Freelancer Quandary: When Is It Okay to Barter?

By Spenser Davis July 29th, 2014

Whenever people suggest we abandon capitalism in favor of the barter system, they’re asking for eye rolls. Switching to a barter economy where we trade goods and services for other goods and services is not going to happen on a large scale any time soon.

However, for individual cases, bartering still has some value. It can still help a freelancer get paid, just in a different form than a paycheck. After all, if you were about to spend 400 dollars on a new TV, that new TV is just as valuable to you as 400 dollars.

It’s worth pointing out that bartering should always be for things of real value; words like “prestige” and “experience” shouldn’t be a part of a contract with a client, and one should never take a job that pays in manipulative intangibles. That’s not bartering, it’s stealing.

When to barter

Right now on Craigslist, you can find barter listings in New York City for yoga lessons, One Direction concert tickets, and a lawn mower. The right exchanges are available, if you know where to look—and like One Direction.

My first experience with bartering was not long after I moved to Seattle. I met the owners and members of a local coworking space that catered to freelancers and started attending their free networking events. They proposed making a commercial for the space, and as a former film student with some industry experience, I suggested to take on the gig. I wrote, shot, and edited the commercial—initially in order to get my name out there in the local business community and hopefully get some referrals.

The owners of the coworking space offered me a free membership for a year, something that’s been nearly invaluable to me in the time since. I had been looking for a place to work on a daily basis, so this transaction was perfect for me.

When to avoid bartering

Not every exchange works out perfectly. Consider what the client is asking and calculate your normal rate. Compare that rate to the price of what the client is offering to barter, and go from there. If the word “prestige” even enters the conversation, address it immediately by explaining you require a tangible form of payment.

Once I was offered a gig to help manage the social media feeds of a literary magazine that was getting fairly popular. The editors tried to leverage the popularity of the magazine against my hope of getting paid, offering the grand payment of placement on the website’s masthead and free entrance to a yearly conference on the other side of the country. If I could’ve traded my spot on the masthead for three months worth of groceries and gas, we could’ve had a deal. But unfortunately, masthead currency hasn’t become the gold standard quiet yet.

Seeing it from both sides

Susan Greene, a marketing copywriter based in Florida, has been on both sides of the bartering trade. When asked what the ideal situation is for bartering, she said, “Both parties must have a need for the other. It’s best if you have an existing relationship, as a big factor in a successful barter is trust.”

Greene’s best bartering arrangement came a decade ago, when a new company needed copy for their website. Greene happened to need website design. It was an easy swap.

Conversely, a deal gone bad has led her to look for other avenues besides bartering. In return for some work, one company compensated her with a ticket to watch a mud run. “I don’t think it needs to be said that the payment was not reciprocal to the work required,” she said. She also noted that bartering gigs should be only a tiny fraction of a freelance docket. “Don’t let the time you invest in the trade take away from paid jobs, as barters won’t pay your rent.”

But sometimes it’s alright to compromise when the client has something to offer that you already needed. Trading my video skills for access to office space benefitted me, but it might not be the same for everyone—sometimes all the client offers is free entrance to a mud run.

Image by Bob Brawdy
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