This is the story of how the Co-operative.club concept came about and this part takes us up to what happened when I had my first opportunity to test things out in a space in real life ten years ago. It covers my initial encounters with the Drupal project, and throughout the series you will see how it is integral to the success of this collaborative spaces project, gain an understanding of why it is very different to other software it is often compared to, how it changed my life, why I believe it will become the dominant system for building web-based systems within the next three years, and how it - and this Co-operative.club project - could help you to realise your dreams whatever they may be - no technical know-how necessary. You're free to call me crazy if you believe I am once the story's done, for now just enjoy the ride and keep your mind open ;)
As I start to brain-dump everything onto the GitLab group of projects for the construction of Co-operative.club I believe it is necessary to tell this story - there's quite a few angles to the project meaning the sum is greater than the parts which, individually, are potentially in orders of magnitude easier to build and/or exist already. This will help understanding of the concept, what has been tried out already, and what is going to be involved in the successful construction of it. It's not going to be a quick one, so grab a drink and hold on tight...
In the beginning, there was the BBC 'B'
I grew up in a little village in Essex in the East of England where there wasn't much to do apart from play in the fields. When I was 9 the BBC Model 'B' came out and I was lucky enough that my parents bought me one. The BBC ran a computer literacy project where there were programmes on telly about it and I along with many others learned how to code. I did my first "Hello World!" by coding 10 PRINT "HELLO!"; 20 GOTO 10 then I typed RUN and it displayed the word HELLO! all over the screen. Then I put a space after the exclamation mark, i.e. 10 PRINT "HELLO! ", ran the program again and it displayed HELLO! all over the screen, but this time it staggered the HELLO!s diagonally instead of neat columns and as it scrolled it was almost hypnotising - I was amazed that just changing something that small could make it do something so different, and I made it do that.
Skip on 35 years and I'm now making a living of essentially doing the same thing as I was then - seeing how something works and changing it to do what I want. I don't have to ask anyone's permission to do it, I have all the tools I need to do it, and from this I can live anywhere I like. I'm in control of what I do each day - if I mess up I've only myself to blame and I use the experience as a lesson to be learned. I've learned many lessons over the last ten years pursuing this vision.
The 'DotBomb' and the Return to Essex
When the DotCom bubble burst in 2001 I was working in London for a company who had built the first ever integrated, scalable modular framework of apps for rapidly constructing interactive web systems with modules covering content management, commerce, and collaboration functionality (blogs, forums, messaging, etc.), along with a web-based administration interface called TeamView for managing it, for example creating your own custom content types like articles, reviews, and so on. RemoteApps, as they named it, was essentially what Drupal is in terms of functionality - but a proprietary product.
I was the sixth person in the company - we grew quickly to sixty and had many big name clients along with some really innovative startups such as the first ever online horse-race betting site which calculated results and organised payouts, so I got to learn about Rule 4, which I've now completely forgotten. I worked on some amazing projects including B&Q's diy.com and was very proud when I developed an account they thought wasn't worth putting the effort into and turned it into their first six-figure project - to build Volkswagen's New Beetle microsite.
I also helped the company communicate more cohesively internally by setting up an intranet, built using our own software as more people were building apps they weren't themselves actually using and I made people have to go there to get their expenses paid which ensured they actually used it. At the time we were growing fast and as Big Brother was on television I did a mock-up of their website but with profiles of team members so others could get to know them a bit better and it was a lot nicer than just a plain profile page on a corporate intranet.
Scaling a proprietary software company was expensive and hard work - were growing our integration partner network, training partners up on our modules and APIs, I was organising and running co-marketing events at trade shows; but the world changed on a dime and our funders suddenly pulled all their money out of their tech stocks resulting in finding myself redundant along with thousands of others in the industry at the time. No more free parties, which seemed to happen every week somewhere near to where I was living in Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell on the borders of Shoreditch, East London.
I was pretty gutted as I had share options which, on valuation at the time, were worth a touch over a million dollars, only to be worth nothing the next moment. I was surprised too as we'd just sealed a deal with Macromedia to incorporate our technology in their popular Dreamweaver (now owned by Adobe) website creation software where people could just drag and drop functionality into their websites - blogs, forums, etc. I wasn't involved in the business side of things at that level so it came as a shock to me at the time as I was only the previous week getting advised by my line manager about mortgages as there was a studio apartment in the Barbican Centre (where I used to skip school to go to classical concerts!) going for £80k - I think they're about £240k now. He knew at the time I was going to be made redundant but didn't say a word, and that's when I promised I'd never put myself in a similar situation again. On my way out for the last time I asked one of the co-founders what he'd do differently if he ever did it again, he replied "I'd Open Source it". Little did I know that around the same time Dries had released his drop.org community site as Open Source code.
I then did a bit of freelancing work building websites for people in London but I didn't have enough to sustain my London lifestyle so returned back to Essex. I went to networking meetings and discovered BeyondBricks which was an online forum funded by the DTI for small businesses. I ended up helping people on there with advice on Free Software they could use to do things they wanted to do and won a few website projects through my visibility there.
Business Networking and the Birth of the Concept
Funding from the DTI for BeyondBricks stopped and Ecademy bought it which was another online business network, built on the Free Software Framework Drupal, who's tagline at the time was "community plumbing". My first CMS, as with many others, was hand-rolled but I soon moved on to the plethora of PHP-based Open Source CMSs. I'd tried out Drupal during my research but didn't really understand how to use it and completely missed its abilities as all I was presented with was a blank screen reminding me a little of WordPerfect back in the days of my first job working in a local computer store - it presented you with a big blank blue screen and a cursor, you had to figure out the rest.
After flirting with PHPNuke but finding it restrictively run by one person who decided to hold back new stuff for paying members only, I tried the various other *Nukes however settled on XOOPS as it was more object-oriented which is what I was used to back in my DotCom days when I was using J2EE Enterprise Java.
I enjoyed networking online and soon found myself being called "The Open Source Guy" - I loved meeting new people and helping them find out more about all the free stuff there was out there they could use to build and grow their businesses, learning from others, and the shared entrepreneurial experience. I set up and ran local Ecademy meetings in Essex as well as traveling up to the big meetings in London and others around the local area. I managed to gain a few clients which kept me going, but it always felt weird to say to people that I found my business in the backroom of pubs - this is when I first wondered why there weren't dedicated spaces for business networking meetings.
Many of the people I met worked from home, and the ones with offices still needed to get out to meet people. I was also aware that this Free Software that I was talking about didn't have a home either - you didn't find it in boxes in your local PC World store, and to help people find out what software would be useful for them it was always a conversation as opposed to selling them a product. I thought a space where these conversations could happen would be good, and it fit into the business networking space too. To me, the concept was obvious.
BlackStar and the Business Trip
In the Winter of 2004 Ecademy, in their ongoing quest to find a business model that worked and was sustainable, created a special 'BlackStar' group which cost a significant amount per month to join, but had special focused events which I liked the idea of so I joined. One event was a weekend of Wealth Dynamics training from entrepreneur Roger Hamilton held at Chatham House in London. The event was amazing and I was hooked on the Wealth Dynamics Profiling where I came out as a 'Star' profile - good at starting things, not so good at finishing. To be 'in flow' my natural ability is to promote other people's creations, and it is true that is what I do.
Through the BlackStar group I'd met Nick Heap who did this thing called 'Core Process' where through an exercise of writing down three times in your life you're especially proud of along with words you associate with them, then whittling them down to two you get the essence of you, mine is 'fostering connections', which does explain what I do in terms of both technology and people - I know what code can help you do something and I know what people can do what to help and I foster those connections, and quite frankly once I've done that I'm on to the next thing (that goes back to my Star profile, good at starting things). So since then it's been a quest to build a model around that which enables me to live 'in flow' instead of what I usually do which is try to do everything myself, that's where I fail.
At the time I had a mentor through the BlackStar group, the guy who had thought up the 0845 'free internet' connection which was the thing in those days - a shared revenue idea he had sold to a telecoms company. I was excited about my concept and wondered why people weren't throwing money at me - he suggested I needed to chill out a bit and have a break. He was doing a talk in Toronto that weekend so I thought where better to chill out than above the clouds and promptly booked flights and ended up flying the next day to Canada. I didn't know much about the country but had always wanted to visit that side of the pond and figured that's where the business was - everyone in the UK always seemed to want to put you down if you had big ideas.
PossiBox 1 - Toronto
I enjoyed my time in Toronto so much, I loved the people and the attitude and was so blinded by the big city and bright lights, and the reaction I had from people with my British accent that they actually seemed to listen to me, I thought upon my return I'd pack up and go live there for a bit and see if anyone there would throw me a bunch of money to get a place up and running. I did exactly that, and found myself wandering around a freezing cold downtown Toronto early Jan 2005 without a hat or scarf wondering where everyone was, not realising there was a network of tunnels with shopping centres underground!
I'd rented a flat in Queen Street West and went to every networking meeting I could, still thinking how cool it would to be to have a space for these people, and whenever I told someone about the concept they loved it but still no-one threw me a pot of cash. I even found a 'perfect' building but still no pots of money thrown. It was a HUGE building and had space for coworking on the top floor, meeting and conference rooms on the middle, public 'lounge' and retail space, and basement which would be perfect for audio/visual soundproofed spaces for people to record podcasts, vidcasts, etc. Here it is now courtesy of Google, looking a little better than when I wandered around it in its full emptiness glory!
From 'Open Source' to 'Free Software'
At that time I was firmly in the belief that I was part of the Open Source crowd. I thought the space would be a great outlet for marketing Open Source-powered hardware, from watches to personal audio, gadgets of all types which I thought would be appearing on the seen rapidly - which there are more of now, guess I was a bit early to the scene.
The LinuxExpo was being held there where a friend (who I'd met on my first trip out there and said about my project, which at the time I was referring to as "the box" and had the domain "thebox.at", "it's like a Brain Gym") and I went out for a meal with one of luminaries of Free Software who was doing a talk and wanted to hook up the night before as he was at a loose end. He had spent his entire career reverse-engineering proprietary hardware drivers just so people could share files and printers between competing Operating Systems - Linux, Macs, Windows, etc. and most people didn't - and don't - know his software even exists to this day (Samba). He discussed the world of software and introduced me to a side I hadn't seen before, the business side of proprietary vs open source/free software. He started talking about Kings and Queens and power throughout centuries and who said what was right and what was wrong, and took me down a rabbit hole I'm still exploring to this day.
I hadn't realised the importance of Free Software in humans continuing quest for Freedom. My first jobs had been in computer shops and I hadn't realise the impact OSs like Windows had done to software by only providing compiled binaries and not the source code - the thing that I had the freedom to play with on my BBC 'B' as a kid and had provided me with an income for the few years since redundancy. I decided as the Free Software Foundation's AGM was on in Boston I had to go and that friend who'd come out for the meal with us offered to drive me so experienced my first state-side road trip to the mecca of MIT, which was an amazing place. Whilst I was there I explained my concept to Lawrence Lessig who created the Creative Commons licensing and he kind of understood it and said it was an extremely interesting idea, unless he was just being polite, but it seemed genuine, although he is a lawyer lol.
TestBox 1 - Uptown Toronto
Another friend whom I'd met at that first networking meeting I'd flown out for said his brother's old shoe shop was empty for a while and I could use it to test out my concept. I of course jumped at the chance and found myself in some upmarket part of Toronto which was miles out of the centre, but who cared? I had a space, and I was gonna give it a go. Personally I thought it would need to start in a city centre as it's a new concept people would need to get an understanding of before it spread out to the 'burbs (I still believe this to be the case).
We went to see the space, which was just a shop so no space for meeting rooms etc. but thought better than no space so set up a few computers I'd managed a local supplier of Linux PCs to lend us and awaited a few friends of friends to arrive with some art to display. Suddenly a hoard of artists turned up and there were about 100 pieces of art piled up in the basement! We sifted through and picked out some good pieces to display and hung them up. I filled a bookcase which had been left there with some tech and business books and magazines. We went shopping and bought a trolley load of booze, invited some friends and had a launch party. No business types came because I didn't have a big network of contacts, and we were miles out of the centre of the city. We did have a good party though.
So there was me, with a couple of friends, in a pretty much empty shop with some random PCs that no-one knew how to use, with no Internet connection as the phone line had already been disconnected, no website just a flyer on the front door which explained the experiment to bewildered passers by, and some random art on the wall, in the middle of Toronto's upmarket suburbs.
Needless to say this experiment didn't work very well, but it did educate. I've attached my original 'Blueprint' below, the picture on the front cover was taken looking down on the shop window display.