07 September 2022
How London-based Protein has transformed from a newsletter to a community-centric collective with a shared purpose
As an organization, Protein is difficult to categorize. It’s a company that does client work. It’s a physical community space. It’s an internet-native network. Today, Protein is all of the above: a creative agency, a shared coworking and events space in London’s Shoreditch neighborhood, and a growing self-governed online community. They describe themselves as “a place where people and ideas grow.” All of Protein’s eclectic ventures are united by a common shared purpose of bringing creative communities together, and exploring alternative business practices through their own “good growth” framework.
Protein has existed in some form for over 25 years. During that time, it has evolved considerably. Will Rowe, Protein’s founder, describes these shifts in three distinct 10 year chapters: “Me,” “We,” and “Us.” In each of these stages, Protein’s organization has grown to be more collaborative, participatory, and community oriented.
Will Rowe has long been a proponent of B-Corp principles, which set high standards for corporate social responsibility, and is a certified B Leader. As Protein has continued to grow, its central organizing purpose has been to advocate and explore “Good Growth”: a framework for ways for organizations to be inclusive, collaborative, and regenerative.
During each of the three steps in Protein’s evolution, it has strengthened its commitment to stakeholder-centric and beneficial business practices. Protein’s shift, from “Me,” to “We,” to “Us” is an instructive example showing how solopreneurs or small teams can transform into community-centric collectives around a shared purpose.
Protein started as many organizations do—as a solo project. Protein’s founder, Will Rowe, first created Protein in 1997 as a tech trend-focused newsletter, written and edited entirely by himself. Each email was called a “supplement,” a play on the idea of each weekly newsletter being “brain food.” Initially sent to only 14 people, the emails were reflections on technological developments through a cultural and UK-based lens, or as Will describes it, “Ways that technology manifests in culture, or culture manifesting in technology.”
This early newsletter, now entering its 25th year, preceded our contemporary idea of digital content marketing, and was primarily just a way for Will to share things that were interesting with a small, but growing audience.
Will describes this time as an era of personal development and discovery, using solo writing to understand the landscape of ways that humanity and culture can be applied to technology. Using the newsletter as a way to develop a voice and perspective, Will leveraged his network and authority, built in large part due to Supplement newsletters, into solo freelancing, and consulting work.
Inspired at the time by friends working at design consultancy IDEO, and their human-centered design approach, Will expanded Protein from a one-person operation to bring other people on and create an agency of his own. Will- recognizing the limit of what one person could achieve on their own.
In 2007, 10 years after the newsletter first started, Protein went from “Me” to “We,” growing into a creative agency as well.
As a multi-person agency, Protein grew to become an organization with dozens of employees and several facets. While still continuing to regularly publish its newsletter, Protein was doing client work for large brands and also running events in London. Having several complimentary focuses is why Protein’s first branding and URL labeled them as “ProteinOS.” Instead of a company, they viewed themselves as an operating system.
In 2010, Protein created a shared physical community space, Protein Studios, in London’s Shoreditch neighborhood. Will Rowe describes Protein Studios as a “modern day community center.” It became a hub for other creative entrepreneurs, as well as a space for film screenings and gallery shows. Protein Studios also made the space available for local communities, charities, and partners.
In 2015, Protein’s business faced several tough years and some painful challenges. They had grown to 60 employees, but had to let go of nearly half the workers. Today, Will reflects that Protein had grown too fast. These tough lessons of growing too quickly helped Protein center around their core purpose today: “Good Growth.”
Reflecting on their work, Protein saw their community space and bringing creative communities together as increasingly more of a core part of their business and identity. Part of the Good Growth exploration, informed in part by B-Corp principles, included finding ways for stakeholders to have greater participatory involvement in the operations and strategy of the business. The impetus to empower Protein’s community at the center of the business, was the start of its next phase, resulting in the Protein Community.
“Here's something that resonates: owning something that's bigger than us. Bigger than me. Bigger than we. It’s for all of us.”
Around this time, Protein began exploring methods of decentralized ownership and community governance. During Covid-19, this effort of community and stakeholder empowerment pivoted towards an online-first approach. How do you meaningfully empower community and stakeholders when everyone is locked at home?
Protein, maintaining their eye for forward-thinking and emerging ideas, became interested in the concept of DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) and community tokens, online communities using blockchain-based tokens as coordination tools. In February 2021, Protein participated in Seed Club, an accelerator program for blockchain-enabled communities. In September 2021, Protein relaunched the Protein Community, with its own token $PRTN.
Bringing the Protein Community into Web3 was a natural extension of the cross-section of their long standing interests: frontier technology, community building, and explorations of stakeholder empowerment. For Protein, these new tools were a way to create a vessel for community participation and explore new expressions of community ownership.
The token, $PRTN, is used for several purposes. It is a way to recognize and measure contributions of value from community contributors, access into the community, ownership over the community’s collective treasury, and governance over which projects we support through their Good Growth reccelerator program.
While they’re still in the early days of this experiment, Protein has reflected on their first 100 days of being a DAO, which now has hundreds of global members working together to further Protein’s Good Growth mission, as well as building tools and spaces for online community building.
What does the next phase look like for Protein?
Connecting online DAO-based token ownership with ownership of longstanding existing business operations is largely unexplored territory, yet it’s an exploration that founder Will Rowe sees as an increasingly interesting path. Can the nascent DAO structure become something that actually collectively operates, governs, and owns Protein’s businesses, physical spaces, and assets?
If so, it may become one of the more pure examples of an “exit to community”, an alternate form of business succession wherein owners of a business can transition ownership to its workers or community.
The continued evolution of Protein will likely be instructive to follow. The journey from Me, to We, to Us, shows a path from being a solo creator towards a more socially and professionally fulfilling collective community–all guided by the Good Growth framework as a shared compass.
Protein team, Protein community
Dirty Words #4: Community
Started in the 1990s as a newsletter written and edited by William Rowe, Protein has grown to become a creative studio, London co-working space, and a community-led DAO.
To curate and create tools and other resources to promote “good growth” as a way to rethink beneficial, sustainable, and ethical business practices for creative enterprises together with a community of “founders, thinkers, creators, researchers, and strategists."