A Few Essential Ingredients for a Purchasing Cooperative

Composting & Buying “Compostable” Paper Goods in Durham, NC

A local environmental leader, Crystal Dreisbach, Founder and Executive Director of Don’t Waste Durham, invited me to join her and two local restaurant and food truck owners to imagine how we could help them purchase biodegradable plates, cups, and carry-out containers as a co-op.

The basic problem? 

Tim Morris, owner and operator of Caffe Bellezza, started the meeting: “The compostable cups I buy cost 200% or more of what their paper counterparts cost.” He continued, “If it was just a matter of 15-25% more, it would be much more palatable.”  Joe Choi, owner of Namu, said, “I have to pay 45 cents per bowl. The compostables cost so much more, I have to increase prices. Fortunately, my customers are willing to pay more for the compostables, but it’s a lot.”

The frustration was clear.

While many of Joe’s customers are willing to pay a premium, he did feel like he had lost some sales over the increased prices. Tim, whose coffee shop is much smaller, is paying 30 cents per 12 oz coffee cup with a Java Jacket and lid. Whereas Crystal shared that a larger coffee shop, three-location Cocoa Cinnamon, is paying 15 cents since they buy 12,000 per month.  Buying at a much higher volume can make a difference for price.

 

Compost pick-up was another major pain point.

Joe shared this experience: “The service for compost hauling used to cost me $600 per month. They increased it to $900/month when I had to increase the service level. And then just a couple weeks ago, after Compost Now bought the smaller company I was using, they increased the price to $1,800 per month.”

 

Volume and Basic Feasibility Economics

We talked about how, between the 3 of them, they could easily come up with 100 restaurant owners and food trucks that they knew personally. We estimated an average spend of $4,000 on products that they might switch to compostables, if the price and quality was reasonably good. So we estimated $400,000 per year of purchases and a 2.5% rebate of $10,000 to coordinate & organize the effort.

For the compost hauling, we estimated that the average trash and recycling pick-up cost was $350 per month and the average compost hauling was $300 per month or about $7500 per year combined. Multiplied by about 30 restaurants we thought we could easily engage $225,000 per year with a 10% rebate of $22,500 to organize the co-op.

We quickly sketched a path to how this co-op for compostables and composting could begin to generate meaningful revenue to pay for the organizer entrepreneuer.

This vision relies on a few key assumptions:

  1. The facts are in our favor. With 100 buyers of compostables and 30 buyers for composting & waste pick-up and a cumulative participation of $600,000+ per year, this co-op could:
    1. Negotiate meaningfully better pricing and terms, so the value to the customers would be sufficient for them to join
    2. Find suppliers and vendors who would agree to our terms. They would offer relatively small order minimums, an easy path to affiliation with the co-op, reasonable delivery terms, payment terms, return policy, and they would agree to pay the rebate required to fund the co-op in an on-going way
    3. Tap into sufficient market competition. There are enough providers that want our collective business that we could use competitive negotiating to get what we’re looking for — or at least a minimum viable level to make it workable. Assessing the minimum viable level is one of the hardest parts of this calculation, but is essential to the early stages of a purchasing cooperative.
  2. The buyers trust that the opportunity is real and worth their time. The art of organizing this process relies on:
    1. Making sure we’re in close relationship with critical “early adopter” and “influencer” restaurant and food truck owners. Since the stakes are highest for them, they need to be at the table each step of the way to hear pushback from the suppliers and develop their own, more nuanced understanding of the market, so that they can make a compelling argument to their peers about why they need to organize.
    2. Having enough data from a variety of buyers, from small food trucks to large restaurants, to extrapolate total potential purchase volumes with reasonable accuracy, while still being conservative enough to earn credibility with suppliers when more than we said actually show up to make the first few group purchases.
  3. The suppliers believe us and are eager to serve us. When negotiating and talking with suppliers, providers, or distributors, they must feel that the opportunity with this group of buyers is viable. This occurs through sharing large projections of total spend that gets their attention, as well as specific anecdotes of real buyer needs and challenges that we’re solving through this process. We must present as established and prepared so the seller will believe that we’re going to be successful.
  4. Relationships are key. The art of this negotiation also relies on an iterative process of getting to know suppliers and what they can and won’t do for us at certain levels of market power, leverage, and percent of their total revenue. We have to make sure that we’re relating to a person who’s up high enough in the company that they can make decisions with their own discretion and values and be impacted by a human argument.

 

Next Steps: Organizing More Buyers

Recruiting buyers actually starts with talking to providers to get a sense for their constraints, openness, and interest. What volumes would make up a meaningful chunk of their business? What value could the co-op add to their lives to make their job easier?

After that, let’s say the critical numbers are around $300,000 and we think we can do that through 12 of the larger & more influential buyers. Can we get 12 buyers to believe this might be possible, such that they show up to a meeting and follow up by sharing their spend data, what would make it worth it to them to switch, and what would hold them back.Once the organizer builds a successful network of 12, then the growth of the co-op becomes a matter of scale. Do the same thing, just do it bigger!

Because ultimately, the person who is in the middle of coordinating all of this is the essential ingredient. Even if purchasers and suppliers are aligned, without the right broker, the opportunity could fail. This person needs to be an intermediary that can deliver trustworthy, believable, and disciplined follow-through, negotiate well with all parties, and balance relational instinct with ruthless savvy when it comes to the numbers.

None of these skills rely on natural talent. CPA Co-op is here to train and support “Organizer Entrepreneurs” who have the passion to make a difference and change our local economy.

Trust and Co-ops

Five years ago, I started the Community Purchasing Alliance Cooperative with a Steering Team of church leaders, a community organizer, and a few generous lawyers.

Today, we are 75 member-owner community institutions. We collaborate on $15,000,000+ in contracts each year. Yet the most important thing we’ve created doesn’t show up in the numbers.

It’s trust.

We’ve built an incredible amount of trust with our members. What’s surprising to me about this is that most of the trust-building has happened not because of anything the staff did, but because of the conversations we facilitated between members. When decision-makers are talking to peer decision-makers about a similar challenge, the value they create and insight they’re able to offer builds something special

Nathan Schneider talks about this same phenomenon in his most recent article for the Coop Biz Journal - Winter_2018_Journal_CoverNational Cooperative Business Association. Nathan starts:

“I’ve noticed some patterns that may become more common in the co-ops to come.”

He’s reflecting on his experience as a reporter:

“They will create value not just with the services they offer to members, but with the connections they enable among members—and the efficiencies members discover together.

This rings true for my experience. For example, at the founding meeting of our co-op in 2014, I remember sitting next to Troy Watson and her telling the room of 50 founding and prospective members and others gathered, “While the savings are helpful, it’s the connections I value most.”

I think this continues to be the experience many of our members have. While we help them manage risk and reduce cost in some of their contracts, it’s the personal connections we’re able to help them make with peers that they value most.

Nathan continues:

“Their specialty will be in fostering trust on trustless networks…”

As I think about where we grow next — whether through building out an online platform for users to co-create value and connection building on something like MARVL.org or whether through developing a new co-op using a similar model in another region — Nathan reminds me that the focus of our work must be in fostering trust.

That’s the specialty of what a co-op can offer and offer with great integrity.