For the love of bartering

I’ve been building sites for ten years now, but these days I’m lucky enough that I don’t have to take on client projects to pay the bills. Back when I did, I always had a love-hate relationship with my clients and the work. I spent a lot of late nights away from my family and my own projects but it also paid fairly well but then again every once in a while a project would go way over my budgeted time and I’d take a loss on it.

Lately though I’ve run into family members and non-web nerd friends that need help building sites and I’ve dipped my toe back into doing it. But this time around, I’m having a blast helping them out because instead of money, we’re doing small barters of favors or cheap goods. Here’s why it’s working this time around:

- When you’re not billing someone $100/hr for your time, they’re not edgy when you don’t finish a task immediately and you’re not edgy when they go out of town for a few days leaving you waiting for feedback. It’s incredibly low stress compared to paid client work.

- I trade my work for something friends/family produce or get at a massive discount. It’s always for something I kind of want or need and I save a few bucks by getting it free. They get a great site for a small (if any) price and we’re both happy.

- I tend to be bashful with clients — I’m not the type of guy to bust into a conference room and proclaim I’m a world-renowned web expert on coding, design, and community. Turns out it doesn’t matter when they’re friends and family — if you’re building a site for your uncle, you don’t have to explain why XHTML/CSS web standards are important or worth the effort, you can just code it.

- It’s almost always a new site, so there aren’t legacy code/design/support issues and there’s often low-to-no expectations from the “client”. Anything you do will wow them so you’re free to explore possibilities. I’ve yet to have an argument over mockups and I’ve been able to go with my first mockup so far. This also makes things stress-free and easy for you as the designer/developer.

- One example: I traded a year of free haircuts for building a site for a salon. The salon owner would probably have to pay someone local $500 or more for something similar and now I get a nice $30 haircut every month or two, saving a couple hundred this year. The cost of their time for cutting my hair is much less, so everyone’s happy in the end.

I’m doing a couple more sites for family and friends in the coming months, and someday I’d love to hook up with a local silkscreen shop to trade t-shirt printing for building them a new website.

If you’re a designer/developer, try asking around your local friends and close family — chances are they could use your help and can get you something small for the low-stress work that makes everyone happy in the end.

5 Comments

  • I tried this with a friend who is a joiner. But he’s adverse to doing ‘freebies’ so said he’d rather pay me…
    I’ll certainly bear it in mind in the future though.

  • That’s a beautiful, simple webpage. Good idea on the bartering! Right now, I just trade my troubleshooting skills for my mother’s love. ;-)

  • I’ve found there is much more fun in doing this for the exact reasons you state. Less pressure, more enjoyment, and better satisfaction on both sides. A friend I help out has a fiance who works at Starbucks, so I get a free bag of coffee evey couple of weeks.

  • I’ve done the barter thing for years – in fact, when I was kid, my dad used to do it all the time. We were essentially poor, but he had one of the best screen printing shops in Southern California, and we’d do work for bike shops and get killer BMX bike setups, or surf shops and get hooked up with boards and wetsuits and stuff.
    I’ve been bartering for saltwater reef aquarium stuff for several years now, and it’s one of those things that, if you had the money to pay for some of the special equipment, you’d probably feel really guilty about spending. But when it just shows up in a crate because you noodled with some code, it’s sublime (and feels a bit like cheating).
    Keep in mind though, when bartering, that there are tax implications. The IRS has lots of rules and regulations regarding what needs to be reported, and how to report it, and has ways of equating bartered goods/services as real income. If you barter, always check with your accountant or tax attorney to make sure you’re documenting things correctly. The IRS really does keep an eye on these things because most corruption and tax evasion behavior looks a lot like bartering.

  • Good on ya, Matt.
    From 2000 to the this last year, before I went back to grad school, I made sure that at least 1/2 of my clients were as you described above to weigh out the corporate clients that stressed me out.
    The delight of working with “first time” website folk is not only do they love what you do and don’t fight you or quote so and so, but I found that I also built friendships and was able to have satisfaction in seeing a small, local business succeed.
    When I left for grad school last Sept., I kindly jettisoned the corporate folk and kept the small businesses on because it is a joy to work with them for bartered nights out at a club, a gift basket of french soaps, and fun indie dvds or cds.
    Barter and make art… ;o)

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