The Fifth Elephant 2015

A conference on data, machine learning, and distributed and parallel computing

Steven Deobald


Two Years Wiser: The Nilenso Experiment

Submitted May 11, 2015

Attendees will hear how nilenso has overcome a series of challenges present in running a technology co-operative. This story will be informative for anyone who wants their team to be more involved, not just for employee-owned companies. Understanding decision-making, execution, and delivery is essential for any business. By describing the structural and procedural challenges we’ve faced over the past 2 years of running our company as a democracy, some clear lessons emerge.


When we describe nilenso as an “employee-owned democracy”, people are immediatley interested. “What does that even mean?” is a common first response. We’ll usually respond by describing “employee-owned” in legal terms and once people understand our structure, they often have a difficult time imagining that we can ever get anything accomplished: how are decisions are made democratically? who is responsible for outcomes? who has to have the uncomfortable conversations? what processes do we follow?

An external observer often mistakes nilenso for a hippie commune or a disasterous management case study waiting to happen. However, when we retrospect over the past two years of our existence, we see that the more rationally and scientifically we approach any given situation, the better the outcome. We have certainly had our share of failures, but open communication and transparency allows us to learn from them. Planning and projection is always uncertain, but if we analyze the data and are honest with ourselves, the future is never quite as scary as it seems to our imaginations initially.

As we walk through two years of co-operative life, you’ll hear about our genesis, our ugliest client, our hardest conversations, our biggest successes, our biggest mistakes, and all that we have left to accomplish. Underpinning all of this are our purpose, our goals, and our ethos... themselves forever in flux as we learn.

Speaker bio

Steven has worked for international consultancies, early-stage startups,
slow-saas-ramp-of-death startups, trading firms, the Canadian government,
intelligence agencies, and a little employee-owned tech coop here in Bangalore.

Across these organizations, he’s seen a lot of project management and team
management strategies. Some work by flow. Some work by force. Some never work. It’s
become a mission in recent years to figure out not just what works for him, but
what general toolset our companies can use the world over to create more meaningful,
enjoyable places to work.


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