionally, one can organize neighborhood meetings by posting fliers and knocking on doors, or one can build a community center or a physical co-op and let people come to you. There is a far better way that I'll talk about in my next post. In our case, we were already attending neighborhood meetings due to an unrelated neighborhood crisis. The topic of collaborative efforts to reduce expenses and save money was raised at these meetings and the collaborative mindset evolved very slowly from there.

Saving money was our initial motive, but today we are also much greener and far more involved generally. Our children are growing up within a real community, thinking of themselves as individuals but also playing an important role in a greater good. They don't display nearly as much of the consumerism and selfishness common in other neighborhoods and towns that look similar to ours from the outside. I feel blessed every day that my family and I are part of this new frontier, this grand experiment in human nature that gives me hope for the future.

Frugal, Green, but Solitary

Most people seem to want to save money and be green alone. Each person, or each family, is an island unto themselves. They might share tips on coupons or discounts socially, or tips on being more green. Social media is the most social they get in their "activism". And why not? Clearly you can cut costs and be green alone. Some may think it's easier; some may think other people are scary in the real world. What's your reason?

I'm not here to lecture anybody, or tell you you're not trying hard enough or not doing your part if you do it alone. I just want you to consider that a group of people is often much more powerful than the sum of each individual. This has certainly been my experience with my community. We determine what we need and are not subject to the whims of chain stores with their coupons or discounts for things they'd like to promote. Our costs are significantly below even the warehouse stores, and the quality we find is much better. For many of us, the costs of buying organic would be prohibitive as individuals; as a group the prices are very attractive.

Only as a group can you reduce costs, packaging and waste by splitting bulk purchases. Only as a group can you buy a top quality truck for 10% of its purchase price. Only as a group can you knock 40% off a gym membership. Only as a group can you have a community garden, or share produce from many backyard gardens. Only as a group can you share rides, or other community or household equipment, or expensive tools, or a quality lawnmower, etc. etc. We are doing all of these and much, much more. In a future post I'll talk about how we did it, and how you can do it too.

Borrowing and Splitting

Before we began splitting we tried borrowing. There were the haves and the have nots - at least when it came to particular items. Nobody had everything, but together we had most things. So we tried to be good neighbors and agreed to let our neighbors borrow from a predetermined list of items at any time (when convenient).

We made a great effort, but found our system started to damage relationships and certainly damaged the borrowed items. No matter the neighbor or friend, borrowed items are just never respected as much as an owned item. Items were returned damaged or not properly maintained or not re-fueled, or with almost-empty batteries, or not fully cleaned, etc. We had numerous meetings where it was mentioned, but no solutions were satisfactory. Eventually the effort died out.

We then tried splitting. At first, a few high quality items were purchased by pooling money from those who wanted to use those items. We agreed on terms for each item and then we created a checkout system. Initially there were some bumps, but we perfected the method and got used to the procedures. There was something about owning a fraction of an item that lead to respect for it, and respect for next splitter.

We then began to pool our money in order to buy goods in huge bulk and saw a large discount. Eventually we were splitting so many things that all the splitters, terms and details got a little confusing. We asked a friend to create a simple computer program to help us organize our splits, and it works great - we could have used it from the very start. So far we've been splitting for a few years and each family has saved many thousands of dollars, and reduced waste and clutter in the process.

First Post

This is my first post... I mean really my first post. Very exciting. Why have I decided to blog? For some reason I decided to surf Google to see how many other towns, communities and neighborhoods were doing what we've been doing. I saw a lot of terrific ideas by some very inspired frugal, personal finance, simple life and eco bloggers and authors... but I was shocked to see that nobody was talking about splitting!!!

I did finally find some mention of perhaps a handful of other neighborhoods where similar methods are being employed, but it seemed to be a very rare occurrence. Suddenly I felt a rush of obligation, like a warm wind rushing past my face. I had to write about this - to tell people what they are missing, and all the excess money they are spending, and extra waste and clutter they are accumulating.

I'm no activist, and I don't see myself as a leader. But maybe I can help make a bad economy a little less bad for some people and some communities. Will anybody see this blog??? Credit for my new web skills goes to my son Jeff who is teaching me to use Blogger, Facebook, forums, etc.