I am kicking myself. I did it again. The thing I keep saying I won’t do anymore. The lesson I keep saying I’ve learned. I gave my work away, and, last week, it totally totally sucked.
I won’t go into all the details but here’s the shortish version of the story. As many of you know, when I came back from volunteering in India, I was broke-ola. That stretch without revenue did more unsettling to my delicate financial well-being than I predicted and it made me realize – at long last – how long I had just been getting by (and how tenuous a situation getting by can be).
I got serious about reevaluating how I ran my business and one of the policy changes I realized I had to make at that time was to cut out bartering. Yes, it can be a wonderful way to get stuff and services you might not have the cash for…. but our landlord doesn’t accept Pink Elephant credit, nor does the organic market down the way, nor does the hydro-electric company or our internet service provider. To comfortably pay for the essentials, I needed to exchange my services for actual money. Having a policy in place – especially one that was created out of sheer, mathematical necessity – made it easier to say no. (And other people totally get it, by the way.)
But there was one exception.
Isn’t there always an exception? It’s like me, giving up sugar except for that one Original Square from Bulldog Cafe (which is totally worth it – chocolate chips and salty crackers and melted caramel? deee-licious). Last spring, there was something I really wanted and that I was sure would help me grow Pink Elephant but the investment was more than I had in my bank account. When I explained the situation, a wonderful offer was made: “We love your work. Would you be willing to trade services?” It felt like an answered prayer. (Tests often do.)
I jumped at the chance. We met to talk through how we’d make our agreement work, settled on terms and that was that. I tracked the hours promised, gave my best advice and work and – of course – never missed a deadline. We’re nearing the end of our agreement and, well, somehow there was a misunderstanding. The person I originally struck this arrangement with is away and her boss believed the agreement was something else. In the absolute worst meeting of my 12-year career, when I explained what the terms had been, I was even accused of being out of alignment “with the generous spirit of [our organization].” There was a suggestion that I don’t understand the “importance of supporting other women.” I have a quicker mind than tongue so I fumbled over my response. I was angry with myself for being a person who blushes so easily. I swallowed tears. I made it through but it wasn’t as graceful as I wished.
I can see the other perspective easily enough. If you thought I had agreed to one thing and 80% of the way through changed the game, that wouldn’t be cool. And the person I met with isn’t someone who knows me or my work so she didn’t have the benefit of that understanding. But, because I never want to be accused of being ungenerous and because I do really want to support this organization and because it would make my time there uncomfortable to do it any other way, I agreed to provide the services this woman thought she was to receive, even though it wasn’t what I had originally agreed to. I will now be providing $5250 in services in exchange for $2400 in services.
Not the best business math. And you can see how I would have been better off paying the cash in the first place. There would be no surprise expectations or bad feelings or weirdness. Money exchanged for services is a clean, clear way of handling business transactions. There’s a reason it’s so popular.
(And remember that ROI I was expecting? That fell through too. If you’ve ever promised to speak at a big event for free because it was worth it for “the exposure” only to show up for a sparse audience, you can relate.)
I made the title of this post “Bartering can be bad” because that’s how I’m feeling right now. I know that cases can be made for bartering. If you have the extra time and you have enough money in your account that you can comfortably give away your services to someone who, in exchange, has exactly something you’ve been needing, then I trust your judgment. Go forth and barter.
But please do better than I did. Even if you really really really like the person with whom you’re trading services and even if you think the agreement couldn’t possibly be clearer and even if you’re both overflowing with goodwill and even if this feels like the ideal exception to your own no-bartering policy, please get your agreement in writing.
A small gift
I’ve been posting these mini placards on Pink Elephant’s Facebook page and Google+ lately for those of us who are generous by nature and could use the reminder that undercharging and giving our services away can actually be hurtful. Feel free to print one of these badges to post near your desk.
Of course, of course there are times when we all feel good about donating our services to worthy causes, initiatives and people – these aren’t about that. Those of you who give yourself away too often know to whom I’m talkin’.
Writer Carrie Klassen is a green tea enthusiast, novelist-in-progress, fine point pen aficionado, INFJ Scorpio, and president of Pink Elephant Creative, a website writing and design boutique for inspired entrepreneurs. She also writes workbooks and teaches workshops at Pink Elephant Academy for Entrepreneurs.