When to Trade Your Services
With spec work and promises of “exposure” running rampant, it’s no wonder freelancers and creative entrepreneurs are wary of trading their services—and with good reason.
My friend Bre of Rowan Made recently shared her thoughts on when you should trade services, so I thought I’d give you my take on the subject.
Is there a right time to trade your services? I say yes! I’ve found trading your services can be great, when it's on your terms.
My Experience Swapping Services
So far I’ve only traded services a few times. The first time was through spec work for a greeting card company at an old job, which promised the potential of awesome results but left me feeling icky and used.
The more recent examples have been with wedding planner Laurel & Elm and photographer Kate Grewal. Contrary to my first experience, both of these trades worked out well. So you you might be thinking, what was different? Well, both of my more recent trades have some very important things in common.
1. I knew + trusted the person
Yes, I’ve had opportunities to do spec work or trade services lots of times, but something in my gut told me it didn’t feel right. I'd heard so many horror stories that I was extremely wary of forking over my precious time and skills for just anyone.
The exceptions came when it was another creative entrepreneur I knew. I knew they had amazing skills in their industry and took pride in delivering high quality results just like me. I knew their track record and I trusted them. It felt right.
2. The stars aligned
In these two situations, both of us needed what the other had to offer. Beyond that, we specifically wanted to work with one another. I didn't just want any wedding planner or photographer, I wanted to work with these talented ladies. By the same token, they loved my work and wanted to work with me specifically.
In 2015, I needed a wedding planner and a new case study (at the time I was working my 9-5 and wasn't allowed to freelance, so this was a somewhat sneaky way to build my portfolio). Thankfully, my wedding planner needed a stunning logo and brand identity and was also building up her portfolio. This trade was great on so many levels—we trusted each other, both needed each other's services, and in the end we became beautiful portfolio pieces and provided glowing testimonials for one another.
Trading your services can be great, when it's on your terms.
This year, I needed a killer brand photographer to take some legit photos for my new site, and my photographer needed a designer to take her website to the next level. We'd been looking for an excuse to work together for a long time (constantly drooling over each other's work), and the pieces just fell into place. In both scenarios, the timing was right and each of us needed what the other had to offer.
3. It was an even exchange
A lot of the time, trades can get awkward or you may feel resentful because you feel like it's not a fair trade. That's why the terms and fairness are essential to figure out up front. The simple way I've handled this that seems to work well is equating dollar values for your products and/or services. For instance you can ask, my service is worth $X—what services or package of yours would make this an even trade?
Trades can be super vague and shady unless you set parameters, so treat this trade like you would any other client. This is an exchange of goods after all—you're not working for free. When I worked with my photographer, I told her my website package was around $3,000 and then she came up with a collection of services tailored for my business that resulted in the same value.
4. We still used a contract
In both of the examples I'm sharing, the trading of services happened between friends. But just because you're working with a friend doesn't mean you shouldn't still have a contract and work in a professional way. Your friend will respect you more and it will set the right tone for your work together if you take the terms of your trade seriously.
In short, treat this arrangement like you would any other client. Set the right expectations in terms of process, deliverables, and timeline. How many rounds of refinements are included? What happens if they go over? Get it all in writing. Use a contract.
5. We were flexible
Lastly, be prepared to adjust your expectations a bit. You probably want to trade services because you love what the other person does, but maybe they aren't necessarily your ideal client. So maybe this project doesn't go in your portfolio but is a success for other reasons.
If one of you suddenly has a rush of client work or some personal things going on, see if you can make some wiggle room in the schedule. If you find the other party works better over the phone than emailing, pick up the phone.
I've found that like many client relationships, you set out with a finely tuned process and the best intentions but sometimes you have to meet your clients where they are (within reason) if you're going to get things done well.
Every person processes information differently and as we all know, life happens. So while you should treat this like you would any client project, be prepared to be a bit flexible.
The Choice is Yours
So when should you trade your services? Not for exposure or the small chance you might benefit or because you feel like you have to. In my experience, good trades happen when you trust the other party, you need each other, you establish an even trade with fair terms, and follow through for one another. My best answer is you should trade your services when it feels right.
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