What can co-ops learn from the golden age of piracy?

Writer Sam Conniff Allende tells us what modern-day challenger businesses can learn from the swashbucklers who challenged the system

Social entrepreneur and author Sam Conniff Allende is guest speaker at the Social Business Wales Conference this month. He will be discussing ideas from his new book, Be More Pirate, which sets out radical ideas for challenger businesses to take on their conventional rivals. “The original purpose-driven business model was the co-op movement,” he writes, “and before there was the co-operative movement, there were pirates.”

He adds: “As capitalism continues its existential crisis and global leadership disappears even further up its own arse, this truly is the time for social business to show it’s courage, ambition and imagination. 

“We have the answers, we have the evidence and we have the leaders: it’s time to make sure your story is heard. I’m proud and excited to be coming back to Wales to share my message, meet with my comrades in Social Business and return to the homeland of the pirates, who I think all of us can draw real inspiration from in times like these.”

How did you get interested in pirates; who is your favourite – and why?

My favourite is Anne Bonny, born Anne McCormac in 1702. By setting off to sea she broke one of the most universally enforced rules of society that says women are not fully autonomous human beings, with rights and abilities equal to those of men. As a father to two young daughters I am acutely aware that gender inequality is something they will face; the courage of Anne Bonny reminds me that change is possible – but it will require us to take risks. 

Anne Bonny, a pioneering woman of the high seas

How were pirates the original co-operators?

It could be argued that pirates were the world’s first equal opportunity employers; alongside women, they also embraced same-sex couples and ethnic minority crew members. They set great store in community, working towards a set of principles (the pirate code) and sharing resources equally. Unlike today where some CEOs earn up 100 times more than the average worker, the captain of a pirate ship would typically only receive two to four times as much as the crew. 

Why do we need pirates today – as much as we did 300 years ago?

We are at an interesting juncture in history, where businesses and organisations need to think seriously about their role in society. With the climate crisis, political disruption and automation ahead of us, there is now a lot more at stake than simply growing your company to make more money, and consumers are increasingly aware of this. The organisations that leap ahead, I think, will be those that are willing to take risks, fight for, shout about, and visibly live their principles. 

What is the link between the Pirate Code and co-op values and principles?

The pirate codes that have been recorded, by and large, set out many of the same principles found in the co-operative movement: open membership, democratic structure, autonomy for members, economic participation, co-operation with other co-ops (other pirate crews). It’s quite remarkable. Given that renowned pirates like Henry Morgan were from Wales and grew up close to Newtown where Robert Owen was born, it is not too much of a stretch to believe that ideas born at sea were transferred back to land. 

What can co-ops and social businesses today learn from pirates of the past – particularly in terms of organising, and the delegation of power and responsibility? 

Co-ops embody many of the principles seen in pirate codes, so actually I’d say that it’s not organisational and power structures that they can learn from pirates. It’s storytelling. Pirates were masters at using their brand to achieve their objectives – which, contrary to popular opinion (and Disney), was survival, not violence. Pirates made sure the message was clear and singular, and they understood that the medium was just as powerful as the message itself. I’ve worked with a lot of small businesses and social enterprises doing incredible things around the circular economy and economic justice, but they haven’t quite nailed getting their message heard by the world. I think that the same could be said of co-ops.


2. Be less predictable: if you’re not yet ready to launch a rebellion then simply start by stepping outside of your comfort zone. We’re far too tied to our habits and routines, so go in search of unchartered territories – whatever that means for you. Although it’s been said by many a self-help guru, exercising this muscle regularly makes it much less scary to step up when there’s something to really fight for. 

2. Know what you will fight for: in my experience, most people aren’t sure – which is why, when it comes to the crunch, we struggle to make decisions or take action on important issues. When you know, work out how to demonstrate it. Our values are only real when we apply them. 

3. Find your crew: the strength of pirates was the crew, and the high levels of trust and accountability that bonded them together. It is a lonely road to create change alone, but small groups of committed people can change the world.

4. Redistribute power: pirates redistributed power because they understood how much it corrupts. But power is fluid and comes in many forms, not just through traditional leadership. We all hold informal power in our skills, connections and knowledge, and you can shift the balance of power when you educate, listen to and trust others. 

5. Keep it simple: For a generation that’s increasingly time poor, there are far too many long boring strategy papers in existence that will never be read. Focus instead on small, bold actions that will make a difference. Clear the decks of pointless process and work with less resources, just as pirates did. 

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