Starting the Co-op

Many of you know that I’m involved in this thing called the West Michigan Co-op.  It’s an online-based farmer’s market (or buyer’s club, depending on who you talk to) that serves the greater Grand Rapids (Michigan) area.

I don’t think that the real story of how this adventure began has ever really been documented, so I’m going to attempt to do so here, at least from my point of view.  I’m don’t intend to put this on the Co-op Wiki, simply because I will undoubtedly present a biased view, based on my perspective and knowledge, but I will try to stay away from bias when it seems obvious.  As our mothers used to say, if you can’t say something nice… etc.

This also happens to chronicle my life, to some extent, for the past few years.  My involvement in the Co-op has led to about half the jobs I currently do, which have definitely helped me grow as an individual.  I sometimes get asked if I go to a church; though I am a person of faith, I don’t attend a church at present.  I perceive my involvement in the Co-op as an equivalent; I have been tried and tested,  I have made sacrifices, and I have given my time (and money) for a cause I deeply believe in – and it has rewarded me in kind, though almost never directly.  If that’s not bordering on church or religion, I don’t think you know what church or religion really are.  (And if you don’t feel personally and spiritually rewarded by your involvement with your church, you’re doing it wrong.)

So although I am tempted to begin this story in a Zeeland hospital, June of 1981, I’ll skip ahead to the true beginning of the Co-op’s (and my) story.  The idea of an online co-operative in West Michigan had been floating around for some time before and in 2006, as I understand it, between Gerard Adams, Tom Cary, and Gail Philbin, each of whom has their own role in this story.  The idea formed shortly after the Co-op storefront in East Grand Rapids closed up.  I don’t believe any of those three had any real connection with that Co-op aside from being members, but they did feel it was a loss for the city as a whole.

I became involved through Gail; or, I should say, through Gail’s husband, John.  John was my Film professor (and mentor) at GVSU at the time.  I had very recently graduated, but I spoke with and saw John regularly.  Gail, Tom, and Jerry had tracked down some software from the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, who were willing to share their software as open source.  However, none of them were technically savvy as programmers or web developers.  John knew I was a programmer at one time, and called me one night to ask if I could help.  I agreed, and Gail offered to pay me $100 out of her pocket to set up a server and get the software installed.

Shortly thereafter – June of 2006 – Gail, Tom, Jerry, and I all met at WMEAC to discuss setting up the software, and getting everything moving.  We met several times over the next few months, figuring out how the ordering, pick-up, and drop-off would work.  Although there was some discussion at that time of creating a real structure – that is, an incorporated, not-profit business structure – we often shunted those questions to a later meeting.  Our focus for the first few months set the tone for the next three years of co-op operation: Make It Work.

Most of our discussions at these meetings centered around the farmers we wanted to bring in.  Would it be too much work for them?  Could we convince them that we had a marketplace they could realistically use to make money?  Was this more complicated than a Farmer’s Market, and how much more?  Would they do it?  Strangely, I don’t think we ever really approached anybody to pick their brains.  In retrospect, I think we were worried that they would reject the concept before it even was implemented, unless we simply put it together and let them try it.

I also remember startlingly long conversations about the names and groupings of categories.  What were important categories to give our producers?  How did their products fit into them?  The biggest one I can remember is “Eggs & Dairy.”  Why are they together?  Well, they’re always together at the supermarket.  But why on an online co-op?  Because you’re shopping for food, let’s make the metaphor work.  It’s still set up that way: and the only two subcategories of “Eggs & Dairy?”  Eggs, and Cheese.  We should have just called the category “Omelet Ingredients” – we could have had more subcategories that way.

It became quickly obvious that Gail was going to be the communicator of this bunch.  From our first talking in June of ’06 until today, I have almost 1000 conversations (with multiple emails each) in my Gmail archive from her alone.  In fact, early in the process, I set up a filter for her incoming emails so that I could group all the Co-op related info together in one place.  (I still use this trick on clients that like to client-spam my inbox.  That way, other projects don’t interfere with what I’m working on at the moment, and when I am working on their project, all the info is in one box.)  We nicknamed Gail “The Cat Herder.”

Jerry had assigned his intern at Media Rare to come up with a design, which was given to me fairly early into the work.  I got down to business between June and November of 2006 taking the OK Food Co-op software and grafting our look onto it.  I spent a decent amount of time trying to fine-tune the site’s product entry process for our farmers – they were going to be using the site to input their products directly.  Tom used his connections with the Local Food Guide to recruit farmers. In order to help them out, Gail collected information from all the farmers and our select few test members, and Jerry and I got their accounts set up in the system for them.  By the end of November, we had the farmers entering their products, and prepping for our first attempt at making this work.  The software was a mess, but it worked for the time being, and it had a bizarre kind of organization that I had gotten to know by this time.  The farmers were pleasantly receptive; there’s nothing like a horrible economy to make folks open to new markets, no matter how difficult or experimental it is to get there.

We used the OK Food Co-op software the first and only time in December of 2006 – our first order cycle.  The first morning of ordering, I fixed no less that thirty bugs – their software was simply not meant to be portable, and we only had time for limited testing.  If worst came to worst, we’d cancel all the orders and start over.

However, after that morning, things were very smooth, and such drastic measures were never needed.  If I recall, we did about $600 worth of business that first month.  It seemed like a lot at the time, having never done this before; we now do over $12,000 a month.  The exchanging of goods took place in the back room at Alger Heights Foods, a small neighborhood grocery store.  The store was trying to move in the direction of local and organic food; I don’t know that the owner ever took that idea seriously, but his wife did, and she had enough pull with her husband to let us use their stockroom for two nights a month.

This first goods exchange was a one-day process.  The farmers all dropped off in the morning, Dec. 9, and the customers all picked up that evening.  It was, for lack of a better word, chaos.  Invoices were printed strangely – everybody’s came out differently.  Some had the correct prices, others didn’t.  Already, we had one or two folks who had forgotten to pick up.  I know Tom stayed a good three hours after the last customer had gone to try to reconcile the books – and at this time, we hadn’t even collected membership fees, or surcharge, so any money that we were short was going to come out of our pockets.

All in all, though, it went alright.  I met quite a few new people, in a totally different social setting than I had ever been in before.  We weren’t short, and the farmers and customers seemed pretty happy.  Later that month, the Philbins held a Christmas party, at which Gail gave me an extra $100, again, out of her own pocket, as a present for helping with everything.  It was not expected – but it is still appreciated.  For the record, this $200 I received from Gail, $100 from the start and $100 from Christmas in 2006, was the only money I received for doing work on the Co-op until March of 2009, and I believe I used $35 of it to purchase the domain name,

After that first ordering cycle, I figured a few hours worth of fine tuning on the site, and it would be ready to go, full time, and that I wouldn’t need to touch it again.  Right.

The story will continue in Rewriting the Co-op.”

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