Cooperative (Co-Op) Business Model: Setting Up Your Business

A cooperative, or co-op, is a user-controlled, user-owned enterprise that allows individuals to meet common needs and benefit from the products or services they create together. Unlike traditional corporations, co-ops operate on the principle of “one member, one vote,” giving equal power to all members. This cooperative model can be established in any industry and size, with one in three Americans being a member of a cooperative.

Key Takeaways:

  • The cooperative business model is a user-controlled, user-owned enterprise.
  • Co-ops operate on the principle of “one member, one vote.”
  • This model can be established in any industry and size.
  • One in three Americans is a member of a cooperative.

What is a Cooperative?

A cooperative is a user-controlled enterprise where people voluntarily come together to fulfill common needs and benefit from the products or services of their shared enterprise. Unlike traditional corporations, co-ops are fully controlled and owned by their members, who equally contribute to the capital. The core values of a co-op include democratic decision-making, member participation, and concern for the community.

In a cooperative, each member has an equal say in the management and operation of the business. This user-controlled enterprise model fosters a sense of ownership and enables members to actively engage in the decision-making process. By pooling resources and knowledge, co-op members work together to achieve mutual goals and create a sustainable business.

Cooperatives can be found in various sectors, including agriculture, retail, finance, housing, and worker-owned businesses. They can vary in size and structure, but the core principles of cooperation and member ownership remain the same.

Core Values of a Cooperative:

  • User-controlled enterprise
  • User-owned enterprise
  • Democratic decision-making
  • Equitable distribution of profits
  • Member participation and engagement
  • Concern for the community

These core values guide the operations and culture of a cooperative, promoting equality, fairness, and the well-being of both the members and the community it serves.

Benefits of a Cooperative Explanation
Shared Ownership Members have equal ownership and control over the cooperative, ensuring their collective interests are served.
Profit Distribution The profits generated by the cooperative are either distributed among the members or reinvested in the company, benefiting the members directly.
User Control Members actively participate in decision-making, shaping the direction and policies of the cooperative.

Advantages of a Cooperative Business Model

The cooperative business model offers several advantages to entrepreneurs and business owners.

1. Stability

Cooperatives are known for their stability, especially during economic downturns. By pooling resources and sharing risks, cooperatives are better equipped to weather challenging times. This stability allows co-ops to continue operating and serving their members, even when faced with market uncertainties.

2. Democratic Control

In a cooperative, every member has an equal say in decision-making, regardless of their investment or contribution. This democratic control ensures that all members have a voice and influence in shaping the direction and policies of the co-op. By promoting inclusivity and fair representation, cooperatives empower their members and foster a strong sense of ownership and engagement.

3. Lower Startup Costs

Cooperative businesses benefit from shared startup costs. Instead of a single individual bearing the entire financial burden, the capital contributions of all members contribute to the cooperative’s initial investment. This shared financial responsibility reduces the financial strain on individual members and facilitates the establishment of the cooperative enterprise.

4. Benefits to the Community

Cooperatives serve the needs of their members, which often align with the needs of the local community. Whether it’s providing access to essential goods and services, supporting local farmers and artisans, or promoting sustainable practices, cooperatives contribute to the well-being and development of the community they serve. By prioritizing the interests of members and the community, cooperatives foster economic and social growth.

5. Worker Engagement

As businesses owned and operated by their members, cooperatives foster a high level of worker engagement. Employees who are also owners have a vested interest in the success of the cooperative, resulting in increased commitment, productivity, and job satisfaction. This unique employee-ownership structure cultivates a sense of pride, loyalty, and long-term dedication to the cooperative enterprise.

6. Tax Advantages

Cooperatives often enjoy certain tax advantages that can benefit both the business and its members. One such advantage is the ability to issue patronage dividends to members based on their participation and use of the cooperative’s products or services. These dividends are typically taxed at a lower rate than traditional business profits. Additionally, cooperatives may be eligible for specific tax incentives or state assistance programs designed to promote cooperative development and growth.

Considerations for Starting a Cooperative

When considering starting a cooperative, there are several important factors to take into account. These considerations can help you navigate the unique aspects of the cooperative business model and lay a strong foundation for your venture.

1. Financing

Securing financing for a cooperative can pose challenges compared to traditional businesses. Large investors may be hesitant to invest in a cooperative due to its unique structure and profit-sharing model. Additionally, obtaining loans from banks might require additional documentation and a thorough explanation of the cooperative’s business plan.

2. Longer Decision-Making Process

One of the defining features of cooperatives is the democratic decision-making process, where all members have an equal say. While this ensures inclusivity and fairness, it can also result in longer decision-making timelines. The involvement of multiple members and the need for consensus may slow down the decision-making process compared to more centralized decision structures.

3. Reliance on Members’ Involvement

A cooperative’s success relies heavily on the ongoing involvement and active participation of its members. As members are the owners and stakeholders of the cooperative, their commitment and contributions play a vital role in the overall performance of the business. It is crucial to foster a strong sense of community and engagement among members to ensure the cooperative’s sustainability.

4. Profits Distribution

In a cooperative, profits are typically distributed among members based on their level of participation or usage of the co-op’s products and services. While this ensures a fair distribution of benefits, it may deter business owners seeking greater individual financial gains. It’s important to consider how the equal distribution of profits aligns with your personal goals and objectives as an entrepreneur.

By carefully evaluating these considerations, you can gain a better understanding of the challenges and unique aspects associated with starting a cooperative. This insight will help you make informed decisions and develop strategies to overcome these hurdles, ultimately setting your cooperative up for long-term success.

Steps to Forming a Cooperative

Forming a cooperative involves a systematic approach to ensure the success and sustainability of the venture. Follow these essential steps to establish your cooperative:

  1. Develop a Clear Idea for the Co-op

    To start, you need a distinct and compelling vision for your cooperative. Identify the common need or purpose that your co-op will address. This could be anything from providing organic produce to the local community to offering affordable housing solutions.

  2. Gather Interested Individuals to Join as Members

    Next, reach out to potential members who share your vision and are enthusiastic about participating in a cooperative. Utilize your network, advertise in relevant communities, and organize informational sessions or meetings to attract interested individuals.

  3. Conduct a Feasibility Study

    Performing a feasibility study is crucial to assess the viability of your cooperative business idea. It involves analyzing market demand, potential obstacles, financial projections, and competition. This study will help determine if your co-op has a solid chance of success.

  4. Incorporate the Co-op as a Legal Entity

    Once you’ve conducted the feasibility study and have a clear path forward, it’s time to incorporate your cooperative as a legal entity. This step involves fulfilling the necessary legal requirements and paperwork to establish the co-op’s structure and recognition under the appropriate laws.

  5. Create Bylaws to Establish Rules and Governance

    Bylaws serve as the guiding principles and rules for your cooperative’s operations. They outline how the co-op will function, determine member rights and responsibilities, and establish the governance structure. It’s essential to create comprehensive and well-defined bylaws to ensure smooth operations and member satisfaction.

How Does a Cooperative Work: Ownership & Control

The ownership and control structure of a cooperative is unique compared to traditional business models. Unlike businesses based on shares, cooperatives operate on the principle of member equity contribution. Each member contributes to the cooperative’s capital, and their ownership and control are determined by their participation in the cooperative.

In a cooperative, every member has an equal say in the decision-making process. This democratic control ensures that all members have equal voting rights, regardless of their investment or capital contribution. This democratic structure promotes transparency, inclusivity, and a sense of ownership among the members.

There are various types of cooperatives, each catering to different needs and objectives:

  • Producer cooperatives: These cooperatives are formed by individuals or businesses involved in production or manufacturing processes. Members pool their resources, such as raw materials or machinery, to increase efficiency and reduce costs. Examples include agricultural cooperatives and artisan cooperatives.
  • Consumer cooperatives: Consumer cooperatives are owned and operated by individuals or households who come together to access goods or services at competitive prices. Members collectively purchase products, eliminating intermediaries and benefiting from bulk buying. Examples include food cooperatives and retail cooperatives.
  • Housing cooperatives: Housing cooperatives allow individuals or households to collectively own and manage residential properties. Members contribute to the cooperative’s capital, and in return, they have the right to occupy their homes and participate in decision-making regarding the overall management and maintenance of the properties.
  • Credit unions: Credit unions are financial cooperatives where members pool their savings to provide low-interest loans and other financial services to fellow members. The primary goal of credit unions is to serve their members’ financial needs, emphasizing fairness, affordability, and community development.
  • Worker-owned cooperatives: In a worker-owned cooperative, employees collectively own and manage the business. They share in the profits, have an equal say in decision-making, and often have a more equitable distribution of wages. Worker-owned cooperatives promote job security, worker autonomy, and greater job satisfaction.

Understanding the ownership and control structure of cooperatives is essential when considering this business model. By embracing the principles of cooperation and democratic decision-making, cooperatives empower their members to actively participate in the success and management of their shared enterprise.

Advantages of a Cooperative

Cooperatives offer numerous advantages to their members and the community. By adopting the cooperative model, businesses can reap the following benefits:

Equal Status:

Members of a cooperative enjoy equal status, meaning that each member has an equal say in the management and decision-making processes. This ensures a democratic and inclusive environment where every voice is heard.

Lower Debt Risk:

Unlike traditional businesses, cooperative members are not personally liable for the co-op’s debts. This lower debt risk provides financial security for members, protecting their personal assets in the event of any financial setbacks.

Economic Benefits:

Cooperatives offer economic benefits to their members in the form of patronage dividends and merchandise discounts. As the cooperative generates profits, these benefits are shared among the members, providing an additional source of income.

More Control:

In a cooperative, members have the opportunity to exercise greater control and autonomy compared to investor-controlled businesses. They have a direct influence on the co-op’s policies, strategies, and overall direction, allowing them to shape the organization according to their needs and values.

Tax Advantage & State Assistance:

Cooperatives often enjoy tax advantages, such as deductions and exemptions on income taxes. Additionally, some states may provide assistance and incentives to cooperative businesses, further enhancing their financial viability and competitiveness.

Social Benefit:

Cooperatives promote social benefit by fostering a culture of mutual help and community development. They prioritize the needs of their members and the larger community, providing goods/services that align with societal values and contribute to the overall well-being of individuals.

Advantages of a Cooperative

By embracing the cooperative business model, entrepreneurs can unlock these advantages and create a sustainable and empowering enterprise that prioritizes fairness, inclusivity, and shared success.

Disadvantages of a Cooperative

Despite the numerous advantages of a cooperative business model, there are several disadvantages that prospective entrepreneurs should consider before starting a cooperative.

1. Financing

One of the challenges faced by cooperatives is attracting financing from large investors or banks. Unlike traditional corporations that can easily secure capital through equity or debt financing, cooperatives may encounter difficulties due to their unique ownership structure and shared decision-making processes.

2. Longer Decision-Making Process

Another drawback of cooperatives is the longer decision-making process due to member involvement. As cooperatives operate on the principle of democratic control, decisions are made collectively, which can result in a slower decision-making process compared to traditional business models where decisions may be made by a single owner or a small group of executives.

3. Lack of Business Acumen

Cooperatives may face challenges in attracting specialized management skills. Since cooperatives are member-owned and operated, members with limited business experience or knowledge may be responsible for managing the cooperative. This can lead to a lack of business acumen and expertise, potentially affecting the cooperative’s ability to compete and thrive in the market.

4. Lack of Interest

An additional disadvantage of cooperatives is the potential for a lack of sustained member interest and commitment. Members must actively participate and contribute to the cooperative’s success, both financially and operationally. If members lose interest or fail to fulfill their responsibilities, it can hinder the cooperative’s growth and stability.

While these disadvantages should be taken into consideration, they can be mitigated through effective planning, strategic partnerships, and ongoing member engagement and education.

Getting Organized for a Cooperative

To successfully start a cooperative, it is crucial to establish a solid foundation and organizational structure. By taking the necessary steps and implementing key strategies, you can set your cooperative up for success. This section will guide you through the essential components of getting organized, including forming a steering committee, developing an action plan, conducting a PESTEL analysis, and establishing a governance structure.

Forming a Steering Committee

The first step in setting up your cooperative is to form a steering committee. This committee should consist of individuals who share the same vision and values as your co-op. The steering committee will play a crucial role in guiding the formation process, making key decisions, and ensuring effective communication within the cooperative. It’s important to select committee members who have the necessary skills and dedication to contribute meaningfully to the cooperative’s development.

Developing an Action Plan

An action plan is an essential roadmap that outlines the tasks, responsibilities, and timelines required to establish and operate your cooperative. It provides a clear structure and direction for achieving your cooperative’s goals. Your action plan should include steps such as legal registration, securing funding, developing products or services, marketing, and member recruitment. By breaking down the process into actionable tasks, you can effectively manage the cooperative’s development and monitor progress along the way.

Conducting a PESTEL Analysis

A PESTEL analysis is a valuable tool that assesses the external factors that can impact your cooperative. It stands for Political, Economic, Sociocultural, Technological, Environmental, and Legal factors. By evaluating these aspects, you can identify potential opportunities and challenges, anticipate market trends, and make informed decisions. A PESTEL analysis helps you understand the external landscape in which your cooperative operates, enabling you to adapt and respond effectively to changes in the business environment.

Establishing a Governance Structure

The governance structure of your cooperative determines the decision-making processes and ensures the equitable distribution of power among members. It outlines how the cooperative will be managed, how decisions will be made, and how conflicts will be resolved. The governance structure should define roles and responsibilities, establish voting procedures, and provide a framework for effective communication and accountability within the cooperative. By establishing a robust governance structure, you can promote transparency, fairness, and the long-term success of your cooperative.

Key Components of Getting Organized Benefits
Forming a Steering Committee
  • Brings together diverse expertise and perspectives
  • Facilitates effective decision-making
  • Ensures commitment and shared vision
Developing an Action Plan
  • Provides a clear roadmap for cooperative development
  • Defines tasks, responsibilities, and timelines
  • Facilitates effective project management
Conducting a PESTEL Analysis
  • Identifies opportunities and threats in the external environment
  • Guides strategic decision-making
  • Minimizes risks and maximizes chances of success
Establishing a Governance Structure
  • Defines decision-making processes
  • Promotes transparency and accountability
  • Fosters member participation and engagement

By implementing these organizational steps, your cooperative can lay a strong foundation for its success. The steering committee will provide leadership and guidance, the action plan will keep you on track, the PESTEL analysis will inform your strategic decisions, and the governance structure will ensure effective management and equitable member participation.

Incorporating a Cooperative

Incorporating the cooperative is a crucial step in establishing it as a legal entity. To ensure a smooth and successful incorporation process, the following key steps should be undertaken:

Selecting and Reserving a Name

Choose a name for the cooperative that represents its mission and values. It is important to select a unique name that is not already in use by another business entity. You can check the availability of your desired name by conducting a search on the appropriate government website or contacting the relevant authority. Once you have found an available name, consider reserving it if necessary.

Articles of Incorporation

The Articles of Incorporation serve as the cooperative’s legal foundation. These documents provide essential information about the co-op’s formation, such as its purpose, location, duration, and the rights and responsibilities of its members. The Articles of Incorporation must be prepared according to the requirements set forth by the state or country where the cooperative is being registered. It is advisable to seek professional legal assistance to ensure compliance with all necessary regulations.

Writing Bylaws

Bylaws are the rules and regulations that govern the operations and management of the cooperative. They outline the rights and duties of the members, establish procedures for meetings and decision-making, and provide guidance on matters such as membership eligibility, voting, and profit distribution. The bylaws should be carefully crafted to reflect the cooperative’s unique structure and goals. Seek input from cooperative members and consult legal professionals to ensure that the bylaws meet all legal requirements and serve the best interests of the cooperative.

By following these steps and completing the necessary documentation, you can successfully incorporate your cooperative and establish a solid legal framework for its operations. With a well-defined name, clear Articles of Incorporation, and comprehensive bylaws in place, your cooperative will be poised for success.

Building Membership in a Cooperative

Attracting and admitting new members is crucial for the growth and success of a cooperative. By spreading the word about the co-op and its benefits, you can attract individuals who align with your mission and vision. To effectively manage your members, it is essential to establish a system for keeping track of member data. This ensures that you have accurate information and can engage with members on matters such as updates, events, and opportunities.

Holding an Annual General Meeting (AGM) is a significant milestone for any cooperative. This meeting serves as a platform for members to come together, elect the board of directors, and contribute to the co-op’s decision-making process. It is an opportunity to share important updates, discuss financial matters, and engage with members on key issues. By actively involving members in the AGM, you foster a sense of ownership and deepen their commitment to the cooperative.

To attract new members:

  • Promote the co-op through online and offline channels, emphasizing the unique benefits and value it provides.
  • Utilize social media platforms, community newsletters, and local networks to reach potential members.
  • Hold informational sessions or workshops to educate individuals about the cooperative model and how they can benefit from joining.
  • Establish referral programs that incentivize current members to bring in new members.

To keep track of members:

  1. Create a comprehensive member database that includes contact information, membership status, and engagement history.
  2. Regularly update and maintain the database to ensure accurate member records.
  3. Implement systems for member communication and engagement, such as newsletters, email updates, and online member portals.
  4. Engage members in ongoing dialogue to better understand their needs, expectations, and suggestions.

Tables and visual elements can enhance the understanding of membership growth and engagement. Consider incorporating relevant statistics, graphs, or charts to highlight the cooperative’s progress over time or showcase the benefits of membership.

By actively attracting and admitting new members, effectively keeping track of their data, and holding Annual General Meetings, your cooperative can foster a vibrant and engaged membership base. This commitment to member involvement and participation will allow your cooperative to thrive and fulfill its mission.


Starting a cooperative business can be a transformative journey, enabling individuals to come together and address common needs while enjoying the benefits of shared ownership and control. The cooperative model offers a unique opportunity to contribute to the economic development of local communities and foster a sense of empowerment and solidarity among members.

By following the necessary steps outlined in this article and taking into account the advantages and challenges of the cooperative model, entrepreneurs can lay a strong foundation for successful and impactful co-op businesses. From developing a clear idea and gathering interested individuals to conducting a feasibility study and incorporating the co-op as a legal entity, each step is crucial for building a sustainable cooperative enterprise.

Throughout the journey, coop founders must keep in mind that the cooperative model fosters stability, democratic decision-making, lower startup costs, benefits to the community, increased worker engagement, and various tax advantages. However, challenges such as financing, longer decision-making processes, and attracting specialized skills require careful consideration and proactive strategies.

In summary, cooperative businesses offer a powerful alternative to traditional corporate structures, emphasizing community, equity, and mutual support. By harnessing the strengths of collective action, entrepreneurs can create lasting social and economic impact while ensuring the well-being and empowerment of their members.


What is a cooperative?

A cooperative, or co-op, is a user-controlled, user-owned enterprise that allows individuals to meet common needs and benefit from the products or services they create together. Unlike traditional corporations, co-ops operate on the principle of “one member, one vote,” giving equal power to all members.

What are the advantages of a cooperative business model?

The advantages of a cooperative business model include increased stability during economic downturns, democratic control where all members have an equal say in decision-making, lower startup costs due to shared capital contributions, benefits to the community by meeting specific needs, increased worker engagement and commitment, and tax advantages such as issuing patronage dividends.

What are the considerations for starting a cooperative?

Considerations for starting a cooperative include difficulties attracting large investors or securing loans from banks, longer decision-making processes due to member involvement, reliance on members’ ongoing involvement for the co-op’s success, and the equal distribution of profits among members, which may deter some business owners seeking greater individual benefits.

What are the steps to forming a cooperative?

The steps to forming a cooperative include developing a clear idea for the co-op, gathering interested individuals to join as members, conducting a feasibility study to assess the viability of the business idea, incorporating the co-op as a legal entity, and creating bylaws to establish the rules and governance structure.

How does a cooperative work in terms of ownership and control?

The ownership and control structure of a cooperative is based on member equity contribution rather than traditional ownership based on shares. Each member has one vote, ensuring equal voting rights and democratic decision-making. There are various types of cooperatives, including producer cooperatives, consumer cooperatives, housing cooperatives, credit unions, artisan cooperatives, and worker-owned cooperatives.

What are the advantages of a cooperative?

The advantages of a cooperative include equal status where each member has an equal say in management, lower debt risk as members are not personally liable for the co-op’s debts, economic benefits such as patronage dividends and merchandise discounts, greater control and autonomy compared to investor-controlled businesses, tax advantages, and social benefits promoting mutual help and community development.

What are the disadvantages of a cooperative?

The disadvantages of a cooperative include difficulties attracting financing from large investors or banks, longer decision-making processes due to member involvement, challenges in attracting specialized management skills, and the potential lack of sustained member interest and commitment affecting the co-op’s success.

How should I get organized for a cooperative?

To get organized for a cooperative, form a steering committee consisting of like-minded individuals who share the co-op’s purpose. Develop an action plan outlining tasks and responsibilities, conduct a PESTEL analysis to assess external factors, and establish a governance structure to determine decision-making processes.

What do I need to know about incorporating a cooperative?

Incorporating the cooperative is a crucial step in establishing it as a legal entity. Choose a name for the co-op and reserve it if necessary. Prepare and submit the Articles of Incorporation, which provide information about the co-op’s formation, and write the bylaws that establish the rules and regulations governing the co-op’s operations.

How can I build membership in a cooperative?

Building membership in a cooperative involves spreading the word about the co-op and its benefits to potential members, establishing a system for managing member data, and holding an Annual General Meeting where members can elect the board of directors and contribute to the co-op’s decision-making.

What should I consider before starting a cooperative business?

Before starting a cooperative business, it’s important to understand the unique advantages and challenges of the cooperative model, conduct thorough research, develop a clear business plan, and ensure sufficient commitment and involvement from potential members.