What kind of an organization would the Hub become as it expanded globally? Or, to be more specific, how would it navigate the tension between serving a movement, building a business, and sustaining a network?
“Everyone has ideas for making the world a better place,” he says. “But where does one go to make them happen? We felt there was a crisis of access to the experience, infrastructure, and networks needed to turn ideas into reality. We discovered a whole set of people trying to realize good ideas from their bedrooms—lonely, cut off from the world. So it dawned on us: What if these people could come together in the same physical space and have a place to connect?”
The main idea was to create a place where unlikely allies would meet by serendipity.
To catalyze that kind of interaction, Hub founders introduced the concept of hosting. “We didn’t want any traditional receptionists. We wanted to host people in the same way that you would host someone in your house or at a party—making guests feel at home and introducing them to people they should meet,”
As part of its hosting effort, the Hub began organizing various community-oriented events, including weekly lunches, business clinics, and skill-sharing sessions.
Over the next couple of years, the Hub started to expand as a movement of like-minded people who were building roughly similar Hub communities. There was no global structure to guide or limit them. That lack of clear rules was appealing to many Hub founders; it gave them the freedom to develop their own version of the Hub model.
“Essentially, we were caught up in a tension: Do we foster a movement of Hub-like spaces? Or do we franchise?” Robinson says. “We wanted to borrow a little from the corporate franchise culture of codifying best practices and expectations around a shared intent. But we also wanted to borrow from the energy that movements develop as they spread around the world. So we were trying to pick the best bits of both operating models and to create something of a hybrid—a model that could serve the huge potential that we saw.”
… a “social franchise” model. Under the model, new Hubs would pay a substantial joining fee and a share of their ongoing revenue to the global Hub organization. In exchange, they would receive a license to use the Hub brand, along with dedicated support from a central team that would help them launch operations and increase their impact. (Existing Hubs would be able to join the franchise system under a special set of terms.) To enable the organization to expand globally, Jonathan Robinson founded Hub World, a limited company headquartered in London. The new company would provide central services—technology support, knowledge codification, quality control—to local Hubs. The core Hub team also began to develop a “suitcase” of best practices that would help Hub founders to meet challenges related to space design, community building, and business planning.
An Alternative Model Takes Shape
The core of the plan involved the creation of a new entity called the Hub Association.
The association would own a limited company called Hub GmbH, which would have a mandate to facilitate collaboration across the Hub network, to provide local support, and to grant licenses to new Hub sites.
One principle of the association was to keep the center as lean as possible and to delegate much of the necessary work to people based in local Hubs. Toward that end, Hub leaders introduced a Sister Hub system and other peer-based structures to guide new initiatives.
the Hub Association inverted the centralized structure of Hub World. In place of that structure, it adopted a distributed model in which every Hub would be accountable for the whole.
In the new structure, as in the earlier structure, member Hubs would pay a joining fee and an ongoing revenue share.
New Challenges Emerge
Hub leaders introduced a peer-review mechanism.
Under the revised process, applicants must first obtain a referral from an existing Hub to gain candidate status. Next they must submit a feasibility study and receive the backing of a second Hub. Then existing Hubs vote as a group on whether to accept applicants into the Hub Association. This approach not only ensures that the quality of applicants will be high, but also helps build a strong relationship between each new Hub and other local Hub sites. “The main challenge in this process is how to maintain quality standards without getting standardized,”
“Essentially, we’re becoming a platform that connects people to meaningful content, both locally and globally,”
Hub Founders Look Back—and Look Ahead
The effort to resolve such tensions led Hub leaders to a crucial insight: Along with being a movement, along with being a business, the organization that they had created over the years was fundamentally a network—a community of like-minded peers who have a common purpose and a commitment to collaborate with each other. The network model differs from the other two organizational models in important ways. Whereas a movement is open to anyone who will follow its core vision, a network has boundaries that reflect more or less explicit principles regarding how people will work together. Unlike a business, meanwhile, a network involves relationships that are collaborative rather than transactional. Simply put: A movement attracts passion-fueled activists, a franchise attracts transaction-oriented managers, and a network attracts peer-driven entrepreneurs.
Which model is most effective when it comes to scaling up an organization for global impact? The case of the Hub suggests that a hybrid model may be most workable. But which sort of hybrid? For Hub leaders, the answer was to combine the spirit of a movement and the mechanics of a business within a co-owned network that allows for entrepreneurial freedom. The result is a distributed power structure that thrives on the self-organizing capacity of its members.