If the 18th century can be defined as the age of industrialization and competitive advantage of the nation state, the 19th century by the power of the corporation, and the 20th by corporate financialization, then, I believe, the 21st century will be defined by ownership. There is a movement afoot. We see the footprints and we hear the rallying cry.
Our firm is dedicated to democratizing access to the promise of ownership of businesses at all levels and in all of its complex dimensions. What are we really talking about?
I joined the movement in earnest when I left BigLaw in New York City and moved to Boulder, Colorado, to become the General Counsel and a Co-Owner of Namaste Solar. When I showed up in 2009, the company had been in business for more than four years and had grown to more than 40 owners from its three initial co-founders. Namaste Solar felt like the best illustration of an intentional community. Everyone literally and metaphorically showed up with passion, commitment, shared purpose and mutual respect. Co-Owners invested their hard-earned savings, sometimes asking friends and family for a loan to buy-in. Namaste Solar offered ownership and professional development opportunities to people with specialized professional training like me, as well as to people looking for a toe-hold in the “new energy economy.” I sat in monthly big picture meetings where the CEO had the same say as someone who spent their days climbing and descending ladders affixed to homeowners’ roofs.
Everyone showed up. I don’t just mean they plopped down and listened half-heartedly to esoteric reports. I mean people SHOWED UP. Owners engaged and prodded the CFO for more detail into monthly profit and loss statements. Installers debated (respectfully, of course) the finer points of the business strategy and volatile policy landscape with senior leadership.
This is what economic democracy should look like. We all owned the company; its reputation, integrity, confidence in its service, its people, and its success. Co-ownership didn’t just give me the personal experience with which to launch Jason Wiener|p.c., it gave ordinary people a chance to be involved in and OWN something bigger than themselves. It gave a chance to find purpose in work. I believe this is what we all strive for as human beings.
Why do I, and a growing movement of people around the world, work hard to support employee ownership? I believe in a different and better world, where economic opportunity is more equitable and available. This belief is my motivation. What follows is my vision for the world I am working to create, and how I put that vision into practice at Jason Wiener | p.c.
We design and architect thoughtful ownership structures for organizations that have a purpose to improve social or environmental well-being, opportunity, sustainability, and equity. We believe that ownership design optimizes the organization to address the root cause – rather than mere symptoms – of social and environmental ills, by aligning incentives, promulgating shared values, increasing transparency, inviting access to those innovators closest to the need or the problem, and therefore also solutions.
Ownership…it’s a pretty fundamental notion, however, it’s underlying attributes are often under-scrutinized and under-appreciated.
Ownership matters. There’s a movement afoot. From craft beer to taxicab transportation. From solar energy to farmland. From housing to technology. From data to golf balls. Entrepreneurs, investors and ordinary people are rediscovering an age-old business model that is conducive to people-centricity. We are learning that by bringing business and enterprise to a more human scale we can reduce dependency on governmental largesse, improve community and civic engagement, enhance durability and sustainability, and manifest economic democracy and sovereignty.
Ownership benefits those who possess it. That’s a fairly obvious statement. Ownership confers exclusive rights. For too long, ownership has been the domain of those in positions of power, those of great wealth, those with privilege, and, occasionally, and sometimes incidentally, those with unique talent. I’m not intentionally trying to be political. The current economy is not working for most people. The concentration of wealth is at the highest point it’s been since the robber barons helped to precipitate the Great Depression. Income inequality, and the consequent concentration of wealth are also accelerating. At the same time, we are living through the greatest wealth transfer in human history. Until recently, only approximately 2% of Americans were legally permitted to invest directly in private companies.
We believe in and work hard every day to construct a more positive, equitable, resilient and inclusive economy. One in which the chief contributors of value are conferred the rights to ownership. One in which ordinary people can invest in and support local business. One in which those who patronize and care about a local business can be engaged in the critical issues and decisions that it faces.
We work with all types of legal entity types to advance this mission. We have a particular passion for cooperatives, limited cooperative associations and public benefit corporations. We do the deep thinking to thoughtfully design ownership models where those who own the business differentiate it as much as the quality of its product or service.
We work with all types of business models to expand access to mission-aligned capital, allowing anyone who cares about the business to have an opportunity to support it financially. We also work with non-profit organizations to invest their endowment in ways that support their charitable mission, as well as non-profit organizations seeking to expand economic inclusivity.
We believe ownership will become as much a business’ product as the good or service it sells.
Ownership is a bundle or rights. Ownership confers the right to control, exclude, transfer, to give access. To restrict, condition or rescind access. To bequeath. To monetize, securitize, collateralize, and to liquidate. Ownership can be exercised offensively or defensively. Ownership can catalyze or support social or environmental equity, or it can erode it.
Our mission is to democratize ownership. We believe workers, producers, farmers, entrepreneurs, creators, freelancers, crafts people, professionals ought to be in control of the means of production. We believe employee/worker owned firms are more resilient, profitable, sustainable, and durable. We believe community owned land leads to better stewardship, environmentally sustainable practices, more realistic and sustainable pricing, and healthier communities. We believe democratized capital leads to more sustainable business models, less volatility and risk, more engagement, better transparency and healthier social and financial returns.
Too often, ownership discussions happen episodically and intensively; among co-founders, with prospective investors, and when considering a liquidity event, such as a merger or acquisition. While better late than never, ownership is constant responsibility and privilege. It involves so many dimensions, all happening in a highly dynamic and unpredictable reality. We believe ownership ought to be elevated to the same attention as a company’s brand, its product design, and its business strategy.
Ownership ought to be intentional, considering at the outset the many possible trajectories the company can take. If little about a company’s logo, name, or product is left to chance, why then would ownership? That’s often what entrepreneurs do when going after venture capital or thinking about their exit.
We believe a well-architected ownership blueprint not only avoids the many problems inherent in the dominant forms of venture finance, it also clearly aligns the interests of every material stakeholder to the firm’s success. Workers’ contributions are valued with both a voice and an economic stake in the firm’s success. Early product adopters are remunerated and recognized for the risk involved in purchasing a nascent technology. Founders are sufficiently incented but have the opportunity to build high-talent, mission-aligned teams.
Involving the key stakeholders in the ownership design of the company yields better companies, better products and better outcomes. Even better to bake stakeholder ownership into the firm’s DNA at inception. Lest it sounds like conventional ownership is ill-considered, shared stakeholder ownership is as much a destination as it a starting point. Plenty of businesses are looking to convert to employee and stakeholder ownership models.
The conventional wisdom is to keep a start-up’s capitalization table simple, uncluttered and short. In other words, vacant for investor-ownership. Many firms utilize what are known as “incentive stock option” plans to incentive employee recruitment, retention and performance. An option generally involves a contractual right to exercise the option to purchase the firm’s stock or equity at a pre-defined price. These stock option plans have certain tax benefits under the Internal Revenue Code. What makes a stock option so appealing for the firm is that it does not need to account for the option as issued equity on its capitalization table until the option is exercised. Also, most conventionally structured cap tables cap the option pool at 10-15% of total common stock. Employees like options because they offer the promise of a windfall if the positive difference between the fair market value of the stock and the “strike price” is large. Many stock option plans, however, restrict the right to exercise an option to certain liquidity events or the company undergoing an initial public offering. Unfortunately, IPO (or initial public offering) activity is drying up at the moment. So, the practical likelihood that an employee can exercise a stock option for a windfall is dwindling.
We believe in a more authentic and transparent approach. When suitable, and in consideration of the many factors involved, actual and direct ownership can be a powerful and straight forward approach. Many options confer actual and direct ownership to a firm’s employees, producers, consumers or other stakeholders. We are not daunted by the complexity. We have the experience to nestle meaningful ownership structures into many business models and entity types.
We believe there is no better time than now for a firm to consider stakeholder ownership.
Join us on this journey. Check back regularly for updates.
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