Be Free, Lance | Trading Services

Chances are that if you are a creative, you’ve been approached or thought about trading services with another. While it may sound like a good deal ( and probably really enticing, let’s face it! ), make sure that you are always fair to yourself and others. It’s a two way street. I can’t stress this enough. Because we typically use currency to pay for goods + services nowadays, there is an established value for each and every creative, which is important to respect. Everyone has a different story and experience level. But no matter what, they have worth. SO, if you are considering a trade of services, here are a few things to keep in mind :

01. Do your research and attempt to come up with a realistic monetary value for what’s being traded. Maybe a photographer needs a new website and offers their graphic designer a free session for shooting design portfolio work. Or maybe a florist provides their services to a well respected stylist for exposure during highly anticipated shoot. This kind of stuff happens all the time in the creative world! But no matter the scenario, try your best to figure out what’s fair. Take what you would usually charge and SUBTRACT the trade portion’s value. Sometimes this means you’re working entirely for trade. Other times it’s simply a portion.

02. Although you may be performing your services for a trade, you should still follow your typical process and have the client sign a contract. Ultimately, this protects both sides in terms of holding up each end of the bargain. Don’t think of your payment process as being TOO different. There is still a form of value being traded, even if it isn’t in the form of bills.

03. At all times, remember that if you DON’T think the trade is fair, it’s okay to be vocal about it and even say no. Discussion is okay and nobody will ever force you into something you simply don’t want to do. More often than not, creatives are really understanding about getting paid their worth for work and don’t want to make anybody feel slighted in any way. If it doesn’t work – it doesn’t work.

I’m not saying either way that you should or shouldn’t trade. I think that it’s a topic open for discussion and each and every creative is different in terms of how they approach these situations! I myself have worked for trade a handful of times and have even approached others to work this way, too. And so far, I haven’t regretted any of my choices. They’ve turned out to be wonderful collaborations that I would do again in a heartbeat! So what about you? Anybody have good / bad experiences? Feel free to share in the comments section. I’d love to hear!

( photo )
  1. I’ve never done that before but you’ve made me curious … Did you ? What did you trade your services for?
    I’m definitely thinking constantly about the different forms of collaborations I could create with other creatives but never thought of a trade system …

    • breanna says:

      Yup, as I said above – I’ve done trades a few times! Some were blog related and others were creative service ( photography in particular ) related. :) All have worked out well!

  2. Sarah says:

    I am so glad you brought up this discussion, Breanna! I’ve traded services with other creatives and found it sometimes successful, sometimes not as much. I think that creative trading can be a great way to add the work of your dream customers to your portfolio, and make use of a service you really value, but maybe wouldn’t be able to pay for otherwise. I agree wholeheartedly with your advice about signing a contract, and deciding on a fair trade before the projects get started. Ideally, this trade will be a long term connection within a creative community, and a win-win situation for everyone involved. The last thing you want is to walk away feeling like you got burned by a deal that didn’t service you.

    • breanna says:

      Agreed! It really comes down to the fairness of it all. But if you do your research and both parties hold up their end of the bargain, it can create such a fun collaborative experience. :) Contracts for the win!!

  3. Margo says:

    We are moving to Ambergris Caye Belize in the spring. Most of the websites from there are stuck in the 90’s and in need of a lot of help. My boyfriend is a web developer, and I am a graphic designer (and aspiring web designer). We plan to offer some trade work for free meals, drinks, scuba lessons, snorkeling trips, etc. from the local business owners. He did this a couple of years ago when he lived there, and it worked out well for him. He is now still really good friends with the people who own one of the nicest resorts in the area. I think it’s a situation that will work well for us in Belize, but something we wouldn’t do here in Ohio. In Ohio, there isn’t that much to do or see, so I’d rather just get paid hehe.

    • breanna says:

      That actually really sounds like a solid plan! In your case, you get to enjoy your new home / what the country has to offer without dropping too many pennies. :) Sometimes it’s a nice break!! But ya, totally feel you. We do gotta get paid at some point, ha!

  4. SO well said – as an interior designer I’ve had photographers request trades and while their job may take 3-4 hours, mine takes upwards of 40 and it just doesn’t always add up. This is a great reminder that I’m sure they’d understand if I explained the discrepancy respectfully. Thanks love!

    • breanna says:

      For sure! I feel like if you break the 40 hours down monetarily and compare it to the 3-4 hours on the other end, you could at least come up with a discount trade. :)

  5. Jo says:

    I am working with a photographer at the moment where we are trading services. We’ve traded me making a portfolio site for having my portfolio pieces shot. So far it’s been good and we agreed to it at the beginning, before any work started. I am not at all good at photography, so this is a way to get my pieces professionally shot. And I make sure to deliver the same quality as I would with a paying client.

    I felt comfortable doing it, because this person is a friend. I wouldn’t know how to go about trading services with anyone else, so this post is a good jumping off point.

    • breanna says:

      I’m glad you found such a great trade! And that you feel comfortable with it – that’s key. But certainly it gets a bit easier to trust when they are your friends. :)

  6. Kerry Rose says:

    This is a very intriguing topic–and something I’ve always wondered about, more so recently, actually.
    { Sometimes you read my mind a little, it’s weird :-) } Because there is just soo much talent out there, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to engage in some trade-yas. Like you say, as long as you are being fair to both yourself and the other person(s), it can definitely be a wonderful experience. You can form some bonds & network a little, too, without it feeling so much like networking–networking always makes me feel strange, though it shouldn’t!

    Happy hump day!

    • breanna says:

      Right! Trading isn’t a bad thing when done fair. And more often than not, it’s a great way to network!

  7. Love that you brought this up! I was afraid you were going to have an opinion that was negative about trades, but I’m glad to see it isn’t. I was pretty averse to trades for a while, but I recently took on a trade for a fitness coach and have loved openly blogging about this experience. I was a little inspired by Justina Blankley and her recent fitness/interior design trade :) We wrote up a contract like we both normally would, and have been keeping up with each-others sides. She’s even asked for extra elements beyond what was written in the contract, so I’ve been making some profit through the exchange as well. My best suggestion is to keep it professional, and like you said, go about it how you would normally do for a client who’s paying with a regular bill. It’s been a great experience and I’m glad I was willing to take down that negative stigma and go with it. Thanks so much for opening this conversation and sharing your tips!

    • breanna says:

      Happy to bring it up – and such good discussion so far!! But yeah, I remember initially being skeptic / hesitant about trading in general, but after trying it out …. it ain’t so bad. Just like you said, as long as there is a level of professionalism to keep things fair, that makes all the difference! Thanks for stopping by Kelsey. :)

  8. Maggie says:

    It’s an interesting topic. I think you hit the nail on the head by saying that the monetary value of the services needs to be well evaulated by both sides. When it comes to creatives this is a fairly straightforard as most people will have a price list of their services figured out before trading their services. How about creatives who work with big name bloggers for “exposure”? I’m not sure this would ever worked for me. exposure doesn’t pay bills unfortunately and there is too much of not paid-internships business going on in the creative world imao. I think nobody should ever work for free. There was an interesting artcile about this in the NY Times recently.

    • breanna says:

      Glad that you brought this up! I actually HAVE worked for exposure from bigger bloggers. What I did essentially was deduct ad space on their site from my invoice to them. So for x amount of months ( at whatever the dollar amount was ), that came at a discount for them for exposure of my website on theirs! It was a good decision on my part since I am apart of the blogging sphere, but it’s not always the right choice. I was just happy to be able to tack a monetary value to exposure. In other instances, it’s not that easy!

  9. Zoe Rooney says:

    Love this post and totally agree with everything you said, Bre! I have done trades in very specific circumstances, for full or partial value of my work, and just like you said I write up an invoice and contract just like for any other project, and then put the trade value as a negative line item on there. Sometimes it comes out even, other times it does not and then I bill for the remainder (or v.v.). That way everybody is still clear on the value and parameters of the work.

    • breanna says:

      Yup, that’s exactly how I do it, too! I make sure that my proposals / contracts / invoice always share the monetary value of the trade and how it’s subtracted from the original total. :) Works really well!

  10. Kadie says:

    Oh boy, does this hit close to home. Within my close group of friends, I am the only one with a creative profession, and working for myself at that! There have been so many times people feel that an equal trade is giving me an idea and letting me do it. Which gets really tricky – because while I think there is value and worth in innovation and ideas, there isn’t always a price tag attached. And while I really like inspiring others by helping them come up with creative solutions, there are just so many hours in the day. This gets even harder when its close friends or family. Bah! But it’s definitely gotten easier over time. I thought I would struggle with this a lot when I made the leap to freelance, but I think in a way it made things easier when people realized these “side projects” were actually how I paid my rent. And unfortunately, I can’t pay my rent with ideas – no matter how good they are! Thank you so much for your honesty in posting about this. It’s always such a touchy subject and as creatives, I think we often skirt around the business side of things. I always love reading these columns!

    • breanna says:

      Oh, I feel ya!! There have been a few instances where I’ve actually had to turn down work for friends or acquaintances just because I didn’t feel comfortable with it. Sure, you may trust them and everything – but it becomes this really weird grey area where you don’t want to ruin your relationship. Blah.

  11. Rebecca says:

    Thanks Breanna, I like the idea of the contract and laying it all out. I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked to do things for free. Everything from a little bit of code to entire websites, etc. I know this happens to a lot of people in creative fields from graphic design to photographers to writers. “But you can put it in your portfolio!!”…. Sometimes, it might be worth it but I think establishing how much you’re worth and giving a breakdown is probably the best way I’ve seen to politely explain or say “no.” I’ve been wondering how to do that lately because many people don’t understand the time or energy that goes into it – so thanks for the ideas. Great post B!

    • breanna says:

      For sure! I feel like in our own disciplines, we totally understand the value of worth – but it isn’t always clear when venturing into other disciplines we aren’t as familiar with. So breaking it down TOTALLY helps. Sometimes, I have people who don’t understand what all goes into making a brand. They may think it’s just a “logo,” but it’s so so so much more than that. And after explaining all the thought + time beyond design that goes into it, people usually respect that just fine. :)

  12. I’ve unfortunately never had a good experience doing creative trades. The worst instance being with a leather crafter who I decided to trade web design services for a custom leather bag. We agreed he would send me progress pics while I worked on the site. Needless to say, I held up my end of the bargain and was ready to finish up the site, but I hadn’t seen a single photo of the bag. After several avoided emails, he finally got back to me with a picture of a bag completely different than what we discussed he’d make and he said his wife sold the one he originally made for me and stopped responding to my emails after that. :/

    To tag onto your advice: clearly outline the terms and expectations of the trade in a contract, and if possible, agree to show proof of progress along the way. In my case, we agreed to show progress photos and I intended on withholding design services until seeing that he held up his end of the bargain, but I got a little too excited on the design and ended up finishing it before I ever saw return on his end. Live and learn!

    • breanna says:

      Oh no, I’m sorry to hear that! But yes, it’s all lessons learned. I hope you can have a better experience at some other point in time. :) I think you’re doing the right thing right now withholding your design portion, since it hasn’t gone down as planned.

  13. Diana says:

    Great post! I think it’s so important to set up clear boundaries/contracts for all of these projects, including trades. This is kind of a super-specific question, but with tax season coming up, I’d heard that you needed to track trades and include them as a form of income. Have you ever heard of this? Thanks!

    • breanna says:

      Hmm – – I’ve actually never heard of that. I should ask my dad! He’s my tax guy + really smart. I suppose if that’s the case, you could simply record your earnings including the trade’s monetary value. But don’t quote me on that … ha. Definitely needs some more research!

    • breanna says:

      PS. Looks like somebody commented below you about taxes. Feel free to take a look. ;)

  14. Allie says:

    We have started trading a bit more recently. My lawyer does advise that you need to track the amount and state it as a form of income (and pay taxes on them). There are many times, however, when we don’t do that (just being honest) and it’s nice to get some local, quality goods in exchange. Plus, I love supporting small businesses that way.

    • breanna says:

      Good to know! It really is nice to get some solid trade pieces, isn’t it?? :)

    • Josephine says:

      When I was a girl I used to sell my paintings at the farmers market to pay for horse riding lessons. I remember not only earning $100 (which seemed like a lot at 11 years old) but also getting a bag of bath bombs and soaps from the Salt Spring Island Soap Works booth next to my kiddy table.

      Trading brings us back to our roots as human beings. As I mentioned in my other comment though, only trade if you’d buy the product your trading for anyways and also if you don’t need the money for bills. At 11 though, I didn’t care, so long as I would have enough for horsey time and have a nice bath after to wash away the stable smell (which I actually quite like, but no one else does) life was good.

  15. Ijeoma says:

    This is great! I recently read a similar article on this topic in Fast Company. Do you have examples of a contract? Thanks!

  16. cait w says:

    yes! This post is so timely. Thank you breanna! I’m doing my first swap (website for photography) next week with a pal and couldn’t be more excited. As a freelancer, it’s hard to justify forking over cash for something like having your photos done when you’re keeping your eye on your budget spreadsheet so diligently. Swapping (in moderation) is a fab way to work with some of the best artists that you might not have been able to justify working with otherwise

  17. Brittanny says:

    I think having a contract is a great idea. I do fashion photography and there is a lot of trade work. People tend to ask for more than was originally agreed upon and take advantage of the situation. It leaves things very sour.

    I am currently doing a trade with a life coach. She will give me sessions and I will take her portraits. I’m very excited about it.

  18. Stacia says:

    It can also work to do trades of services + a monetary fee. For instance, a photographer I love just hired me to be her coordinator for her wedding. I was looking for someone to do 1 year anniversary photos of my husband and I, so I quoted her both my full price and mentioned my interest in a potential trade of services. Because the price of her couple sessions was slightly less than my price for coordination, she is paying the minimal fee over the price of her photography session. We’re both still getting what we need, and we outlined it all in contracts so that we both have signed where payment is due and what is being exchanged for what.

  19. Kayd Roy says:

    Good topic to chat about! It’s really important to value the services you provide but also to WANT the service that you’re getting in return. The only times trades have worked for me is when I’m good friends with the person. We both understand what each person gives to their craft and from there can easily determine what’s fair. There’s always the chance that someone hates their end of the trade or ends up being difficult to work with but I guess that’s true even for a paying client. The question to ask yourself is would you rather have the traded service or would you rather have the money? Most times it’s the money. Things I LOVE to trade for: clothes, jewelry and home cooked meals from my aunt.

  20. Alex says:

    I think you have a really valid point on this and for me as a designer it´s really important to make sure of these kind of things, because even if we try hard, there´s always people trying to take advantage of our work, and that´s really wrong. Colaborative work and trading bussines are sometime good but we have to be really awake.

  21. I’m a broke student, and all my earnings from design go towards software, new equipment, travel etc. so if I have the opportunity to trade services and it looks reasonable I’m often quite happy to do so.

  22. Noor says:

    Oh goodness I do not do it all anymore every time have it just turned out bad.

  23. I’ve only done two trades–one was okay, but the final result wasn’t exactly what I had been hoping for. The other, I’m currently in the process of, and it’s going great! But I think that’s mainly because we planned it out/discussed our needs/wants in detail, and also signed a contract. You give some sound advice. It’s definitely always important to make sure there’s no miscommunication when doing trades!

  24. […] the latest installment in her excellent, long-standing “Be Free, Lance” series, Bre writes about trading […]

  25. Jovana says:

    I usually trade services with my friends. We’re respectful of each others time and understand when it takes longer than anticipated to get the work done, since we all have other projects we’re working on. I’ve never had trouble with these. I assume working with people you don’t know privately is different, I’ve never tried it, but I definitely would if I find their services useful to me in some way.

  26. CA says:

    Awesome tips and definitely some points I have never thought of on my own. As I’m beginning to collab with both artists and business minds, I think all of these steps are equally vital to be able to work together in a cohesive way.

  27. Josephine says:

    I love your Be Free, Lance posts Breanna! It is so good to hear that I am not alone in my questions and even better to learn some tips and pointers.

    I have worked for trade a few times before. I found as a junior designer, in hind sight, that I often ended up doing trades for things I didn’t really want or need just to gain the experience.

    Now, when I do trades I follow the same process I usually use but with no money involved. I think the important lesson for me was to learn to walk away and say no if the trade was NOT something I would invest in with cash. I love what I do and sometimes I want to do jobs that wont pay much or are a trade just for the sake of design and art. However, I have to put a cap on how many of these projects I take on – prioritize them along side the big jobs – per year. After all I do need to pay the mortgage at the end of the day.

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