IndyCube: Mark Hooper

Mark Hooper is the founder of IndyCube, a community benefit society and co-operative that runs co-working spaces in parts of Wales suffering from the decline of manufacturing. IndyCube has partnered with Community, the union, to create the first freelancers’ union in the UK to offer benefits like legal advice and invoice factoring. Hooper plans to expand IndyCube from 30 offices in Wales to more than a thousand around the UK in the next five years.

What’s the point of IndyCube?

The point is twofold. First we want to give spaces where they can work together by creating co-working spaces. We started in Wales but we’re expanding to the rest of the UK. We have 30 spaces at the moment where people have cheap access to space, wifi, tea and coffee and other people.

We’re not just in the cities, we’re in the more disadvantaged communities in Wales, because we think that people shouldn’t have to go to the big cities to run their micro-enterprise.

So if you live in Pontypridd you should be able to work there and not go to Cardiff. This has the potential to spur economic regeneration. If people can work locally, they have time to get their kids and shop locally. It reduces the burden on public transport. The eight miles to Cardiff can take an hour on some days.

“The self-employed workforce is already 5 million and it will succeed the public sector workforce in five years.”

Secondly we have a relationship with Community Union that has allowed us to provide a suite of membership benefits. The first one is trying to get an organisation that represents these people.

There’s a lot of energy about cash payments to window cleaners in the Taylor Report [into working practices], but there wasn’t much talk about actual self-employed people. Many of these people will be brought into a high tax regime quite soon when the National Insurance contributions increase, but without any of the benefits of maternity or paternity pay, access to sickness pay, guaranteed holidays, or minimum wages.

It’s all very well to talk about representation but these people earn little, they are skeptical of unions and membership, so we have to make sure we deliver.

The £10 a month benefit package includes reduction on holiday and car insurance. But the three crucial benefits are to link people together. Firstly we want to create a network to share business across the network. Then, the community will have access to a bunch of legal services to provide support to people facing workplace dismissal or things like that. You get up to £26,000 of freelance support for legal fees.

The second thing is access to invoice factoring to make sure freelancers get paid on time. There’s £26 billion outstanding to freelancers at any one time in the UK. From our perspective if we get that cash moving it could have a great stimulus in the local economy, where local people spend their money.

The other things we are looking at is the idea of bread fund. This is a pool of money from, say, 40 people which acts as a pot so if someone gets sick they can ask for money to get through the month. This could be something that is game-changing for this cohort of people.

When did you decide to do this?

We started with co-working spaces in 2010. I wanted to do my bit to try and change the way Wales does business.

It felt like a very grant-oriented culture so we wanted to do something without public money to prove that we could do something outside the big cities. We’re in rural communities, post-mining communities, post-steelworks communities. I invested about £30,000 start it in 2010.

There was a report that was written for the TUC that was called Not Alone. It highlighted the opportunity for the union and the co-op movement to work together. We were introduced to community and they ended up investing in the co-operative.

The plan is to get to 1200 in the next five years. There are a lot of empty spaces and property assets that are under utilised. It’s very easy to think of empty office space wherever you are.

How do you fit it in?

It is my full-time job. I focus on policy development. I’m interested in making sure that we have services that stop people from being so precariously placed.

The salary comes from IndyCube. At the moment we have investment, but it will be funded by members fees.

We’re quite unusual insofar as we have a flat pay structure and a flat management structure. It’s just time to recognise that whatever job you do, you need everyone to make it work. No one is more important than anyone else.

What’s your proudest moment?

My proudest moment has been pulling together this deal [to launch a union with Community]. We have something that is relevant to a wider group of people than it was previously. It’s not just about people co-working, it’s got a wider remit. We’re looking for people to invest in our place-based approach to community development.

What’s the hardest moment?

Almost every day! Running a business is great, I enjoy it, but it’s extremely hard.

We’ve not used the normal route for a social enterprise. We’ve not used grant funding and it’s not changed things. We wanted to do something different to that. So it’s just us against the norm. We’re fighting the system as much as fighting our own. It’s enjoyable but it’s full on.

What keeps you going?

You’ve got to want to change the world from your perspective. There are things that are grossly unfair in the way the economic system works and I’m not going to stand around and do nothing when I think I can do something about it.

Looking for those opportunities keeps me going. And it helps to be a bit nuts!

What’s next?

We have our plan for the next five years but we need to be agile enough to jump on other opportunities if they arrive, too.

The self-employed workforce is already 5 million and it will succeed the public sector workforce in five years. Since the 2008 crash there has been a massive rise in this kind of work.

That growth is expected to continue at the same rate and double in the next 10 years. That means a working population of 10 million within the next decade. They are all precariously placed in terms of their earning potential and access to legal services. I’m seeing IndyCube as part of that solution.

How did you vote in the EU and why?

I voted to remain. It wasn’t a fully positive thing. The EU as an institution hasn’t been effective the change that it wanted to but the things that are important. I have three stepdaughters who have no concept of borders, colour, sexuality, or other things.

“I think [the EU referendum] was a vote against the man, really.”

The EU was part of why we’re more accepting of others. But we have never dealt with the issues beneath the surface. We say, “You can’t say that,” instead of asking why someone would want to say that.

At IndyCube we work with these communities that voted to leave and when you talk to a group of people who are disenfranchised, they often have no decent job, no pension and live in relative poverty, despite the amount of money spent.

I think this was a vote against the man, really. But it’s also an opportunity as it’s spurred a long-term conversation about how the economy works. At the moment the economy only works for a few people. Hopefully this will challenge that view.

How will the result affect what you do?

From IndyCube’s perspective, there will be more self-employed people as work will be less easy to get.

We’re at the point of big changes in our economy and they are not good. I think the economy is going to go to pot.

What would you say to someone trying to do something similar?

I would always encourage people to do something to challenge unfairness. We need to be a bit more radical. And if we don’t, we’ll end up in a situation where our country will become more unequal.

“We need to be a bit more radical.”

We already have quite an unequal society, particularly in terms of wealth, unless we change some of the metrics. People need to do less talking and more doing, because the peril is now.

Ecologically the planet is in trouble, from an equality point we’re in trouble, so we need to change things now. It doesn’t have to be done by the state either but by emerging activities. But not via the normal indices.

What does community mean to you?

I don’t subscribe to the view that we can build a community. But you can help a community to survive or enhance it, by connecting people. Social capital is the most important thing about what we do.

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