You Had Me At Hylowith Tibet Sprague
Tibet Sprague is a “communitarian technologist” with a vision for building companies and communities outside of investor-driven, for-profit systems. His current project is Hylo, an online platform for collaboration that’s governed by its users.
- “Truss the Process” and “Success is Surviving,” our episodes on pay equity - 00:18
- “Coops: The Next Generation” and “Exit to Community,” our episodes about cooperatives - 00:21
- Hylo - 00:29
- Tibet Sprague on Twitter - 1:08
- Terran Collective - 1:30
- NRG acquired One Block Off the Grid (renamed Pure Energies Group) in 2014 - 4:10
- Holo - 7:48
- Announcement about Holo giving Hylo to Terran Collective - 9:08
- Sociocracy For All - 17:30
- “Mass vaccination site in Gary draws Chicago-area residents” (Chicago Tribune) - 24:32
- “Gary, Indiana” from The Music Man - 24:42
Tibet’s List of Resources
- Reinventing Organizations
- Free, Fair, and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons
- Emergent Strategy
More books, articles, and resources can be found on Terran Collective’s website.
The Full Transcript:
[00:00:00] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Wailin: [00:00:01] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Wailin Wong.
Shaun: [00:00:08] And I’m Shaun Hildner. You know, if there’s kind of a through line in some of our recent episodes, I’d say we’ve been featuring businesses that are really questioning our current economic system. We’ve looked at companies making hard decisions on pay equity. And we talked about cooperatives, which take a different approach to ownership and decision making.
Wailin: [00:00:24] Today we’re featuring one cooperative in particular, a software platform called Hylo. Hylo is kind of like a social network or a platform for helping groups work together. But its approach to community and collaboration is radically different than say Facebook or even Basecamp.
[00:00:42] Hylo is a nonprofit and a cooperative, which means its users get a say in governing the platform. Its focus on decentralizing power and building long term solidarity has led to design decisions and features that look pretty different, too.
Tibet: [00:01:07] My name is Tibet Sprague and I call myself a communitarian technologist. I’ve been a software developer and entrepreneur, basically my whole life. And I’ve always had a passion about bringing people together and living in community. I’ve been on the journey of software entrepreneurship until most recently, four years ago, started my own organization called the Terran Collective to kind of figure out these exact questions. How can I do my work in a way that it can be protected from the dangers of capitalism? I’d seen many my previous startups get acquired and shut down or in some way be corrupted or coopted by capitalism, for lack of a better word.
[00:01:52] Most recently, and I think what we’ll probably talk most about today, the Terran Collective has taken over stewardship of the software platform Hylo just in the last year.
Wailin: [00:02:00] You are going to hear a lot more about Hylo later on, including the unusual way that Tibet came to run it. But first, I wanted to hear more about Tibet’s roots as a communitarian technologist.
Tibet: [00:02:11] I grew up in western Massachusetts. We briefly lived in a few different communal houses, and then lived on a dirt road where there was one of the first eco villages and a bunch of big community houses that my friends grew up in, and I could kind of walk up the road, and it’s kind of a little village in the woods. So I always had this experience of having many adults in my life that I could turn to and just a lot of community around, and really saw the benefits of that. So I’ve tried to like create similar community in my own life.
Wailin: [00:02:39] Tibet got into computers pretty young.
Tibet: [00:02:42] In elementary school, we were working with a program called Logo Writer where you could make little turtles run around the screen and draw things. And so I just got excited really early on, and my parents were super supportive. And then when I left school, after eighth grade, I actually didn’t go to high school, I did unschooling. It’s very self-directed. My dad set me up with an apprenticeship with a professional programmer. I really learned a lot and was on the job and making money by age 15. Didn’t end up going to college and went to Brown University and studying computer science and sort of went down a more traditional route, which was almost a reaction against, you know, my parents never had much money. And so I ended up pursuing a path where I felt like I could have more security. And so a little bit more traditional. And mostly that was because I got excited about computers and computer science, programming, and just decided to follow that.
[00:03:34] So I started a company, my first company, right after college, actually, this was back in 2004. My final semester at Brown, we had a class that was kind of simulating a real world small software company. And we built some pretty cool software that tracked the shuttles on campus using GPS enabled cell phones way before smartphones. We took the software that was tracking and dispatching the shuttle service and ended up selling it to some other universities.
[00:04:02] My last company before Terran was a solar company. Ended up helping build and run the software team for a company called One Block Off the Grid. We were one of the first companies to sell solar systems entirely over the internet and the phone and built remote solar system design software using satellite imagery.
[00:04:20] Yeah, we were really successful in that moment. And then that company got acquired twice. It went kind of on the journey of, quote, unquote, “success”. Ended up a part of NRG, this massive energy company who was excited about what we were doing, but then the CEO that acquired us got fired by the board, and they kind of, in way, dropped what we were doing and everything that we had built just kind of disintegrated.
[00:04:47] And so that was one part of the path that led me to really feeling like the most important thing I could be working on was… originally, I thought it was climate change. That was like the most important thing to focus on right now. And obviously, I think it still is. But I saw that I don’t think we can really deal with climate change until we change our economic systems because the incentives are too broken.
[00:05:07] And so started to shift my thinking about what was needed. And then even a layer deeper, decided that to change our economic systems, we really need to change our culture, from this kind of individualism, competition-based structure to more communitarian ways of being more cooperative. More mutual support, mutual aid, solidarity based economics, and that was going to require some deep cultural shifts. And so I really was trying to think about okay, so how could I use my technology skills to build tools and systems that enable more collaboration, more cooperation, more solidarity.
Wailin: [00:05:45] This exploration led Tibet to starting an organization called the Terran Collective in 2016. It’s a software development and consulting agency with a much more expansive vision around issues like communal living and regeneration in the Bay Area.
Tibet: [00:06:00] When I started it with some really close friends, it was both a container to protect the work that we did together, and also a vehicle to explore how can we build these systems and tools for solidarity and collaboration and cooperation that we see is really needed in the world right now. Terran Collective has five, we call ourselves core stewards, that are kind of like the heart and soul of the organization. We are, among the five of us, working on various different projects. But the mission of Terran is broader than the technology piece, working on these systems and tools that can amplify collaboration and cooperation, especially among people who do good work in the world. And we also have a very local Bay Area focus. We have this bio regional focus of where can we have the most impact? It’s with the people that we’re around, with the communities we’re in, and on the land that we’re on.
[00:06:51] And then the technology piece, we see, is really key to that. It’s like better tools for coordination and collaboration.
Wailin: [00:06:58] It was this approach to building software and community that set up Tibet and the Terran Collective for what would become one of their main projects, Hylo, which is an online platform for groups to work together.
Tibet: [00:07:08] So Hylo has a long history as well. It’s actually been in development for eight years or so at this point. It was founded by friends of ours, Edward West, and Julia Pope, and a whole wonderful crew of folks that poured their heart and soul into it for a bunch of years and raised, I think, $3 million, and had a traditional VC backed for profit model initially. They got it to a certain point of success, but never really fully launched to the world, and weren’t able to raise the next round of funding that they needed at the moment that it was needed. This kind of really special magic partnership happened where they sold it to this organization called Holo. The naming similarity is just a total hilarious coincidence. This organization, Holo, took the code and was using it internally. And also it was a little bit of an acqui-hire as well, the team from Hylo moved over to Holo. But they weren’t planning to maintain the current platform.
Wailin: [00:08:06] Tibet learned about the state of affairs with Hylo when he bumped into his friend, Hylo’s co-founder.
Tibet: [00:08:12] I was at an event sitting at a dinner table. And Ed West, the founder of Hylo happened to sit next to me. I mean, we were friends, and saw it as an opportunity to catch up. And he was just telling me the story of Hylo and this acquisition that was about to happen. He was like, I don’t want the current platform to die. He had put so much into it and there’s a lot there. Now this this acquisition is happening, is there a way that we can keep Hylo moving forward based on what’s already there?
The vision of Hylo from the beginning was very similar to the visions that we have been cultivating at Terran Collective. How do we build better tools for collaboration, for cooperation within communities? Across different organizations and groups of all kinds?
[00:08:58] So just during that conversation, just the sparks kind of went off of like, wow, there’s an amazing opportunity here. And it just happened really quickly after that. We reached an agreement with them where they basically just gifted it to us.
Wailin: [00:09:09] How did the idea of you being gifted the platform work? Because that, to me, is really interesting. It’s like they already did this transaction that probably involved lawyers and paperwork and contracts for the initial acquisition. And then there’s this immediate, it seems, transaction after. Can you just walk me through how you landed on the structure of how you would kind of take it over?
Tibet: [00:09:35] I would say one of the foundations of Terran and our beliefs about how we start to shift away from capitalism is just to really leaning into trust, and a lot less on lawyers and transactions. The folks of Holo are very values aligned. They’re wonderful people. They’re also working towards a post-capitalist system and we had a conversation with the three of us, the founders of Hylo, Holo, and Terran. Talked about our visions for what we would do with Hylo, and the ways that we could partner and collaborate on those visions. And at that point, we really just signed a very simple MOU. And so we have rights to the code, the IP, the existing database. And so we basically are running with the current platform. And it’s been, you could say, liberated from investors and from the for-profit world.
[00:10:31] It’s a very trust based agreement, there’s not a lot of lawyers involved. They actually ended up giving us the trademarks, eventually, that was like the legal piece of it. I mean, it was partly open source before, it’s now fully open source. And we are running with it as a nonprofit, cooperative organization and still figuring out what that means, but have the intention and goal and beginning structures of trying to create a platform cooperative. That’s the way that we’ve worked on Hylo since then. A lot of our partnerships and fundraising has been entirely through through trust,
Wailin: [00:11:07] Holo and the Terran Collective signed their simple MOU or a Memorandum of Understanding in February, 2020. Tibet is now the lead developer at Hylo.
Tibet: [00:11:18] You can see it as a Facebook group replacement or a little bit more like Mighty Networks than Slack or Basecamp. There’s sort of different angles for group collaboration. I would say ours is closest in familiarity to a Facebook group. But it has some really unique features. The play space aspect and mapping functionality is unique. The other piece that’s really core to Hylo that we’re working on is kind of the cross-group collaboration and relationship building. And so Hylo currently has the ability to create networks of communities and then also the ability to create a single post and share it across many different communities at the same time. And create a single node of communication and collaboration instead of kind of copying and pasting to a bunch of different Facebook groups or Slacks or workplaces and having these separate conversations.
[00:12:06] We see a need for a kind of portal that encompasses a bunch of different functionality that we see kind of modern, decentralized, community coordination, needing. So some of the tools we’re excited to build in are basic governance tools, the ability for communities to make decisions in a kind of decentralized way, as well as financial solidarity tools for communities to pool money and co budget together, raise funds for projects.
[00:12:35] When I talk about communitarian technologists, it’s really thinking about, okay, in a world where we really need to be developing local resilience for so many reasons, as climate is changing, and we’re dealing with pandemics, what is the full suite of tools that a neighborhood, a town, but also an affinity group needs to coordinate their activity well, and really build community in a functional thriving way in the long term?
Wailin: [00:12:59] Can you talk a little bit more about how the ideology that underpins what you’re doing, and even your shared ownership structure and the way you’re thinking about ownership and collaboration, how those things affect design and technical decisions?
Tibet: [00:13:15] I would say we’re still figuring out the ultimate best legal structure for Hylo. We have some really core principles that we’re working with. One is just long-term thinking. We call it seven generation thinking. So many of our current platforms are advertising driven, driven by short term thinking. That’s kind of a core aspect of capitalism, is short term thinking. So we’re patient in trying to figure out what is the legal structure? What is the ownership structure? What is the actual, ultimate way that Hylo expresses itself in the world? Another is relationship-centered design. Really working with all the stakeholders, all the people, all the users. We have a really interesting way that we’ve been funding our work through partnerships with aligned organizations that are using Hylo and want to see aspects of it built and are funding pieces of the development and work. And we’re just in really deep relationship with these organizations.
[00:14:09] Inclusivity, really trying to build this for everybody. And one really interesting example of this is in building out the mapping tools. We’ve had some conversations with indigenous solidarity groups here in the Bay Area, about how we do mapping in a way that’s not reifying colonial ways of being, protecting sacred sites, for example. Just really trying to think about how we map things and connect to our place in a respectful way.
[00:14:41] We also deeply believe in transparency. Obviously, we’re open source. The code is transparent, but we’re also in a lot of conversation with everyone involved in the Hylo ecosystem about how we’re funding ourselves, decisions we’re making. There’s a community on Hylo called Building Hylo where we are sharing designs and having conversations with the community about the process of building Hylo. So that’s really key to us. And I think that also connects to thinking about our governance and ownership models.
[00:15:11] Another principle is data sovereignty. So really respecting each person who’s using Hylo, respecting their data. We’re never going to sell ads, we’re never going to sell people’s data. We want people to have full control over their data and be able to export it and delete it.
[00:15:30] And then finally, collective stewardship. How do we include all the stakeholders in decisions and in conversations and gather their input and have people really feel involved and connected to the platform as it gets built? Thinking through both how we build Hylo using these principles, and then also, how do we embed the principles into the features of Hylo?
[00:15:53] We’re starting this process of collective stewardship, I would say, and it’s been really powerful and amazing to see people get excited about that and jump into that.
Wailin: [00:16:02] What have you learned about making decisions as a group? How have you been collecting feedback on what action items you should take on and then what to actually do because I can imagine, having been part of large groups before that, sometimes you can have really, really great conversation. And then sometimes it can be difficult to figure out what you actually do. And then to get consensus for what you actually want to build out next? What have you learned about that process?
Tibet: [00:16:29] I think this is one of the key challenges and inquiries that all the platforms that are trying to become, quote, unquote, “platform cooperatives,” are struggling with, because there is a fine dance between really being inclusive and having too many cooks in the kitchen and not getting anything done. Or designed by committee, which I think doesn’t really work. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it really work. There does need to be the separation between day to day workers or staff, I would say. There’s probably a design team and a design lead. I’m leading the development efforts. So we still have, you know, like a staff that are making most of the decisions day to day.
[00:17:11] Then the question is, over time, how do we bring more voices in? Make sure that we’re gathering the right input from the right people at the right times, and including it and incorporating it into decisions? Having kind of empowered people in different roles.
[00:17:29] So another framework that we’re very inspired by is sociocracy. It’s a governance model that involves having some circles that are small, that never grow beyond eight people, 10 people, something like that, that are very empowered to make decisions in certain areas. That’s one key aspect.
[00:17:50] Another one is using consent instead of consensus, which is a subtle difference in the ways that groups make decisions. And it basically means instead of trying to get everyone to agree on something, you put forth proposals, you iterate on those proposals based on feedback. And then if there’s no major objections, then you move forward. The framing is like this is good enough for now and safe enough to try, so there’s a little bit more risk taking and doing things quickly, instead of trying to get full consensus from a group.
[00:18:20] Another tool that we use is the advice process, which basically means, people, or these small circles are very empowered to make decisions on their own, as long as they are gathering the advice of the important stakeholders, and especially the people that are going to be impacted by that. So you’re kind of trusting each other to do this process of gathering advice from the right people before you move forward to make a decision. And then, of course, after the fact, you can reflect back and say, oh, you know, that decision was made without the advice of these people. That was… we need to iterate on it or please do things differently in the future.
[00:18:57] I would say the other main thing is there’s a general circle, made up of representatives from other circles that can make decisions about broader topics that are relevant to the whole organization, and share information across the different circles within the organization. This is like, how do we create a large, functional, effective organization in a decentralized, empowering way? And sociocracy is a really well-tested structure for doing that, that we’re trying to adopt.
Wailin: [00:19:30] And then how are you thinking about sharing the profits and like the money piece of it? We’ve talked a lot about governance and decision making, and then obviously, in cooperative structures, the other really big piece is radically reimagining wealth and profit. So how are you thinking about that piece as you build out Hylo?
Tibet: [00:19:48] Yeah, I think figuring that one out is going to come a little bit later, internally on the Terran team. We’ve experimented with some interesting financial solidarity models, the ways that we are distributing the money that’s coming through the organization, that try to balance contribution-based reward with needs-based reward. Helping people feel excited and motivated, but at the same time creating almost like a safety net and mutual aid and support within the organization. Making sure everybody’s needs are met.
[00:20:18] And then we absolutely want to build Hylo in a way where the people using it, people participating in building it, have a stake and are benefiting ideally, financially as well, over time. And I think that will develop as we figure out the business model for Hylo more.
Wailin: [00:20:35] Because right now your business model is you have these large partners who are using the platform and helping you build it, and you’re getting money from them, essentially. They’re like customers, but it’s not a traditional customer relationship, you would say?
Tibet: [00:20:48] We do have some small donations coming in as well. I’d still say Hylo is in kind of a beta phase. We do have a very passionate user base and we’re kind of growing slowly and naturally and not trying to push it yet.
[00:21:02] So yeah, donations and these partnerships are currently the way things are working. And over time as we build in tools for fundraising and other tools for financial transactions to flow over the platform, we’ll ask for tips on those transactions as well. But currently, the plan is to do it entirely as a nonprofit, and entirely through donations. I’ll just say, while we’re here, that we are trying to figure out a funding piece, if we do need to raise a bigger round of funding for Hylo. Things are moving forward steadily, now. But we would like to raise a bigger chunk of funding. And so we’re kind of in a process right now of figuring out that piece, how do we bring in aligned funding in a way that ensures that we can stay on our mission in the long term? And that relates to legal structures and ownership structures as well. So, definitely exploring philanthropy, foundations, aligned individuals, that would be kind of ideal in the short term.
Wailin: [00:21:58] Do you feel pretty hopeful about the options that are available to you? Do you feel like there are more options now for alternative kinds of funding than there were when you came out of school and you were building your early startups, and it seemed like the only way to go was a very traditional VC route with like your exit and all the usual hoopla?
Tibet: [00:22:20] I mean, definitely, things have changed a lot in the past 15 years. However, there’s more change that’s needed. I mean, there’s, so much money out there. And so much of it is still going to kind of short-term projects that are aiming at exiting and looking for short -term windfalls and are not really creating that much impact or value in the world, to be honest. Even the kind of social impact investing world that’s very focused on slow rate of return, trying to like find a market rate return while also doing good in the world. I appreciate that. I think it’s really been an important development in the past decades. But to me, it’s not radical enough. And there needs to be a massive transfer of wealth into really radical experiments right now.
[00:23:08] Obviously, focused on mitigating climate change. But also in the kind of tools and systems needed for us to learn to cooperate better with each other. We are finding that there’s a lot of people that are thinking about these ideas, but there’s still a fair amount of fear and a fair amount of hesitation to put money into something really different.
[00:23:28] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Wailin: [00:23:34] Rework is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Music for the show is by Clip Art.
Shaun: [00:23:39] You can find Hylo at Hylo.com. That’s H-Y-L-O dot com. The Terran Collective is at Terran.io, that’s T-E-double R-A-N dot I-O. And Tibet is on twitter at @Tibet Sprague that’s T-I-B-E-T S-P-R-A-G-U-E.
Wailin: [00:23:57Tibet provided a list of resources that have informed his thinking about communitarian technology and other issues. We will link those up in the show notes for this episode, which you can find at rework.fm We’re also on Twitter at @reworkpodcast and you can leave us a friendly voicemail at 708-628-7850.
[00:24:30] Everyone’s driving over to Gary, Indiana. Have you heard about this?
Shaun: [00:24:33] [Singing] Gary, Indiana [crosstalk].
Wailin: [00:24:36] Gary, Indiana.
Shaun: [00:24:38] [Laughs]
Wailin: [00:24:39] I wanted this to be our tribute to The Music Man.
Shaun: [00:24:42] Did you?