How often have you asked your hair stylist, massage therapist or aesthetician just who does their hair, gives them a massage or makes their skin look so good? In most cases, they each know someone with whom they trade services.
Bartering is as old as the Ancient Agora of Athens, when currency took many forms. Few business people talk about it, since it feels like such a secretive under-the counter practice – not even something many of us will admit we do. In today’s economy, however, it is quietly being practiced as a way for small business people to “scratch each others’ backs” using their time instead of their pocketbooks to get their needs met either personally or professionally. An example of this would be trades for a chiropractor to adjust the vertebrae of a web designer, a social media expert and a content provider (like yours truly) on an ongoing basis to handle all of his or her online marketing efforts, freeing up the chiropractor’s time to do what he or she does best while attracting new clients using one professional in each of his or her respective industries.
Never done a trade or even thought of doing one? Barter certainly has its uses.
If you are an independent contractor who provides a service, you no doubt have already set a price on what you do. There is the cost of doing it (your time and materials), the fee you would charge for your services on the open market, and then there is the value you would put on trading it for something you might never have had the luxury of having or having done. When I look at the last option, I find most of the people with whom I trade services prefer not to quantify the dollars we are giving away, instead focusing on how much intrinsic value that other service offers us. Value (like beauty) is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.
The warning I would offer here is one of moderation, however. While barter is a great way of enjoying a service that you might otherwise deem a luxury or even a necessity potentially creating raving fans and getting referrals down the road, it won’t put food on the table or pay your mortgage. Don’t get caught up in so many trades that your time and finances are severely compromised. I judge whether I want to take on a trade by (1) if it’s something I’ve always dreamed of doing or having done on a regular basis (2) if I have come to know and trust the service provider through friendship, business networking or reputation, having already seen samples or evidence of his or her work (3) limiting barter clients to a certain aspect of my life – in my case (and at my age), health and beauty, and (4) if doing a service for that potential trade partner robs me of too much precious money-making time.
You may want to test the waters with a potential trade client, but if you go this route, be sure to make it one or two service-to-service swaps with specific timelines and services in mind. The most troubling types of swaps are the kind where one of the two parties is giving of themselves and the other hasn’t reciprocated in kind. I have had trades that have haunted me for more than a year merely because the person giving me services says he or she will take me up on my half of the bargain at a later date. This can cause sleepless nights and what I call “trade guilt” – forcing me to repeatedly ask them what I can do to pay them back. Your business reputation does, after all, rely on the goodwill and referral of others.
If you haven’t considered this form of doing business, I recommend you join a professional networking group where the kinds of trades that would interest you exist within that group’s members. Then take it slowly, adding one trade client at a time and making friends as you go. You might just see how this ancient form of doing business can favorably affect your bottom line.
A postscript: Be sure you are comfortable with the “shades of grey” (no, not THAT kind..) barter can introduce into your life and be up-front with your trade partner on the legalities. In the U.S., the gross amount of a barter exchange’s sales is considered taxable revenue by the Internal Revenue