When I first started doing web design, I accepted trades eagerly. It sounds great, doesn’t it? I’ll work for you, you work for me, it’s all very equitable and communistic. In theory.
However, I noticed that my projects that were paid for in trade didn’t always go the way I had hoped.
- They would take a lot longer than my other projects.
- There would be a lot more revisions than my other projects.
- I would end up getting more of the other person’s time in trade than I wanted to or planned to.
- I would end up spending more of my time in trade, than I really wanted to.
- I would end up frustrated and unhappy.
- I would realize at the end that would rather have had cash than the trade.
Because of this experience, I stopped doing them for awhile. Why bother? Normal contracts were so much simpler. Then the perfect opportunity to do a trade came along:
- I really wanted what the other person was offering but it wasn’t something I could comfortably afford to pay for.
- The other person really wanted what I had to offer but it also wasn’t something she could comfortably afford to pay for.
I had come across the first rule of trading:
Only trade when you really want what the other person is offering. Do not do trade as a favor for someone unless you are very clear inside yourself that you are doing this and want to. Realize you are giving them a gift, not a trade.
I still had things to learn however. Because some of the same things happened:
- The project went on for months longer than I had estimated it would.
- The project involved many, many revisions.
In the end, the site was something I was proud of, I was glad to have what I received in exchange, and overall the trade was successful. But I was also tired and a little frustrated. Why did it take so long? Why was it so much more work than similar projects for other people who paid with money instead of trade?
Here’s what I’ve concluded: trades, by their nature, end up taking longer than work for cold hard cash. Here’s why.
People who trade consider their money to be worth more than their time (otherwise they wouldn’t trade).
When someone pays money for something expensive, they think hard before buying it and get their ducks in a row first. It’s not that they value your time, it’s that they value their money and they know they are paying their money for your time. I’ve noticed this is true even when I charge a flat fee. Paying a chunk of change for something makes people invest their time and energy into being clear on what they want.
When someone would rather pay in trade, it’s because they consider their time a more abundant resource than their money. And when you consider a resource to be abundant, you spend it more freely (some might say “waste” it more freely). That means more revisions, more meetings, more waffling, and more of everything else that drags a project out.
So it only makes sense to do a trade if:
- You also consider your time to be more abundant than your money.
- You just dont mind it when a project takes a longer amount of time than normal and your client takes a long time deciding what they want.
- You just don’t have the money to afford the services the other person is offering and you really want those services.
Think long and hard about doing a trade if:
- You have the money to pay for the other persons services but they don’t have the money to pay you, so you would be doing the trade as a favor to them.
- You get annoyed when clients don’t know what they want or ask for a lot of revisions.
- The trade is for something you wouldn’t otherwise purchase even if you had the money.
Here are some ideas for ways to mitigate these problems that come up in trades:
- Trade for a specific number of hours, instead of an indefinite number of hours. For instance, trade 5 hours of your time for 5 hours of their time, and anything after that will be paid for in cash. That gives them the incentive to get clear on what they want out of those 5 hours.
- If you don’t want to cap the hours, cap the weeks/months or the amount of work. Set up deadlines for each deliverable and set the number of revisions or cycles. You will want to make this clear from the start, and you may want to specify why, as in say “I want to be clear about this because otherwise I’ve found trades can take a really long time to finish and I want to be purposeful about our work together”. The more you can get them on board with that goal the more you will be working together toward it, instead of you trying to ‘get them’ to be more on task, which can end up in a power struggle.
- Make a paper contract, or anything else that you normally do for your other for-pay clients. Treat it in every way like a “real project”, because it is.
Any other ideas, insights about how to make trades work?