The Freelance Bartering Economy: Trading Talents and Saving Bacon

Written by Tom Bentley on January 9, 2017

Do you remember when you went through your Halloween candy as a kid, setting aside things like nougat treats (ugh, nougat), thinking you could trade those to your friend for those tiny, delicious Mounds bars? The freelance bartering economy is a slightly more sophisticated version of that — though we’d never suggest your talents tasted of nougat.

Starting your contracting career is tough enough: getting your name out there, working with new clients, dealing with deadlines, billing and follow-up. And money. If you’re new to the freelancing game, you might not have a wall of gold bricks to lean on while you wait for the money to pour in. That’s where the freelance bartering economy comes in: Your skills that define you as a contractor don’t have to be a simple “pay for play” transfer.

You can trade your talents for those of another vendor who has a skill you lack. If they have a taste for nougat, they’re happy to give up their Mounds bars. Let’s take a direct example: mine. I’m capable of making small updates to my WordPress-based website, but when it comes to making complex changes, I flail. However, I have a pal who talks fluent WordPress, and he’s also a fiction writer. Since I edit fiction, we’ve now done several talent trades that have made for a smoother site and fancier fiction, all without dirty money trading hands.

Gimme 50 Headlines for a Good Customer Journey

Tradespeople understand the freelance bartering economy. If you’re a landscaper with a busted washing machine, you probably wouldn’t think twice about offering a couple of hundred bucks worth of tree trimming if your repair person would trim that much dough off the repair work. This one might seem esoteric, but my girlfriend, also a marketing writer, recently traded a session of headline/business email writing for instruction on how to do a customer-journey map and lead-nurture campaign (yeah, that’s how marketing types talk) from a senior manager at another marketing firm.

We also just returned from a month in Hawaii, without paying a dime for lodging. We traded house-sitting an absent homeowner’s dog for the chance to stay for free on Oahu and a bit on the Big Island. Not precisely a skills trade (and the dog was neurotic), but hey, it was Hawaii.

Your “trade” might also be based on delayed returns: I’ve guest posted on a few well-known writing sites, where I’ve had a small bio that links to my how-to writing book or to my freelance portfolio. I’ve had direct evidence later of selling books or getting freelance gigs from those postings. Do your research on the site’s reach for your audience, so you aren’t just whistling words into the wind. Are there online venues for your profession where you can offer advice or how-to techniques on something that could prompt a potential customer to call?

Talents Are Tradeable

I don’t think you should play up in your promotions or your website copy that you’re willing to trade your work for someone else’s; those marketing efforts should probably be directed toward building that wall of gold bricks. But if you have friends or business acquaintances that have talents that you could use, and your talents might fill a gap in their own, go for it.

Keep in mind that all parties should know this is an equal exchange: valuable goods for valuable goods. These should never be charity transactions, but equitable deals where value is exchanged. The freelance bartering economy lives on because it works. And you might be able to get rid of all that nougat you’ve been storing.

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