Saleem joined the Work With Indies Discord for a live conversation in late 2021. Topics included Saleem's background, KO_OP's origin story, starting and working in a co-op, mental health and well-being, + more. The below is a recap of that conversation. You can listen to the full audio here:

Topics Covered

  • Saleem's origin story and how KO_OP came to be
  • Being a Studio Director at a co-op
  • The unique co-op structure of KO_OP
  • Bringing up are uncomfortable topics (harassment, bad workplace habits/practices, etc.)
  • Approaching 1 on 1s with no managers in a flat structure
  • Facilitating open communication between departments
  • How their 4-day work week affected productivity/motivation
  • A deep dive on creating an operating a co-op, including what Saleem would do differently and how every gets paid
  • Common questions, concerns, objections that they receive during interviews
  • The stuff that stands out to them on resumes and portfolios
  • Why some companies require local (Canadian) residency for job openings
  • Something everyone should know about KO_OP

Resources and People Mentioned

Hi! My name is Saleem Dabbous (he/they). I'm the co-founder and studio director over at KO_OP where we're making Goodbye Volcano High. We're a worker-owned co-op too! You can also find me on Twitter.

Q: What's the KO_OP origin story?

A: We wanted to have this umbrella group called KO_OP, that would support a bunch of different artists doing their own thing. [.c-highlight]We quickly found out, because we all started the studio with no video game production experience, that we didn’t know what we were doing, and that it was a lot easier if we were working together than on our own...[.c-highlight]

.. We didn't even know what co-ops were when we started the studio, but we looked at the model. “Oh, shit. This is exactly what we want to do.” This speaks to us. This is really where our values lie. This makes a lot of sense. So let's just do it. And so we converted the studio into a co-op and have been operating as such ever since.

Q: What do you think is different about your experience than our friends over at Klei Entertainment or Capy Games?

A: I can't make decisions unilaterally on my own because our business is run in a flat structure. The co-op has to vote on major decisions. People trust me a lot in my field, just as I would trust a programmer or an artist in their field. They trust me to look out for KO_OP’s best interests and to bring opportunities to the team...

... We vote on what's going to happen. And I think that's quite different. I can't make unilateral decisions for the studio, nor should I, because it's a co-op where we have an elected board that represents the workers and that's how we make decisions. [.c-highlight]My job is to advise them, guide the ship, but I'm not the captain...[.c-highlight]

...When it comes to our creative projects, we have very defined hierarchies and those are voted on and created at the start of the project. As it gets greenlit through our internal green-lighting process, we define the team, the directors, and who has the final say on what.

And then we operate that way. But what's cool is, and what's really intrinsic to being a co-op is, that even though we've defined these structures and these hierarchies for our creative projects, anybody at any level in the chain can hold people accountable. I think that's one of the key things about being a co-op. [.c-highlight]Accountability is really intrinsic to the way we work.[.c-highlight]

Q: You say you have assigned certain individuals to conduct one-on-ones. What does that look like?

A: It started where I was doing all the one-on-ones. I have a lot to do and also [.c-highlight]managing and handling every person's mental health and wellbeing at work[.c-highlight] was starting to become a lot for me to coordinate and just to handle on my own.

And so I brought it to the group. This one-on-one thing we're doing is great, but I really don't have the capacity to be doing it at this scale. But we found that it brought a lot of value and people really liked them. So how are we going to change that? Several people volunteered to help coordinate those and run them...

... We also have anonymous surveys that we pass around every month so that people can bring up any issues that they might have and any suggestions.

Q: You mention that you are Lebanese and you grew up in Kuwait. A key part of kind of diversity equity and inclusion is surrounding ourselves with people from different backgrounds and their unique perspectives, to help us have a more well-rounded view of the world. Is there something from your upbringing that informed you or drove you towards this co-op kind of methodology?

A: I grew up in Kuwait, which is hyper-capitalistic. It's one of the richest countries in the world and has benefited from the oil trade and has the highest valued currency in the world. I grew up in this very family-based culture, not an individualistic culture, but under hyper-capitalism. I saw how that affected my family when they had money and when they lost money. And the inhumanity of the working environment in Kuwait, especially with labor from India and the rest of Asia being treated terribly.

And so I had always felt this deep discomfort with that context. And that felt like it didn't really line up with my values over family and life and what I thought was right. I think that's a big part of why when I was starting KO_OP and people pointed us towards the worker co-op model that really clicked for me. It provided an alternative to what capitalism had taught me my whole life, which I had always felt deeply uncomfortable with.

Q: So let's say you knew somebody who invested a year of time, money, and resources to create and build a j̶o̶b̶ ̶b̶o̶a̶r̶d̶ company. They didn't getting paid the entire time. And now they want to turn that into a co-op? I struggle a bit with the time and money invested to create the value of a thing. And then migrating it to a co-op, which then evenly distributes ownership across all the members.

How do we recognize the value created for the original founder?

A: In that example, I don't know. I'm not that smart. I rely on other people at my studio to argue and advise on something like that. But what I will say as somebody who put in all my savings when I was in my early twenties, into the studio to start it. Which wasn't a lot of money, but it was a lot for me.

I don't really care. I think a big part of it is just recognizing the privilege of being able to do that and paying that forward to the people who joined the studio and carried it forward.

[.c-highlight]I was lucky that I grew up and had access to certain jobs and family wealth or whatever, to be able to have savings in the first place to put into this thing. And not everybody has that opportunity. And so for me, that's what I should be doing with my privilege.[.c-highlight]

I should be taking that money, putting it into this thing, and then giving it to other people who I believe in and who believe in that as well. [.c-highlight]I got lucky. So fuck it. Let's make sure other people can benefit from my luck.[.c-highlight]

At the same time, that money was recorded as a loan to the studio. And when we've had an influx of cash, the owners have voted to pay me back for that initial $7,000. So it's not like a ton of money, but like I got paid back that money last year, eight years after the studio started, which is pretty cool.

So you can still recognize both the value that you brought into the studio. [.c-highlight]Yes, you worked hard to do that, but also there were so many invisible moments of luck and privilege that led to that as well.[.c-highlight] It's a thing that I do believe in getting over and moving beyond because I think it's about reframing our relationship to capital and to what we're taught is value.

"I got lucky. So fuck it. Let's make sure other people can benefit from my luck." – Saleem Dabbous

Q: Rico heard that you started to utilize a four-day workweek. How did this increase productivity and motivation?

A: We switched to four days in the summer as a test and saw that in terms of productivity, we were essentially the same. We were getting the same amount of work done, but people were way happier. Like, way happier.

So it was a no-brainer for us to just be like, yeah, let's do it. Four-day workweeks for life because we're all living through it right now. Having that extra day off to just, recalibrate, get in touch with our lives outside of our work, that really goes a long way.

And the boost in mental health is worth any negligible drop in productivity. It's awesome. I highly recommend it.

And, just in the context of a co-op, because we own the studio as a group, [.c-highlight]the studio exists for our benefit[.c-highlight]. One of those benefits is giving us more time of our day back because we have the option to and so we took it. I really appreciate being able to work in a place where we are seeing the co-op as a resource in and of itself to the employees. How do we flex that resource? How do we flex that muscle to provide resources for people that we couldn't otherwise access on our own?

Q: You suggest therapy for emotional intelligence. How do you actually help facilitate an increase of that skill set?

A: If your company has money, you create a fund for mental health and let people access mental health resources.

[.c-highlight]You just take away the friction of accessing mental health resources.[.c-highlight] I think that's a big blocker for a lot of people–not even knowing where to start. "I need to find a therapist. Okay. What do I do next? There are a hundred million therapists do I just Google therapists?"

There's a lot of friction points in getting started with accessing mental health resources. And so I think part of it is reducing those barriers and creating resources that make it easier. And some money that goes towards it.

Q: You have requirements on your jobs that all applicants must be Canadian residents and legally able to work in Canada, but you're open to all applicants abroad. Would you be able to offer relocation or visa assistance?

A: It's a challenge for us. Part of the reason why we have that requirement is that some of our funding comes from the Canadian government, which requires something like 75% of our staff to be Canadian.

That's where that like restriction comes from. If it was up to me, we would have zero restrictions to work with people from anywhere around the world.

Honestly, the visa is a challenge for a small studio. It costs us money and time and coordination. It's not the easiest thing, but we have done it in certain cases. It's usually when we have a relationship with a person that we've known and is a really good fit with co-op and is really interested in moving to Canada.

But it's been a challenge for us in the past. And I wouldn't hold my breath for it because it's just not accessible for small studios to be putting in those resources.

[.c-insight]💡 This is a common question in our community, especially right now when the entire world is remote. Many applicants don't understand or believe the local restrictions. You point out a key component, especially in Canada where so much of video game funding comes from the Canadian government, which has this 75% requirement.

Then there are costly and complicated visa and tax issues. You might even be required to set up a local office in a country where you are employing someone remotely.

As you said, it's not something that can't be solved but if a studio is going to invest that type of time, money, and effort, that's more likely going to be for someone who is exceptionally talented. It's less likely to be a junior employee. - Nate[.c-insight]

A: I would agree with that. In our case, [.c-highlight]it costs us between $5,000 to $15,000 to bring in a foreign employee. For a small studio, that's a huge amount of money to invest in a person.[.c-highlight]

I think there needs to be a sort of level of trust and relationship that already exists there for that to happen. But again, if we hit the jackpot with a game and money is not a concern for us anymore. I wouldn't care about this. I would literally, I just hired someone to take care of it and be like, "Applications from anywhere. Relocation. Fuck yeah!" But it's just not the reality for us right now.

Q: Tell us a little bit about who you're looking for and what would catch your eye in an application.

A: First, we're looking for a Storyboard Revisionist to take our lead's storyboards into thumbnails and clean them up, expand them, and do that kind of revision work.

[.c-insight]💭 Speaking of storyboards, I thought this peek into Game Maker's Sketchbook storyboard winners was pretty neat. - Nate[.c-insight]

Goodbye Volcano High is basically an interactive TV show game hybrid. So there's tons and tons of storyboarding that goes into it. It's storyboarded like a TV show. So there's a heavy requirement on quality storyboards. Our lead border has so much to script work to thumbnail that they delegate all the expansion and clean up to revisionist artists who then get to put their own personality into the boards and into the character acting. It's still a very creative job, but it's really taking direction from the storyboard lead and interpreting their sketches, and expanding on them.

Honestly, what I look for is basically an example of storyboarding in a portfolio. It's pretty easy to look at a portfolio with boards and decide if that type of boarding and the type of artists that they are matches the style that we're looking for. It doesn't need to be anything crazy. It doesn't even need any shipped game experience.

The Senior Software Engineer position is a bit of a toughie. Honestly, most senior programmers could go and get $150k - $200k salaries at most places. It's a challenge for us to hire that position and we recognize it and we know that it's a long shot, but we're still going to advertise it. For that, we're looking for somebody who has shipped a game before and knows what goes into shipping a game so that they can join a team of engineers and elevate that team.

Our programmers are awesome, but we all recognize that we came from outside of games and that there's a lot of lessons that we need to learn from people who have that experience of being in games. So we're looking for someone who's excited about the types of work we're doing, excited about our politics, and is excited about working with a team that they can help push further and further. That's the kind of person we're looking for that job.

Q: What is the path to membership? How do team members get paid?

A: If we have a member track position open, there's a probation period where you work with us for a set period. It's currently six months. But I think we're going to expand that to 12 months. Legally in Quebec, the maximum it can be is 18 months.

We have several checks along the way on how things are going because we feel like around the six-month mark, we have a good idea of if this working relationship makes sense. If it's going well and this person fits in this space and has a lot to contribute, we have a vote to bring them in as a member. And if that passes, they're able to buy into the studio and become an owner.

Everybody's paid salary. One of the key things is that we wanted to make sure was it was sustainable from day one for people to work at the studio. Even though our salary rate is lower than what a bigger studio or a more established studio might have, everybody's paid a wage for their work.

There's also a bonus structure and residual structure for owners and for non-owners. There's a bonus structure because we still work with people who aren't owners of the studio, like contractors who increase our bandwidth from time to time. For bonuses, it's based on how many milestones on a project you've shipped.

And if we have a huge success, all owners get residuals from a project, whether or not they worked on it.

Q: What disadvantages there are in working with co-op and how you might mitigate some of those disadvantages?

A: I don't think there are any disadvantages, believe it or not. I think that you have the same disadvantages or advantages as any other workplace. I do think that there's a higher requirement for communication and in and aligning people.

But I honestly think that's the case at other studios. They just don't care about that stuff. Cause they don't need to because they're like "I'm the boss, so you do as I say," and that just creates a different kind of disadvantage for them. But yeah, I would say that the challenge is that level of communication and buy-in and making sure that exists. But I don't see that as a disadvantage.

[.c-insight]💡 That level of buy-in is required anywhere. As managers, sure, we could just give somebody orders. But we won't be able to do that for long before that person gets fed up and leaves. Especially if they're talented. And we don't want talented people to leave.

Also, if they're not totally bought into that task or project, if they're not inspired by it, they're probably not going to produce great work. And we want great work.

Whether a 11 person co-op or a when I was leading a 25 person team, I had to ask the right questions and find the right motivations, aspirations, and inspirations for each person to rally them around their project or mission.

When I couldn't get enough people invested in a project, I'd have to change it. I couldn't force people to do anything. Consensus building is required in both places. A manager might think otherwise. But that team and that approach won't last very long or be very successful.

So, you're right. It isn't a disadvantage. In fact, you're in a better place as this approach is a fundamental part of who you are. - Nate[.c-insight]

There's a lot more in the full audio conversation that you don't want to miss.

A very special thanks to BaldSavant, Emily, Erik, Juan, Karomapu, Marie, Rico, Robert, and Vextera for all of your fantastic questions. 🙏