Reflections from Enspiral’s early days

I just stumbled across this post that I wrote in November 2010, nearly a year after Enspiral was born and it brought back a lot of memories. How odd it is that everything happened as it did, if I had read the script in advance I would never have believed it.

Why I started Enspiral

Last year I was trundling along quite happily minding my own business. I’d spend a couple of days a week contracting and the rest of the time I’d volunteer with charities like Intersect350 and Regeneration. I would meet lots of inspiring people who were working on creating a vibrant future and tackling some of the big problems we face in the world. I even had a no laptop in bed rule for a while, talk about work life balance!

Then I had this idea – so many people I met were incredibly skilled but lacking the time and resources to work on the projects that they were most needed on. Maybe I could help them get high paid contracting work so they would have the same flexibility I did to do the work that the world is crying out for. I had a fair amount of business experience and was quite comfortable with accounting, sales, recruiting and management so I could take away the pain of running their own freelancing business. Simple.

So in December I started talking to everyone I knew saying things like ‘I help people who want to change the world get high paid contracting work and take away some of the pain and risk of being a freelancer’. BAM – work life balance became work is my life, which is fine (for now).

In an eye blink it’s nearly a year later and we’ve got 30 something people on the books – it’s hard to get an accurate head count but 32 people have written an invoice through the company to date. Half a dozen people rely on Enspiral for their main source of income, another dozen as their principle secondary income – or something like that. Small numbers in the scheme of things but it feels like a good start. We’ll have a much better idea once the new website is finished, one of the reasons it’s taking so long is we’re building a lot of features to help allocate and track projects and availability. It won’t be very visible from the outside but it will make life a lot easier for everyone working in the company.

There are a couple of emerging trends that have influenced my thinking around the company substantially.

One  is the rise of the ‘more than profit’ business model. This company does not exist to maximize profits (even over the long term). We exist to resource people and organisations who are trying to fix the broken systems in our civilization. While financial strength is essential the demands our shareholders (me) place on the company are not measured in dollars. I believe this type of business is fundamentally more competitive than a purely for profit business and that you will see more of them in the future – especially in service based industries with minimal capital costs. It is also more efficient than a not for profit where resources are so scarce and business models are often attached as an after thought instead of being hard wired into the organisation.

Another is the growing awareness of how important purpose and meaning are in our work lives. Far too many people work in arrangements that resemble being bribed to undergo something unpleasant. How many people do you know who love their work? How many would keep showing up if they won lotto? Helping someone create the job of their dreams has many facets but I can’t imagine how hard it would be recruiting for a role that didn’t have a compelling underlying purpose at it’s core.

I never would have predicted being where we are today but this venture is without a doubt the most exciting thing I have ever done. Not because of where we’ve been (which is all a bit of a blur and not particularly interesting) but because of what we can become, time will be the judge of that though.

At that time our website looked like this (the internet archive messed up the twitter stream on the right)


The new website I mentioned was a few months away and would look like this


it was still 5 months before our first retreat


Our office looked like this (earlier photo from when we had the record of 7 people working in there at once. Yes, one person was sitting on the floor in the corner as we only had 6 chairs)


and we had just signed a lease on a big expensive place on Allen st which a few years later looked like this

Allen street office

The last sentence of the post still feels pretty accurate to how I see things now, it’s nice feeling somewhat consistent with past me.

I never would have predicted being where we are today but this venture is without a doubt the most exciting thing I have ever done. Not because of where we’ve been (which is all a bit of a blur and not particularly interesting) but because of what we can become, time will be the judge of that though.

Reflections from Enspiral’s early days

Loomio lessons – 90 day planning

Recently we had Richard Bartlett from the Loomio team pay a visit to Dev Academy and share some of the lessons they have learned around their 90 day planning cycle. The price of the workshop was a blog post and like Lannisters and Dev Academy graduates a developer always pays their debts.


it’s all about context

A lot of the context is held implicitly in the team and the quarterly planning cycle is an opportunity for the team to add to this context and create shared understanding. The 90 day plan is developed in the wider context of the teams direction which is articulated as purposestrategy and priorities.

Purpose (decades): your long term vision. For Loomio it is to
create a world where it’s easy for anyone to participate in decisions that affect them.”

Strategy (3 years): what are your strategic objectives over the next few years?
This is in flux at Loomio and a new iteration is currently being formulated. You can get a gist of it through these slides.

Priorities (3 months): the targets that the 90 day cycle sets.
The last priorities for the cycle that ended in June were

  • Capital: deliver US$250k in philanthropic funding by June 30
  • Revenue: generate US$2.5k in monthly recurring revenue for use of Loomio
  • Release: develop new interface to the point where all users can switch to it by May 15

Richard made the comment that the numbers in their targets were somewhat arbitrary and that regardless of whether they missed them, hit them or overshot them the value was in the focus it gave. For each new idea or task there was a very clear litmus test of is this a priority.


3 weeks before the end of the quarter the team starts gathering data and and sharing it with the members. There are two main inputs into the planning session: a survey and reports.

Team Survey

This was last quarters survey and it particular reflects the particular dynamics of team Loomio where roles can dramatically change each quarter.

The retreat cycle of Loomio is retreat, offsite, retreat, offsite – with the retreats being 3 days in summer and winter and the offsites being one day. Richard commented that the survey felt more useful for the offsite cycles as the extra time in the retreat created more space for creating shared context.

Another noticing about the survey is that it was a useful tool for some people to switch out of day to day mode and start thinking about the big picture instead of jumping straight in the deep end of strategic planning.


Overlapping the survey process there is also a culture of writing reports to share with the team.

The coordinators write a collective report focused on the priorities for the last quarter specifically addressing what did we do and what did we learn.

Individuals in the group also write up longer form reflections on the work they did and any opinions they have about future directions.

retreats and Off sites

The Loomio planning process culminates in their quarterly gatherings. Lots of work goes on here but one of the key outcomes is the skeleton of a plan for the next 90 days along with coordinators tasked with implementing that plan.

We have a strong retreat and facilitation culture at Enspiral and Loomio is a team with a high density of strong facilitators so this part of the process is under constant experimentation. This winter retreat marks their 7th retreat together and retreat cultural tech is a topic for several blog posts.


The Loomio team have gone through four iterations of their 90 day planning process and I am looking on with envy from an Enspiral Dev Academy point of view. We have just enough time to put together a 90 day plan for this cycle, though the boat has nearly sailed.

While the planning adds value to a single venture I think the real opportunity is when multiple ventures sync up with their context sharing. Add in some digital connecting during the retreat process from lots of teams reaching out of their bubbles and it would change the collaboration landscape at Enspiral dramatically.

For more information about Team Loomio be sure to checkout their blog and wiki.

Loomio lessons – 90 day planning

Self determined salaries

We have recently finalised a round of self determined salaries at Dev Academy and it was one of the most effective and powerful experiments in self management that I’ve experienced. 
freedom_2_by_sevCANNImage Credit

The Problem

The default setting in most organisations is that salaries are private and negotiated directly between an employee and a manager. The information asymmetry helps funnel power up the pyramid and this also results in people who are good at negotiating getting a better deal than those who aren’t.

Ever since first reading Maverick I have been struck with the idea of staff having the ability to set their own salaries. Stumbling across the The Morningstar Self Management Institute in the early days of Enspiral and reading about their work in the space locked in my commitment to self determined remuneration.

This was really easy when we were just a collective of contractors and everyone would set their own billable rates – if customers were happy to pay that rate then it must be good enough. Even when negotiating rates for internal work it was along the lines of “What do you think is fair? Well let’s do that then”.

But fast forward to the end of 2014, Dev Academy had just turned one and when I reflected on our remuneration process it was obvious we had unconsciously slipped back into old habits. Rohan (my co-founder) and I had agreed upon compensation levels with each new hire as they joined the company and traditional power structures and information asymmetries were starting to emerge.

This was yet another reminder for me that self-management processes need clear definitions and constant reinforcement.

For example, while everyone in the company was onboard with the idea of financial transparency we hadn’t put energy into making our remuneration data easily accessible so the only way for a new person joining the team to find out how much everyone was being paid was to ask each person individually or trawl through our xero account. As you can imagine this didn’t happen too much.

So we fixed things.

our Process

Getting started

The first step was writing up a document [extract below] outlining the thinking behind self directed salaries and passing a Loomio decision to try it out. We established a remuneration team to facilitate the process and act as an initial point of contact to help point people in the right direction.

Individual round

We each filled out a remuneration template and the REM team updated a central spreadsheet while acting as a sounding board when asked. For folks who needed extra support someone from the REM team would sit down and work through the details with them.


We collated the salary data and normalised it for time (e.g. how much would this person be paid if they worked full time for a year). This helped us compare apples with apples and made it easier to tackle the heart of the problem which was how much should we pay this person compared to everyone else.

This data formed the heart of an anonymous survey which we sent to everyone in the company with two questions for each person.

a) What do you think of this salary: too high, too low, just right or no opinion?
b) Comments?

We shared the responses with everyone the day before our weekly meeting the next day went through a facilitated session to collectively process the information. This took a fairly simple form of

  • Setting the tone for the session and emphasising the delicacy and importance of this work.
  • Going around the circle with each person talking through their thinking behind their suggested salary and their thoughts and feelings about the anonymous feedback.
    • The feedback for that person was projected on the wall before their checkin to provide a shared context
    • The person opposite in the circle was responsible for looping back what they had heard to shake out any initial clarifications
    • After the looping the circle was open for comments and responses from the whole group

This was an amazing session that helped clarify our understandings of each others roles and was a valuable part of building our culture.

Lock it in

After the “digesting feedback” session we had a few days for people to reflect further and then had a cut off point at the close of business on friday to lock in the compensation levels.

The main points of this were

  1. You were free to ignore or incorporate the feedback from the previous session as you liked.
  2. There was no one who would approve your salary, what you asked for is what you got.
  3. If there were any disagreements on monday it would be handled through our
    conflict resolution. (There weren’t any)

Those final two points where Salaries are approved by default and exceptions are managed by a peer initiating a conflict resolution process are the real magic in the system. It is stepping beyond a company where you have a lot of influence to a company which you actively control.

It’s all about the culture

I have tried lots of experiments over the years to help people realise a sense of ownership and empowerment and this was definitely one of the most powerful. At the end of the day setting salaries is pretty common sense stuff and when you give people all the information they will make common sense decisions.

It definitely requires a strong sense of trust amongst your team and a willingness to give and receive challenging feedback. But if your team isn’t up for that then helping them get into a position where they are should be your top priority.

[Extract from the initial document outlining the process]


Self Determination individuals set their own pay which colleagues provide feedback on but the ultimate remuneration decisions rest with the individual. Significant differences of opinion are resolved by our conflict resolution process.

Transparency – all compensation packages are visible to everyone in the company in a simple and accessible format.

Risk Adjusted – if a staff member puts some of their compensation at risk by deferring payments and accepting Fairy Gold instead of cash then they receive a fair compensation for that risk.

Intrinsic Motivation – we eschew individual performance bonuses and rely upon people’s intrinsic motivations to do a good job. Any performance bonuses are paid out across the whole company.

Adjustable – Individuals are free to adjust their remuneration at their discretion (e.g. if the type or amount of work they do changes) but are required to update their individual agreement at least once per year.

Trust & Integrity – are at the heart of Dev Academy but especially present in the work of setting compensation levels. We assume that each person is striving for the fairest outcome they can envision for themselves and their colleagues.

Self determined salaries

Variable Contributions at Enspiral

Enspiral was built on some pretty simple ideas. Some were there from the beginning, others emerged over time. A few were only obvious with hindsight.

Filter for values then trust people absolutely.
Decentralise money, information and control.
Put the relationship before the deal.
The community carries the business.
Do what you love, find someone else to do the rest.
Use rich information systems to make collaboration easy.
Easy to join, hard to stay.
and lots more.

None of the ideas were particularly unique or revolutionary but it was their unique blend that I found useful. All of them were inspired by ideas from somewhere else, some of them were blatantly copied. This post outlines one of the latter: Variable Contributions.

everything-is-a-giftImage credit: David Joyce

Our financial model was very simple from the beginning. We were a group of programmers who would band together on contracts. 20% of our revenue would go to the collective, 80% to the contractor. It would have been much easier if Cobudget had of existed back then, instead I would just talk with people and then decide how best to spend the 20%.

20% was a pretty good number. For folks coming out of traditional employment it meant they could charge clients lower rates and get paid more than their old salary. For people coming from contracting backgrounds it felt like a fair margin to pay to the collective for winning the work. It also gave us a reasonable amount of money to fund the core.

When we transitioned into a collective of ventures we went with a similar model and had our services businesses (Legal, Accounting, Programming/Design) contributing 5% of their revenue to the Enspiral Foundation.

But there were also issues. For independent contractors who had their own customer base and wanted to join Enspiral, contributing 20% was a big hit. Or if someone was heavily discounting their rate because a client didn’t have much money then it didn’t feel right either. Over time the 20% started to become a barrier to collaboration and occasionally felt like an unfair tax.

So we changed it. I had read about Graniterock’s short-pay idea in Good to Great years before and it was a direct inspiration for our next step. At Graniterock when they sent customers an invoice they would have a short note along the lines of

If you are not satisfied with any item on this bill for any reason,don’t pay us for it. Simply scratch out the item, write a brief note about the problem, and return a copy of this invoice along with your check for the balance.

This acted as a strong feedback mechanism for identifying problems and improving quality. People get pretty motivated when a customer decides not to pay. You can read more about some of their thinking in this blog post Just Say Yes.

The solution we went for was simple and had a powerful effect on our culture:

  • A venture sets its own contribution rate to the Enspiral Foundation and can change it at any time. 5% of revenue is common but each company creates its own formula.
  • An individual contractor working through Enspiral Services contributes 20% by default. They are free to change it on an invoice by invoice basis and only need to notify people of the change.

We trialled variable contributions for 3 months in August 2012 and there was a general sense of ‘scary in a good way’ when we made the decision.


I think it was one of the best things we ever did. People’s relationship with financial contributions to the collective changed dramatically. It was no longer something that was done to you. It was something you chose and if you didn’t think it was fair then you could just choose something else.

If people or companies dropped their contribution rates it would often solicit a response from their peers. Were they hurting financially? Did they not value the collective? Could we do more to help them?

New cultural norms emerged. People in Enspiral Services often now contribute 5% when working on internal contracts for our other ventures. Also in Enspiral Services, we started to send 1/8th of contributions back to the team that people were based in. We used tracking codes in Xero to fully automate the contribution process for contractors.

But ultimately it was about trust. It feels like we spend so much time in our professional lives protecting ourselves from each other. Our whole legal system is designed to stop people hurting us. There is real power in a group of peers saying to each other “I give you the power to hurt me”. It leaves an unmistakable impression on the culture and I think we are much better for it.

Naturally variable contributions are no panacea but they are worth considering for anyone designing organisations, particularly ones with membership based financial models like Enspiral.

Variable Contributions at Enspiral

Mastermind: setting strategy together

One of the processes we have been playing with at Enspiral is how we set our collective strategy. A team of us ran the first Mastermind process to come up with our 2014 Enspiral strategy and we are just winding up our one for 2015. Teams within Enspiral are also picking up and adapting the process which is often a sign there is something in the idea.

Mastermind, set strategy together.Image by Maz Hermon

I initially had a strong aversion to setting a formal strategy for the network, it seemed much more important to focus on our culture and let the direction emerge naturally from people’s actions. However, I’ve found that the process can be a strong culture building initiative in its own right and having a formal strategy gives people context when they are making decisions in Loomio and Cobudget.

I came to the conclusion that it is important to hold the strategy lightly and realise it is just a snapshot of the network’s intentions, but it’s better to have a snapshot than nothing.

The top level process is pretty straight forward.

  1. Gather as much high level information as you can and consolidate into a digestible format to share with the whole group.
  2. Focus on divergent thinking through individual and group processes to build up a list of possible strategic directions.
  3. Look for common themes and build a consolidated list of possibilities, use dot voting to prioritise the most important.
  4. Have a small group use this information to create a proposed strategy and run through a normal Loomio decision making process to finalise it.

Gather Information > Divergent Thinking > Convergent Thinking  > Summary & Approval

This has lots of elements I like such as

  • An iterative nature to give ideas time to develop
  • A balance between whole group, small group and individual activities
  • A balance between creativity and focus

But I also see it as just a baseline and that the true power of the process lies in future iterations. For example, at Dev Academy we are experimenting with a two step approach of

Individual Mastermind:  each team member is invited to think about their personal strategy and direction for the year.
Regular Mastermind:  we collectively think about the team as a whole with the additional context of  each person’s strategy and intentions.

I really like this adaptation as it doubles down on culture building and also builds a stronger personal reflection process. Personally, I found it really useful to sit down and think about where I should be heading and how best to communicate that with others. It was that process which led me to start blogging again.

I can imagine a truly fractal process where each team at Enspiral has a clearly articulated strategy which can provide context for our whole of network thinking. By having a similar name and process at different scales of organising we reduce the cognitive load for participants and we can also reduce the transaction costs for engaging by automating the information systems.

It also evokes the possibility of truly living strategies that respond to change in real time. At the moment a full network strategy is quite expensive in terms of engagement. Would it be possible to design processes so that the strategy evolved through lots of small alterations as the context changed? Could we build a strategy that is a real time reflection of our collective intent that mirrors a traditional swarm?

Currently we orient ourselves with information from other people’s actions and crude, somewhat outdated snapshots of our collective intent. That’s analogous to swallows bumping into each other to correct their individual paths using images their eyes collected 2 hours ago. What if instead we could orient ourselves based off the accurate, explicit intent of individuals and teams of all different sizes?

If we make forming, updating and sharing our strategic direction cheap enough and ubiquitous in an organisation I think we could unlock elegance that would make the swallows envious.

Here are some of the documents I’m working with if anyone feels like hacking on the process and I’d love to hear of any similar work going on.

My personal strategy
Individual Mastermind Template
Review of 2014 Mastermind Process


Mastermind: setting strategy together