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A Broader Understanding of Value

posted by Matt Ward on Jan 26, 2010.

There’s more to the concept of value than just money. In this article we are going to take a broader look at the concept of value as it relates to freelancing and design, and examine some of the many benefits that can be derived from this broader understanding.

A wise man once told me that business is a fair exchange of values. Okay, that man was my Father. Call me biased, but my dad is a bright guy, and even though he first heard the words from someone else, I’m grateful for that tidbit of wisdom. I’d also like to expand upon it here, as it relates primarily to freelance design (though others could likely also benefit from some of the ideas).

Obviously, when we consider the question of value, the first thing that comes to our minds is probably money. If it’s not, you’re a rare breed. In today’s world we are obsessed with money. It influences virtually every aspect of our lives, from the work we do, to entertainment, even into our most cherished relationships. My wife and I have frequent discussions (not arguments) about money – budgeting our resources to meet the plethora of different expenses we have every month.

A Broader Understanding of Value

A Broader Understanding of Value

Image Credit: valerio lo bello

But what is money, really?

I might be getting a bit philosophical here, but in my view money is basically just a standardized representation of value within a particular society or culture. In terms of material goods, nothing has any value except that which we prescribe to it. Think about a big screen, plasma television, which you could easily drop a couple thousand dollars on. It goes great in your living room, allowing you to watch sports or HD movies or play video games. It’s all very entertaining, and thus possesses a certain value.

Now, take that TV out of your living room and plop it in the middle of a deserted island, with absolutely no power. What is it’s value then? Not much. What is the value of a boat to a man who lives in the desert? Or of a parka to those living in the tropical heat around the equator? This things have virtually no value in these circumstances, because they are incapable of achieving the things they were meant to do.

As such, we can see that the concept of material value is entirely relative. Why would money be any different?

We can also see this in the variation in the world’s currencies. If you’re a freelancer, chances are you’ve probably had at least some interaction or contact with clients or associates from another country. If so (and probably even if not) you know that the values of different currencies fluctuate all of the time. I do recognize that there are certain economic theories and practices that drive these fluctuations, but they still illustrate that the value of money is entirely fluid and based upon human perception.

What does it all mean?

Now don’t get me wrong – I am not going down the path of suggesting that we abandon the use of money. It is a highly sophisticated system that provides much needed order to the activities of trade across the globe. I have a hunch that things might just fall apart without it.

But that doesn’t mean that money is the only place where we kind find value, or even the only means of exchanging value, especially for freelancers and small business owners. While solid coin is always nice, don’t dismiss the possibility of doing business with a client on the basis of a contra-proposal, where you exchange your services for something that the client has to offer.

It can be a truly beneficial arrangement

Establishing Value

Now, please understand that I am not suggesting that you in any way that you open the door to clients trying to pay in all sorts of strange and weird ways, like these two examples cited from Clients From Hell:

I can’t afford to pay you the balance, but would you like my Jack Russell Terrier? (original post)

Can we pay for the logo in installments, or even better can I pay you in Salad. (original post)

These kinds of things are, of course, completely ridiculous and nothing even remotely close to what I am suggesting here. As I stated at the beginning of this article, business is a fair exchange of values and that’s where every transaction needs to start – both monetary and non-monetary. If someone asks you to design a deep-sea fishing website in exchange for a hundred pounds of fresh tuna, chances are that won’t equate into anything of real value for you (unless, perhaps, you have an unusually strong love of tuna).

Establishing value is critical to any kind of working relationship

Establishing value is critical to any kind of working relationship

So this isn’t about simply accepting something in place of money, even if the monetary value is equal to your service or product offering. Instead, it’s about being creative and exploring the possibility of coming to a mutually rewarding exchange that will provide a balanced value for both parties.

Great For Getting Your Feet Wet

When I first started Echo Enduring Media (and this blog), there were certain things that I felt I needed. However, I didn’t have a huge amount of capital to get myself started. Fortunately, though, one of my first freelance design gigs was for a company that actually provided one of the things I needed.

Now, I don’t want to get into specifics because I don’t want place my client in a position where others are approaching him or her with a plethora of “contra” deals. However, when the client first approached me about the possibility of working together, I realized that we might be able work out a deal that would be beneficial to both of us. So, I very courteously replied with a proposal of exchanging my design service for the client’s.

As it turned out, the monetary value of the client’s service was less than what I would normally have charged. However, I knew that the client would provide me with exceptional quality, and since I was just starting out, the experience was incredibly valuable to me. In the end, both the client and I were extremely satisfied and not a single cent actually changed hands!

Of course, these kinds of opportunities don’t present themselves every day, but if you’re a young or new designer or are just starting out with freelancing, you would be wise to at least keep your eyes open and make a careful assessment of each potential client as they come along. You never know when a situation like the one I described could suddenly present itself!

The Intangibles

Another thing to take from my experience is the fact that we can find value in some things that might be considered intangible, or that don’t have any direct monetary value. For me, the experience of working through the design proved to be valuable enough to add balance to the transaction. I never placed a specific dollar value on that experience, though. So, in a sense, it was somewhat intangible.

The same sort of thing exists in much of my article writing. Obviously, a lot of my writing gets posted here on the Echo Enduring Blog. I have, however, also had guest posts published on SpyreStudios, MyInkBlog and CircleBox Blog (and am currently working on articles for some other sites too). In most cases, the time I spend writing the articles does not correspond to the monetary value that I receive in return.

That being said, however, I remain entirely satisfied with what I have received in return for these articles. I’ll admit, some of it has been monetary, but there have also been more intangible benefits, too. I have received increase exposure in the design community, earned more followers on Twitter, gained a certain degree of endorsement and credibility by appearing as a guest author on these blogs, and laid the groundwork for solid relationships with some the awesome designers behind these sites. Many of those benefits have in turn translated into other benefits, too!

In exchange, the owners of these blogs have all received well-written, quality content, about which I have heard nothing but positive feedback. Again, all parties appear to be fully satisfied with the transactions!

Wrapping it Up

To wrap things up, I want to emphasize (again) that money is important, and you should be getting paid for the bulk of your work. At the same time, however, money is not the only entity against which we can measure value. Occasionally, an equal exchange of goods and services can be more beneficial to both parties than a simple exchange of dollars (or any other currency).

Similarly, consider the intangible benefits that you can derive from a particular transaction or opportunity. How can it benefit your brand and/or marketing? How can it help you build experience, establish relationships and expand your network of influence? These things can all be hugely valuable.

Well, I certainly hope you enjoyed this article. If you take anything from it, I hope that it is a broader understanding of what constitutes real value. Also, I need to caution you to be smart. Like I’ve said, not every relationship you establish will lend itself to contra deals. Nor should they. But, if you do take on a project or two based on an exchange of non-monetary value, try not to make it too much of a habit. The last thing you want to do is establish a reputation as being the designer who does the bulk of your work via contra. This will likely just start to attract the wrong kind of clients.

Also, get a contract! This is probably even more important when working with non-monetary exchanges. Establish all expectations from the beginning in order to avoid any unpleasant surprises, and to ward off potential con artists who might try to use a dummy contra deal as a ploy to get free work out of you! Please be careful!

Now it’s your turn to respond. Have you had any experiences similar to the ones I’ve described? Have you derived value from a project other than the money you were paid (or weren’t) to complete it? I would love to hear your stories, or just your thoughts, comments and/or reactions to the article in general. So go ahead and leave a comment!

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Jan 26, 2010

Andy Burdin says:

Good post – enjoyable read. Money is important, but in many cases (depending on the situation), I’d work for free and enjoy the experience of working with a great client and gaining knowledge that could reap far greater rewards down the road.

Jan 27, 2010

Design Informer says:

Great read. It definitely gets you thinking. I myself have made deals, or better yet, one can call it bartering.

I actually had a client give me his iPhone in exchange for some work. Although now, I wouldn’t really consider doing a trade off, when I was new to freelancing, I did a couple of those.

Also, another aspect to consider is maybe trading work with someone on areas where you aren’t so good. There’s also value in that. Perhaps you are a great developer but don’t have the design chops, then you might want to do some development work for a designer in exchange for his design services.

Great article again Matt. Keep up the great work.

Jan 27, 2010

Graham says:

Thanks for this article Matt.
I think that sometimes contra deals can really work out well.
But as you said not too often.

Thanks again for the great article!

Jan 27, 2010

Shurandy Thode says:

Great article Matt. I’m pretty new in the design community and some points mentioned in the article are very useful for me. I also agree that money is very important, but as a newbie I don’t stand firm all the time to get monetary goods in exchange for particularly small jobs. It’s always important to deliver good work and experience it and money will come automatically.

I agree with Design Informer of the values you can get out of trading with others. I can recognize myself in it and I can back that point up. You can really have great benefits by doing that.

Matt this is a great article buddy, voted for it :) We’ll keep in touch.

Jan 27, 2010

Sneh Roy says:

It is always such a joy to read your thoughts! Agree with you. Although money makes the world go around, the value of it is not always the same to everybody. It depends on people on their needs and priorities and making them work to your advantage is the smart way to go .. it not only breaks money’s stranglehold over you, but helps you build connections and evaluate life and worth in a medium other than the “green”.

Jan 28, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Thanks Sneh! I’m glad you enjoy my articles :) That’s always nice to hear.

Nice ideas about value being different for everybody too. Very true. What is valuable to me here in Canada may not be valuable at all to you in Australia (for example)!

Jan 28, 2010

jan says:

Aren’t you talking old-fashioned barter? This is just good business sense in endless situations.

Jan 28, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Absolutely. The barter system is exactly what I’m talking about. I think it’s sometimes easy for people to forget about that system as they concentrate strictly on making gains in the monetary system.

Jan 28, 2010

Callum Chapman says:

Great article Matt, very interesting read! I must remember to not take my hi-def LCD TV to the desert ;)

Jan 28, 2010

Stephen Pratley says:

My finance lecturer at Kingston Business School told me they’d been paid by the then USSR for running some MBA courses, with payment in herrings. Apparently One of the US universities owns a canning factory and already had a buyer lined up from a similar deal.

Net result was about 25% more cash in Kingston’s bank at the end of the deal, and a happy customer who got to hang on to their scarce hard currency.

Paying in salad or dogs? Not so ridiculous if you can find a buyer at a higher price!

Jan 28, 2010

Matt Ward says:

There is absolutely no doubt that dogs or salad would be a valuable payment method if you could then turn them around and sell them for an even greater value.

Kind of reminds me of that game – bigger and better.

However, I’m not sure that most designers are really all that interested in “flipping” goods for profit. I know I’m not. I would greatly prefer to concentrate on doing the thing I love than trying to find a buyer for something unrelated to my own services.

Interesting thoughts though. Thanks for sharing!

Jan 28, 2010

Ted Rex says:

This is great and I went ahead and made this page one of my three links for the day on my daily design blog:

All the best, Ted

Jan 28, 2010

Dhruv Gami says:

Thanks for a good article!

I agree with some of the comments above that this is good business sense (@Jan) and that a value-exchange helps build good relationships (@Sneh).

I’d also like to add that in case one is going for a barter model in a particular transaction, wherever possible, bring in a flavor of word-of-mouth marketing. This is the most powerful form of marketing, and if I have one more person mentioning my services in his blog, or tweet about my work, it has a lot more value than spending cash on advertising to get your name out there. This is especially true for creative fields like design, and even business solutions.

Of course, to have a fair value exchange, two things are essential: 1. A good product/service that people would want, and 2. Your own awareness of your value and ability to articulate it. Any transaction (cash of kind) will leave a bad taste in the recipient’s mouth (and mind) if the rendered services are below perceived value. Hence it is critical to position your value at the same level as the exchange and set the right expectations. This can be done only when you’re aware of what your work is worth (not to you – but to the person you’re going to give the work). A lot of this comes with experience, but it can be picked up only if you’re conscious about the fact that you need to articulate your offering as a value to the other person, not to yourself.

Mar 2, 2010

Moises Jaffe says:

Fantastic posting, I favorited your blog post so I can visit again in the near future, Thanks, Moises Jaffe

Mar 9, 2010

Jae Kawai says:

I agree with you, I do believe! May that be likely to be able to have your website translated in Spanish? English is my 2nd language.

Oct 22, 2010

Bree says:

Awesome one, many thanks for the tip

Dec 21, 2010

Marty says:

Value is represented by cost vs performance. Things that are too cheap often represent false economy – buy cheap – buy twice !

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