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?
Mark Silver says
Great insight- I’d never thought of it in quite that way- about time abundance versus money abundance.
I have had trades that have functioned exactly like paid gigs- they don’t always take longer. But, I find that I have to be clear in myself that it’s the same deal- and treat my client the same way, with the same firmness and compassion that I would someone who was paying in cashola.
I love your distinction. Thanks for posting it!
Yay, I’m glad the distinction was helpful. I agree, I think it’s possible to have it function the same as paid, but only if you treat it as such and bring that same consciousness to it.
That’s a good point. Recently I did some work as a gift and ended up spending far too much time, building resentment AND making them unhappy…
If only I had specified the number of hours I’ll put in or the number of weeks I’d commit to…
Oh.well.. we live and learn 🙂
Yeah, I’ve been there too. I think it’s the sort of thing that everyone figures out the hard way because the general idea isn’t ‘out there’ yet. Individuals have learned about it, but the general culture still hasn’t “learned” it yet – the knowledge is not yet cultural knowledge. This is the case with a lot of things having to do with money, boundaries, and consciousness. Anyway, I digress. Thanks for reading!
I’m beginning to set up my own website. Not really knowing what I want and watching it come along as I grow. Your site has been incredibly helpful. Thank you for posting your insights and tips.
I’ve done a few trades. After reading your post I can see clearly what happened. I did a steel sculpture for a yoga teacher as trade for classes. After “giving” her the piece I decided I didn’t want to take yoga and asked for cash instead. We talked it over and it was a bit awkward but ultimately we both were happier. She paid in monthly payments that were affordable for her.
Just goes to show there are a lot of options when you open to them.
I’m glad you are finding the site useful, thanks for reading and commenting!
Congrats on your re-negotiation! I agree that there are a lot of options. I think that a lot of the problems with trades come up when people realize it’s not working for them, but they don’t feel confident re-negotiating the agreement (or don’t think that’s an option) so they feel stuck and then they finish their side of the agreement but don’t really get anything out of it in return that they want. So it’s good to remember that you can always stop in the middle and say “Let’s change this agreement so it works for both of us again”. Most people will sense the tension if you aren’t happy and they’ll want to get to an agreement you both can live with – especially if you make it clear that their needs are still important to you and you are really going for win/win.