self-managing teams

How Many Bossless Companies Exist Today?

by Lisa Thorell on April 1, 2013

 In April 2014, this post was updated to reflect the then-current employee counts for these bossless companies. LGT

My last post covered Valve Software and the more general topic of “bossless work environments”.  Tac Anderson kindly pointed out to me that I didn’t mention the well-known case of the Morning Star Company.

This started me thinking: Were Valve, Semco and Morning Star outliers? What was the  “Googleable” count of companies who are known to be “bossless”?

So I set out to do a first-order count based on the loose Google query “bossless company”. Sorting through results, I counted only those where I could verify through their websites and/or trusted news sources that had some degree of “bossless” culture.  By this somewhat hybrid  Googlish- public relations definition, I found the following.

The Answer: There are Some 18 Well Publicized Bossless Companies

The table below shows, in alphabetic order, the company names, headquarters location, number of employees, industry and/or vertical market and reference describing a  “bossless workplace”. Now as much as I don’t like messing with small numbers for statistics, still, I note that  there are some surprises.

 Update 4/4/2014: Based on reader comments in 2014 as well as significant hyper-growth in some of the companies discussed (eg. Github,Shopify and Stripe) estimates of the number of employees per company have been updated where noted.

 

Company nameNo. EmployeesIndustryWorkplace Culture Reference
AngelList [San Francisco]12Software platform for startups to meet investors, talent & incubatorsNaval Ravikant' April 2012
Atlassian [Sydney]400Enterprise software for software developers Forbes May 2012
Ciplex [West Hollywood]45Digital marketing and creative agency Inc June 2012
Favi [France]600Automotive component manufacturer Fast Company Sept 2012
GE Aviation [Evandale, OH]]26000Aviation manufacturingWSJ June 2012
Github [San Francisco]238 (updated 4/2014)Web-based hosting platform for software development WSJ June 2012
W. L. Gore & Associates [Delaware]10000Diversified verticals centered on the polymer PTFEWSJ June 2012
Mondragon Corporation [Basque, Spain]85000Diversified: Comsumer Goods to business servicesThe Guardian UK June 2012
Netflix [Los Gatos,CA]2348On-demand video streaming provider Netflix Company Culture Slidedeck
Odd-e {Singapore]N/AAgile software development and training Company website
Semco [Sao Paolo]3000Brazilian manufacturing company Semler article- New Unionism
Shopify [Ottawa]100E-commerce platform for building online stores iDoneThisBlogMay 2012
Skillshare [NYC]15Online community for classes iDoneThisBlog Oct 2012
Stripe [San Francisco]12 (2013) 98 (2014)Online payments processor Alex McCaw Aug 2012
The Morning Star Company [Woodland, CA]400Tomato processorHBR Dec 2011
Valve Software [Seattle]300Web platform for multiplayer video games Varoufakis blog Aug 2012
Whole Foods [Austin]58000Food supermarket chain focusing on natural and organic products Wikipedia- Whole Foods Culture
Wistia [Summerville, MA]23 Internet video hosting Company website

 

Beyond the United States

While many 12 out of  18 are in the U.S., particularly West Coast tech spots (eg. Austin, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle), 6 out of 18 were based  internationally, including Australia, Brazil,Canada,France, Singapore and Spain.

These are Not Just Small Companies

Of these, six were less than 100-person companies. Some 12 out of 18 companies were less than 1000-employee companies. One third of the companies had organizations over  1000 employees, with the largest being the Basque province’s Mondragno with 85,000 worker-members. (Update: One year after the date of this post, Github, Shopify and Stripe have undergone tremendous growth – supporting the view that bossless org structures are not  incompatible with growth.)

Not Just High Tech

While the majority (11/18) are in tech-related areas, over one-third were not, representing  industries as diverse as s automotive, aviation manufacturing, tomato processing to  a natural foods supermarket chain.

Not Just Young Startups

Some of these organizations have a long history. Mondragon has been around since 1956. France’s Favi is over 50 years old and has operated without a personnel department for over 30 years. GE Aviation’s self-managed teams began over 20 years ago.

Caveats

So some of you are thinking, “Oh no, dweep blonde. You are off by orders of magnitude.”

After all, some might argue I should count all open software companies, those where there is the thinnest of dividing lines between producers and consumers, where the software can be modified and redistributed by recipients. Wikipedia today counts over 50 free open software companies alone. Are those not self-managed collectives?

hackNY1Some might argue that hackathons should be considered. One list of hackathons compiled in the first quarter of 2012, counted 160 hackathons taking place worldwide. If we extrapolate that, it’s likely some 640 hackathons, groups of self-organizing code teams, take place each year.

Still others might argue to include the spontaneously organizing crowd challenges where teams of “Solvers” cooperate to address business, social and technical challenges for a large prize reward. As an example, Innocentive has enlisted over 285,000 Solvers across 200+ countries, addressing over 1600 challenges.

Whatever definition of “organization” you are willing to accept and the period of time over which they operate (one day as in a “hackathon” to decades for corporations such as Favi, Mondragon or Semco ), it’s clear that bossless workplaces are much more prevalent than one might first suspect.

Did I miss any obvious candidates? Who would you include? Or exclude?

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Amy Vernon April 1, 2013 at 10:30 am

Some of these were big surprises. I’d be really interested in the case of GE Aviation, given they’re part of a much larger corporation (assuming they *are* part of G.E.?) – how they’ve made it work in their part of the larger animal. Interesting stuff, lady!

Reply

Lisa Thorell April 1, 2013 at 11:39 am

Thanks for dropping by, Amy. Yup. It’s the same GE. Fast Company did a great write-up of the story here: http://www.fastcompany.com/38322/how-teamwork-took-flight .

Reply

Wim Heemskerk August 11, 2013 at 8:20 am

Good starting point.

How would HCL fit in, with its reversed accountability? http://global-enterprise.biz/641/2011/at-hcl-technologies-employees-come-first-than-the-customers/

When do network or swarm organizations of (semi-)independent entities start to fit your definition?
http://www.happymelly.com/
http://www.fm2share.nl/

Reply

Lisa Thorell August 12, 2013 at 11:33 pm

Great questions, Wim. HCL is still another flavor of bossless organization, no? It’s unique (though initially jolting) philosophy, “Employees First, Customers Second” and associated internal initiatives flips the manager’s “commander” role into a “motivation-incentive creator” role, focusing on improving the work environment and extracting maximum value from employee intellectual capital.

Network, swarm, hive organizations? While many of these are less formal structures than legal corporate structures , they show a similar social architecture to bossless organizations, focusing on the value of collaboration, encouraging the dynamic formation of intelligent teams and supporting de novo leadership roles (as opposed to appointed leadership roles).

In the end, I think savvy management in both formal and less formal structures, is coming to recognize that – whether to attract or retain great Millennial talent, grow community or maximize innovative product/services creation – these new agile, chaotic forms of organization are becoming mandatory.

Reply

Daria April 1, 2014 at 4:11 am

Great post, so encouraging. Thank you!
You might want to consider Buffer and Automattic (WordPress)

Reply

Lisa Thorell April 2, 2014 at 11:36 am

Given the lateness of my reply to you, Daria, you are correct. I need some automation tools. 😉

Reply

Sean April 2, 2014 at 4:47 am

Hi, both Stripe and github have much more employees than you indicated.
Stripe is 100+ and github is a few hundreds I think.

Reply

Lisa Thorell April 2, 2014 at 9:27 am

Hi, Sean

Thanks for dropping by and the correction. Yes- my bad- this post is a few years old. I’ll update those numbers in a bit.

Reply

Steven Mak May 15, 2015 at 6:13 am

I am glad that Odd-e is listed as one of the bossless companies in this article. It’s true that no one shall dictate any other people’s schedule and work. I would like to add further information about my company in the table.

At this moment of writing, we now have 21 employees. We are distributed across Asia – Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, and The Philippines.

Thank you for writing this article.

Reply

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