- Dan Matthews

Sex, succession and the co-op model

It’s Valentine’s Day. For some folks, this means a great deal. Others (no judgement) let it pass without bothering to note its peculiar significance in western culture. Whatever your take on the day, we have a treat for you: a decidedly unique co-operative.

A titillating co-op?

As you know, co-operatives come in all shapes and sizes. Some are based on practical outcomes, such as providing a small community with a fitness facility or housing. Others tactical or strategic, like RedHat Co-operative. While others serve community or similar goals and ideals.

Today, we’re going to take a look at Canada’s (and perhaps the world’s) only sex shop co-op, aptly named Come As You Are, and explore how it’s managed to survive Toronto’s tough independent business environment, chain stores, online retailers and a series of owners.

Different by design

This decidedly unique business is a worker co-operative based in Toronto. Founded in 1997, the co-op has been voted the best sex shop by Now Toronto readers almost every year since then. No doubt, this display of affection is due in large part to its “sex positive,” safe, comfortable approach to (and wealth of information on) all things ever-present but rarely spoken of out loud – ie: the more sensuous of human activities.

The business is also actively involved in sex education and outreach — especially within local community groups and universities — and continues to provide this community service and advocacy.

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Adapting for the future

Running an independent business in Toronto, let alone a sex-positive sex shop, is hard. Really hard. Like most cities, independent, small business in Toronto comes and goes alongside the ebbs and flows of global, national and regional economies. A lot of the current barriers for small business in parts of Toronto no doubt have to do with high rents and challenges from big box and online retailers. For a business with a niche product offering, high rents can present a serious challenge. But somehow this unique small business has withstood the test of time and adapted to changing realities.

In 2016, the owners, who were facing another steep rent increase, chose to close the physical storefront. Thankfully, the business had a bustling online presence, 24-hour delivery as well as its education, health and pleasure workshops. So, the worker-owners at the time decided an online-only storefront was a positive alternative to $10,000/month rents, and the online storefront had been supporting the physical presence for a while anyway.

Change with Continuity

Today, the online presence remains strong, if a tad NSFW, and its reach is North American wide. You’ll also find they continue to live up to their name. No judgements from them and the promise of discreet delivery.

Despite an ever-changing cast of worker-owners, major shifts in how the world’s economy works, and sky-rocketing real estate costs in Toronto, this remarkable small business has survived, while also maintaining a consistent vision, set of values and mission. Having adapted to changing realities operationally, the co-op also manages to deliver a whole lot more than simple bottom-line outcomes, providing valuable community services. And they must be doing something right, because they continue to be shown the love by Now Toronto readers (2017 winners).

Much of the continuity Come As You Are has maintained is likely due to the forethought of founding shareholders and the strength of the co-operative business model in managing succession, but also – without question – the inclusive, welcoming and proactive worker-owners this model has managed to attract.

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Succeeding with Succession

What makes the co-operative business model a strong contender for outliving its business model counter parts is complicated, but much of its success has to do with how a group comes together, takes the time to understand an opportunity, creates a clear vision for the business and its governance, and together produces clear, unambiguous succession planning for a long-term, successful business.

No matter what your ambitions and goals, the co-operative model can probably support your venture. You just need to find a couple other people who agree with the idea. And when you do, contact us. We’re here to help. Happy Valentine’s Day.