A plane ticket to Miami with a free place to stay, a train ticket to London, ten days accommodation in New York, a sustainable clutch made from recycled leather, beautiful bracelets with rare gemstones and beads. This year, I have (re)discovered the art of bartering.
Bartering or Barter Work is trading goods or services for other goods or services, without exchanging money. The barter system has been around since the old days, when people in small villages would exchange agricultural goods or services with their neighbors so they all could provide for their simple livelihood.
First, I know that being in the position to barter could be seen as a privilege since it doesn’t pay the rent, and I understand that you should focus on making a living first. But I'd like to argue that bartering could bring many possibilities to your doorstep and enrich your life with wonderful experiences, even when you are low on cash funds. You just have to be thoughtful about how you do it. These are the rules and the philosophy I abide by when designing for trade.
"Nothing is free, and especially not your time and skills. So make sure that whatever you trade is valuable to you and also valuable to your client."
Always exchange equal value
An important one: You should never exchange your services for things like prestige or exposure. This should never be part of any contract with a client. Nothing is free, and especially not your time and skills. So make sure that whatever you trade is valuable to you and also valuable to your client. Both parties need to get something from the exchange and "pay" for it in some way or form. It is often best to calculate your hours in real cash value, so you have a ballpark figure in mind and clear terms for your trade.
Trading for invaluable experiences
Sometimes the value cannot be measured – for example, when you exchange your services for an experience or a place to stay in another country. I’ve done trades where I didn’t count the hours because I knew the experience would enrich my life in ways that don't have a cash value. This was the case when I traded my design work for free stays in New York and Miami. I likely couldn't have taken these trips this quickly as it’s so expensive to stay there, but thanks to bartering projects I was able to enjoy both cities to the fullest and at a low cost.
Trading for cost reduction
One bartering opportunity is entrepreneurs or small companies that have no big cash flow yet, but make beautiful products or offer services that you find interesting. These start-ups or small businesses are always looking to reduce costs and for them, it's much cheaper to trade one of their already-made products than to pay for your services in full.
This shouldn’t mean that your part of the deal is cheaper or less professional, so make sure the products are of good quality and/or that the person is experienced in the services they provide. Even though no money is involved, bartering should be seen as a professional business relationship and exchange.
"Not all things worth counting are countable."
Trade only with those you trust
There should always be a level of trust between the two parties when doing work for trade. I have personally only done trades with family or friends. If you want to trade with another business, I would approach it as any other project. Consider setting up a little contract so both parties are one hundred percent clear on the trade, the deadlines and the deliverables.
Be aware of The Taxman
Another reason to keep bartering between friends and family is the tax implications. I’ve done some research and it seems that both in The Netherlands (I live in Amsterdam) and in the United States, bartering goods and services is seen as taxable income.
When you trade between people close to you, however, the rules become a bit blurred. Say your friend in Miami has a problem with her website and you fix the issue. Because she is so happy, she invites you to come to Miami and offers to pay for your plane ticket. The plane ticket can be seen as a gift from her to you, which means no tax has to be paid. But if you trade with a company that offers to make you a promotional video in exchange for a website design, the costs become higher and the taxman more interested.
So keep the bartering to a few fun projects, and only do it when you are happy with the trade and know you are getting some valuable experiences from it. And don’t let your barter projects eat away your time for paid jobs. I don’t know your landlord, but I’m guessing he wouldn't be too happy with a sustainable clutch made from recycled leather. Get your rent money first!
Hi! My name is Rosa but you can call me Nika. I’m a freelance designer living and loving Amsterdam. I'm the author of this article.